HOW THEY PICK ‘EM

Here’s how the Free Press experts forecast the Pistons’ playoff chances:

* MITCH ALBOM: I actually like the Pistons’ chances against Boston better than their chances against Atlanta. Unfortunately, should they beat Washington — and they should — they would have to play the Hawks first.

In a long series, the Hawks just have too many horses. The only way the Pistons would get to a conference final — assuming they play Atlanta in the second round — is to catch the Hawks early, winning the first two games and putting the pressure on.

The good news? The Pistons have been surprising at times throughout the season. Maybe the playoffs will prove to be one more trick up their sleeves.
* CLIFTON BROWN: The Pistons have too much offense and depth for Washington. Pistons in four.

Detroit’s next opponent should be the Atlanta Hawks. This is probably the league’s deepest team, but Atlanta has two weaknesses — lack of scoring at center and inconsistent outside shooting. This series could go either way. But the savvy of veterans Adrian Dantley, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Isiah Thomas will ice it for the Pistons in seven.

In the Eastern Conference final, it should be Detroit vs. Boston. Growing up in Philadelphia, I grew tired of the Celtics’ success at a young age. You’re probably tired of the Celtics, and most other NBA teams are tired of the Celtics, too. Guess what? The Celtics don’t care. Once again, the Pistons can’t control Kevin McHale, and the Pistons fall in six.
* JOHNETTE HOWARD: For all their regular-season success, the Pistons remain a hard team to gauge. They could get knocked off in the first round by Washington, or they could hit on all cylinders and roar all the way into the Eastern Conference final.

Expect the Pistons to survive barrages from Moses and Jeff Malone and drop Washington in a close first-round series. Then expect the Pistons’ season to end in the second round against Atlanta. Though Detroit is capable of beating Atlanta on a given night, taking a seven-game series will be too difficult. The Hawks will have the homecourt advantage, the Hawks have the more reliable inside scoring attack that’s vital in playoff games, the Hawks are one of the few teams with a bench that can match, even overmatch, the Pistons’.
* CHARLIE VINCENT: Washington? No problem. The Pistons will get by the Bullets
— though it might take five games.

Atlanta? That’s a different story. The Hawks are still too big and too strong for the Pistons to beat in a seven-game series. I’d like to believe the Pistons could go further this year, but I don’t.

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