Still ‘Mav-elous’

Mar 27, 2007 7:41 AM

Just a few weeks remain in the regular season with teams having about a dozen or so opportunities to determine their postseason paths.

It’s all but mathematically certain that Dallas will enter the playoffs as the team to beat with the NBA’s best overall record. The Mavericks have a six game edge over Phoenix for that honor, but making it through the West and into the NBA Finals will by no means be an easy task.

Phoenix and San Antonio both will be formidable foes as will both Utah and Houston. All five are good bets to finish the regular season with more than 50 wins, an accomplishment current East leader Detroit will be hard pressed to match. As well as the Pistons have played, they are just 44-25.

Success in the playoffs is often related to the ability to win on the road. Only six teams have winning records away from home this season and a seventh, Denver, is at .500 (16-16).

Detroit is the only team in the East with a winning road record. The Pistons have actually performed better on the road (24-12) than at home (30-13), a surprise considering how late it is in the season. At 15-18, Cleveland has the East’s second best road record and that huge difference is why Detroit is the solid favorite to unseat Miami as East champion.

The Heat are battling Washington for the Southeast title and will be seeded anywhere from 3-to-6. With the return from injury of Dwyane Wade uncertain at best, Miami’s prospects for doing much beyond the first round appear severely limited.

New Jersey, Orlando, Indiana and New York are contending for the final two spots in the East. Whichever two are successful should have short playoff runs. Each is at least six games under .500 as the week begins. New Jersey would be the best bet to pull off an opening round upset, despite being a solid underdog in the opening round.

Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio all have outstanding road records which should make for a very interesting postseason in the West. San Antonio has NBA Title experience. Phoenix has the potent scoring punch. Dallas is the defending conference champion. All three have won more than two thirds of their road games with Dallas leading the way at a remarkable 27-7.

The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, whose consecutive game streak of scoring at least 50 points was snapped at four this past Sunday. Although the Lakers’ chances are remote for a prolonged playoff run or a first round win, Kobe should put up some impressive numbers as long as that run lasts. Currently seeded sixth, the Lakers would face San Antonio in the opening round. LA is 2-1 against the Spurs.

Several teams long out of contention continue to play well and cover pointspreads as the season winds down. Portland has covered its last four games. Philadelphia has covered 6-of-9. Boston covered 13-of -17 before dropping its last three pointspread decisions. Bad teams often make good bets late in the season. They play loose with nothing to lose and get generous points against often mediocre teams faced with "must win" situations involving pressure.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Nuggets at Suns (Fri): The teams have split their first two meetings this season although Denver has cashed the pointspread tickets in both games. Their most recent meeting two weeks ago resulted in a Denver blowout as the Nuggets won by 24. Based on current standings these teams would meet in the first round of the playoffs.

Denver has played its best basketball of the season over the last month, winning 9-of-14 and covering in 7-of-8 heading to this week. Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson have become more comfortable with one another and the Nuggets will be compliant with the Phoenix up tempo pace. OVER.

Cavs at Bulls (Sat): After being swept in their four game season series last season and losing this season’s first meeting, Chicago has won the last two games against Cleveland. Both teams have played well in recent weeks and each can challenge Detroit for the Eastern Conference title barring injuries. Neither team played Friday night so both should be sharp for this key late season contest.

Both teams have improved defensively over the second half of the season and that should be the theme. Both teams are within four games of the Pistons for the top seed in the East should Detroit undergo a late season slide. Their most recent meeting in late February, after having not met in two months, resulted in just 162 total points being scored in a 6-point Chicago win. UNDER.

Heat at Pistons (Sun): Detroit won both earlier meetings, once at home and once on the road. Miami has adapted to life without D-Wade, as Shaquille O’Neal has assumed more of the burden. At his best, Shaq is still the most dominating force in the game. The teams have now played 10 consecutive under contests and there is little reason to doubt that this game will be anything other than a low scoring contest.

However, the linesmaker is likely to make a significant adjustment given that history. Detroit is also going to be a solid favorite, especially with Wade out for the Heat. The Pistons have also been nursing some injuries in recent weeks. Don’t be surprised if Miami coach Pat Riley places significance on this late season contest and we get the maximum effort. HEAT.