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NBA Stretch Run: The Best of the East

   by Jim Feist - 04/10/2009


It's been a long haul, this 82-game NBA regular season, but it's winding down, which means the playoffs are just around the corner. Next week we'll take a look at the best of the West, the conference that has won seven of the last ten NBA titles. This week, it's the best of the East.

Cavaliers: The Beasts of the East! The Cavaliers have the best player in the game in 24-year old, 6-8 LeBron James, averaging over 28 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists. They were in the NBA Finals just two years ago, but that team was a one-man show. This time LeBron has an excellent supporting cast, with newcomers Mo Williams (18 ppg) and recently acquired Joe Smith.
Cavaliers coach Mike Brown has been going easy on the team in practice. James and center Zydrunas Ilgauskas rarely take part in contact practices this late in the season. Brown figures he's held only two contact practices the past month. As they ripped off 13 wins in a row, no one can argue with the strategy.
For all the offensive firepower, note that Cleveland allows 90 points per game and 42% shooting by opponents -- both tops in the NBA. They are the team to beat in the East, with an incredible 36-1 start at home. They started an NBA-best 21-2 since the All-Star break and 25-12 on the road, third best in the NBA.

Magic: While Cleveland has been dominant at home, Orlando has been the best road team in the East. Orlando is a young up and coming group looking to flex its muscles this postseason. They have a young superstar at center in Dwight Howard, averaging 21 points and 14 rebounds. This impressive frontcourt sports power and finesse with Howard, 6-10 Rashard Lewis and 6-10 Hedo Turkoglu.
They can play defense, as well, allowing 43.3% shooting, third best in the NBA. The backcourt has been the lone weakness the last two years. They suffered a tough blow losing all-star point guard Jameer Nelson in February, but have gone 19-7 without him, picking up veteran Rafer Alston from Houston. They are 7-6 against current playoff-bound teams without Nelson and 12-1 against non-playoff-bound clubs.

Celtics: Let's not overlook the defending champs! While the Cavs and Magic are stocked with youth, the Celtics have the trio of veterans -- and the NBA title ring from last June. 31-year old Paul Pierce (20 ppg) is having another great season, along with 33-year old Ray Allen (18.5 ppg). They can still bring the defense, allowing 92.5 ppg, second best in the NBA, plus have some good role playing kids.
However, the real story is the health of Kevin Garnett. Garnett sustained a right knee strain Feb. 19 and is not expected to return before an April 12 visit to Cleveland. He should be back for the playoffs, but a basketball player needs his knees at 100%. With Garnett on the shelf, Boston has been overvalued, on a 6-12 ATS run.

Hawks: Atlanta was the hot pick early in the season after a strong start. They are the prototypical team that stockpiles young, athletic players through the draft then becomes the team no one wants to play, with talents Joe Johnson (21.4 ppg), Josh Smith and Al Horford. They have been hot the last month, on a 9-4 SU, 10-3 ATS run.
However, they are not a dominant defensive team, 10th in points allowed, plus have the common thread young teams have: great at home, lousy on the road. They started 29-9 at home, 14-23 away. The Hawks have gone more than a month without a quality road win, not doing much after a Feb. 11 win in Detroit. They gave the Celtics a seven-game series last year, but went 0-4 SU/ATS on the road.

Heat: On the one hand, who wouldn't want an offensive punch of Dwyane Wade (29.8 ppg), Jermaine O'Neal (13.6 ppg) and Michael Beasley? Throw in a hard working role player up front like Udonis Haslem (8.2 rpg), and the Heat has plenty of punch on paper to be a postseason force.
On the other hand, when are they going to show up? Miami simply hasn't caught fire since acquiring O'Neal. Last week they lost a close showdown at home to Orlando, then went out to Dallas and played well, but lost again by a basket. They have lost 12 of the last 15 games on the road. Wade and power forward Haslem are the only remaining rotation players from the 2006 title team. This is a group that looks better on paper than on the court.

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