NBA postseason
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settled in East

Apr 11, 2006 7:38 AM

Barely a week remains in the NBA regular season with the final night of play occurring next Wednesday, April 19.

Most teams have about a half dozen games remaining with many playoff berths still to be claimed. Similarly, most of the seeds have yet to be determined with most games over the next week having significant implications.

The top five in the East seem fairly certain with Detroit, Miami, New Jersey, Cleveland and Washington holding down those seeds in that order. New Jersey has a chance to overtake Miami for No. 2, trailing the Heat by two games in the loss column. Neither faces a winning team the rest of the way and figure to be favored in each of their remaining games.

Washington has a 2½-game lead over Milwaukee for the fifth seed. The Bucks are one of five teams separated by 1½ games or less for the remaining three seeds. Indiana is a half game behind Milwaukee in seventh position. Chicago and Philadelphia are tied for the eighth slot, a game behind the Pacers. It is quite possible that half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff field will have losing records.

Things are much less settled in the West, where San Antonio has a slim one game lead over Dallas for both the top seed and the Southwest Division title. One of these teams will be seeded first and the other fourth, setting up an almost certain second round matchup between the two. Phoenix will be the second seed and Denver third, perhaps having officially wrapped up the Northwest Division title by the time you finish this column.

The bottom half of the Western bracket remains in doubt. The Los Angeles Clippers hold a slim half-game lead over Memphis for the fifth seed. It is common knowledge being seeded sixth is better than fifth. At No. 5, the opponent figures to be either Dallas or San Antonio. At No. 6, it’s Denver. Both Memphis and the Clippers have better records than the Nuggets.

Sacramento and the Los Angeles Lakers are tied for the final two playoff slots, owning a seemingly comfortable three game edge over Utah and New Orleans. The Jazz and Hornets are tied with six left, including a game against each other this Friday.

Handicapping becomes even more hazardous during the final few weeks of the regular season when many games have no implication. As teams are eliminated and play out the string, often benchwarmers are given added playing time as a ”˜reward’ for playing hard in practice.

Similarly, depending on the coach and the franchise, playing time may be given in order for players to achieve certain contract incentives and build good will for next season. Eliminated teams playing on the road often not give their most spirited effort, especially in the second of back-to-back games. The nagging injuries of a grueling six month season have taken their toll and with nothing in sight except a summer of relaxation and recovery.

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

Jazz at Hornets (Fri): This game in Oklahoma City is virtually an elimination affair. Utah has won two of three earlier meetings, including a one sided blowout win at home two weeks ago. New Orleans has shown dramatic improvement over last season, but played its best basketball in the first half of the year before injuries and fatigue began taking a toll. Utah is finally healthy and the more talented team with a greater variety of options. This should be a competitively priced game. UTAH.

Sixers at Magic (Sat): It might be too late, but the Magic are positioning themselves for a run next season. The 76ers have let several opportunities to enhance their playoff prospects slip away, including some losses at home when favored. Orlando begins the week on an 8-2 run and continues to play hard. ORLANDO.

Suns at Lakers (Sun): Phoenix has played barely average basketball since wrapping up the Pacific Division title. The Suns might face the Lakers in the opening round of the playoffs. The Lakers will finish seventh or eighth depending on how they and Sacramento end the season. Phoenix has won and covered all three meetings, including an 11-point home win last week. Los Angeles has developed momentum during its stretch run, going 7-3 in its last 10 outings. Phoenix is likely to rest some players for the playoffs. The Lakers are in a ”˜must win’ mode and likely to give full effort as Kobe Bryant get his teammates more involved. LAKERS.

Last wk: 2-1. Season: 34-34-2