The NBA season is already one-quarter complete. After 20 games or so, teams are beginning to show their true form. Injuries have been a significant factor for many teams, as is the case every season, so depth begins to become more of a handicapping factor as the season progresses. Its still too early to rely too much on depth, but the grind of road trips and back-to-back games is much more of a negative influence now than it was at the start of the season, when everybody was fresh.
As the week begins there are some teams unaccustomed to leading their divisions in recent seasons sitting atop the standings. In the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia and Cleveland are showing the way in the Atlantic and Central Divisions. Out West, Sacramento leads the Pacific Division while the familiar sight of Utah leads the Midwest.
The balance of power remains in the West, where nine teams are above .500, compared to just four such teams in the East.
Heres a look at some of this weekends more attractive match-ups.
Utah at New York (Friday)
Utah begins a six-game road trip marked by three sets of back-to-back games, their first such contests since late November. The Jazz figure to be at their best in this game. At 16-4, Utah is tied with Philadelphia for the leagues best record. Karl Malone shows no signs of slowing down. Their deep bench is a clear asset. New Yorks not as deep. The Knicks have been very inconsistent on offense. Utahs road record is actually better than the Knicks record at home. Look for Utah to take control physically in the second half and get a solid 6- to 8-point win.
Phoenix at San Antonio (Saturday)
Both teams got off to strong early starts, although both cooled over the past two weeks. San Antonios advantage is up front. The Suns have the edge on the perimeter. Phoenix also has more scoring options than the Spurs. Phoenix played last night, although they may not have been tested by hosting the Clippers. San Antonio last played on Thursday, hosting Denver. These teams just met on Wednesday in Phoenix, so this quick turnaround might favor the loser of Wednesdays game. But this will be both teams third game in four nights. Fatigue could be a factor. The preference will be for the UNDER, especially if the line is within 3 to 4 points of Wednesdays line.
Los Angeles Lakers at Toronto (Sunday)
The Lakers begin a weeklong four-game road trip and havent been in top form. Shaquille ONeal appears not to be in great shape. His inconsistent play seems to confirm this. Kobe Bryant is at the top of his game. The matchup against Torontos Vince Carter should be a delight to watch. Los Angeles is likely to be a solid favorite of perhaps as many as 6 points. Neither team has played since Friday night, but the Lakers had to travel cross-country. The early start time might be a disadvantage. Despite talent disadvantages, this is a good spot for Toronto. If we can get those half-dozen points, TORONTO is worth a play in a game that should be decided in the final minute of play.