The Detroit Pistons are entering the stretch run looking like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
The regular-season conference champion Indiana Pacers are well aware of that.
The teams with the top records in the East will square off for the final time before a potential postseason matchup as the Pacers visit the Pistons.
Rick Carlisle, who coached the Pistons to the conference finals last season before being replaced by Larry Brown and landing in Indiana, knows the importance of this matchup.
“Sunday we play Detroit and they are the top team since the All-Star break and since the trade (for Rasheed Wallace),” Carlisle said after the Pacers continued their quest for the NBA’s best record with an 84-64 rout of Toronto on Friday.
“Detroit is one of the top teams in all of basketball right now. It’s a game that will have a lot of interest, especially since we haven’t met since the trade.”
Since dealing for Wallace, a perennial All-Star power forward with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Pistons have roared past Atlantic Division champion New Jersey for the conference’s second-best mark. Since enduring a mid-February slide, Detroit has won 15 of 18 games, including Friday’s 92-84 victory over surging Miami—a potential first-round opponent.
Wallace, who missed the previous two games with a sore back, scored 17 points, while grabbing seven rebounds and blocking a pair of shots.
Owners of the best defense in the league, the Pistons will try to slow down the Pacers, who have won all three meetings this season. Indiana also ended Detroit’s franchise record-tying 13-game winning streak with an 81-69 win at Conseco Fieldhouse on Jan. 20.
“We take satisfaction as the team that knocked them off course,” always-vocal Pacers shooting guard Reggie Miller said after the rousing win.
The Pistons enter Sunday’s showdown on a three-game win streak, having won 11 of 13 since dropping their first game in March.
Indiana has won six of seven to move three games up in the loss column on the Los Angeles Lakers in the race for the league’s best record.
“It’s going to be a big-time game, definitely a playoff preview,” Indiana’s Al Harrington said.
STANDINGS (through April 2): Pacers - 1st place, Central Division. Pistons - 2nd place, 7 GB, Central Division.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Pacers - F Ron Artest, F Jermaine O’Neal, C Jeff Foster, G Miller, G Kenny Anderson. Pistons - F Tayshaun Prince, F Rasheed Wallace, C Ben Wallace, G Richard Hamilton, G Chauncey Billups.
TEAM LEADERS: Pacers - O’Neal, 20.1 ppg and 10 rpg; Jamaal Tinsley, 5.7 apg. Pistons - Hamilton, 17.7 ppg; Ben Wallace, 12.7 rpg; Billups, 5.7 apg.
SEASON SERIES: Pacers, 3-0.
LAST MEETING: Jan. 20; Pacers, 81-69. At Indiana, O’Neal had 28 points and 15 rebounds as the Pacers pulled out to a 20-9 first-quarter lead and never looked back.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Pacers - 25-13 on the road; Pistons - 27-10 at home.