Spurs, Mavs chasing No.1

Mar 14, 2006 5:27 AM

Just over one month remains in the NBA regular season and the battle for the playoffs remains just as competitive as ever at both the top of the standings and for the eighth and final seeds.

Detroit still holds the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a nine game lead over Miami but its grip on the top overall seed has been reduced to just 2½ games over both Dallas and San Antonio.

The Mavericks and Spurs are tied for the top Western seed with identical 49-14 records. Their 14 losses are just two more than the Pistons’ dozen. These three teams have nearly identical records going back nearly 50 games so the race for the best overall seed and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs remains undetermined. Phoenix is also in the mix.

Six Eastern teams are battling for four playoff spots with only 5½ games separating current fifth seed Indiana from tenth place Boston. In between these two are Washington, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Chicago. Currently No. 7, Philadelphia’s record is exactly .500 as the week begins, while eighth seeded Milwaukee is two games below break even.

Once again it appears that the teams that fail less frequently than the others will make the playoffs in the East and the balance of NBA power remains in the West.

In fact, where the Bucks would make the playoffs in the East, Utah’s identical record in the West is only good for tenth position. All eight teams currently in playoff positions have winning records, with ninth place New Orleans at 31-31.

Kudos to the Sacramento Kings, who have rallied to secure the No 8 seed. Clearly the trade to acquire Ron Artest has fueled their late season run. The Kings begin the week as winners of 14 of their last 20 games.

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

Kings at Pacers (Fri): The return of Ron Artest to the team he arguably "let down’ with his attitude problems earlier this season. It ultimately led to his trade to the Kings for shooter Peja Stojakovic. The Kings will be looking to avenge an embarrassing 25-point home loss to Indiana back in early January.

Artest will be pumped up to respond to the likely cascade of boos he’ll hear every time he touches the ball. Sacramento has played well over the past month and recently won four of five on an East Coast road trip. Both teams are battling to secure spots in the playoffs but Sacramento is playing with the greater need and more momentum. KINGS.

Heat at Bulls (Sat): The teams have met just once this season with Miami winning by three at this site in mid December, just failing to cover the four point line. Chicago was playing its best ball at that time, but has dropped off dramatically in the three months since. Miami had a sluggish start to their season, but has been in great form of late. A 10-game winning streak was ended over this past weekend, but the Heat are 20-11 in the last 40 games.

Compare that to Chicago’s 16-24 log and you’ll see the gap between these teams widening. Miami is likely to be a small road favorite. While this is often a spot to look towards the home underdog, the Bulls have not been playing well enough to suggest they can handle a relatively short price against one of the league’s better teams. That’s especially the case when Chicago has a losing record at home. HEAT.

Mavs at Nets (Sun): Dallas needs to keep winning to keep pace with San Antonio, while New Jersey looks to stay atop the Atlantic Division. The Nets begin the week 2½ games ahead of Philadelphia and are the only team in the division playing winning basketball. In the previous meeting this season, Dallas routed the Nets 110-77 at home as 8 point favorites. The Nets have not defeated Dallas since the 1999-2000 season.

The two losses per season to the Mavs included the stretch when New Jersey was the top team in the East. Dallas is a much improved defensive team this season and still owns a potent offense. Dallas should be a small road favorite and should continue to dominate. MAVS.

Last week: 3-0

Season: 28-29-1