But beware of teams with no playoff hope
The NBA regular season has but a week remaining before the Playoffs begin a week from Saturday. As we go to press on Monday three quarters of the field is known, including all 8 teams from the Western Conference where only seeds two through eight need to be determined. The Los Angeles Lakers need just one win in their final five games to clinch the top seed in the west, basically a formality.
They would also clinch that top spot once or if all four of the teams tied for second lose a game. You read that correctly. Four teams – Dallas, Denver, Phoenix and Utah – enter the final nine days of the season with identical records of 50-27, five games behind the Lakers. In fact, it’s conceivable though unlikely that eighth seeded Portland could end up second by winning their final five games if all other events fell into place. That’s how close things are with just 3 games separating the seven teams that will seek to prevent the Lakers from returning to the NBA Finals.
That should make for some intense basketball to end the season as the contending teams will seek to finish second or third as opposed to fourth or fifth. Finishing second or third means avoiding the Lakers until the Conference finals. The winner of the four versus five series will face the Lakers in the second round with the team finishing fourth having home court advantage in that opening series.
It could well come down to the final two nights of the season when Phoenix hosts Denver next Tuesday before playing at Utah the next night, the only two games remaining that match two of the four teams tied for second against one another.
No additional Eastern Conference Playoff spots were clinched within the past weeks although Cleveland did clinch the NBA’s top overall seed when the Lakers lost to San Antonio on Sunday. Orlando has all but clinched the second seed while Atlanta holds a one game edge over Boston for third, although having swept the series with the Celtics Atlanta’s lead is effectively two games with each still to play 6 games.
Miami and Milwaukee are each on the verge of clinching Playoff berths although Milwaukee suffered their second major loss of the season this past weekend when C went down. He is listed as being out indefinitely but it could be that his season is over. That’s a tough break for the Bucks who had already lost Michael Redd for the season a few months ago yet managed to get back into Playoff contention.
Charlotte, two games behind Milwaukee and two ahead of Toronto, currently holds the seventh seed while Chicago trails the eighth seeded Raptors by a single game.
Extreme caution must be exercised when betting games in the final days of the regular season, especially those in which nothing is at stake for either of the teams involved. Teams that have already secured a Playoff spot and cannot improve or worsen their position may often rest starters to be fresh for the Playoffs. Teams out of contention may give more time to bench players than they normally would. Or such teams may allow if not encourage players to achieve statistical milestones upon which salary bonuses may rest.
It’s advisable to check the papers or the Internet before making plays as often there will be some unusual pointspreads which reflect some of the above concerns much like we see in the final week of the NFL regular season when coaches bench starters on teams that are locked in to specific Playoff seeds.
Next week’s column will preview the Playoffs with a specific focus on the opening round matchups, some of which may already been known and others which will be determined in the season’s final day or two.
For now, here’s a look at three games this weekend that should have some impact on the Playoff seedings.
Phoenix at Oklahoma City (Friday): With 28 losses Oklahoma City has just one less than the four teams tied for second in the West, giving the Thunder the chance to move up in the seedings after having already clinched a spot in the Playoffs. Led by Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City is playing with great confidence and are not intimidated by any foe or venue in the league. These teams have split their two games this season with the road team winning each time in games decided by 2 and 4 points. Phoenix had their 10 game win streak snapped in Milwaukee this past Saturday while the Thunder start this week as winners of 7 of their last 10 games including 4 in a row. Phoenix has a tough ending schedule. This game should be competitively priced but even if forced to lay a bucket or so the preference is to back the hosts. OKLAHOMA CITY.
San Antonio at Denver (Saturday): San Antonio has started to gear up for the Playoffs and their impressive road win at the Lakers on Sunday may have served notice that the Spurs intend to be a major player. Despite their spotty play for much of the season they’ve started to put mini winning streaks together over the past two months. Interestingly the road team has won all three prior meetings this season and the margins have been 7, 14 and 19 points. All three games have stayed UNDER the Total and that should continue here as this could be a potential first round matchup. UNDER the Total.
Orlando at Cleveland (Sunday): This is a preview of the likely Eastern Finals as the Cavs and Magic have been the top two teams in the conference all season. Cleveland won the first two meetings and the Magic the most recent in games that were all decided by single digits and the straight up winner also covering in each game. Orlando will have likely already clinched the East’s second seed by the time this game tips off. Normally that could mean both teams would rest players but with Orlando having defeated Cleveland in last season’s Eastern Finals both teams may want to send a message here. Especially in a game that will be nationally televised on ABC. The Cavs are likely to be favored. Neither team played Saturday night so both should be fresh for this contest. This is Cleveland’s final home game on a court where they’ve thus far won 34 of 38 and the hosts should be motivated for a fully focused effort. CLEVELAND.