NBA’s X-mas Gift

Dec 21, 2004 7:31 AM

Nearly two months into the NBA season and some semblance of form is developing.

San Antonio was considered a leading title contender when the season began and the 20-5 start, despite struggles by three-point ace Brent Barry, has the Spurs looking very much like the team to beat in the West. At 5-2 odds, San Antonio is the betting favorite to win the NBA Championship.

Phoenix, the league’s biggest surprise, actually has the NBA’s best record (20-3). The Suns run the court and have great depth but they are relatively weak at center and don’t place a great emphasis on defense. An ability to play the half court game is essential to advancing in the playoffs. The Suns are 9-1 to win it all, an attractive price if they can maintain current form and finish at least the No. 2 seed in the West.

Sacramento, Dallas and Minnesota were also given favorable prospects to win the Title. Of the three Sacramento is faring the best at 16-7.

Seattle has started 18-5 and has a three game lead over Minnesota in the newly created Northwest Division. Seattle does have shortcomings but does have one of the league’s best tandems in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Each of those teams should make the Playoffs barring major injuries over the balance of the season.

The battle for the two remaining playoff berths figures to be contentious and involve all but two of the remaining seven teams. Only Golden State and New Orleans appear to have no realistic shot.

The Los Angeles Clippers have played well enough thus far to at least be considered as having a shot at making the post season and Utah should bounce back from its recent slump once injured Andrei Kirilenko returns although that might not be for another month. Denver appears to have the most upside and would be the most likely of the others to make the playoffs.

The Los Angeles Lakers have Kobe Bryant and an at best average supporting cast. But maybe with Bryant and his links to the recent championship runs the Lakers can finish above .500 and make the postseason. Houston is one of the most disappointing early season teams despite the presence of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Houston is capable of challenging Dallas for second behind the Spurs in the Southwest Division.

Memphis may have made too much progress too soon last season and a regression would not be surprising, especially with the change in coaches from Hubie Brown to Mike Fratello. A natural period of transition and adjustment might prevent Memphis from making a run until late in the season. Portland evidently has some internal problems and despite the talent on the court a weak front office might be their downfall.

Next week some thoughts on the Eastern Conference teams and their prospects for the balance of the season shall be shared.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend with the NBA taking off Friday (Christmas Eve).

Pistons at Pacers (Sat): The mood figures to be tense as the Pistons and Pacers meet for the first time since their ugly melee in Detroit in mid November. Both teams begin the week with identical 12-11 records. The Pacers suffered the major loss of three key contributors including Ron Artest, perhaps the best defender in the league. Detroit has not gotten the kind of production expected from Rasheed Wallace. Both teams have played low scoring games in recent weeks. UNDER.

Heat at Lakers (Sat): The much ballyhooed matchup of Shaq versus Kobe finally arrives as the NBA’s Christmas present to the nation. Perhaps most intriguing will be the relative reaction of the LA crowd to both superstars. Don’t be surprised if Shaq gets the more favorable reaction. Don’t also be surprised if the Heat get the win. The supporting cast for Miami is better and they play more unselfishly. Dwayne Wade is quickly earning a reputation as the next emerging NBA star. MIAMI.

Warriors at Kings (Sun): Golden State is still in a period of adjustment to new coach Mike Montgomery’s theories and methods. Lately, the Warriors have played better (5-4 in last nine) since starting 3-12. Sacramento is a contender and continues to play well at home, winning 10 of 12 games. Entering this week, the Warriors have gone "over" in 15 of the last 18 games with no consecutive "unders" since the season’s first week. OVER.

Last week: 2-1

Season: 12-8