The All Star break is less than a month a way and divisional races begin to attract the attention of coaches and fans. In the Eastern Conference Philadelphia continues to lead the Atlantic Division, winning three of every four games. New York and Miami have made moves over the past two weeks to stay within 3-5 games of the 76ers but distance themselves from the rest of the division. In the Central Division Charlotte and Milwaukee have overtaken Cleveland and based on their rosters should be the top two teams the rest of the way. Lowly Atlanta has played better of late but lost too much ground early to be much of a threat to make the Playoffs. But Hawks will spoil the Playoff chances of other teams as coach Lon Kruger has learned the NBA game in these months of coaching his first season.
The Western Conference continues to have the bulk of the strength in the NBA and the standings bear this out. Minnesota, currently the number 8 seed in the West, would be tied with Miami for the number 4 seed in the East. Indiana, at 15-19, currently holds the number 8 seed in the East. That record would find them trailing 11 of the 15 Western Conference teams.
San Antonio begins the week with a slim half game lead over surging Dallas in the Midwest Division with Utah, despite their recent slump, just a game out. Even fifth place Denver trails the Spurs by just three games. There could be a considerable shakeup of the teams in this division the rest of the way. In the Pacific Division Portland holds a one game lead over both Sacramento and the Lakers. Portland has overcome a rather lackluster beginning to their season and currently has the leagues second best record. The Blazers begin the week on a league high seven game winning streak.
Heres a look at three interesting matchups to be played this weekend.
Cleveland at L A Lakers (Friday) The Lakers have had five days to stew about their embarrassing home loss to the Clippers last Sunday and one can only imagine the spirited practices run by coach Phil Jackson in the intervening days. The Lakers have been lethargic over much of the past month and perhaps their 23 point loss to their cross town rival might stir some passion in the team. Cleveland has been beset by injuries, most recently the loss of Zydrunas Ilgauskas who had been instrumental in the Cavs strong early season start. But nagging injuries to other contributors have also taken their toll. The recent acquisition of Jimmy Jackson from Atlanta should also affect team chemistry in the short run as several players roles are revised. Cleveland is in the second game of an extended six game road trip lasting nearly two weeks. Despite having to likely lay low double digits, the Lakers are in a good spot to make this ugly. Look for big games from the Lakers Kobe Bryant and Shaquille Oneal and a 20-25 point win. The play is on the LOS ANGELES LAKERS.
San Antonio at Philadelphia (Saturday) Philadelphia has overcome a recent slump to play some very solid ball over the past two weeks. It started with a sweep of a three game road trip which included a rare win at Utah and continued with three straight home wins that has them on a six game winning streak as the week begins. San Antonio has moved into the lead in the Midwest Division and have been getting solid contributions from David Robinson and Tim Duncan. The supporting cast has played well. Philly seeks revenge for a 20 point road loss in late November and should be a very small favorite in this game. Both teams played last night and the Sixers are playing their fourth game in five nights. This game should be played at a deliberate pace that favors a play on the UNDER, Philadelphia coach Larry Brown is more likely to look upon this game as a challenge to his players to step up and given the play by Iverson, look for the 76ers to get a 6 to 8 point win.
Charlotte at Toronto (Sunday) Charlotte had been amongst the hottest teams in the league as they headed West just after Christmas. But following that 1-5 road trip the Hornets returned home for just a pair of midweek games before beginning a three game trip that ends tomorrow in Philadelphia. Toronto has slipped to a game below .500 as the week began. Vince Carter was banged up in last Sundays win over Seattle so check his status. Charlottes backcourt of David Wesley and Baron Davis have played well together and figure to only improve as they play more alongside one another. P J Brown and Jamal Mashburn provide a solid frontcourt. Veteran Charles Oakley and rookie Mo Peterson have provided support for Carter as Toronto reshapes their team following the offseason departure of Tracy McGrady. Both teams can run the court and this should be a high-scoring game. The recommendation is for the OVER.