Trio of games for the holidays

Dec 19, 2000 7:46 AM

The holiday season is here and the NBA will be inactive on Sunday, Christmas Eve, opting to begin the weekend with 22 games over Friday and Saturday.

Several teams wrap up extended road trips and are likely to be more focused on the upcoming festivities than in playing all out in those final road games before the holidays. A number of teams that struggled early in the season have played better of late, including Miami, Milwaukee and Portland. Each had won seven of ten games entering this week.

Division leaders continue to be Philadelphia, Cleveland, Utah and Sacramento, although only the 76ers enjoy a lead of more than two games. Sacramento and Cleveland cling to just half-game leads over Portland and Charlotte, respectively. The Western Conference continues to be clearly stronger than the East with ten teams playing better than .500 basketball out west, with just half that number posting winning records in the east. In fact, Seattle, with the tenth best record in the west, would be tied for fifth in the east. And San Antonio, with the West’s eighth best record, would be the No. 4 seed in the East.

Here’s a look at a trio of interesting matchups before the Christmas break.

New York at Philadelphia (Friday): The top two teams in the Atlantic Division meet for the second time this season. Philly routed the Knicks 101-72 on opening night in New York. After starting the season 10-0, the 76ers have gone just 8-6 since, clearly feeling the loss of Eric Snow, who provided great help to Allen Iverson in the back court. The Knicks struggle on offense, scoring just 68 and 58 points last week in losses to Toronto and Utah. This game should also be low scoring, with an Over/under line around 175. Philadelphia has the front court edge, which should limit New York’s second chances. The preference is to lay the couple of buckets with Philadelphia. The 76ers should get the win by from 7 to 9 points despite the Knicks’ strong motivation for revenge.

Cleveland at Miami (Friday): About a month ago, upstart Cleveland swept a back-to-back series against Miami, signaling that the Cavs were a team on the improve and the Heat might struggle more than expected without C Alonzo Mourning. Since those games, Cleveland has continued its fine play. They’re 15-7 using a workmanlike roster without any superstars. Miami coach Pat Riley suffered his first ever losing November, but the Heat have inched above .500 with their newly acquired talent starting to mesh. Not many regular season games have significance attached to them, but this is one such contest. Miami will be interested in sending a message to the Cavs that Cleveland will not dominate the Heat in their two remaining meetings this season. (They’ll meet again in early March). Expect Miami to be well prepared for this game. Look for a low scoring game where the Heat prevails by from 10-14 points.

Utah at Minnesota (Saturday): Utah concludes a six-game road trip over nine days with the final game of a third straight back-to-back night set of games. The Jazz had struggled at home just before the road trip with a pair of losses to San Antonio and Milwaukee, and lost the first two games in New York and Cleveland. They played at Indiana last night and should be fatigued and looking forward to returning home for the holidays. Minnesota has played well of late and hosted Charlotte last night as they began a six-game home stand that stretches in January. Minnesota’s youth and relative freshness should be enough to overcome a tired Utah in the fourth quarter. If not laying more than 4 points, the look here is to Minnesota in a low scoring game they’re projected to win by 7 to 9 points.