16 in, but who do they play in NBA final?

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The long regular season comes to an end this Wednesday and the opening round of the playoffs begins this weekend.

The full field of 16 teams has been determined although most opening round matchups will not be known until after Wednesday’s games, which will feature all 30 teams ending their regular seasons on the same night.

The top seeds in each conference have been determined with Chicago winning the East and San Antonio the top team in the West. Chicago will open the playoffs against Indiana while the Spurs will face one of three teams – Memphis, New Orleans or Portland.

Only one other opening series has been determined as Orlando, seeded fourth in the East, will enjoy home court advantage against fifth seeded Atlanta.

 Miami’s win over Boston on Sunday gives the Heat a one-game lead on Boston for the No. 2 and 3 seeds in the East while New York holds a one-game lead over Philadelphia for No. 6 and 7.

Eighth seeded Indiana will be the only team in this season’s playoffs with a losing record. The Pacers are 37-44 entering Wednesday’s game at Orlando. Should Philadelphia lose its final two games against Orlando and Detroit, the 76ers would finish at .500 (41-41).

Contrast that to the Western Conference where the eighth seeded team will finish with a record of at least 10 games above .500. Houston will finish ninth and miss the playoffs despite a winning record.

In last week’s column it was noted that the Los Angeles Lakers had just had their nine-game winning streak snapped with a home loss to Denver. Since then the two time defending champs have lost five more in a row to fall into a tie with Dallas for the No. 2 and 3 seed, with Oklahoma City sitting just one game further back.

The final three days of the season will determine where each of those three teams will finish and the implications will be significant.

It can be argued that once the chance for securing the top seed in the West was no longer possible, the Lakers just decided to coast, much as they did last season when they dropped seven of their final 11 regular season games before their championship run.

Similarly, their NBA Finals foe, Boston, ended the regular season going just 3-7. Again this season both teams, loaded with playoff experience but hampered by age, should not be dismissed as threats to meet again in the Finals just because each is limping to the regular season finish line.

Handicapping the playoffs is far different from the regular season. Defense often becomes a determining factor that decides games and individual series. Matchups, of course, are vital but so too is coaching and the ability to anticipate and adjust within games and after.

A long standing method for betting sides in the playoffs has been the “zig zag’ theory, named and popularized by the fine folks at the Gold Sheet more than two decades ago. This simple theory states that, after the first game of a series has been played, just wager on the losing team to cover the spread in each of the remaining games of the series.

Thus you will have no plays in the series opener but from then until the series is decided your play will be on the loser of the most recent game. Although its effectiveness has been mostly moderate in recent seasons the theory does present a good starting point from which to begin your analysis and handicapping of playoff games.

Other factors should always be considered, such as injuries and talent mismatches. But the theory makes sense on its surface as a team that just lost the previous has a greater sense of urgency in the next game and is also more likely to make adjustments whereas its opponent is often content with what enabled it win that previous game.

Often the goal of a road team is to at least split the first two games of a series before returning home. Thus you might wish to look to competent road underdogs in the opening game of series. Almost always the home team will be favored in the first game of a playoff series so getting points is a bonus in a game in which the underdog is capable of winning.

Obviously in the opening round of the playoffs such a strategy would involve playing on teams seeded five through eight.

Once the matchups are in place you might wish to look at which of the four lower seeds in each conference are most capable of extending series, if not pulling outright upsets.

Clearly it will be easiest to make a case for the top four seeds to win and advance. After all, these teams earned those top seeds by their play over the long 82 game regular season.

And often the teams in the bottom half of the bracket struggled just to make the Playoffs. Such is less the case in the West where, as noted above, the eighth seeded team will finish with a record of 46-36 or better.

It may be a bit more difficult this season to find a lower seed team capable of pulling off the outright series upset. The gap between the fourth and fifth seed teams in the East stood at 6 games on Monday morning. In the West that gap was five.

Still, should fifth seeded Denver matchup against Dallas in the opening round a case can be made for the Nuggets to pull the upset and to at least win one of the first two games that would be played in Dallas. The Mavericks, who could finish as high as second, appear to be the most vulnerable of the four top western seeds.

Despite their recent woes the Lakers figure to get by their first round foes and they may make such a statement with a strong effort in their first Playoff game. If priced at -7 or less the Lakers could be an attractive play in their first contest.

In the East of the top four seeds Orlando would seem to be the most vulnerable but they match up well against Atlanta, a team they swept in last season’s second round, winning by 43, 14, 30 and 15 points. Though the series should be more competitive this season, the result should also be the same with the Magic advancing perhaps in five games.

Chicago figures to have little problem in getting by Indiana. The Bulls won their first three meetings this season by 19, 31 and 21 points before losing their most recent meeting, at Indiana, in overtime.

In next week’s column it will be easier to lay out a plan for playing the rest of the first round of the Playoffs as well as knowing the route each team will need to take to reach the NBA Finals.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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