NBA playoffs: West’s Fab Four
have direct path toward title

Apr 10, 2007 7:17 AM

It’s been a long haul, this 82-game NBA regular season, but it’s winding down. Playoffs are just around the corner.

This week it’s the best of the West, the conference that has won six of the last eight NBA titles.

Mavericks: Dallas has made a remarkable transformation under Coach Avery Johnson. AJ has gotten this group to play outstanding team defense, allowing 44.2 percent shooting by opponents (eighth in NBA) and 93 ppg (fourth). The offense averages 101 ppg, (eighth best), so this team has a deadly combination of offense and defense. Dallas has star power behind 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki (24.9 ppg, 9 rpg), a quick guard in Jason Terry (17 ppg), sparkplug Josh Howard and role players like center Erick Dampier and sixth-man Jerry Stackhouse.

The 26-year old Howard (19 ppg, 7 rpg) is a high-energy player at 6-7, who crashes the boards and is a tenacious defender. Dallas was never known for defense under Don Nelson, but Johnson has really placed a defensive thumbprint on this group. Dallas is 17-14 SU, 20-11 ATS its last 31 games as an underdog! The silver lining might be blowing the NBA Finals to Miami, which has this team on a mission. After starting 0-4 Dallas went 62-8!

Suns: Phoenix is certainly in better shape to make a run at the NBA title: A year ago they were without Amare Stoudamire. This season the 24-year old, 6-10 Stoudemire has been healthy, leading the Suns with 20 points and 9.7 boards per game. Steve Nash just turned 33 but doesn’t show it. Nash leads the break with 11.4 assists and over 18 ppg. Phoenix leads the NBA in scoring (110 ppg), shooting (49.7 percent), and three-pointers (over 40 percent).

The Suns run right at opponents, behind 6-7 Shawn Marion (17.5 ppg, 10 rpg), guard Raja Bell, 6-8 Boris Diaw, and guard Leandro Barbosa (17.5 ppg). Phoenix was 59-39 over the total two years ago, 56-44 last season and started 37-36 this campaign with that uptempo style. For the third year in a row, oddsmakers have underestimated the Suns on the road, starting 25-11 SU, 20-16 ATS. Last year they were 28-21 ATS away from home after going a remarkable 36-12 SU, 27-18 ATS two years ago. That’s 75-55 ATS on the road.

Spurs: San Antonio knows what it takes to play championship basketball in the postseason, having won titles in 1999, 2003 and 2005. Defense is the calling card of the Spurs, who allow 44 percent shooting (third best) and 89 ppg (first) in the NBA. This is a veteran team in its prime, with defensive stalwarts in center Tim Duncan and forward Bruce Bowen. The Spurs have offensive stars in Duncan, sparkplug guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili along with role players Brent Barry and Michael Finley.

In late December the Spurs gave up 114 points at home to Washington. Coach Gregg Popovich chewed out the team demanding better defense. The Spurs then went on a 27-16-2 run under the total. After going 27-20 under at home last season, they are 22-13 below the posted total at the Alamodome this season. SA has a deadly combination of defense, experience, star power and team-oriented play.

Rockets: Houston survived injuries to Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Now everyone is healthy at the right time. The 7-foot-6 Ming mans the middle averaging 25 points and 9.6 rebounds, while McGrady averages 24.4 ppg. The injuries gave more time to guard Rafer Alston, Luther Head, Shane Battier and Josh Howard, strengthening the bench.

Houston still wins with defense, allowing 91 ppg (second best) and holds opponents to 42.6 percent shooting (first) in the NBA. That great defense is why Houston is a stellar 21-16 SU, 23-14 ATS on the road. Coach Jeff Van Gundy is demanding, saying last week, "Right now, we’re not good enough. One of our greatest improvements can be playing every possession, or getting as close to that as possible."