For NBA openers, it’s about momentum

Apr 19, 2005 7:47 AM

All but 30 of more than 1200 regular season NBA games have been played as we go to press on Monday. While all but two of the 16 playoff participants have been decided, there are still a number of items to be determined over the final three days of regular season play.

The top overall seed remains controlled by the Phoenix Suns, who are one win away from clinching the NBA’s best record just one season after only 29 games. After more than doubling last season’s win total, the Suns are likely to finish with the best NBA regular season record since the 1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers went 67-15 en route to the first of their three successive world titles.

San Antonio has an outside shot at catching the Suns on the strength of a more favorable closing schedule. A home win Monday night against red hot Denver would have wrapped up the top seed for Phoenix.

Seattle will be seeded third and Dallas fourth, giving the Supersonics and Mavericks home court advantage along with Phoenix and San Antonio for the first round series, which for the past few years has been best of seven games. After the opening round, the team with the better record gets the home court advantage regardless of the seedings.

Memphis finally secured the eighth seed Sunday when Minnesota was blown out at home by Seattle. The teams seeded five, six and seven have been determined but their seeding remains in doubt. Houston and Sacramento begin the week with identical records, one game better than Denver. All three teams have a pair of games remaining.

Denver has been the hottest of the trio, winning 10 in a row before losing badly at Houston over the weekend. The Rockets and Kings have also played winning basketball over the season’s final few weeks as well.

Miami and Detroit are seeded 1-2 in the East with Boston seeded third after wrapping up the Atlantic Division title Sunday. Chicago has a one game edge over Washington for the fourth seed and opening round home court advantage. After missing the playoffs the past six seasons the young Bulls will be seeded no lower than fifth in their first return to postseason play following the Michael Jordan era.

Indiana is two games behind the Wizards in the sixth slot with Philadelphia seeded seventh and New Jersey edging out Cleveland for the final Eastern seed on the basis of tiebreakers, even though the Nets and Cavs have identical records starting the week.

Momentum is always a key factor when assessing how the Playoffs might unfold, especially when it comes to forecasting upsets. Several playoff teams this season began the season extremely hot but have cooled since the All Star break. Other teams struggled early before gaining their momentum over the second half of the season. And then some teams (notably San Antonio and Phoenix) have played outstanding basketball consistently from the start of the season.

Looking over the past 30 games played one team has separated itself from the balance of the playoff teams by going 25-5 over roughly the past two months. George Karl has made a huge difference since taking over as head coach in midseason and the Nuggets are a talented and deep team. They likely match up against San Antonio in the opening round. Watch out for Denver, if able to pull off the huge upset in that series.

After Denver, the next hottest teams over the past 30 games have been Phoenix, Dallas and Detroit — each winners of 22 games. Miami (21), San Antonio (20), Houston (20) and Boston (20) are the only other teams able to win at least two thirds of their last 30 contests. Memphis and Washington are just 15-15 over this stretch. Should Cleveland fall short in making the playoffs, its 10-20 record entering the final few days is the explanation.

The playoffs begin this weekend with a quartet of games on both Saturday and Sunday with all teams seeing action.

For many years the "zig zag" theory, popularized by The Gold Sheet, has been a simple yet very effective way of betting the NBA playoffs. This theory suggests that you back the straight up loser of a game in its next outing. Thus the theory would have no plays on the opening games of the upcoming series, but your Game 2 plays would be on whichever teams lose that opening game.

Keep in mind that the better team usually has the home court advantage and will be favored to win the opening contest. More often than not, the play in Game 2 will be on the road underdog.

Of the eight series that will begin this weekend it would not be a surprise if we see three road teams win their opening games, making the zig zag in Game 2 on home favorites looking to avoid dropping both home contests.

Miami and Detroit have been the class of the East all season. Detroit should have little problem getting past its first round opponent, but Miami could get a tussle if they facing New Jersey. The Nets have become revitalized since acquiring Vince Carter and he has teamed well with Jason Kidd. Richard Jefferson has been out virtually all season but might be able to return for the playoffs.

With Shaquille O’Neal and Dywane Wade nursing injuries as the regular season winds down, the Nets might shock Miami with their playoff experience of the past several seasons. The key would be Jefferson’s return. Without him, the Nets just don’t match up. Miami won a pair of games by double digits against New Jersey since early March.

Indiana is an intriguing team given that they have played most of the season without star Ron Artest and have had Jermaine O’Neal for only part of the time. They could make things tough for Boston if that’s who they draw in the opening round. The intriguing matchup would be against the Pistons. The Pacers and Pistons split four games this season.

A series between Chicago and Washington is the most likely to go the full seven. Both teams have bright prospects for the future, but neither is likely to get beyond the first round.

In the West, Phoenix should handle Memphis easily. San Antonio could be vulnerable against Denver. Tim Duncan has battled nagging injuries since the All Star break and Denver is playing with great confidence. Seattle is the most vulnerable of the top four seeds.

The return to health of several key players, most importantly Rashard Lewis, does give the Sonics the nucleus of the team that started the season so strongly. Dallas is a very dangerous team and perhaps the most legitimate other than the top two seeds in the West to make the NBA finals.

Avery Johnson took over from Don Nelson as coach late in the season and the Mavs have displayed much more defensive intensity since. Only Denver has won more often than Dallas over the past 30 games.

The playoffs shall be revisited next week once the matchups have not only been determined, but the first games of each series will have been played. Initial thoughts for the opening couple of games would be to favor Indiana and New Jersey in the East as underdogs in Game 1 and to prefer a Seattle/Denver matchup to produce high scoring games that go "over" the Total. Phoenix would be preferred over Memphis in Game 1 if favored by no more than 7.

Last week: 2-1
Regular season: 36-34