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Analyzing playoff position battles; the Big O opens up

Posted: Friday March 31, 2006 1:10AM; Updated: Friday March 31, 2006 1:10AM
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No matter how much heart Allen Iverson brings to a series, the Pistons would likely make quick work of the 76ers in the playoffs
No matter how much heart Allen Iverson brings to a series, the Pistons would likely make quick work of the 76ers in the playoffs
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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Looking forward to the playoffs? Here are a half-dozen key races to watch over the final three weeks of the regular season:

1. Home court for the NBA Finals: Detroit vs. the West

The coming of spring, and the postseason, has given the Pistons something to play for as they ratchet up their annual title drive. In the last week they've re-established themselves by squelching the visiting Mavericks and Heat and building a two-game lead over the Spurs for the league's best overall record with 11 to play.

But earning the best record isn't do-or-die for the Pistons, because they've proved they can win on anybody's court in any circumstance. At the same time, winning the regular-season championship will embolden their confidence as they approach an Eastern Conference draw that has been structured quite nicely for them: The easiest of opening-round series against the dysfunctional 76ers, followed by an intriguing yet uncomplicated second-round series versus LeBron James or Gilbert Arenas, then an anticlimactic showdown with Miami, whose celebrated parts have yet to coalesce. So long as the Pistons maintain focus, there isn't a team in the conference that can run with them.

2. Home court for the Western semifinals: San Antonio vs. Dallas

The Spurs lead by a game over the slightly slumping Mavericks, who have lost four out of six. The winner in this race, though, won't benefit enormously in the first round, because they will probably be forced to deal with the currently eighth-seeded Sacramento Kings of Ron Artest, Mike Bibby and Brad Miller, who won't be an easy out.

Assuming the Spurs beat the Kings in five games and that No. 4 seed Dallas can get by the No. 5 Clippers in six, the second round will shape up as potentially the best matchup of the entire tournament. Both teams would rather postpone their meeting until the conference finals, but the NBA won't address plans for a new seeding format until next season. "Avery [Johnson, the Mavs coach] and I talk about it all the time," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, referring to the current structure that will prevent one of the league's top three teams from advancing to the Final Four. "We complain about it, but what can you do?"

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