It's Detroit and then everybody else in the Eastern Conference race. But the question of who's No. 2 has simmered in recent weeks, with the Cleveland Cavaliers continuing to challenge Miami Heat in the overall standings.
Miami's up for seconds
If we needed any proof that the Heat are the best team from the East that can compete with the Pistons, then the 101-73 win over Cavs on Thursday night gave us some compelling evidence. Both teams came in riding win streaks, the Cavs with seven straight. Miami's now won four in a row.
We saw the Cavs' glaring weakness at the point. We saw how a big frontline can play small on the boards. Sometimes the Cavs look like world beaters, sometimes an expansion team. More on them later.
What Miami (29-18) has going for it is the x-factor that is Shaq. If he plays as he has in the past, there's no answer for him. And we know about Dwyane Wade's talent, but remember he's a third-year player. Experience counts, and one bad play can make a difference, as we saw in Game 7 with the Pistons last year. As for other hot Heat issues ...
• Jason Williams' quickness at the point is a plus, but will his decision-making hold up? He reminds me of Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, a guy whose talent you don't question but whose choices in the game you do.
• They continue to get tremendous things from Alonzo Mourning. He looked great against the Cavs, blocking five shots in 18 minutes. He's got pep in his step.
• Notably, Pat Riley's holding guys accountable, and he's been on Shaq about his weight. Good sign.
I think they will make a move before the trade deadline. This team still hasn't beaten the Spurs, Pistons or Mavs. You've got to beat the big dogs and show you're capable of that for your own confidence. They also need to know you can beat them.
Those teams all have a point guard who can get to the paint -- that's why point guard defense has got to be a concern of theirs. They also need to have a guy who can bring them energy off the bench. A tempo-changing guy.
Cleveland (27-18) has got a big weakness at point guard. You can get defense from your point, an effective execution of the offense or scoring. But Cleveland doesn't get anything. And when that happens, it makes it easier for great defensive teams to have an impact on a great player.
However, Larry Hughes is going to make a difference when he gets back. But he still has to find his niche alongside LeBron James. A sidekick needs time to learn his role. When he does, he'll take some of the pressure off .
They've got to get more from Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Donyell Marshall. They have enough overall athletic ability to be a great rebounding team, but they're pretty average. Tonight was perfect example of that -- they got beat by minus-14 rebounds.
The one thing to factor in with the Cavs: They do have LeBron. They can go places nobody else can. He's going to get better. And if he's going to be like MJ, at some point he's going to say "enough's enough" and take hold of this team. He could probably win a playoff game -- maybe two -- by himself. But right now, I don't think Cleveland has enough to compete for a championship.
Ben Margot/Associated Press
Manu Ginobili drives past Golden State's Mickael Pietrus. Ginobili had 18 points as the Spurs won 89-86.
Chad Ford: Pierce has been awesome this year. But it's about timing. Will Pierce still be awesome when the Celtics' young players are ready to be serious championship contenders? I think that's two to three years away if everything goes the Celtics' way ... Don't know if Pierce will still be bringing the juice then, but Paul would be. Besides, I really like Delonte West, but he's more of a combo guard than a true point. Paul is more of a leader and would've actually paired up great in the backcourt with West. So yes ... I would've done it. Paul is younger, much cheaper (don't forget the C's would've gotten major cap flexibility as part of the deal) and would've fit into the Celtics' long-term strategy.
Bob, ATL: Read your piece of revisionist history on Chris Paul ... isn't it kind of hypocritcal for you to say teams should've taken a guy in hindsight? If I remember correctly, you were pushing Marvin Williams, not Paul, for the Hawks to select on draft night.
Chad Ford: I don't think it's hypocritical at all. NBA teams spend millions of dollars and hundreds of hours trying to find the "right" guy. That's what they do for a living. When they make a mistake, I think fans have a right to question why. As for your memory of what I said during the draft, it's a little shaky. I did say that Marvin Williams was the best prospect in the draft and urged Milwaukee to take him over Bogut. I still believe that, by the way, especially after the fact when they traded for Jamaal Magloire. However, I urged the Hawks to take Paul. I had him rated as the No. 2 prospect in the draft and thought he was a much better fit in Atlanta than Williams. Nothing I've seen has changed that. Here's the link to my draft night analysis if you want to double-check:
A First, Vince Not An All-Star Starter
Garnett Doesn't Get The Votes
Jason Kidd reflects on his role with the Nets. Has he slowed down?
Views Of A Kidd
Alan Diaz /Associated Press
Shaq and Dwyane Wade passed the Cavs' test. These coming attractions -- Mavs (Feb. 9) and Pistons (Feb. 12) -- may prove tougher for the dynamic duo.
Damon Jones, Cavs guard: Sure, he has an endorsement with a Chinese shoe company. But that did him no good in his 1-for-6 shooting night in 21 minutes of action during his return to Miami
Quote of the Day
"I'm tired of hearing it. Tired of hearing about how, well, we keep shooting ourselves in the foot or we're not doing this or we're not doing that. Somewhere, you've got to take responsibility for who you think you are."
-- Heat coach Pat Riley, after his team dismantled the Cavs.
-- Andrew Ayres
Paul Pierce and Gilbert Arenas share top billing here among the East's likely All-Star snubees. Jason Kidd and 'Sheed are up there as well, with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Chris Webber further back. Don't forget, though, that Commissioner Stern will be selecting a player to replace the injured Jermaine O'Neal after the reserves are chosen. East coach Flip Saunders will decide who actually starts in O'Neal's place, but Le Commish has the final say when it comes to filling out the roster.
So if the coaches go the veteran route and select, say, Pierce over Chris Bosh as a reserve, don't be surprised if Stern goes for Bosh to ensure some Canadian interest. Don't be surprised, furthermore, if Stern ignores everyone else and nominates 'Sheed in a bow to Detroit's dominance. In that event, how could any of us argue? I'm more comfortable with three Pistons, but if any team can justify four All-Stars, it's this Detroit team in this storybook half-season, leading its nearest East pursuers (Miami) by 11 games. Agreed?
If only the season had started in December, Toronto could have been a contender. The Raptors were 1-15 in November, but they're a .500 team since then, thanks to Wednesday's victory over the Wizards. In fact, Toronto's 15-15 record since Dec. 1 is the third-best in the Atlantic Division over that span, a half-game behind Philadelphia (15-14) and 1½ in back of New Jersey (16-13).
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Hornets general manager Jeff Bower was only mildly amused when I took note of the way he was trading away draft picks and jokingly compared him to Isiah Thomas.
It's not a good time to have your name appear in the same sentence with that of the beleaguered Knicks president, and besides, Bower had only dealt away a bunch of second-rounders. You can't really compare that to the two No. 1s and two No. 2s Thomas sent to Chicago in the Eddy Curry deal or, for that matter, the two No. 1s that Atlanta's Billy Knight gift-wrapped along with Boris Diaw in the Joe Johnson trade.