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NBA near midway point

Feb 6, 2001 5:55 AM

The NBA is nearing the All-Star break, the season’s figurative halfway point. This gives teams a much-needed several-day break when coaches can plan strategies for the rest of the season and the run for the playoffs.

Sports books around town this weekend will treat you to a scaled-down version of the Super Bowl when it comes to wagering on the NBA All-Star game. The number of propositions available will be considerably less than on Super Sunday, but no less creative at some books.

With a rather limited college basketball schedule available, winter Sundays are generally reserved for the NBA, once football is over. Hence, the books will try to make up for the absence of games this week with different ways of playing the All-Star game — aside from just the traditional Side and Total wagers.

Little has changed this past week. Philadelphia still has the NBA’s best record, slightly ahead of Portland and Sacramento. The 76ers have lost back-to-back games. In Eastern Conference contenders, Philadelphia is the clear-cut favorite, based largely on ability to win on the road. It has won 21 of 26 road games, far and away the best road mark in the league and considerably better than their 14-7 home record.

Only Miami and New York have winning road records among Eastern Conference teams besides the 76ers. These three are the only Eastern teams with winning records against Western Conference teams. The current odds to win the NBA championship have Philadelphia 6-1, New York 6-1 and Miami 15-1.

The most significant development in the East this past week has been the play of the Boston Celtics. The coaching change from Rick Pitino to Jim O’Brien fueled the surge. The Celtics won eight of their last 11 games to pull into a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot. Keep in mind, however, that at 21-16 Boston would trail 11 teams in the West. Nevertheless, both Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker have been consistent performers.

Among the rest in the East, only Milwaukee can be considered a legitimate contender. The Bucks overcame a terrible start to post a 28-17 record and lead the Central Division by five games over Charlotte. In fact, they have the second best record in the East. Given their strong playoff run last season, the Bucks might challenge the three Atlantic Division contenders, despite some deficiencies up front.

Ten teams are playing better than .500 ball. The West has the hottest team in Minnesota having won 10 in a row.

Sacramento and Portland are battling for both the Pacific Division lead and the best record in the West. They’re among seven teams playing better than .600 ball With just over two months left in the regular season, the playoff chase in the West will be the most exciting (and hopefully entertaining) in years with seedings as well as playoff spots much in doubt.

The top three choices to win the NBA championship are from the West: the Lakers at 9-5, Portland 5-2, San Antonio 4-1. Surging Minnesota is 15-1; a much-improved Dallas, 20-1. Sacramento, 14-1, continues to play well. The Kings’ playoff experience the past two seasons might serve them well, but those odds seem unattractive considering the overall strength of the conference.

The old men of Utah seem recovered from their lethargy of a month ago. The Jazz are battling San Antonio, Minnesota and Dallas for the top spot in the Midwest Division. Given the closeness of the teams in the West, no team has the edge in the battle for the West’s No. 1 seed. Unlike the East, where Philadelphia leads second-best New York and Milwaukee by 5½ games, seven Western teams are separated by just 3½ games.

At press time, there’s great uncertainty surrounding which players will participate in the All-Star game. This makes forecasting hazardous, at best. Over four months of the virtually daily grind, including training camp, makes the All-Star break a welcome respite from the rigors of competition. Many marquee players often seek to excuse themselves from the festivities. Nagging injuries are the most frequent reason players such as Vince Carter, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson may elect to miss the game.

Defense is rarely played during the All-Star game. That resulted in some high scores over the past decade. The linesmaker has adjusted by regularly posting Over/Unders in the 250-260 point range.

The run-and-gun pace is attractive especially to younger fans. This season should be no different. Keep an eye on the two teams’ rosters, paying attention to which stars will not attend. The more big men absent, the better the chance for a higher-scoring game. Likewise with the number of three-point shooters.

The best guess here is that the game will feature between 245 and 260 points. As with all "exhibition" games, never approach this game looking to make a serious wager. Have some fun, play the most appealing props.