NBA Finals rematch:
It’s just Mav-alous

Jan 16, 2007 5:49 AM

As the NBA approaches the midpoint of the regular season and next month’s All Star game in Las Vegas, the various Division and Conference races are taking shape.

The balance of power remains in the Western Conference and the only two teams yet to lose double digit games — Dallas and Phoenix — lay claim to ever widening division leads as each seeks the league’s top overall playoff seed.

Phoenix is 28-8 and has a 4½ game cushion over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Pacific Division. After being a very competitive division last season, none of the other three teams in the Pacific have winning records. Both Sacramento and the Los Angeles Clippers have been major disappointments this season and neither would be a playoff team this season based on the current standings.

Dallas has played and won three more games than Phoenix. Their 31-8 records have given them a 3½ game lead over San Antonio in the NBA Southwest. Last season it was Memphis that provided a limited challenge to the Big Two in the division. This season, Houston is that team and its 25-13 record is within just two games of the Spurs and good for holding the fifth seed in the West.

Utah continues to set the pace in the Northwest. The Jazz lead second place Minnesota by four with Denver just another game back and set for Carmelo Anthony’s return after serving a 15 game suspension. He is scheduled to return on Jan. 22. With Anthony teaming with recently acquired Allen Iverson, the Nuggets are the Wild Card in that division. Denver could move up from its current position as the 8 seed and challenge Utah for the division title. After a torrid 12-1 start, Utah has split its last 24 games.

In contrast to recent seasons, only the eight teams that would currently make the playoffs have winning records in the West. Of the remaining seven, Golden State (18-20) is closest to .500.

That record still betters the Eastern Conference profile. Only seven teams have winning records. Of those, only three are more than four games above break even. The Atlantic Division still has no team with a winning record. First place Toronto is 17-21. Even under the revised seeding rules in effect this season, the Raptors would still earn the 4 seed despite all other Eastern teams that would currently make the playoffs having better records!

The Central Division at least has some semblance of being a competitive, if not downright good. Four of the five teams have winning records with only last place Milwaukee failing to win half its games. At 16-20, the Bucks are contending with several key injuries and might just make a run at .500 once those players return. The division is paced by Cleveland and its 23-13 record, which leads the entire East. That record would have the Cavaliers seeded seventh in the West.

Detroit (21-14) also has a solid record in the Central, good enough for third seed in the East behind Southeast leading Orlando. The Magic (22-16) is actually 1½ games and a half worse than the Pistons.

Defending champion Miami is below .500 at 17-19. The Heat have played without Shaquille O’Neal since mid November since tearing knee cartilage. The good news for the Heat is that the Big Aristotle did start practicing last week and is likely to return to action in the foreseeable future. Shaq will assist Miami in securing a playoff spot and the chance to defend its title.

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

Pistons at Timberwolves (Fri): Detroit may have acquired home boy Chris Webber after Mister Time Out was released by Philadelphia. These teams last week in Detroit, so neither team will have quick turnaround revenge. Rather than focus on a side, the total is worth playing. Both teams have scored well recently. OVER.

Nuggets at Rockets (Sat): These teams met last Friday in Denver with Houston winning 90-86 as a short 3-point road favorite. The Nuggets are without Carmelo Anthony but other suspensions have ended and Steve Blake came over Milwaukee. Houston is still without Yao, yet has played well. Tracy McGrady is healthy and leads the offense. Through his first dozen games with Denver, Allen Iverson has averaged 27 points and seven assists. Denver will be a nice sized dog. NUGGETS.

Mavs at Heat (Sun): A rematch of last season’s NBA Finals. First meeting this season. Clearly the Mavericks will be intent about sending a message to Miami. Dallas has the better team, perhaps enough to being a slight road favorite. Miami may or may not have Shaq back in the lineup. His presence would only add to the value with Dallas. Recall on opening night Miami hosted Chicago and lost 108-66 — an early indication that the Heat would not be as strong this season. MAVS.