East closing gap against West

Dec 28, 2004 7:02 AM

After two months of the NBA regular season, the long standing wide gap between the teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences has narrowed.

Perhaps, the first clue came at the end of last season when the Detroit Pistons defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in five games to become the first Eastern team since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls six seasons earlier to win the NBA Championship.

The offseason trade that sent Shaquille O’Neal from the Lakers to the Miami Heat legitimized another NBA team east of the Mississippi as a title contender.

Make no mistake. The strength of the NBA lies clearly in the West, with more teams capable of making a playoff run. San Antonio remains the solid 2-1 favorite to capture its third title in six seasons. Minnesota is currently 4-1 with Phoenix 6-1, Sacramento 7-1 and both Dallas and Seattle 8-1.

There are two Eastern teams also held at less than double digits. Defending champion Detroit is 3-1 and Miami 6-1. But for the melee involving the Pistons and Pacers Indiana would be held at less than the current 20-1. With the reduction in the suspension of Jermaine O’Neal we might see the Pacers improve over the next couple of weeks and have their odds lowered to the 10 to 15-1 range.

Miami has been the class of the East for the first two months of the season and begins post Christmas play riding an 11-game win streak. The Heat hold the league’s fourth best record. San Antonio, Phoenix and Seattle all have better marks. Miami is five games better than any other team in the East. Detroit is still formidable and capable of making a nice run over the balance of the season and challenging for the conference’s top seed.

Washington is also playing fine basketball in the early season and is the only Eastern team besides Miami to have a non-losing record away from home. The Atlantic Division is wide open and average in terms of overall talent. As this week began New York held a 1½-game lead over Boston. If there is a team that can make a move in the division it might be New Jersey with newly acquired Vince Carter, who should return from the injured list shortly. Carter, Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson give the Nets have enough talent to take control of the division.

The value for playing NBA futures lies in the East. Often the value in playing futures comes from the ability to hedge that ticket once your team qualifies and usually advances one round in the playoffs. The risks are obvious in making such plays. The major unknown is the injury factor.

Here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend.

Kings at Jazz (Fri): Utah has really struggled since its strong start to the season and began this week having lost seven of the last 10 games. The loss to injury of Andrei Kirilenko has clearly hurt the Jazz. Sacramento just finished a disappointing homestand, losing three of five games on its once invincible home court. The Kings look like a team on the decline, but will be well rested. This is the first meeting of the season. Sacramento won three of four last year. The Kings are the more talented team and not likely to be a large favorite. KINGS.

Grizzlies at T’wolves (Sat): Minnesota has played steady if not outstanding ball for the first two months of the season. The T’wolves have gotten the expected outstanding play from star Kevin Garnett but the supporting cast has played below last season’s level. The Grizzlies have started to turn things around in recent weeks. Minnesota won the earlier meeting by 25 as a six- point home favorite. Memphis has been streaky of late. T’WOLVES.

Nuggets at Lakers (Sun): These teams opened the season on this court with the Lakers prevailing 89-78 as a 2½-point favorite. Denver has scored well lately, amassing at least 100 points in seven of eight games. That followed a stretch of seven straight "under" results. The Nuggets are not performing at an expected level. At 4-8 only New Orleans and Golden State are worse on the road. UNDER.

Last week: 1-2. Season: 13-10