Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat on collision course

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The NBA’s regular season has entered its home stretch with just over two weeks remaining until the Playoffs. Much will be decided over the next fortnight with only four teams having clinched Playoff berths through last Sunday.

Chicago holds a two-game lead over Miami for the top seed in the East as the Bulls and Heat appear on a collision course to meet again in the Conference Finals.

In the West, San Antonio, winners of 11 straight, have caught Oklahoma City for the top seed as they are in a virtual tie entering this week. Both teams are 26 games above .500 but the Spurs lead the Thunder by percentage points by virtue of having played two fewer games, a gap that will be made up in the final two weeks.

With Chicago and San Antonio at 14 losses each plus Miami and Oklahoma City having lost 15, the battle for the top seeds in each Conference for the NBA’s best overall record may well go down to the final couple of days as the season ends on Thursday, April 26.

EAST

Over the past week things have gotten very interesting as Orlando has dropped from the third seed to the sixth seed. But just a single game separates the Magic, Atlanta and Indiana as those teams contend for the third, fifth and sixth Eastern seeds.

The fourth seed will go to the winner of the Atlantic Division where Philadelphia had a sizeable lead at one time a couple of months ago. But not only has Philly slipped from that lead, the 76ers are in danger of not even making the Playoffs.

Starting this week Boston has a three-game lead over both Philly and the New York Knicks with the latter two teams tied for the seventh and eighth seeds. But just a game behind that duo is surging Milwaukee.

While the Knicks and Bucks were winning seven of their last 10 games, the 76ers were dropping seven of 10. Each of the trio has exactly 10 games remaining. After winning a wild home game in overtime on Sunday against Chicago, the Knicks turn right around and play at Chicago on Tuesday before heading up the interstate and playing at Milwaukee on Wednesday, giving the Bucks a chance to make up ground on New York.

The Bucks will enter that game following what should have been a tough home game two nights earlier, hosting Oklahoma City Monday night. Milwaukee will also be at Philadelphia in two weeks, the night before the end of the regular season.

Regardless of how things shake out the bottom three playoff teams from the East should make the postseason with records fairly close to, or perhaps even below, .500.

WEST

Tenth seeded Utah starts the week with a winning record, 1½ games behind eighth seeded Denver with Phoenix sandwiched in between. No fewer than six teams are battling for the final four Playoff spots. Defending NBA Champion Dallas currently sits in seventh position, two games behind fifth seeded Memphis and also just two games ahead of 10th seeded Utah.

The LA Lakers lead the Pacific Division by a half game over what can now be considered their rivals, the Clippers, but both teams start the week tied with 22 losses and holding down the third and fourth seeds.

After a huge win over the Clippers last Wednesday that gave them a 2-1 edge in the now concluded regular season series, the Lakers proceeded to drop back-to-back games to Houston and Phoenix.

Meanwhile the Clippers showed some moxie by winning their next two games, although both came in a home series against lowly Sacramento. Still, the Clippers can take some positives from those wins and might indeed be a factor at least in the first round or two of the Playoffs.

Much will happen over the next two weeks that will change the complexion of the Playoffs. Be sure to pay attention not just to injuries but also to how coaches will handle their rosters as it becomes more and more important for teams to be as fresh as possible for the Playoffs.

In particular, San Antonio coach Greg Popovich has employed this technique at various times during the regular season, doling out nights off to aging stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Expect other coaches to make similar moves with Boston coach Doc Rivers perhaps the most likely candidate to follow suit given the aging nature of the Celtics roster.

Despite the presence of Chicago and Miami as the teams to beat in the East, a Boston team with veterans Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo could be a sleeper in the Playoffs and worth a shot to win it all at odds of between 20 and 30-to-1 if they enter the Playoffs healthy.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

FRIDAY

Atlanta at Orlando: These teams start the week separated by just a half game in the standings with Atlanta seeded fifth and Orlando sixth. Atlanta won, and covered, both earlier meetings, one at home and one on the road. Both games played in a two week period just before the All Star break and the margins were just 2 and 5 points.

Orlando has been the soap opera story of the season with the latest episode involving the discord between Coach Stan van Gundy and star Dwight Howard. The Orlando center has been battling back spasms and was expected to miss games on Monday and Tuesday. Atlanta has been a steady team all season, playing under the radar and starting the week having won seven of the last 10 games.

Orlando starts the week on a 4-6 slide that has seen them lose what seemed to be a solid hold on the number 3 seed. Atlanta should come the underdog by a couple of buckets or so and has played .500 ball on the road and been profitable away from home. ATLANTA.

SATURDAY

Utah at Memphis: Both teams are in that wild battle to make the Playoffs although Memphis is in much better position. The Grizzlies start the week seeded fifth, three and a half games ahead of ninth seeded Phoenix. Utah starts the week in tenth but is just a game and a half behind eighth seeded Denver. Things could be significantly different by the time this game tips off depending on what happens during the week.

Memphis was off on Friday after playing at red hot San Antonio on Thursday. Utah played at New Orleans on Friday and is playing a third game in four nights. Utah won (and covered) both prior meetings this season, once at home and once here in Memphis although the teams last met back on Feb. 12.

Notwithstanding that earlier win here, Utah is just 9-20 this season on the road (11-17-1 ATS). Memphis has been solid at home and starts the week having won four straight and 10 of the last 12 at home. MEMPHIS.

SUNDAY

Miami at New York: The Heat won both earlier meetings this season, both at home, by 10 and 14 points. The first win came in the pre-Jeremy Lin era while the second was the Heat’s eighth win in a nine-game winning streak in which all nine wins were by a dozen points or more. Lin did play in the second game but was ineffective.

Lin is now injured and out for the balance of the regular season along with Amar’e Stoudemire. The Knicks are in a tight battle just to make the Playoffs while Miami is trying to catch Chicago for the East’s No. 1 seed. Both teams have been off since Friday and only Miami plays the next night in what should be a fairly easy game across the river in New Jersey.

Clearly the New York crowd will be sky high. The Knicks’ win last Sunday over Chicago was their first against an elite team all season and in that game they blew an early 21 point lead and then needed to score the final 10 points of regulation to force overtime. They should not be so fortunate two weeks in a row. MIAMI.

 

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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