Burning love

Mar 8, 2005 9:14 AM

While much of the sporting world’s attention over the next three weeks turns to the upcoming NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the professionals begin their 25-game sprint to the end of the regular season.

The finish line that awaits 16 of the NBA’s 30 teams in reality is the starting line for the NBA playoffs and a chance to win the championship.

Detroit, last season’s defending champions, had been the hottest team in the league for the past month before losing three straight on a West Coast road trip. The Pistons currently lead the Central Division, but are a hefty 7½ games behind Southeast leader Miami for the best record in the East.

The Heat and Pistons have established themselves as the clear favorites to win the East. Should current form hold, Detroit and Miami would meet in the conference finals. It would be a most intriguing matchup, with a better than expected balance of offense and defense.

San Antonio begins the week a half game ahead of Phoenix for the top seed in the West and owning the league’s best record. The Spurs and Suns have been neck and neck virtually all season with neither showing signs of backing down. Recently, both have won seven of their last 10 in opening a four-game gap on Seattle, the third division leader in the conference.

Five of the six division leaders have comfortable leads with the three Western front runners in firm control. San Antonio has the smallest margin, a 7½ games cushion on second place Dallas in the Southwest. San Antonio is a spectacular 27-2 at home this season. Miami, at 24-5, has the league’s second best home record.

Only two teams have outstanding road records. Phoenix is 24-7 away from home and Seattle is 20-8. The ability to win away from home is what separates true contenders from other playoff teams. Detroit and Miami are the only Eastern teams with winning road records, with the Pistons are just one game above .500.

In the West, five teams are playing winning ball on the road. San Antonio complements an extraordinary home record with a solid 19-11 mark away from its home arena.

As has been the case for much of the season, the linesmaker continues to excel. Only two games separate home and road pointspread winners nearly 900 games into the season.

There has been a recent movement towards better performance from underdogs, but the favorite / dog split is still almost 50 percent either way. And, the "over / under" gap is only nine games.

Here’s a look at three of the more interesting matchups this weekend.

Rockets at Suns (Fri): Phoenix has been among the league’s elite all season as newcomer Steve Nash has had a huge impact and should be seriously considered for MVP honors. The Suns are a talented, deep team and it would not be a surprise if they make a deep run in the playoffs despite relatively limited postseason experience.

Houston has started to play excellent basketball over the second half of the season. Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady have begun to mesh with the rest of their teammates. The Rockets have also picked things up defensively, a trademark of Jeff van Gundy coached teams. The Suns will be favored and won the earlier meeting at Houston in early January. Houston’s defensive improvement offers a good chance at an upset win. HOUSTON.

Nuggets at Spurs (Sat): Since George Karl took over as Denver coach, the Nuggets have been on a huge roll. Denver enters the week having won six in a row and 13 of 17 games. The only winning teams Denver defeated in this stretch were Cleveland, Boston and Memphis — hardly among the top teams in the league. Still, momentum is momentum and the Nuggets are playing with confidence.

San Antonio is the favorite to win the NBA Title and has won the first two meetings this season by 14 and nine points. Denver will be well rested having not played since Monday, but the combination of inactivity and not having faced a true title contender in more than a month works against them. SAN ANTONIO.

Wizards at Celtics (Sun): The reacquisition of Antoine Walker and Gary Payton has made the Celtics the team to beat in the weak Atlantic Division. Their lead over second place Philadelphia is very slight. There is a huge difference between winning the division and being seeded third in the East versus possibly not even making the playoffs barely at .500.

Washington has faded slightly in recent weeks following a strong first three months. The teams have each won at home this season by five points. The Wizards are weaker than when those games were played prior to the start of 2005. Injuries and fatigue on their young roster are now taking a toll. Boston will be a solid favorite, winning better than two of every three home games this season. BOSTON.

Last week: 0-3

Season: 26-26 (.500)