The regular season is winding down with most teams having about 15 games to be played before Playoffs begin in just over three weeks. Much will be decided between now and April 25.
Oklahoma City and Chicago became the first teams to “officially” clinch Playoff berths. The teams are in a tight battle for the NBA’s top overall seed as they each begin the week tied with just 12 losses.
But their grips on the top seed in their respective conferences are far from secure as Miami and San Antonio each have just 14 losses and three weeks to make up that short gap.
All four teams should play with great intensity down the stretch as it is generally acknowledged that the NBA champion will come from this august group of four as there is a noticeable gap in both conferences between the teams seeded second and third.
Oklahoma City has made a major statement over the past couple of weeks that perhaps they should be the team to beat for the Title. Within the past 10 days the Thunder have home wins over both Eastern powers – Chicago and Miami – and a road win at the Lakers. This Wednesday they have a rematch in Miami and then have a fairly favorable schedule the rest of the way.
One team that has given Oklahoma City trouble this season has, however, been San Antonio. After defeating the Spurs at home in the teams’ first meeting in early January, San Antonio has won their only other two scheduled meetings this season, winning once at home and once on the road.
Fatigue and injuries are both key factors at this late stage of the season and teams will handle these issues differently. San Antonio coach has dealt with the fatigue factor very well all season, giving stars Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili games off to both rest nagging injuries and to improve overall mental health as they prepare for a Playoffs run.
Teams out of contention may also start to rest players and give more playing time to members of the bench. Be aware of such situations as it might make for favorable spots to play on large favorites that in more normal seasons would be avoided.
The Playoff chase in the Eastern Conference has essentially come down to involving nine teams. Most likely the top seven teams will survive the final three weeks with the lone battle just to make the Playoffs coming down to New York and Milwaukee. Entering the week the Knicks lead the Bucks by 2½ games for the eighth spot.
But there will be much activity insofar as positioning is concerned as just 2½ games separate third seeded Orlando from seventh seeded Philadelphia with Boston, Indiana and Atlanta sandwiched in between the Magic and 76ers.
Things are becoming more defined in the West although the fourth seeded Los Angeles Clippers are just four games from being out of the Playoffs. Tenth seeded Phoenix is just 1½ games out of eighth and just three out of sixth.
Much will be decided over the next three weeks and the NBA will have center stage with the college basketball season having just ended and the baseball season just getting underway.
Let’s enjoy the regular season’s final few acts. Here’s a look at three key games this weekend.
Thunder at Pacers: These teams meet for the only time this season. Oklahoma City has just played a brutal stretch of schedule as one can imagine. The Thunder has won six straight games starting the week, including wins over Miami, Chicago and the Lakers. This Wednesday they have a rematch with the Heat in Miami.
At 40-12 Oklahoma City has a three-game lead over San Antonio for the top seed in the West and is tied in the loss column with Chicago for the best record in the league. Indiana has played well all season and has a chance to finish as high as the third seed in the East, starting the week just a half game behind Orlando. Danny Granger leads a balanced attack that features five players averaging double digit points per game and another two who average more than 9 ppg.
This appears to be a flat spot for the Thunder following their game in Miami and is a chance for Indiana to make a statement that they believe they will be more than an afterthought in the Playoffs. PACERS.
Magic at Sixers: The home team has won both meetings this season although Orlando covered each time. Philadelphia has been one of the more reliable team this season with the 76ers whacking the weaker teams on its schedule much more often that not while at the same time struggling against the better teams it has faced. Orlando has been both strong and weak at various times this season.
Despite holding the third seed in the East, Orlando has at times looked like one of the bottom feeders in the league, twice this season being held to under 60 points in a game and twice more to under 70. Eleven of their 21 losses have been by double digits. The Magic started this week on a three game losing streak that followed three straight wins. Philly has alternated wins and losses over the past two weeks but has been a solid 19-10 at home this season. Orlando is 14-11 on the road.
Although the 76ers do have a big game on Sunday at Boston, they enter this game with an extra day of rest. The look ahead for Philly might actually depress this line a bit, offering added value in backing them against an inconsistent foe. SIXERS.
Bulls at Knicks: It’s unknown whether defending MVP Derrick Rose will be back for Chicago after missing considerable time over the past few weeks with a groin injury. What is known is that New York will be without both Amar’e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin for the balance of the regular season.
This could be a preview of an opening round Playoff series. Despite losing this past Sunday at Oklahoma City, Chicago still has the best record in the NBA and leads Miami by 3½ games for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. New York starts the week holding the eighth and final seed.
The Bulls have won both prior meetings this season with the Knicks, although New York covered both times. It was following this second loss that Mike D’Antoni resigned as Knicks coach, replaced by Mike Woodson. The coaching change has resulted in a much greater emphasis on defense and in the 11 games since the change no team has topped 100 points against New York. UNDER.