Dallas has locks, but
Suns open title talk

Apr 3, 2007 6:53 AM

Just two and a half weeks remain or less than 10 games before the regular season ends and the NBA playoffs begin.

Nine teams — four from the East, five out West — mathematically clinched postseason spots. Even after being routed by Phoenix last Sunday, Dallas has all but locked up the top seed throughout the playoffs.

The Mavericks lead the Suns by 6 with nine games remaining for each. The Suns have clinched the Pacific Division title and are on target to be seeded second, just ahead of San Antonio. Utah has clinched the Northwest title and all but locked in as the fourth seed. The Jazz will face fifth seeded Houston in the opening round.

The LA Lakers have a 2½ game lead for the sixth seed, with Denver and the LA Clippers currently holding the final two spots. Golden State and New Orleans/Oklahoma City are still alive for the final seedings.

The East remains up for grabs with Detroit leading Cleveland by 3½ games and Chicago by four in the Central Division and top spot in the conference. All three have clinched playoff spots.

Toronto is the fourth East team to clinch the playoffs but they have not yet secured the Atlantic title. The Raptors should earn that distinction by this weekend. Toronto has played excellent basketball over the past two months, especially at home. The Raptors could wind up seeded third, ahead of the Southeast Division winner — either Washington or Miami.

Both the Wizards and Heat have all but clinched playoff spots, but their prospects for going far differ greatly following the events from this past weekend. Washington’s Caron Butler was injured in Sunday’s win at Milwaukee and the timetable for his return remains uncertain. At the same time it was announced that Dwyane Wade has been cleared to return to practice with his Miami teammates. Wade was hopeful of playing in a game or two before the end of the regular season.

New Jersey and Orlando currently hold the final two playoff spots with Indiana needing to make up a 1½ games and the New York Knicks 2½ on the eighth-seeded Magic. As the regular season winds down the contending teams that can benefit from winning but do not necessarily need to win often to make for good plays.

These teams (Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio) use the final couple of weeks to tune up for the playoffs. This may be evidenced in better and more consistent play on the road since winning away from home becomes a key to advancing in the postseason.

After producing nearly an identical number of high and low scoring games for most of the year, the last week and a half of March showed a strong tendency to high scoring games. That’s a trend worth considering during the final 2½ weeks.

Through March 20, the unders held a slim 499-493 edge with 13 pushes. Since March 21 things have shifted dramatically with 58 overs to just 34 unders and 1 push.

Perhaps this is just a coincidence or a statistical quirk. Maybe it is an indication of late season fatigue on the part of defenses.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Cavs at Wizards (Fri): The situation is more favorable for the hosts as Cleveland entertained Miami on Thursday night. The teams split their only two meetings this season, but have not met since mid November. Cleveland has cooled since winning eight straight over the first three weeks in March, dropping 5-of-8 heading into this week. Washington has been basically a .500 team over the past month, although they have played more games on the road during this period.

Cleveland is led by LeBron James while the Wizards are paced by Gilbert Arenas, two of the league’s top scorers. Both teams are seeking to better their Playoff positions with Washington also battling Miami for the division title and guaranteed home court edge in the opening round. Cleveland is in the midst of a rough stretch of games, having to play at Detroit on Sunday. OVER.

Denver at LA Clippers (Sat): The teams begin the week separated by just a half game in the standings and holding down the final two Western playoff berths. Thus this is a key game, for the loser becomes more vulnerable to missing the playoffs. The winner advances its chances with one less game left to play. The teams have split their two meetings, but have not met since November.

That was before Denver acquired Allen Iverson to team with Carmelo Anthony, a trade that is just starting to have the hoped for positive impact. The Clippers have injury issues, the latest of which has sidelined Sam Cassell. Despite the perception that both teams like to play uptempo, their two earlier meetings went way below the posted total, by 17 and 23 points. With the Total likely to be in the range of the low 200s, there is still plenty of wiggle room. UNDER.

Cavs at Pistons (Sun): Interestingly, the road team has won and covered all three prior meetings this season. Detroit’s wins were both by double digits while Cleveland’s victory came in overtime in the most recent meeting in early March. Detroit’s divisional lead is slight and a win here goes far in their efforts to clinch the title and top seed in the east.

The Pistons have played very well of late and have been consistent all season. They are also well rested, having not played since Wednesday. Their outstanding starting five and quality bench give them huge edges over the weary Cavs. PISTONS.