NCAA Tournament and next NBA’s Sweet 16

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Whereas college basketball’s NCAA Tournament has determined its field of Sweet 16 teams, the race for the NBA version becomes the topic of focus now that the trade deadline has passed.

With roughly two thirds of the regular season having been played, the races for the eight teams to make Playoffs from each conference intensify as will the battling for seeding position among the elite teams.

EAST

At 37-10 the Chicago Bulls currently have the best record in the NBA and have the lead for the Eastern Conference’s top seed by two and a half games over Miami. The Bulls also enter the week having won 8 of its last 10 games and continue to play well despite nagging injuries to several key players.

The trade deadline passed with no major trades of consequence impacting the contending teams, largely due to Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard deciding to stay put and agreeing to not opt out of his contract following this season. As a result the expected domino effect of Howard leaving Orlando never materialized.

Orlando currently sits third in the East, five games behind second seeded Miami, and although it’s unlikely that the Magic can catch or overtake either the Heat or the Bulls the Magic certainly are capable of winning a first round Playoff series.

Philadelphia, which has seen a decent sized lead in the Atlantic Division shrink to just a game and a half over Boston as its schedule has gotten tougher, is currently seeded fourth. Holding down the final four seeds in the East are Indiana, Atlanta, Boston and New York.

New York may have salvaged its chances for making the Playoffs when coach Mike D’Antoni stepped down last week following six straight losses. Assistant coach and former Atlanta boss Mike Woodson has taken over as interim coach and the Knicks responded with a 42 point blowout win over Portland followed by a pair of double digit wins over Indiana in a back to back home and home series over the weekend.

The Knicks trailed seventh seeded Boston by 2½ games at the start of the week and held the slimmest of leads, a half game, over ninth place Milwaukee. With Cleveland three games behind the Bucks it is shaping up as a two team battle between the Knicks and Bucks for that final Playoff spot.

Milwaukee was a player at the trade deadline with the principals being the injured (and out for the season) Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson departing and Monta Ellis now suiting up in a Bucks uniform.

WEST

There was a coaching change made at the trade deadline as Portland said goodbye to Nate McMillan.

The Trailblazers’ hot start to the season is a distant memory as their poor recent play has seen them drop all the way down to the 12 spot in the conference. A 6-13 run culminated in a 121-79 loss at New York last Wednesday which turned out to be the final game coached by McMillan.

Oklahoma City has the best record in the West at 34-11 and the Thunder has a four game lead over San Antonio for the conference’s top seed. The Los Angeles Lakers, leaders of the Pacific Division, are two games further back and 1½ ahead of their co-tenants, the Clippers.

The top four seeds in each conference have the home court advantage in the opening round of the Playoffs.

The rest of the current field in the West is tightly bunched with Memphis, Dallas, Denver and Houston holding down seeds five through eight.

Only three games separate the fourth seeded Clippers and the eighth seeded Rockets and four more teams are within 2½ games of Houston for that final spot.

What will make the race for the Playoffs even more interesting this season than in seasons past are the factors relating to scheduling and fatigue in addition to the shortened schedule overall.

A look at the league wide point spread statistics show that home teams have a very narrow 338-326 ATS edge over road teams, with 5 games ending in points pread pushes.

Home favorites are just 225-223-1 ATS while home underdogs are 112-99-4. There have been 5 Pick ‘em games this season and, interestingly, the road team has won 4 of the 5.

The gap between OVER and UNDER continues to narrow as through 669 games UNDER holds just an 18 game edge (339 vs. 321, with 9 pushes).

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

FRIDAY

Dallas at San Antonio: These long time rivals meet for the fourth time this season with the home team having won each of the first three contests including Dallas’ 106-99 win last Saturday. Dallas’ other win was by a single point in late January whereas San Antonio’s lone win was by 22 points when the teams met in early January.

The defending Champion Mavericks have been both streaky and inconsistent this season and their current three game winning streak follows a stretch in which Dallas was just 2-8. But even with the recent wins Dallas has been a losing proposition at the betting windows, entering this week on a 3-10 ATS run dating back to just before the All Star break.

The Spurs are 17-4 at home while Dallas is just 8-13 on the road. Thirteen of the Spurs’ 17 home wins have been by double digits, 8 of which have come against winning teams. SAN ANTONIO.

SATURDAY

Indiana at Milwaukee: These Central Division rivals meet for the first time this season. Indiana has very quietly been fashioning a fine season and begin the week 25-18 following a pair of back to back losses to rejuvenated New York. The Bucks were active at the trade deadline as they believe they have a realistic chance of making the Playoffs.

They begin the week in ninth spot in the East but just a half game behind the Knicks. The acquisition of Monta Ellis from Golden State should be an upgrade over Stephen Jackson as Ellis should fit in quite nicely with Brandon Jennings.

Milwaukee has been the NBA’s best OVER team and by a significant margin, having played 29 OVERs and 15 UNDERs through Sunday, including 15-5 at home. The Pacers are fully capable of, er, keeping pace with the Bucks’ up tempo style. OVER.

SUNDAY

Miami at Oklahoma City: In what will likely be hyped as a potential preview of the NBA Finals the Heat and Thunder meet for the first of two regular season games. And although Miami trails Chicago by 2½ games for the top seed in the East, the Heat’s 33-11 record is just a half game behind that of Oklahoma City.

Both teams have played just average basketball of late, winning just 6 of their past 10 games starting the week. The road team won each of the two meetings last season. Both teams are rested after having last played on Friday and while Miami will be at Indiana on Monday the Thunder will be getting set for a road trip that begins Tuesday in Portland.

Miami will likely be an underdog for just the second time all season. They won in their previous such role, a thrilling triple overtime game in Atlanta when the Heat were without both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Miami has shown an ability this season to rise to the occasion and they will look at this game as such a challenge. 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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