Top playoff spot still hot issue

Apr 12, 2005 7:27 AM

Just 10 days remain until the 82 game NBA regular season concludes and the top overall seed remains a closely contested race among Miami, Phoenix and the San Antonio Spurs.

The final full week of play begins with Phoenix holding a slim half-game edge over San Antonio, which trails by one in the all important loss column. Miami has two more losses than Phoenix and still without Shaquille O’Neal, although his return is a matter of days.

Six of the eight Western playoff spots have been clinched. Denver and Memphis are on the verge of completing the field. Phoenix has already clinched the Pacific title, while both San Antonio and Seattle are pretty secure atop their divisions. Seattle will be seeded third and Dallas virtually assured of fourth.

Fifth seeded Sacramento is just three games ahead of eighth seeded Memphis. Although between just four and six games remain for these teams, each has been playing well. Should any of the four run the table, that team would have great momentum entering postseason plus a more favorable seed.

Things are much less finalized in the East where only Miami, Detroit and Chicago have clinched playoff spots. Miami is assured of being the top seed and Detroit is second. The Atlantic winner (likely Boston or perhaps Philadelphia) will be the third seed. The Bulls are likely to be seeded fourth after making the playoffs for the first time in the post Michael Jordan era.

Five teams remain realistically in contention for the final four Eastern seeds with Orlando all but eliminated. Currently Indiana and Washington are tied for No. 5, but with just a two game edge over both Cleveland and Philadelphia. New Jersey begins the week ninth, but just 1½ out of the final spot.

Of the five, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Indiana are displaying the best current form. Both Washington and Cleveland have played losing basketball over the past 10 games. Even Atlantic leader Boston has struggled over that span, going 4-6 and is vulnerable to a late run by the 76ers.

Be cautious at the betting windows. Some teams already in the playoffs and secure in the seeding will rest players after the grind of the long season. Teams out of contention may just quit over the final few games — the Lakers and Minnesota come quickly to mind. Some teams like Golden State long out of contention continue to develop chemistry for the future.

Also beware of teams in "must win" situations. There are no hard and fast rules about playing on or against teams in such situations, but almost always there will be an extra price to pay to back a team needing to win. Scheduling and home/road performances may still make that team playable, but also remember that a team is in a ”˜must win’ situation because it failed to win enough games earlier.

Still, not all "must wins" are the same. Needing to win to become an eighth seed in the playoffs is a far different "must win" than a team seeking to wrap up the overall top seed in the league.

Here’s a look at three key games this weekend.

Grizzlies at Nuggets (Fri): Both teams are likely to have clinched playoff spots by the time they meet. But, their positions could improve depending how well they play down the stretch. Denver has performed better ever since George Karl took over as coach in mid season. Memphis has also played well since struggling at the start of the season, which ultimately led to ex-coach Hubie Brown stepping down. Denver has won all three meetings, although the last two were each decided by just three points. The Nuggets are likely to be solid favorites. They have shown an ability to cover as favorites in recent weeks. DENVER.

Kings at Suns (Sat): This should certainly be an entertaining game. Both love to run the court and force tempo. In the first two meetings (each won by the visitor) 224 and 248 total points were scored and neither went into overtime. Both teams should want to win, with Phoenix likely still in a race for the top Western seed and the Kings looking to secure No. 5. We may see the highest total posted in a game this season (229½). Phoenix should be the very solid favorite but sometimes you must go with the obvious. OVER.

76ers at Nets (Sun): Philadelphia has been battling injuries in recent weeks to both Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, while the Nets have gotten healthy. Jason Kidd and Vince Carter have led the Nets resurgence and are building momentum for next season. New Jersey won the last two meetings after the 76ers won the first matchup back in November when Kidd was out. Look for New Jersey’s strong end of season run to continue. NETS.

Last week: 3-0. Season: 34-33