Suns still burning up the West

Mar 15, 2005 9:25 AM

Barely one month remains before the long NBA regular season gives way to the much anticipated playoffs.

The race for the top seed in the league remains the compelling story for the final month. Phoenix has shown no signs of giving in to its relative inexperience and, with a 48-15 record, lead San Antonio by a half game.

It is no sure thing that the top overall seed will go to the Suns or Spurs. Somewhat quietly the East’s best team, Miami, has fashioned a stellar 48-16 record and could easily make up their one game deficit over the next few weeks. Miami is a legitimate title threat as newcomer Shaquille O’Neal has meshed well with one of the more unheralded superstars in the league, Dywane Wade.

If Miami is to be challenged for the Eastern title that challenge is most likely to come from defending champion Detroit. Miami does have a comfortable 8½ game lead over the Pistons for the best mark in the East, but Detroit’s playoff experience will count for much come May.

Denver, Houston and Memphis are all playing very well in the Western Conference. Houston is currently seeded sixth and Memphis seventh. Denver starts the week a half game behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth and final seed, but the Nuggets have great momentum, winning eight of their last 10.

Minnesota remains perhaps the biggest disappointment in the West, standing 1½ games behind the Lakers in tenth position.

Boston is making noise in the East. The Celtics have opened up what is a significant four game lead in the Atlantic Division and actually have improved to a point that they have the fifth best record in the conference. As a division winner they would get the third seed but their current form suggests they could be a factor in the post season.

Chicago also is making a nice move and could end up as high as the fourth seed. The Bulls trail the two teams currently tied for fourth, Washington and Cleveland, by just a single game. The Bulls have been fairly steady over the past month. The Wizards and Cavaliers have each struggled recently, dropping seven of their last 10 games.

It would be a remarkable story if the Bulls could secure home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. The race for that fourth seed in the East will be an interesting battle down to the season’s final few games.

Orlando and Indiana are tied for the final two seeds in the Eastern Conference and each has to contend with significant injuries. Orlando has been without Grant Hill in recent games and Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal is on the injured list with an uncertain return.

In the West, Seattle is firmly entrenched in the third position, trailing the two top teams by about five games and leading second place Denver in the Northwest by more than 10. Dallas seems fairly comfortable in fourth position with Sacramento likely to finish fifth.

Houston’s current momentum has carried the Rockets to within a game of the Kings. Memphis has the seventh seed and trails the Rockets two games and leads the Lakers by 2½. Denver and Minnesota remain the only realistic outsiders with a chance to overtake one of the currently seeded teams. The most likely scenario has Denver passing the Lakers and leaving them and Minnesota out of the playoffs.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Celtics at Rockets (Fri): Houston has played well as the combination of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady has gelled. The Rockets have also finally started to get comfortable with coach Jeff van Gundy’s defensive orientation. The first meeting between the teams went "under" the total in Boston. This game should also find the Rockets looking to control the tempo. UNDER.

Bulls at 76ers (Sat): The Bulls are young and improving with much upside potential. Philadelphia still relies on Allen Iverson and it is reasonable to expect Chris Webber to contribute more as he becomes comfortable in his new surroundings. Philly cannot afford to take the Bulls lightly, especially since Chicago is currently in the playoffs. The 76ers are not. PHILLY.

Spurs at Pistons (Sun): San Antonio won the first meeting (80-77) at home as an 8½ point favorite in a game that stayed "under" the total by double digits. The Spurs are battling nagging injuries to both Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and that makes them vulnerable to a Pistons team that relies on tight defense. Look for a big revenge effort from the Pistons. DETROIT.

Last week: 1-2
Season: 27-28