Teams jockey for playoff spots

Jan 23, 2001 9:44 AM

The NBA has reached the mathematical halfway point of the season with half the league having played 41 or more games. The All-Star game marks the cosmetic halfway point. It’s still a few weeks away.

Rookie players begin hitting "the wall" as they begin to play more games than they ever played in their collegiate careers. But the daily grind also gets to more veteran players who increasingly will take nights off, especially on non-contending teams. So don’t be surprised by some strange results over the next month or so before players get their second wind, playoff drives begin in earnest, and players from the also-ran teams begin their contract drives.

Philadelphia (30-10) continues to set the pace in the NBA and controls the race for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Portland, and surprisingly Sacramento are setting the pace in the West and trail the 76ers by very slim margins for the best overall mark. Philly has also extended its lead in the Atlantic Division to 4 1/2 games over New York and 6 1/2 over surging Miami. The Heat has won seven of their last 10 games as the week begins, including an impressive win last Sunday over the Lakers. Keep an eye on the Heat over the second half of the season. Coach Pat Riley had been able to adjust to the season-long absence of Alonzo Mourning. The rest of the division is all below .500.

Milwaukee leads the Central Division. The Bucks have opened up a three-game lead over Charlotte, with Toronto another half game back. Indiana has closed to within a game of .500 and seems poised to make a run at the leaders. The Pacers’ advantage is in the backcourt with Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose, but deficiencies upfront suggest they may well end the season right around the break-even mark.

The Midwest Division race is shaping up as one of the most contentious in years. Five teams are within two games of the lead as the week begins. Utah and Dallas are virtually tied for the lead, with San Antonio 1½ games behind. Denver is just two games from the lead. Minnesota is just another half game back. With 11 of the 13 Western Conference teams playing .500 or better ball, it’s quite likely that one or more of these teams will miss the playoffs despite being so close to the division lead.

In the Pacific Division, Portland leads Sacramento by a game with both teams playing better than .700. The feuding Lakers have slipped to 2 1/2 games back as the week begins. The Shaq vs. Kobe conflict doesn’t appear close to being resolved. Coach Phil Jackson will have to summon all his diplomatic skills to prevent this from overtaking the team, destroying their chemistry, and making the Lakers an early playoff casualty — their sometime fate prior to last season. Phoenix is playing .600, but will likely face the rest of the season without Penny Hardaway. Jason Kidd’s personal troubles are a distraction. The Suns have played their best ball during the first half. Keep an eye on Phoenix over the next couple of weeks. The Suns may be worth a look at playing against when favored.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Detroit at Philadelphia (Friday) — Though out of playoff contention, Detroit has the NBA’s leading scorer, Jerry Stackhouse. Philadelphia has the best record in the league and the league’s No. 4 scorer, Allen Iverson. That’s what makes this matchup potentially exciting and almost certainly entertaining. Iverson clearly has the better supporting cast, but much credit must also be given to 76ers coach Larry Brown. He’s been able to overcome injuries (most notably to PG Eric Snow) without his team suffering much, if any, decline in play.

Philly is established as the clear favorite to represent the East in the NBA finals. Philadelphia’s front court of Theo Ratliff, Tyrone Hill and George Lynch limit opponents’ second chance shots and key many a fast break. Detroit’s options are limited after Stackhouse and opposing teams are content to letting him get his points but concentrate on shutting down the rest of the Pistons. Joe Smith has had little impact. The rest of the roster is largely cast-off veterans.

Philly is likely to be a substantial favorite in this game, perhaps nine to 11 points, and would be worth backing. The matchup of Stackhouse (returning to face his former mates) against Iverson might make the OVER worth a look, provided the line is no higher than 190…

San Antonio at Utah (Saturday) — Both teams got off o strong starts in the season’s first two months, but have struggled since the calendar changed to 2001. Each has played about .500 over the past three weeks, but still battle for the lead in the Midwest Division. Age is starting to truly take its toll on Utah, although the Jazz are poised to make a bit of a run in coming weeks as Karl Malone’s recent efforts have been sharp. John Stockton is clearly showing age, but Donyell Marshall is starting to play a bigger role and has contributed nicely in scoring points and off the boards.

San Antonio has had trouble overcoming the injury to point guard Avery Johnson, reflected in the Spurs’ inconsistent play of late. The Spurs have won the first two games between the teams this season. The pair of low-scoring games produced total points of 165 and 174. Their edge is in the frontcourt with David Robinson and Tim Duncan. They should force Utah to rely more on outside shooting than the Jazz would like.

Utah has been merely mortal at home this season, winning just 12-of-19 games on a home court that dominated over the recent decade. Both teams are rested. Scheduling dynamics favor Utah, which wraps up an eight-game home stand that has seen them in comfortable surroundings for almost three weeks. The preference is to back UTAH in a low scoring game that should go UNDER the total.

LA Lakers at NY Knicks (Sunday) — This will essentially serve as the Super Bowl’s pregame show in more ways than one. A number of things in this (as well as in Sunday’s) lone other NBA game (Philadelphia at Indiana) will have a bearing on numerous Super Bowl propositions. For example, one such proposition will involve Shaquille O’Neal’s free throw percentage vs. Raven QB Trent Dilfer’s completion percentage. In recent seasons, some players may have guessed their performance was of greater interest than usual. Troubles on the Lakers involving Shaq and Kobe Bryant have thrust the defending NBA champions into the lead segment of most sports highlight shows on nights on which they play. But there’s another compelling aspect to this game.

The Knicks have played outstanding ball against teams from the much stronger Western Conference, winning about two of every three. They will be without Marcus Camby, who’s serving the final game of his five-game suspension. His absence suggests that Shaq will have his way in the post, as backup Kurt Thomas is weak defensively. But this is nothing new. Shaq dominates most teams he faces, but his poor ability from the free-throw line makes him a major liability in the final six minutes of close games.

The play is the Knicks, with a slight preference for the UNDER — provided the line is at least 185.