March Madness for college and pro basketball this season

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Whereas the phrase “March Madness” is most often associated with college basketball’s determination of its National Champion, the phrase also applies to this season’s NBA.

As in a mad dash to make the Playoffs.

With the regular season shortened from 82 to 66 games, the 20 percent of a normal season lost due to the lockout means that teams have much less of an opportunity to climb the standings in the weeks leading up to the end of the regular season.

More than half of the season has already been played and teams have roughly 30 games to position themselves for the postseason. Not surprisingly, a couple of teams in the Eastern Conference have already created distance between themselves and the rest of the competition.

At 31-8 Chicago starts the week with the NBA’s best record and leads 28-9 Miami for the conference’s top seed. The third seed is currently controlled by Indiana, but the Pacers are four games behind the second seeded Heat.

Philadelphia rounds out the top four seeds in the East with Orlando, Atlanta, Boston and the New York Knicks comprising the top 8 teams. There is a four game gap between eighth seeded New York and a pair of teams, Milwaukee and Cleveland, who are tied for ninth.

Oklahoma City has continued to maintain its position atop the Western Conference and its lead for the top seed is starting to expand. The Thunder start this week with a four game bulge over second seeded San Antonio with the two top teams in the Pacific Division – Los Angeles’ Clippers and Lakers – tied for third and six games behind Oklahoma City. 

Rounding out the current Western Conference Playoff field are Memphis, Dallas, Houston and Denver. Ninth seeded Minnesota is two games out of the Playoff picture with Portland, Utah and Phoenix within a game and a half of the Timberwolves.

Scheduling dynamics continue to play a huge part in handicapping this compacted regular season and will have a huge impact on the composition of the Playoff fields in both conferences.

The trade deadline is just over a week away and the moves that occur – or are not made – will also have a major influence on the Playoff field.

There has been widespread speculation over the past week or so that Boston is looking to deal Rajon Rondo, speculation that seems curious given that Rondo is thought to be the glue that is holding the aging Celtics together.

If Boston is seriously entertaining trade thoughts they might want to reconsider those thoughts after what Rondo accomplished in Sunday’s overtime win over New York. Rondo scored 18 points, dished out 20 assists and snared 17 rebounds.

It takes a special player to post those kinds of stats and at age 26 his best ball is ahead of him. If the Celtics are to transition from the Garnett, Allen and Pierce era into remaining a contender Rondo has to be the centerpiece of that transition, despite reported conflicts he may have with coach Doc Rivers.

“Linsanity” seems to be fading as teams have started to adjust to and focus on New York’s Jeremy Lin. Following the Knicks’ seven

game winning streak began the latest NBA fad, New York has lost 5 of 8 to settle into eighth place in the East.

Note that the Knicks, through last Sunday, had played the second easiest schedule in the NBA. The competition gets much more difficult in coming weeks and will test whether Lin has had his proverbial 15 minutes of fame or whether his game is good enough to lead the Knicks into the Playoffs as adjustments continue to be made.

The Lakers are also thought to be a player as the trade deadline approaches. Yet despite a somewhat sluggish start to the season, things have started to fall into place for the perennial league power.

The Lakers begin the week having won 8 of their last 10 games and have the second best home record in the league, 17-2. The two home losses were by a single point to Chicago on Christmas Day to open the season and by 2 to Indiana nearly a month later.

The Lakers still must show improvement on the road but they have been more consistent in that regard. Since starting 1-7 on the road (including a loss in their building to the Clippers) the Lakers have split their last 10 road contests and appear poised to be a factor in the West come Playoffs.

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

FRIDAY

Lakers at T’Wolves: Minnesota continues to show steady signs of improvement as the addition of Ricky Rubio has had a major positive impact on this young team. Kevin Love is starting to get the accolades he deserves as he continues to improve his overall game.

The Lakers have won both prior meeting this season, by 5 on this court in late January and by 19 when the teams met in Los Angeles just after the All Star break. The Lakers figure to come as small favorites in this game. The hosts will be looking to make a statement in this game that they are indeed a team capable of playing with the league’s elite.

Minnesota has fared well as underdogs this season, going 15-7 ATS including 9 outright upset wins. They are also 5-2 ATS as home underdogs. WOLVES.

SATURDAY

Pacers at Heat: Very quietly Indiana has fashioned the third best record in the Eastern Conference and had won 6 straight games entering this week. The Pacers have been streaky of late, preceding the current winning streak with a 5 game losing streak that itself shortly followed a 4 game win streak.

But Indiana has struggled when stepping up in class and has lost both meetings with the Heat this season, losing by 35 in Miami in early January and by 15 at home on Valentine’s Day. Miami had won 9 straight and 12 of 13 before losing at Utah and at the Lakers to end a three game road trip. Indiana will be rested after having last hosting Atlanta on Tuesday while Miami has not played since Wednesday and will be off again until Tuesday.

Chris Bosh should be back for the Heat and as such Miami should be well motivated to regain that swagger that has marked their play over the last month. HEAT.

SUNDAY

Sixers at Knicks: New York won the only prior meeting this season and it was played before the onset of “Linsanity” when the Knicks won 85-79 on this court on Jan. 11. That loss was Philly’s only one in a 10 game stretch when the Sixers were off to a hot start to the season. Philadelphia has been struggling in recent weeks, losing 7 of 9 heading into Monday’s game at Milwaukee.

The Knicks have dropped 5 of 8 since winning 7 straight in early top mid February. But they have played well at home, winning 7 of 9 and are 9-2 ATS at home since the end of January. Included are wins over the Lakers and Dallas as well as earlier home wins over Boston and these Sixers.

The Knicks have the more overall talent and deeper roster. They also cannot afford to waste this chance for a win as they play at Chicago on Monday. KNICKS.

 

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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