Qualifying for the NBA playoffs and jockeying for seeding enters the final dozen games of the regular season.
In the past, the best races involved division winners. That is not the case this season. For most of the past four months there have been clear leaders in all but the Atlantic, where there had been questions if the ultimate winner would finish with a winning record. It seems likely that the winner will be above .500, but Boston leads with just a 38-32 record following a three game losing streak.
Detroit and Miami have led the Central and Southeast divisions for most of the season. In the West, Phoenix, San Antonio and Seattle have been atop their respective divisions almost from the season’s opening week. All three teams are playing over .700 ball and the smallest lead held by any of the three is the Spurs’ five game edge over Dallas, the likely fourth seed in the West.
Houston and Sacramento are vying for the fifth and sixth Western seeds while Memphis and Denver each hold more than a game lead for the final two berths. This rundown means that the two teams from last season’s Western Conference Finals — the Lakers and Minnesota — will each miss the post season.
Minnesota has played better of late but still trails Denver for the No. 8 seed by 2Â½ games. The Nuggets have been amongst the hottest teams in the league over the past month or so since George Karl took over as coach. The Lakers have been all but mathematically eliminated, beginning the week 6Â½ games out of the playoffs with just 13 games to play.
In the East, Miami has already clinched its division title and might well wrap up the top seed in the conference within the week. Central leading Detroit is the only team with a chance of catching the Heat, but those prospects have all but vanished. The Pistons are likely to win their division with a healthy 5Â½ game edge over surging Chicago.
The Bulls currently hold the fifth seed in the East and are just a game behind No. 4 Washington, which carries with it home court advantage in the opening round. Cleveland, Indiana and Philadelphia round out the East field, with the three separated by 1Â½ games. In fact, there is only a four game difference between Washington and Philly. This suggests a major shuffling of the seeds over the final 2Â½ weeks.
The lines makers continue to have a very good read on the NBA as a whole, with home teams holding a slight 511-504 edge over road teams in point spread victories. There have also been 21 pushes. Remarkably, there have been 515 games that went "over" the total compared to 513 that stayed "under." Eight games have pushed.
Home favorites are virtually even (361-364-14) against the number. Home underdogs are 144-131-7.
Here’s a look at three key games of interest and impact this weekend.
Kings at Cavs (Fri): Both teams have slumped of late and, while each is still in good position to make it to the postseason, their prospects for favorable seedings have faded. When these teams met in Sacramento in mid January the Kings rolled, 123-96. Now, Chris Webber is in Philly and Brad Miller is hurt, creating an additional scoring void.
Cleveland recently fired Paul Silas in an attempt to reverse their slide. Following a strong second half in a win over Detroit, lopsided losses at Houston and Dallas followed. All season Cleveland has been a far better team at home than on the road. The line might have value since Cleveland played Thursday night in Chicago. CLEVELAND.
Lakers at Spurs (Sat): The Tim Duncan injury a week or so ago will likely sideline the All Star until the post season. Both teams are clearly in need of a win here but you wonder just how much the Lakers have left following a dreadful couple of weeks. They’ve lost eight in a row, six coming on the road and only one by fewer than six points.
The Spurs have won each of the first three meetings this season by nine, 17 and 12 points. Their strategy will likely key on Kobe Bryant and challenge the Lakers supporting cast to defeat them. SAN ANTONIO.
76ers at Celtics (Sun): These long time rivals meet for the third time this season but first since the opening month. These teams have not met since November when Philly won both meetings. The rosters of both teams have changed, increasing the offensive potential for each.
Boston’s gains appear to have been the greater of the two teams. The Celtics should be a solid four to six point favorite, but the wiser play may be to look for plenty of points to be scored. OVER.
Last week: 1-2