East closing gap vs West

Feb 6, 2007 6:45 AM

With Indianapolis’ 29-17 victory over Chicago in Super Bowl XLI, the attention of the professional sports fan turns full time to both the NHL and the NBA.

The upcoming NBA All Star game is being held right here in Las Vegas, which will heighten the interest generated in the league over the next several weeks. The playoffs are still more than two months away, but it’s not too early to forecast with some degree of confidence which teams are title contenders.

The West remains clearly the better of the two Conferences, although the gap between winning teams and losing teams has narrowed. In the East only seven teams are above .500 starting the week, meaning that the eighth seeded team (Miami) would make the playoffs with a losing record.

At 22-25, the Heat have played much of the season without start center Shaquille O’Neal. Now Shaq is back, but whether he stays healthy the remainder of the season is an unknown. His absence has caused the future book price on Miami to drop to 15/1.

Should Shaq and Dwyane Wade avoid injury, the Heat will still be a force come playoff time.The current top seed, Detroit, is just 10 games over .500 at 28-18, a record that would have the Pistons tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the sixth seed in the West.

Interestingly there is only one more winning team in the West than in the East. The Los Angeles Clippers currently hold the final West playoff berth, just one game above .500. It’s at the top of the West, where the imbalance between conferences is most pronounced.

The top four teams in the West are a combined 139-52, an average of nearly 22 games above .500. Their combined record against East teams is 54-16, winning over 77 percent of such games. The top four seeds in the East are a combined 108-80, an average of just seven games above break even.

Toronto, one of the top four East seeds, leads the woeful Atlantic Division at 25-23. Still, the top four seeds are a combined 32-53 against Western teams. Substituting Cleveland for Toronto in this quartet increases the record against the West by a very small amount.

Future book odds at the Hilton, for example, have Western powers Dallas and Phoenix each at 3/1 to win it all. San Antonio is 5/1. Northwest Division leading Utah is priced at 20/1. The Jazz have beaten Phoenix in all three meetings, split two with Dallas and are 2-1 against San Antonio. Although Utah is just 19-16 since starting the season 12-1, its 6-3 record against the Suns, Mavericks and Spurs makes a case for 20/1 being an attractive price to win the Title if you like long odds.

No East team is priced lower than 12/1 to win the NBA Title, but five currently holding playoff seeds are priced at 7/1 or less to win that conference crown. Sixth seeded Indiana is 20/1 to win the East. The Pacers are a well coached unit that should show improvement over the remainder of the regular season after retooling their roster in that eight player trade with Golden State.

Orlando has struggled of late, but owns a winning record and No. 7 seed. The Magic are 25/1 to win the East title. There may be some excellent value in playing the Pacers to win the East, starting the week 1½ games behind Chicago for the third seed and 2½ behind Detroit for the Central lead and top overall seed in the East.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Rockets at Mavs (Fri): Houston has been a pleasant surprise this season after being one of the biggest disappointments last season. Prolonged injuries to starters Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady doomed early season success. Interestingly the Rockets were better on the road than at home, something that very few teams in the NBA can claim over the past quarter century. Even though Yao has missed over a month and McGrady several weeks, Houston has excelled at home with a 16-6 record. They also have a winning record on the road.

Dallas has the best record in the league since early December. The Mavericks continue to improve on defense under Avery Johnson and have shed the "run and gun" label that plagued them under former coach Don Nelson, now with Golden State. The home team has won and covered both meetings. The Mavs have been red hot of late, thus adding an extra point or two to the line. This makes the visiting Rockets an attractive take. HOUSTON.

Raptors at Pistons (Sat): Detroit has played well of late, going 7-3 in their past 10 games to take over the lead in the Central and lay claim to the top overall seed in the East. Toronto has won 8-of-10 in taking control of the weak Atlantic. All Star Chris Bosh is back on the court for the Raptors, but their winning ways go back more than a month. In fact, over their last 30 games, Toronto has a better record than Detroit (18-12 vs. 17-13). Yet because Toronto played so poorly for the first two months, its improvement has gone virtually unnoticed and uncommented upon in the media.

Interestingly both teams enter this contest following home games against the Lakers. This will be the teams’ first meeting of the season and Detroit, expectedly, will be favored. The Pistons won 3-of-4 last season but were 2-1-1 ATS. The lone straight up win came in their final meeting. TORONTO.

Spurs at Heat (Sun): The last two NBA champs meet for the second time this season. The Spurs won the earlier clash at home back in November by 20 points after having swept the two games last season. Both teams figure to be forces once again in this season’s playoffs although neither will be favored to advance to the NBA Finals. Dwyane Wade continues to lead the Heat attack. In most other season’s San Antonio’s 32-16 record would have them in the discussion as a leading Title contender.

Tim Duncan is enjoying another solid season for San Antonio, while teammates Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker provide a the trio of stars so often stated as being necessary to win a title — as the Spurs did two seasons ago. Their overall balance makes them clearly the better team and in what should be a competitively priced game. The Spurs are very capable of a solid win as their 16-8 road record will attest. S. ANTONIO.