Playoff picture coming into focus

April 10, 2001 10:51 AM
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The NBA season has entered the stretch run and the finish line is in sight.

The five-and-a-half month prelude to the Playoffs is winding down and in less than two weeks we’ll begin to learn whether or not the Lakers can repeat as champions. The best basketball of the season is played during the Playoffs and we shall see the intensity level pick up rather dramatically once the NBA’s version of the "Sweet Sixteen" begin play.

Things are a bit more settled than they were last week as the NBA regular season enters its final 10 days. Fourteen of the 16 playoff spots have been clinched, but only Philadelphia has clinched a Division title as we go to press. The top seeds, in the league overall and in each conference, are also still being hotly contested.

San Antonio has a one game lead over Philadelphia for the best record in the league, but the Spurs are on the verge of clinching the Midwest Division title. In the Pacific Division Sacramento holds just a one game lead over the surging Lakers who, despite all the controversy surrounding Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson, have managed to win two of every three games they’ve played this season.

Milwaukee is about to clinch the Central Division title and will likely claim the East’s second seed behind Philadelphia.

Only the eighth seeds in each conference remain to be determined. Indiana leads Boston by a game-and- a-half in the Eastern Conference as the final week begins, and that spot might be determined when the teams meet one another on Friday. In the West, Minnesota has a fairly comfortable lead over both Houston and Seattle and might well have clinched its spot by the weekend.

Within each conference there is still plenty of room for movement. Miami holds the number three seed in the East but could fall as low as seventh. Minnesota could still finish as high as fourth in the West and San Antonio could finish as low as fifth. Neither is likely, but these possibilities do illustrate how tightly the teams are bunched. In fact, the No. 8 seed in the West is likely to have won at least 60 percent of their games over the full season. Perhaps as few as just two teams from the East might be able to make a similar claim when the regular season ends next Wednesday.

Here’s a look at three games to be played over the final regular season weekend.

Boston at Indiana (Friday) - By the time this game is played, it could be essentially a playoff game for Boston. The Celtics begin the week trailing Indiana by 1.5 games and thus may need a win here to remain in contention for the eighth and final playoff spot in the east. The teams met in Boston two weeks ago with Indiana winning 92-87, the third victory by the road team in three meetings this season. The Pacers rely on Jalen Rose and Reggie Miller in the backcourt to provide the bulk of their scoring. The frontline is relatively inexperienced aside from aged veteran Sam Perkins. Their frontcourt tandem of Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker leads Boston, with their backcourt being the weaker component. The Pacers should be favored by from 3 to 5 points in this game and the Celtics are worth considering if getting at least 4 points. At a line of 188 or higher; the preference is to go UNDER the total. In fact, the last two meetings produced totals of 179 and 174 points in regulation play.

Toronto at Milwaukee (Saturday) - By the time this game is played, Milwaukee should have wrapped up the Central Division title and the Eastern Conference’s number two seed. Toronto is currently seeded fifth but with a realistic chance of catching New York or Miami to move up the ladder and gain home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The Raptors are also seeking to hold their position over both Charlotte and Orlando. Milwaukee has won two of the three meetings this season. The Bucks get the bulk of their offensive production from Ray Allen and Glen Robinson and have a strong third option in Sam Cassell. Toronto relies mainly on Vince Carter with Antonio Davis providing solid support, along with improving rookie Mo Peterson. Milwaukee should be favored by at least a trey and that will be our guideline for making a play on the Raptors in a game they can easily win straight up. We may be able to take at least three points since Toronto did host Miami last night while the Bucks were off. We’ll also look for a play on the OVER if the line comes in at 200 or lower.

Portland at L.A. Lakers (Sunday) - Portland has won two of three games, but the teams have not met since Christmas. This game could give us an indication of the mental frame of mind of the teams as they begin the playoffs. Portland has really struggled of late, losing 10 of 16 games since acquiring Rod Strickland. If laying no more than 4 points, the Lakers are worth backing; with a preference for the game to go UNDER the total if the line is no lower than 190.


John Bennett’s Picks

NBA
Thursday

Hornets by 9 over Nets

Bucks by 3 over Jazz

Magic by 8 over 76ers

Kings by 4 over Spurs

Blazers by 11 over Grizzlies

Lakers by 9 over Wolves

Friday

Wizards by 3 over Magic

Knicks by 9 over Hawks

Nets by 4 over Cavaliers

Mavericks by 6 over Kings

Heat by 4 over Raptors

Pacers by 6 over Celtics

Jazz by 6 over Bulls

Nuggets by 9 over Warriors

Suns by 5 over Supersonics

Rockets by 3 over Blazers

Clippers by 4 over Wolves

Saturday

Nuggets by 5 over Spurs

Raptors by 3 over Bucks

Rockets by 6 over Grizzlies

Sunday

Heat by 4 over Magic

Celtics by 6 over Nets

Kings by 7 over Suns

Jazz by 5 over Wolves

Pacers by 9 over Bulls

Lakers by 7 over Trailblazers

Knicks by 3 over 76ers

Pistons by 4 over Hornets

Sonics by 5 over Mavericks

Baseball

Pirates at Cubs: Going with Cubs with Jon Lieber and Kevin Tapani.

Marlins at Expos: Going with Jacinto Vasquez and Tony Armas Jr. for two wins.

Reds at Mets: Mets win two with Kevin Appier and Rick Reed notching the wins.

Phillies at Braves: Going with Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood for a couple of wins.

Giants at Brewers: Going with Jamey Wright and Jeff D’Amico against anyone Giants toss against them.

Astros at Cardinals: Double play against Kent Bottenfield a sub 500 pitcher.

Diamondbacks at Rockies: Going with Curt Schilling and against Brian Anderson.

Dodgers at Padres: We favor Chan Ho Park over any N.L. pitcher, Andy Ashby will pick up his second win.

Royals at Blue Jays: Going against Chris Carpenter and double play versus Joey Hamilton.

Yankees at Red Sox: Going with Roger Clemens versus Pedro Martinez and Andy Pettitte over Hideo Nomo or Frank Castillo, double play versus Nomo.

Indians at Tigers: Double play versus Bartolo Colon who is in a slump early.

Devil Rays at Orioles: Over in the total especially should Ryan Rupe and Travis Harper go against Pat Hentgen and Jason Johnson.

White Sox at Twins: Eric Milton and Mark Redman can win against the Sox.

Rangers at A’s: Double play versus Steve Parris and Doug Davis.


Expect upsets in the first round of NHL playoffs

By Bob Joyce

The NHL’s regular season has come to a close as the two-month-long playoffs are about to begin with 16 teams remaining for the first round.

The defending Stanley Cup champion, the New Jersey Devils, ended the regular season on a roll by winning 19 of 21, which included a stretch where they won a league-high 13 consecutive. They also finished the season tying the league record with 10 straight road victories. New Jersey also led the league in scoring as it put the puck between the pipes 295 times which was 25 more goals than the high-powered offense of the Colorado Avalanche who finished second with 270.

In the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings was the hot team to finish the regular season as they set a team record of 19 consecutive games at home without a loss, going back to Dec. 27, with a record of 17-0-2. The only thing standing in the way for the Red Wings going for the cup will be Colorado.

The San Jose Sharks, who shocked the hockey world last year by beating the St. Louis Blues in the first round, will again meet as the Blues will try to avenge last year’s defeat, which has left a bad taste in their mouth’s ever since.

The Edmonton Oilers will open against the Dallas Stars in the first round for the third straight year and the fourth in five seasons.

Here now is a look at the first round action and a predicted series outcome for each match-up. Each series is the best of seven with the playoff format of 2-2-1-1-1.

Western Conference

(1) Colorado vs. (8) Vancouver - The Avalanche won three out of five games from the Canucks during the regular season. Colorado is relatively healthy going into the post-season while the Canucks will be without a couple of key players, Markus Naslund and Andy Cassels. Pick: Colorado in 5.

(2) Detroit vs. (7) Los Angeles - Both of these clubs went 1-1-1 against each other during the regular season; however, Detroit enters the playoffs as the West’s hottest team in the second half of the season while the Kings struggled to make the postseason. Pick: Detroit in 4.

(3) Dallas vs. (6) Edmonton - These two teams have to stop meeting like this. For the fifth consecutive season they are meeting in the playoffs with Dallas winning the last three; however, no series has been easy. Dallas took three out of four games from the Oilers during the regular season. Edmonton is young and fast. The Oilers are the one team that Colorado and Detroit did not want to face in the first round. Upset special here! Pick: Edmonton in 6.

(4) St. Louis vs. (5) San Jose - These two clubs split their games against each other going 2-2 during the regular season. Both of these clubs were leading their division at the All-Star break, but faltered due to key injuries. The key to this series is goaltending; as the Sharks have the advantage with rookie Evgeni Nabokov. Pick: San Jose in 6.

Eastern Conference

(1) New Jersey vs. (8) Carolina - The Devils won three out of four games during the season against the Hurricanes, but New Jersey enters the playoffs as the hottest team in the league. The Devils are the most balanced team in the league and can beat you in so many different ways. Pick: New Jersey in 4.

(2) Ottawa vs. (7) Toronto - The Senators dominated the Maple Leafs going 4-0 during the regular season. Ottawa is extremely talented up front, and it will be out for revenge for last year’s playoff loss to Toronto. Pick: Ottawa in 5.

(3) Washington vs. (6) Pittsburgh - These two clubs went 2-2 against each other during the regular season. Pittsburgh is 5-1 in playoff meetings with the Capitals. The Penguins need to score first, because Washington struggles when it has to play catch-up. Pick: Pittsburgh in 6.

(4) Philadelphia vs. (5) Buffalo - The Flyers swept the Sabres during the regular season, including last Sunday’s 2-1 victory in Buffalo which gave Philadelphia the home-ice advantage. The Flyers outscored Buffalo 11-2 in those four games. Both teams have outstanding goaltenders and every game in this series should be played under. Pick: Philadelphia in 7.


No-hitter, underdogs highlight first week

By ANDY ISKOE

Though barely one week old, the 2001 baseball season has already had its share of surprises.

Most prominent among these surprises has been the no-hitter hurled in the opening week by a member of the Boston Red Sox. And no, not Pedro Martinez. The author of the only no-hitter in the history of Coors Field in Colorado, Hideo Nomo, tossed the first no-hitter in the history of Baltimore’s Camden Yard. Nomo is with his fourth major league team in four seasons. If Nomo can be reasonably effective for the first half of the season, until shortstop Nomar Garciaparra returns around the All-Star break, Boston may be able to stay in contention with the Yankees and Toronto in the A.L. East.

Perhaps even more surprising than Nomo’s no-no were the results of the first two series played by several clubs. N.L. Central favorite St Louis opened the season by being swept in Colorado, outscored 32-11. But they go into pitching-rich Arizona and sweep the Diamondbacks, scoring 29 runs in the three games. Colorado followed up their three-game sweep of the Cardinals by being swept at home by San Diego, which had been swept in their opening series at San Francisco. Milwaukee opened the season on the road, losing four straight. The Brewers then opened their new stadium with a three-game sweep of Cincinnati. Sudden shifts of fortunes occur frequently in baseball, but the dramatics of the opening week suggest there may be few standout teams in 2001.

Four of the teams that made the playoffs in 2000 had losing records in the opening week of play, including both N.L. East favorites - the Mets and the Braves. In the A.L., Oakland and the Chicago White Sox are each in last place in their divisions as week two begins, both having lost four games over their first two series.

The most pleasant surprises of the first week reside in Canada. Toronto has won five of their first seven games while Montreal has won five of six. Both teams have gotten solid pitching and balanced offense. Montreal is not expected to contend although it does have one of the top five players in the game, Vladimir Guerrero, and some promising young arms in Javier Vazquez and Tony Armas Jr. The Expos won just 67 games last year so expectations are not high.

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