The 82 game prelude to the NBA Playoffs, more commonly known as the regular season, has ended for the 16 teams that will spend the next two months vying for the NBA Title. Less than half of the NBA’s 29 teams were eliminated during this prelude and as we go to press on Monday only one of the 16 Playoff spots is still to be filled. In the Eastern Conference the number 8 seed will go to Chicago or Toronto. Both teams have two games to play with Chicago leading by one game but Toronto holding the tie breaker edge.
All that is known is that Cleveland, holding the top seed in the league, will face either Chicago or Toronto in the opening round. Orlando has secured the second seed and will face Miami, Milwaukee or Charlotte who are battling for the fifth through seventh seeds. Atlanta has the edge over Boston for the number 3 seed needing just one more win or a Boston loss to clinch that spot.
Things are much tighter in the West where only the Lakers are secure in their situation, having wrapped up the conference’s top seed. Dallas currently sits second but the 53-27 Mavs are just a single game ahead of Denver, Utah and Phoenix, each 52-28 and having two games to play. But that’s not all as Portland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are in a dead heat for seeds six through eight with the identical records of 49-31.
In next week’s column specific forecasts can be made after each of the opening series have had one game played. For now, however, only some generalized comments can be made about potential matchups and possible ways of playing the series and opening games can be offered.
A general approach to playing the Playoffs that has worked over the years has been the “zig zag” theory, widely popularized by the great folks over at The Gold Sheet more than a decade ago. This method of play essentially says to back the straight up loser of a Playoff game in its next game. Thus there is no play in the opening game of a series but then the play is on the loser of game one in game two, the loser of game two in game three, etc. Prudent handicapping always holds that each game should be evaluated on its own merits and that such “automatic” plays be scrutinized closely before pulling the trigger. But blindly following the zig zag theory over the years has proven profitable more often than not and is based on fairly sound logic.
Cleveland has been giving star LeBron James plenty of rest down the stretch and King James and his Court will be plenty ready when they play their first game against Chicago or Toronto. Regardless of the opponent, look for the Cavs to need no more than five games to advance to the second round and the Cavs are playable in the first two games at home if laying single digits.
Orlando is almost on a par with Cleveland and the Magic should have little trouble getting out of the first round, likely needing no more than six games to do so. As with Cleveland the Magic can be backed at home in their first two games but only if laying 8 or less to Miami or 10 or less to Charlotte or Milwaukee.
The most vulnerable of the top four Eastern seeds appears to be Boston as age seems to be finally taking its toll. But playing them to exit without winning a series will depend upon their opponent. If the Celtics face Miami in the first round a play on the Heat at plus 150 or more is worth a shot. However, the Celtics should be able to get by either Milwaukee or Charlotte before getting their comeuppance in round two.
In the West the Lakers should be reenergized once the Playoffs begin after coasting much of the past two months. The return of Andrew Bynum for the opening round remains uncertain but his presence would certainly be a huge edge for the defending champions. As will the defensive tenacity of Ron Artest who was acquired more for his presence in the Playoffs than for contributions during the regular season.
The depth of the field in the Western Conference is such that the Lakers may well be extended to six games regardless of whether they face Oklahoma City, Portland or San Antonio. It’s hard to make a recommendation for the Lakers to lose in the opening round although the experience of San Antonio makes the Spurs worthy of consideration if getting odds of plus 250 or more.
Of the four other teams in the West, Dallas and Utah seem best positioned to challenge the Lakers on their run to the NBA Finals. Phoenix and Denver have more flaws than either the Mavericks or Jazz.
Depending on the final seedings both Dallas and Utah are playable as favorites of minus 200 or less to win their first round series if they are not facing each other.
In the unlikely scenario that they do face each other take the underdog if getting at least plus 150. Such a matchup would occur only if the Jazz and Mavs finished in the four/five seeds.
Otherwise, Oklahoma City would make for an attractive underdog play in their opening series against Phoenix or Denver. The Thunders’ Kevin Durant is the kind of player that can single handedly carry his team into the second round.
Denver is the most vulnerable of the top five seeds and can be played against as a favorite in the opening round if their underdog opponent is priced at plus 150 or more to win the series.
On a game by game basis consider Utah and Dallas to be “play on” teams and Denver to be a “play against” team in the opening games of their series.
As stated above it is most unusual to have so much uncertainty with so few games remaining. It does speak to how much balance exists this season although the Cavs and Lakers have been the teams to beat since the season began.