Boston could come strong early

Oct 31, 2006 6:13 AM

The 2006-07 NBA season begins under a cloud of sadness with the passing of the legendary Arnold "Red" Auerbach this past weekend.

Known for his signature lit cigar following his many victories as coach of the Boston Celtics, Auerbach had a profound influence over the NBA in his nearly six decades as coach or executive.

Boston has dedicated the coming season to his memory and his legacy and that might provide certain wagering opportunities should the Celtics perform as a halfway decent team.

The Miami Heat seek to defend their first ever NBA Title. Most preseason prognosticators call for the Heat to repeat their Eastern Conference Championship much as the prior season’s champs in most sports are often expected to repeat barring wholesale changes.

Chicago and Cleveland are teams on the uptick with the Bulls making a huge acquisition in the offseason by signing Big Ben Wallace from Detroit.

New Jersey returns a solid trio of Vince Carter, Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson and will attempt to win a fifth Atlantic Division title in six seasons. They should as its division remains perhaps the weakest in the league. Detroit and Indiana figure to slip a bit while Washington might show some modest improvement but not enough to be a serious challenger for the conference championship.

The balance of power remains in the West. Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio begin the season as the class of the West, but the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento also field strong lineups.

The East should come down to Chicago, Cleveland, Miami and New Jersey battling for a spot in the NBA Finals. The forecast here is for New Jersey to get by Cleveland in the East finals.

The West figures to be tightly contested.

The call is for Dallas, Phoenix, Sacramento and San Antonio to comprise the West’s edition of the Final Four. Phoenix is our choice to make it to the NBA Finals and fall to New Jersey in 6.

Here’s a look at three games to be played over the opening weekend.

Cavaliers at Spurs (Fri): Tim Duncan still is the centerpiece of the Spurs although age and injuries have taken their toll in recent seasons. Strong support comes from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Cleveland’s LeBron James is one of the best and his supporting cast should provide even more help. The Spurs are just better defensively and figure to set the pace. UNDER.

Suns at Clips (Sat): The Clips enjoyed their best season in recent memory last year and are a team on the rise. Phoenix played most of last season without emerging superstar Amare Stoudemire, whose return means the Suns will have a very deep bench. Both teams are content to run the court and place only token emphasis on defense. Expect a high scoring game between a pair entertaining teams to watch. OVER.

Heat at Sixers (Sun): Dwyane Wade versus Allen Iverson. Those are the marquee players with Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal and Philly’s Chris Webber playing supporting roles. Miami won all three games last season, winning each by at least 7 after the teams split four games the prior season. The home team is 6-1 in the last seven matchups. Miami should be a slight favorite off of last season’s success. SIXERS.