West still best heading to break

Feb 1, 2005 11:19 PM

The NBA regular season is more than halfway complete with all 30 teams having played at least 41 games.

As the All Star break approaches, an evaluation of each team’s prospects for making the playoffs and where they might be seeded can be intelligently made. Injuries always remain the unknown factor, but team strengths, weaknesses and ability to make adjustments is pretty well known.

The balance of power remains in the West, but overall the gap with the East has been narrowed. This has happened not so much from improvement amongst Eastern Conference teams, but from a weakening of teams in the West.

Obviously the Los Angeles Lakers were weakened during the offseason with the trade of Shaquille O’Neal and retirement of coach Phil Jackson. The recent loss to injury of Kobe Bryant (who may be out until after the All Star game) has further put into question whether the Lakers will even make the playoffs.

The three division leaders in the West are fairly secure in their positions with each having at least a 4½ game lead. At 36-10 both Phoenix and San Antonio are tied for the league’s best record, while Seattle leads the Northwest Division at 30-12. The top three teams are in such good shape because the three second place teams (Dallas, Minnesota and Sacramento) are the only teams in the West within 10 games of a division leader.

It’s the middle tier of teams in the West that has caused the overall strength of the conference to be weaker than last season. Sacramento is currently seeded fourth and Dallas fifth. Minnesota is one of the four teams battling with the Lakers, Memphis and Houston battling for the final three playoff berths. Only those nine teams currently have winning records this season.

The key number in the East seems to be 5½. Southeast Division leading Miami remains the beasts of the East with a 33-13 record and a 5½ game edge over Central leader Cleveland for the conference’s top seed. The Washington Wizards also trail Miami within the division by 5½. The third seed in the East goes to the winner of the Atlantic Division, where Boston has a losing record and a half game lead over Philadelphia.

It’s unlikely that more than just the division winner from the Atlantic will make the playoffs, although Indiana (currently eighth seed) begins the week two games below .500. But with both Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal back from their lengthy suspensions we can expect the Pacers to win more than they lose the rest of the way, perhaps challenging Cleveland and Detroit for the division title.

Chicago has been a major pleasant surprise in the East and its fine play over the past two months caused a rise to the No. 7 seed. The Bulls are playing winning basketball this deep into the season for the first time since the Michael Jordan era ended. They are one of just six Eastern teams with winning records. Last season just four Eastern teams finished with winning records with one of those teams barely above break even at 42-40.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Mavs at Pacers (Fri): Dallas’ fine play (averaging two wins in three games) has been overshadowed by division rival San Antonio. The Mavericks still rely more on offense than defense for their success and that makes for an interesting contrast. Indiana has been a solid defensive team under coach Rick Carlyle. Even without suspended Ron Artest, the Pacers are among the leaders in fewest points allowed, especially at home. There should be value on Indiana in the near term as its rather average record masks the improvement ahead INDIANA.

Knicks at Suns (Sat): The good news is that New York begins the week just 2½ games out of the Atlantic lead. The bad news is that the Knicks are seven games below .500. Even a coaching change has not helped. Phoenix continues to play great basketball when Steve Nash is in the lineup. After missing several games due to injury, Nash has led the Suns back to their winning ways. The Suns won in New York 133-118 just last week and will again force an up tempo pace in the rematch. The total will be high, but Phoenix begins the week having played seven straight "overs" in which the two teams have averaged 233 points in regulation. OVER .

Lakers at Rockets (Sun): After winning four of five after Kobe Bryant was injured, the Lakers have lost three of their last four. Bryant is expected to be sidelined for at least another few weeks and that leaves the Lakers ill equipped to challenge the stronger defensive teams they face. With Kobe, the Lakers struggled to beat the Rockets in their first two meetings, winning by five on the road and seven at home. Houston’s Tracy McGrady is the most explosive player on the court and that’s enough to provide an edge as a small to moderate favorite. HOUSTON.

Last week: 1-2
Season: 23-15