Wade loss
burns Heat

Feb 27, 2007 6:31 AM

It’s almost time for the stretch run in the NBA with most teams having barely more than 15 games remaining in the regular season.

Injuries continue to play a major factor in making the playoffs or improving seedings. Miami’s Dwyane Wade suffered a major shoulder injury that could sideline him for the balance of the season. The injury could cost the defending champions a spot in the NBA playoffs.

The Heat are currently seeded seventh in the very weak Eastern Conference, but there may be enough talent on hand to at least hold on to a playoff berth. If Wade is not available for the playoffs, the Heat may well be a first round casualty.

Perhaps the most significant injury affecting a contending team in the Western Conference is the continued absence of Houston’s Yao Ming. Out since late last year his absence, has not caused the Rockets to crash and burn.

Getting great leadership from star Tracy McGrady, the Rockets continue to play excellent basketball and currently hold the fifth seed in the West. Their likely first round foe would be Utah, a team also dealing with persistent injuries and having played its best ball in the season’s opening month.

The trading deadline passed last week with little fanfare and no trades of significance. New Jersey was thought to be in serious negotiations with the LA Lakers to send multi-time All Star Jason Kidd back West, but that deal fell through. Vince Carter was also mentioned as a trade possibility, but he too remains in New Jersey.

The Nets are tied with Orlando for the eighth and final Eastern playoff spot. The loss of Richard Jefferson earlier this season greatly limits their chances to advance.

Detroit, on a 9-1 streak, is the hottest team in the East. The Pistons have widened their Eastern Conference lead to 4½ games over Cleveland and Washington. The recent signing of Chris Webber has added depth to the talented Pistons, who are the betting favorites to win the East at many Sports Books.

Dallas and Phoenix have distanced themselves from the rest of the Western Conference for the NBA’s best record and top overall seed. Dallas currently leads Phoenix by 3½ games. There is a five-game gap to third place San Antonio. Dallas has won its two meetings with the Suns and they will meet twice more before the regular season ends. Not surprisingly, the Suns and Mavs are co-favorites at many books to win the West and the NBA Title. The conference championship odds are less than 2/1 at a number of books.

Longshots to win the Title or Conference Championship? How about the Pistons at 12/1 to win the NBA Title or red hot Toronto to win the East at 14/1?

It’s harder to find a nicely priced team from the West, with the Mavs, Suns and Spurs so dominant. Perhaps a case can be made for Utah, which started 12-1 before playing .500 ball for much of the next three months. The Jazz have gone 8-2 of late and are led by an experienced head coach in Jerry Sloan.

The talent is there and, when fully healthy, Utah can play with its more elite foes. The Jazz are 3-0 against Phoenix, 1-1 against Dallas and 2-1 against San Antonio. At 10/1 odds to win the West, and 20/1 to win the NBA Title, the Jazz might be worth a look if desiring to make a future play. Just insist on double digit odds with a good team.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Hornets +8½ at Bulls (Fri):Chicago won the earlier meeting 111-108 in December. Chicago has only recently started to perform as expected, but has underachieved for much of the season. Currently seeded fifth in the East, the Bulls have a real shot at overtaking Cleveland for the three seed and home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The Hornets struggled for much of the season, especially when star G Chris Paul missed significant time due to injury.

Winners in 7-of-10 and 15-of-22, New Orleans is playing its best ball of the season and is seeded seventh in the West, despite still having an overall losing record. Chicago will be a solid favorite in this game but the Hornets play in the stronger Western Conference and are 11-10 SU this season against teams from the East. HORNETS.

Raptors +2 at Cavs: (Sat): Cleveland has won two of three games against Toronto this season, although the Raptors have covered twice. All three games were decided by 8 points or less. Their most recent meeting was last Wednesday and Cleveland overcame a late deficit to edge the Raptors 86-85. Toronto has been one of the hotter teams in the league over the past six weeks, winning 18-of-25. The basic improvement comes from the return of star Chris Bosh to the line.

Lebron James and the Cavs are currently seeded third in the East, but have been barely a .500 team for much of the past two months, winning 18-of-34. Toronto is playing with no rest, having hosted Milwaukee on Friday night, while Cleveland played two nights earlier in Dallas. The perception is that Cleveland is the far better team, but the facts are the teams begin the week separated by just one game in the standings. Cleveland likely comes favored by a couple of buckets. RAPTORS.

LA Lakers -1½ at Suns (Sun): Those who question whether or not Phoenix guard Steve Nash was deserving of back to back MVPs, and is in line for a third, should wonder no longer. After being sidelined during a recent, and rare, three game losing streak, Nash returned to lead the Suns to four straight wins entering this week. Phoenix has all but clinched the Pacific Division title and is still within reach of Dallas for the West’s top overall seed, trailing the Mavs by 3½.

The Lakers snapped their six game losing streak, a record for a Phil Jackson coached team. A pair of wins came over the weekend against two of the league’s weakest teams. The Lakers and Suns have not played since the opening night of the season when the LA pulled an upset at home as 8-point dogs. Fully healthy, Phoenix is clearly the more talented and complete team. Kobe Bryant will get his points for the Lakers, but the Suns outstanding trio of Nash, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire present a major challenge for the Lakers. SUNS.