NBA Nears Finish

Mar 23, 2010 7:01 AM

 Teams gear up for push to the playoffs

While college basketball is down to its Sweet Sixteen the NBA’s race to determine its 16 playoff teams enters the home stretch with less than a month remaining in the regular season.

On almost a daily basis teams will be clinching playoff berths or will be eliminated from playoff contention and often that can provide opportunities for cashing tickets. The long grind of the NBA season takes its toll, both physically and mentally, on players and coaches.

Once goal number one is achieved – to make the playoffs – teams often take a collective exhale and relax in their next game. If such a team happens to play the following day after clinching a playoff berth, it’s so much the better. Of course these intangibles are not lost on the lines maker. But the odd makers are limited as to how much of an adjustment they can make to the line.

One test of this occurred Monday night, just after this issue went to press. On Sunday Atlanta rallied from behind in the fourth quarter to force overtime and ultimately defeat San Antonio for the first time in five seasons. The win also clinched a playoff spot for the Hawks. Although Atlanta is tied with Boston for the third and fourth seeds in the East they might not have put forth their best effort 24 hours later in Milwaukee against a Bucks team looking to secure their own spot in the playoffs.

As expected, the early money showed on Milwaukee, pushing the line up from minus four and a half at the open to as high as minus six in mid morning. The Bucks are currently seeded fifth and are likely to remain in that spot barring unusual developments over the next three and a half weeks.

Thus far four teams have clinched playoff spots. In addition to Atlanta in the East both Cleveland and Orlando are guaranteed to be playing bonus basketball. The Cavaliers likely clinch the overall top seed in the Conference within the next week or so, leading Orlando by six and a half games.

In the West only the Los Angeles Lakers have clinched a playoff spot. Their five game lead over second place Denver suggests it won’t be long until the Lakers also clinch the conference’s top overall seed with just a dozen games remaining.

It remains possible that for the first time since the 2004-05 season all eight playoff teams from the East will have a winning record. Toronto is currently seeded eighth with a 34-34 record even after dropping 7 of their last 10 games.

The Dallas Mavericks have compiled one of the more remarkable contrasts in recent memory. As Home Favorites Dallas is 23-11 straight up, one of the better records in the league. But their ATS record as home favorites is a woeful 6-27-1, perhaps the best illustration of a team being overvalued at home to the extent of being good enough to win when expected but not by as much as those expectations require.

Keep an eye on Dallas as home favorites over their remaining half dozen home contests in the regular season and again in the playoffs. There could be some opportunities to take advantage of this overpricing as often prices are inflated on home teams, especially in the playoffs.

As an aside it was great to see Las Vegas so vibrant over this past weekend. Perhaps it was the start of the NCAA Tournament that had the valley so alive. Perhaps it was the outstanding weather that marked the start of spring. Or perhaps, as one of the area’s most respected and experienced ticket writers put it – "Donut George" over at Sunset Wildfire on the east side of town – "baseball is just around the corner."

Next week in addition to opining on the NBA as its season winds down a column devoted to the upcoming 2010 major league baseball season will debut with predictions and forecasts for the teams to make the playoffs and teams that may be better or worse than expected which could pay dividends at the betting windows early in the season.

Here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend.

L.A. Lakers at Oklahoma City (Friday): The Lakers are banged up with Andrew Bynum again injured and expected to miss a couple of weeks. The Lakers have all but wrapped up the top seed in the West but are unlikely to catch Cleveland for the league’s top overall seed. Oklahoma City will make the playoffs and are currently seeded sixth. But they are just two games out of fourth and a game and a half out of eighth in what is a very contentious Western Conference race for positioning. Both teams are in good form, 7-3 over their last 10 games. The Thunder will be motivated to avoid a season sweep as the Lakers have won all three prior meetings, including an overtime win on this court when the team met here in early November. The teams have not met since before Christmas and the Thunder are a much more poised and confident team now than they were back then. The Lakers should be favored by a couple of buckets and although they’ve been winning on the court the Lakers have not been covering spreads, going just 4-11-1 ATS since the All Star break despite winning 11 of those 16 games straight up. Interestingly, Oklahoma City is also 11-5 straight up over their past 16 games as well. OKLAHOMA CITY.

Portland at New Orleans (Saturday): Portland appears to be safe insofar as making the playoffs is concerned, currently holding the eighth seed in the West with a four and a half game cushion. New Orleans could be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs when this game tips off. The Hornets have been without star Chris Paul for several weeks although he is expected to return in time for this contest. The road team has won both prior meetings this season by 1 and 8 points. Portland has incentive with the possibility of advancing several seeds with a strong finish and they’ve been playing well of late, winning 8 of 10 through Sunday. The Trailblazers have a winning road record (19-16) and figure to come favored by perhaps a bucket in this contest. They have overcome their mid season malaise that saw them play .500 ball for an extended stretch. PORTLAND.

Denver at Orlando (Sunday): This conceivably could be a preview of the NBA Finals if either the Lakers or Cavaliers are upset in the playoffs. Both Denver and Orlando have played well all season. Denver won the earlier meeting at home in mid January by 18 points but caught the Magic in the second of back-to-back road games. Orlando has been one of the hottest teams in the league, winners of 23 of their last 29 games. Denver has also played well of late, winning 8 of their last 10 games entering this week. The host is better situated for a strong effort in this game as Orlando is off until Thursday. Denver plays Monday night in Dallas against the team they are battling for the number two seed in the West. ORLANDO.