Sixers stand up to West teams

Jan 17, 2001 2:59 AM

The NBA is near the mid-point of the regular season and the standings are starting to take on meaning. Philadelphia continues to have the best record in the league, 27-9, and has opened up a four-game lead over New York in the Atlantic Division. The 76ers have the largest lead of any division leader, and two less losses than the league’s second best team, Portland.

Philly and the Blazers split their season series, each winning on the road. If the Eastern Conference is going to win the NBA title this season (and right now the Western Conference is heavily favored to produce the champ), the Sixers appear to be the logical choice. Having the NBA’s best record and home court advantage in the finals will be much more important for an eastern team than a western one.

The Central Division race shapes up as a two-team affair. Charlotte and Milwaukee meet later this week. (We’ll preview that game shortly). After a strong early start, Cleveland has faltered badly as they continue to be plagued by injuries. It’s hard to recall any team more beset by injuries every season.

In the Midwest Division, four teams are within three games of the lead. San Antonio has the slimmest of leads over Utah. Dallas is a game behind. Denver is just three back. Of the four, only Utah and Dallas have winning records on the road. Utah’s recent slump, so early in the season, suggests the youth of Dallas may prevail and the Mavericks will be the team to ultimately challenge the Spurs for the division title. Denver is improving. With two All-Star quality players (Antonio McDyess and Nick van Exel), the Nuggets appear to have a solid upside.

Portland is setting the pace in the Pacific Division, leading Sacramento by a game and a half and the Lakers by two and a half. All three teams are winning at least two of every three games. Each has a better record than Midwest-leading San Antonio. Fourth place Phoenix, just four games back, is playing better than .600 ball, making this division the strongest and deepest in the league.

The balance of power remains strongly in the Western Conference, with 11 of 14 teams playing at least .500 ball. Just six of 15 Eastern Conference teams can make that claim. The league’s three worst teams (Chicago, New Jersey and Washington) all play in the East, making it all the more surprising that more teams in the East don’t have better records with their frequent opportunities to feast on those three teams and their combined record of 24-87. Ugh!

Here’s a look at three interesting matchups this weekend.

Milwaukee at Charlotte (Friday) ”” After struggling in the first month or so of the season, Milwaukee has played very well. Entering this week, the Bucks had won 15 of their last 20 games to pull within a half game of Charlotte for the Central Division lead. The Hornets enter this battle for first place with nagging injuries to Elden Campbell and Jamal Mashburn. Derreck Coleman’s return has had an unsettling influence in the locker room, but that should dissipate shortly as Coleman accepts his role and fits back into coach Paul Silas’ scheme.

The Bucks get solid play from their backcourt duo of Sam Cassell and Ray Allen. Glenn Robinson is still a force up front. As Charlotte gets its injured players back to full health, expect them to ultimately take control of the division.

This game figures to be played at a fast pace. Milwaukee has been much weaker defensively on the road than at home.

Charlotte’s backcourt of David Wesley and Baron Davis found a good working rhythm. The recommendation for this game is on the OVER, with Charlotte getting a win by from 4 to 7 points.

Sacramento at Portland (Saturday) ”” Sacramento ended a ten-game pointspread losing streak with a win at Houston last Saturday. That streak almost offset a 13-game covering streak by the Kings earlier this season, further proof that results tend to cluster around the 50/50 average over a full season; and that NBA teams can be extremely streaky, with form showing marked cycles.

Despite that ATS losing streak, the Kings had played fairly well, failing to cover sizable lines but winning the game straight up. Portland is also in good current form. They had a ten-game straight-up winning streak end in New York last Saturday, but immediately won at Detroit the next night.

Portland has outstanding depth and has been getting good play from the entire roster. Rasheed Wallace will get strong support for league MVP if Portland wins the Pacific Division. Both teams are rested, so fans should be treated to a well-played game.

Sacramento has a more winnable road game in Seattle tomorrow, so if they fall too far behind the starters might be pulled early. Sacramento won the earlier meeting this season 79-75, but this game will be much higher scoring. The play is on the OVER, with Portland projected to win by from 8 to 11 points.

Miami at Los Angeles Lakers (Sunday) ”” Pat Riley returns to LA with Miami and the Heat have played much better in recent weeks. The Lakers have been in the headlines because of feuding between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers should come as a solid 6- to 8-point favorite. Miami’s deliberate pace might frustrate the Lakers, causing mistakes. The points should be attractive with Miami, in addition to the UNDER in a game the Lakers are projected to win by just 3 to 5 points.