It’s 16 alive
for NBA title

Apr 17, 2007 7:43 AM

The 5½ month regular season concludes this Wednesday with 14 of the 30 teams with nothing to do but pull out the drawing board and begin planning for the draft.

As for the remaining 16 making the playoffs, the two month journey to the NBA Title begins Saturday with eight first round matchups.

Most of the pairings are still undecided. Several positions in each conference are separated by just a game or two with most teams having two games to play from Monday through Wednesday. Only one playoff spot is open and that’s in the Western Conference where Golden State has a one game edge over the Los Angeles Clippers. Each has two games left with the Clippers holding the tie breaker edge.

Detroit has wrapped up the top seed in the East, but there is still a hotly contested race for No. 2. The battle is between Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto. As Atlantic Division champs Toronto is guaranteed to be either 2 or 3 with Miami, champs of the Southeast, locked into 4. Either Chicago or Cleveland will finish 2, 3 or 5.

There’s a huge difference between second and fifth when it comes to facing top seeded Detroit. The 2 seed would avoid the Pistons until the Conference finals. The 5 draws the Pistons in the second round. The final three spots in the East are held by Washington, New Jersey and Orlando with one game separating each.

Things are much more settled in the West with each of the top six seeds already determined. The pecking order has Dallas on top, followed by Phoenix, San Antonio, Utah, Houston and Denver. The Los Angeles Lakers are seeded 7, although they could be overtaken by Golden State or tied by the Clippers, one of whom will claim the final playoff spot.

We know two opening round matchups in the West where San Antonio will have the home court edge against Denver, and No. 5 Houston likely getting a home court edge over 4 seed Utah because of a better record. The Rockets have a two game edge over the Jazz with each team having two games remaining, including a matchup in Utah on Wednesday.

Ironically, another pair of first round opponents close out the regular season facing one another as San Antonio hosts Denver on Wednesday. Another possible first round preview occurs on Tuesday when Golden State hosts to Dallas.

With the season ending Wednesday and the playoffs beginning Saturday, there are no scheduled games to preview in this issue. Rather, here are some general thoughts on how to approach the opening round series plus some thoughts on the teams that should present good value to advance past the first round.

For the past few seasons the opening series has been a best of seven series played in a 2-2-1-1-1 format. For many years this first series had been a best of five series.

Not all of the 16 teams that make the playoffs are truly worthy. Often, there are teams with losing records in the playoffs. This season will see at least one (Orlando) and perhaps three (New Jersey, Orlando, Washington) in the playoffs from the East with losing records. From the West it’s possible that only the 8 seed Golden State or the LA Clippers will have a losing record. The Lakers at 7 will finish either at .500 or two games above break even.

In the East, teams with the four best records begin the week separated by just four games. Detroit has the top seed, most experienced and logical favorite to emerge as conference champions. The Pistons are the only team in the East to fashion a winning record on the road. In fact, the Pistons could finish with the rare distinction of having a better road record (currently 26-14) than home (25-15).

Chicago was a fashionable preseason choice to replace defending Eastern champ Miami. At times the Bulls have looked like the best in the East. At other times, they have greatly underachieved. After starting 7-13, the Toronto Raptors have gone 40-20 and have a real shot at the 2 seed. Their lack of playoff experience might in the end be the undoing.

In the NBA, teams have to pay their dues in advancing in the playoffs from season to season. But Toronto is a nice dark horse to win the East. Miami is vulnerable if only because star Dwyane Wade is not 100 percent and Shaquille O’Neal is feeling the effects of age and nagging injuries. The defending conference champs could be a first round casualty.

Chicago, Toronto and New Jersey are the ”˜hot’ teams entering the playoffs, while Washington is not. That’s no surprise given that stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler were lost for the season, suffering injuries just within the past couple of weeks. Washington will be fortunate to win one game in its opening round series.

In the West, there are several ”˜hot’ teams. Denver, Phoenix and San Antonio have each won 8-of-10 entering this week. Dallas, Golden State and Houston are 7-3 over the last 10. At the other end of the spectrum, both Utah and the LA Lakers are just 3-7 and likely to be first round casualties. Road teams are often content to split their first two games in a series.

In the East, both New Jersey and fifth seeded Chicago or Cleveland are playable as underdogs in Game 1 of their respective series. Should they lose that first game straight up, each may again be playable as underdogs in Game 2 regardless of the previous pointspread results.

The odds makers are well familiar with this strategy and there will be a price to pay. If a home team wins Game 1 as a 6-point favorite, there is a very strong probability that club will be favored by less than 6 in Game 2, regardless of whether they won the opener by 3, 6 or 15 points. The odds makers will, usually correctly, expect money in Game 2 to come in on the straight up loser of Game 1.

In the West, the best road teams to back in the first game or two of their series would be Denver and Golden State. Should Houston not have home court edge against Utah, the Rockets would also be a solid road play in their first game or two at the Jazz.

As to first round upset possibilities in the East, the Nets have the talent to get by Chicago, Cleveland or Toronto. And they have more recent playoff experience than any of those teams. New Jersey is making a sixth straight playoff appearance, tied with Detroit for the longest consecutive season streak among East teams.

Washington is the least likely Eastern team to pull a first round upset whether winding up a 6 seed, seventh or eighth. Miami is the most vulnerable of the top Eastern teams to be upset in the opening round, although Toronto would also be most vulnerable should they face New Jersey.

The power remains in the West. Consider that the favored team from the East (Detroit) would be tied with Houston for the fifth seed in the West.

Of the top five teams, Utah is clearly the most vulnerable and likely will be underdogs to Houston in the first round. Denver has played exceptionally well over the past month. Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson have meshed well and Marcus Camby gives the Nuggets a solid inside force. Against any team other than San Antonio the Nuggets would be a very attractive underdog. Unfortunately, Denver draws San Antonio in the opening round.

A first round matchup of Dallas versus Golden State is intriguing from the standpoint of Warriors’ coach Don Nelson getting to face his former team. This would be a highly entertaining series, but the Warriors would have little chance to pull the upset.

The Lakers are also a vulnerable team and likely face Phoenix in the first round. Phoenix just has too much offensive firepower that will more than offset Kobe Bryant’s scoring exploits. The Lakers just do not have the personnel to adequately defense the Suns and force a half court game.

Next week will afford an opportunity to revisit the opening round. The seedings will be set as will the path towards the NBA Finals. A much more educated analysis of potential upsets along the way will be possible.