As Dallas wins, Spurs lurk

Mar 13, 2007 6:56 AM

Just over a month remains in the NBA regular season with much to be decided as the playoffs loom ahead.

Although college basketball will draw most of the headlines over the next few weeks, the pros are playing to make the playoffs or to improve their seeding for a run to the NBA title that extends from mid April through mid June.

Dallas remains the team to beat and their destruction of the Lakers this past Sunday (a very rare win for the Mavs in Los Angeles) extended the winning streak to 17 in a row. The Mavs lead Phoenix for the top overall seed by 4½ games. Dallas and Phoenix have shown they are the teams to beat this season, but watch out for the very experienced San Antonio Spurs.

In most seasons a 45-18 record would be contending for the league’s best mark, but the Spurs are a full eight games behind division leading Dallas. Yet San Antonio is playing championship level basketball, having won 12 straight games starting the week. Given their multiple titles within the past decade, it would be foolish to dismiss the Spurs despite the great play of their two chief rivals.

One of the hottest teams in the NBA going largely unnoticed due to poor play much of the season is Philadelphia. The 76ers are within range of making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference and start this week riding a 7-game winning streak. The Sixers are just four behind New York for the final playoff berth with Orlando and New Jersey in between but fading.

The Knicks have also played well of late, already exceeding last season’s win total for coach Isiah Thomas. The Sixers should continue to play well as they transition from the Allen Iverson and Chris Webber look, developing more of their younger players. Philly will be attractively priced down the stretch and should provide good wagering value even should (as is likely) its playoff bid fall short.

The NBA has been unusually streaky this season in terms of wins and losses. As this week begins, there are five teams on winning streaks of six games or more. Another three teams begin the week having lost six games or more. Pay attention to these streaks and try to avoid the temptation to guess exactly when a streak will end.

It can be dangerous to your bankroll!

By the same token, don’t just ride a streak blindly. Linesmakers will make you pay by charging you and extra point or two in the line to back or buck a streak. Those are general guidelines and you can consider taking points with an underdog on a winning streak — such as Philadelphia. At this time of the season, such teams are playing with renewed confidence and enthusiasm. Opponents may often be feeling the grind of what has already been a long season.

UCLA to win it all

Don’t expect all four No. 1 seeds to advance to the Final Four. It’s never happened. Florida and UCLA appear the most likely to make it to Atlanta with Georgetown a legitimate second seed to advance that far. The South region is most likely to produce a ”˜dark horse’ Fnal Four team. Memphis, Texas A&M and Louisville are the primary contenders.

If form holds in the first round, look for the winner of a second round match between Louisville and Texas A&M to make it to the national semifinals. The choice here is Louisville.

In the end, look for UCLA to come through at odds of 7 or 8/1. The Bruins are worth a play to add to their impressive collection of national titles.

Here’s a look at three NBA games this weekend.

Pistons at Suns (Fri): This is the first of two straight games for the Pistons against teams they may well meet in the NBA Finals. In their only other meeting on New Year’s Eve, Phoenix won in Detroit 108-101 as a 6-point road favorite. That suggests the Suns could be close to double digit favorites. Both teams have played very well over the past two months, have excellent starting lineups and solid depth.

The Suns will force an up-tempo pace and the Pistons have the players to keep up. Both teams are aware that this may be a preview of the Finals so we actually might see enough half court offense at times to keep this game lower scoring than might otherwise be the case. Detroit is playing with the revenge motive and, considering the points might be generous, have enough to stay within the number. PISTONS.

Jazz at Cavaliers (Sat): Both teams are considered contenders in their respective conferences. Cleveland has a far better chance of going deeper in the playoffs than does Utah. When the teams met in Utah on Valentine’s Day the Jazz eked out a 1-point win. Cleveland is rested for several days, whereas Utah played in Philadelphia on Friday night.

LeBron James continues to emerge as a force in the NBA. In recent games he has started to make the plays at the end, answering some critics. Quietly, the Cavs have one of the league’s best home records at 24-8. They are in a favorable scheduling spot and showed a month ago they can compete on even terms with the Jazz. CAVS.

Mavs at Pistons (Sun): This is Detroit’s second straight game against a potential Finals foe after playing in Phoenix Friday night. The Pistons won the only other meeting this season 92-82 in Dallas. Under coach Avery Johnson, Dallas has developed a presence at the defensive end of the court. Both teams are well balanced and boast depth.

Dallas has been a remarkable 22-6 on the road this season, far better than Detroit’s rather mediocre 19-12 record at home. Since this might be a preview of the NBA Finals we may be treated to an early dose of playoff intensity. That usually means a greater effort on defense and more deliberate offense. Hence, low scores. UNDER.