With the bulk of March Madness gone time for NBA to take center stage

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Now that the NCAA Tournament has put a wild first weekend to bed, the NBA is about to take over for the next few months.

College basketball’s marquee event evokes passion and creates a frenzy due to all the bracket pools and other ways to gamble on it. The actual on-court product leaves much to be desired, especially this season with so many collapses related to teams going cold from the perimeter at the worst possible time.

Hopefully we’ll get quality playoff-level basketball a little earlier than usual to help make up for all the ugly ball we’ve had to digest over the past few excitement-filled days, because March Madness is about to extend to the pros.

The Eastern Conference has its eight playoff participants set, albeit unofficially.

Miami would have to be a major college basketball power in the city of Cincinnati to fumble away their place in the East playoff picture. After missing out last season due to a tiebreaker, the Heat will be part of the postseason, up 6.5 games on Detroit and seven on Charlotte with just 12 games left, so the goal now is to earn the No. 3 seed. Toronto and Boston will be the top two in the conference, but the remaining six teams enter the week separated by just 3.5 games.

In the Western Conference, the margin between earning the third seed and finishing out of the mix in ninth and 10th is 6.5 games. The Trail Blazers and Thunder are getting hot at the right time and currently pulling away in the race for the Northwest Division title and No. 3 spot. Teams 5 through 7, San Antonio, New Orleans and Utah, entered the week with 40 wins and 30 losses, while the Timberwolves have slipped to No. 8 at 40-31.

Denver is joined by the Clippers on the outside looking in at the moment in the Western Conference, just 1.5 games back of Minnesota. The Nuggets opened a defining seven-game road trip, by far their longest of the season, by taking a 101-94 loss in Memphis. Only one other team on the docket (Chicago) won’t make the playoffs, so Denver really got off poorly in losing to the Grizzlies.

Although there are no back-to-backs, Denver will visit the Bulls, Wizards, 76ers, Raptors and Thunder after departing South Florida, so it will fall behind the pace and become a Western Conference afterthought if it can’t put together a better effort than it managed on Saturday night.

On Sunday, Portland put its unexpected depth on display in scoring 98 points over the final three quarters against the Clippers to win its 13th consecutive game. The Clippers have been incapable of getting stops despite the presence of DeAndre Jordan because they don’t have anyone to throw off rhythm at the point of attack until Avery Bradley returns. That’s likely going to cost them a shot at the playoffs despite Lou Williams’ continued brilliance off the bench.

We’ve just witnessed one of the craziest NCAA Tournaments ever and the NBA is set to follow suit by delivering a competitive final few weeks as teams jockey for playoff seeding. We may see some deft strategic tanking over the final few days, but for the most part, we’re going to see playoff contenders going at it to provide some excellent drama between now and April 11.

The Westgate SuperBook has moved on to Toronto (6/5) as the new Eastern Conference favorite, improving their odds from 6-to-5 to 5-to-6 on Monday as its grip on homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs has strengthened. Cleveland was downgraded slightly from 2-to-1 to 7-to-4 and Boston went from 5-to-2 to 4-to-1 due to all its injuries.

Kyrie Irving remains out with a knee injury, while Marcus Smart may miss the rest of the season due to a thumb issue, leaving the Celtics without their top defender. Athletic wing Jaylen Brown remains out due to a concussion.

Larry Nance, Jr. (hamstring), Kyle Korver (foot) and Rodney Hood (back) are all banged up for the Cavs, but good news is on the way with Kevin Love’s return from a broken hand imminent. Forward/center Tristan Thompson stepped on a heel and ended up with a significant ankle sprain that continues to keep him out, so LeBron James is looking to keep the Cavs atop the Central Division with a shorthanded supporting cast.

Indiana dropped out of first in the Central with consecutive losses and are now a half-game back of Cleveland entering the week, 2.5 games up on Milwaukee. All of these teams are in the mix to finish third or fourth and secure homecourt advantage in the first round, so these games will all take on added importance going forward, ramping up the intensity level early.

Having all these teams putting their best foot forward should help bettors since they can be confident in what they can expect to see, especially when paired against non-playoff contenders. Count on oddsmakers countering by putting some spreads in these games through the roof, potentially resulting in a market where it will be more profitable to take points, depending how overboard the books go.

For the most part, however, the cream should rise to the top. Entering the week, Portland, Houston, OKC and Utah all have winning streaks of five games or more. The teams that get hot now will be in a position to prosper further once these playoffs finally arrive.

About the Author
Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national writer for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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