Midseason Report (P2)

Detroit – No low-post threat hurts bid to be among East’s elite

The Pistons are possibly a capable low-post player away from being a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. Joe Dumars, the vice president of player personnel, has made it dear he will not break up the nucleus of this team unless he can land a superstar player So the Pistons continue to patch the hole in the middle with Fs Terry Mills and Christian Laettner, and they pay a price. The team is athletic and skilled. Because it plays hard, it, should get into the playoffs and, be depending on the matchup, perhaps win a round. But without a big presence in the middle, it will be hard-pressed to beat the elite in the East.

SECOND-HALF GAME PLAN:

The team says unless something completely unexpected falls into its lap, it will finish the season with the current mix of players. So the Pistons will continue to outrun, outgun and outwork their opponents. The keys are PG Lindsey Hunter and Laettner. If they can elevate their games, the Pistons should lock up a home-court playoff spot. If they continue to be inconsistent, the Pistons will continue to hover at or just over .500.

Indiana – Offense can tam it on, but defense needs consistency

Defense seems to be the axis on which the team turns. The Pacers aren’t blessed with natural quickness, so they have to work at it. It’s a matter of effort and concentration, which is a challenge for a team full of laid-back personalities. The Pacers are so skilled and efficient offensively they sometimes think they can turn it on whenever they want and pull out a victory. Sometimes they do, but without better defense, they’re walking a tightrope.

SECOND-HALF GAME PLAN:

The Pacers are the best team in the Central Division. Barring an unexpected trade before the deadline, they will continue with the same approach that got them this far. Larry Bird uses nine players regularly. Depth is their greatest strength. The bird is blessed with veterans such as C Sam Perkins and SF Chris Muffin coming off the bench. The emergence of F Austin Croshere is the best hope for continued improvement. He brings energy and varied skills off the bench and will only get better. The team, which considers itself a championship contender, laces the danger of looking too tar ahead-especially if no other team is close behind.

Miami – Team needs healthy Hardaway for playoffs

The key to the second half will be getting PC Tim Hardaway and the Heat to regain the form that made the team so potent at the start of the season. When Hardaway went out with a jammed right knee, the team was 8-2 and hitting its stride. Then Anthony Carter was forced into the lineup. He played well early but wore down. If Hardaway is close to what he was, the prospects are solid for the balance of the season. Not only will the team have regained Hardaway, it will have given Carter the seasoning that is so necessary come playoff time. If not, a trade looms.

SECOND-HALF GAME PLAN:

With Hardaway back and two of three trips out West done, there is the reason for optimism. The defense has come around and C Alonzo Mourning has been the dominator he was last season. There is concern that F Jamal Mashburn played his best games early and F Otis Thorpe is showing his age. The goal is the No. 1 playoff seed, but coach Pat Riley is balancing that goal against having his team fit. The team will give Hardaway time off if it means entering the playoffs healthy. It hopes there won’t be a third straight meeting with the Knicks

Milwaukee – Players must learn to give consistent effort

The team has made a bad habit out of building leads by playing good team basketball on both ends of the court and then blowing those leads by breaking down into one-on-one basketball with too many forced shots. The Big Three – PG Sam Cassell, SG Ray Alien, and F Glenn Robinson are as much responsible for the cold streaks as the hot ones. All three start to look for their shots when the Bucks get what looks like a comfortable lead. On defense, no one, with the exception of Cs Scott Williams and Ervin Johnson, makes a consistent commitment.

SECOND-HALF GAME PLAN:

Coach George Karl wants to get the club to play more consistent basketball on both ends of the court. If it doesn’t, the team could struggle to creep into the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed. Look for F lira Thomas to continue to improve as the sixth man. But don’t be surprised if the Bucks make a deal that brings another big man into the fold. Fs J.R. Reid and Danny Manning have not been that effective. F Darvin Ham has the athletic ability and the gung-ho attitude to become a defensive factor.

New Jersey – Nets need in presence to complement backcourt

The team must find a consistent inside presence on offense and defense. Rivals attack the Nets’ perimeter players without fear of being burned underneath. When the Nets are on defense, teams parade through the lane with little fear of getting hammered by a big man. The club should trade pending free-agent G/F Kendall Gill for a physical center or power forward or convince PF Keith Van Horn to focus on scoring in the paint. On defense, coach Don Casey should give physical C Evan Eschmeyer more minutes.

SECOND-HALF GAME PLAN:

The best guess on the second half is the team will settle in near the .500 level and again fall short of the postseason. PG Stephon Marbury has taken over the reins as team leader, and that will only intensify in the second half. Marbury will continue to push SG Kerry Kitties to a higher level, a relationship that could have dramatically helpful long-term implications. Casey will continue to use the committee approach at center, in part because none of the committee members will step forward enough to command an end to a platoon.

New York – Muddling team must take conference race seriously

The issue for coach Jeff Van Gundy is to develop a championship attitude. The Knicks are a team of veterans in search of a ring, but it has been hard for them to push themselves until faced with a crisis. Van Gundy says the Knicks are “just sort of muddling through.” Yet, they’re neck-and-neck with the Pacers and Heat for the best record in the East. That might not matter to the players they overcame being on the road in the first three rounds of last postseason. Rather than always having to fight the uphill battle, Van Gundy wants his team to play from a position of strength at playoff time.

SECOND-HALF GAME PLAN:

Gs Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston are the unquestioned go-to guys on the floor, and C Patrick Ewing and PF Larry Johnson often take a seat in the fourth quarter. So far, Ewing and Johnson have accepted their roles without complaint, and that’s important. Both are leaders and Van Gundy allies. If they stay happy and the team continues to play well on the road sticking with Van Gundy’s belief in defense, rebounding and ball movement–the Knicks could get the East’s top playoff seed.

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