Rick Carlisle, coach of the No. 1 team in the East, doesn't care if some believe his conference is polluted with mediocrity.

"The whole argument of East versus West is really insignificant until you get to the finals," said Carlisle, whose Detroit Pistons dusted themselves off upon their return from an 0-5 Western road trip earlier this month and won eight of their next 10 games.

Detroit began the weekend with a 21/2-game lead in the conference, the tiebreaker over second-place New Jersey and a 2-1 lead in the season series against third-place Philadelphia.

So while the Pistons didn't show much to the Sonics, Kings, Lakers, Warriors or Trail Blazers on their ill-fated trip, they've managed not to let it hurt them in the bigger picture.

If they retain the No. 1 spot in the conference, they'll have the home-court advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs -- and maybe more depending on who comes out of the West.

"We're a team like eight or nine others trying to win the conference, so any bashing of the East doesn't bother me in the least," Carlisle said. "Our job right now is trying to win the East, and then we'll worry about the West later."

The knock against the Pistons last season was that they were a one-dimensional offensive team that could be defeated in a playoff series if they were made to rely upon their second or third offensive options.

But last year's Pistons, who were led by Jerry Stackhouse and nearly lost to the Toronto Raptors in the first round, aren't the same as this year's Pistons.

Stackhouse was traded to Washington for Richard Hamilton, and free agent point guard Chauncey Billups was enticed to leave Minnesota.

Hamilton is averaging 20.2 points, while Billups is contributing 15.8 for a Pistons team that averages just 91.3 points -- fewer than every team except Denver, Miami and Toronto.

"Well, I think there's more to our situation than scoring a lot of points," Carlisle said. "We're leading the league in [fewest] points allowed [86.7], which I think is a significant stat, and we're a team built around balance.

"Chauncey has helped the creativity aspect of our offense. He's a guy that can create plays and make shots, and he's made us a better team at both ends of the floor. Hamilton has given us a different dimension. He can play off movement and doesn't need to hold the ball a lot.

"So we've become a better ball movement team, and I think we're better offensively that we were last year because we're a little more diversified."

Shaq Doesn't Want Bad Ink

After reviewing videotapes and interviewing witnesses, the Sacramento Kings believe a fan sitting near courtside scribbled an obscene message on the ball Shaquille O'Neal used to score his 20,000th point.

"I hope Shaq accepts our apology," Kings owner Joe Maloof said, "because that guy could take me and dunk me."

The Kings said that during a fourth-quarter timeout, the ball was handed to a boy and then passed among a group of fans, one of whom scribbled on it with ball point pen.

After the final buzzer, Lakers spokesman John Black retrieved the ball to give to O'Neal and discovered the message. The Lakers sent the ball back to Sacramento the next day, and O'Neal has said he no longer wants it.

"I told them to keep the ball," O'Neal said. "Send it to [NBA commissioner David] Stern, so he can see what goes on in certain places."

Kings General Manager Geoff Petrie and owners Joe and Gavin Maloof said they would send O'Neal a letter of apology.

"I like Shaq, I really do," Maloof told the Sacramento Bee. "I want him to know that we do not condone that kind of behavior, and that we respect the fact he scored 20,000 points.

"Every once in a while, this rivalry gets out of control, with all the stuff going back and forth, and that was not fun. That was embarrassing."

Pacers Want to Settle With Kings

The Kings make the third stop on a six-game Eastern road trip Tuesday night in Indianapolis, where they will play a Pacers team that departed Arco Arena angrily following a lopsided loss in early March.

Al Harrington and Gerald Wallace got in an altercation late in the game after Indiana felt the Kings' reserves were having a bit too much fun at their expense.

"We'll see them again in Indiana," were Harrington's departing words.

Teammate Jermaine O'Neal echoed the sentiment.

"People are running up scores against us even when we're down," O'Neal said. "We're going to have a long memory. We'll see those teams again. This is one of those teams."

Kings reserve Hedo Turkoglu expects a different game in the rematch.

"They [Indiana] do all the dirty things, they play hard, foul hard," Turkoglu said. "We'll have to be ready for them, play smart, play calm."

Baker Suspension Still Percolating

The NBA players' union and the Boston Celtics have agreed to extend a deadline for filing a grievance over the team's suspension of Vin Baker, a union attorney said.

Although the team would not specify the reason for the suspension, the Boston Globe reported that Baker would seek counseling for a drinking problem.

Baker, who has three more years and about $44 million remaining on his deal, is not being paid during his suspension.

The original deadline to file a grievance would have been Saturday.

"We've reached an agreement to extend the deadline, and the parties will continue to talk," union attorney Ron Klempner said Friday, adding that he expects a resolution in the next few weeks.

Newcomers Chauncey Billups, right, and Richard Hamilton, left, have helped make the Pistons "a better ball movement team,' according to Coach Rick Carlisle.