With Pittsburgh having won a record-setting sixth Super Bowl last Sunday, the focus of the professional sports world turns to the NBA for the next several months.
Just under half of the regular season remains before the two-month playoff odyssey begins that ends with the Finals in June. After looking pretty average for about two weeks after the start of the new year, the defending champ Boston Celtics have regained their swagger and begin this week as winners of 11 straight.
Although the streak has enabled Boston to regain the top overall seed with the NBA’s best record, the Celtics’ grip on that honor is tenuous at best. And unlike recent seasons in which several Western Conference teams were contending for the league’s top playoff seed, Boston’s primary challengers come from the East.
Starting the week, Boston, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Lakers have lost just nine games. Orlando has just 10 losses. The Lakers have a fairly solid hold on the top seed in the West, leading second-seeded San Antonio by five games.
The Lakers have have more long term problems to contend with as their big man Andrew Bynum was injured in Saturday night’s win in Memphis. Bynum’s absence around this time last year hurt the Lakers as they lost in the Finals to Boston.
The full extent of his injury is a torn medial collateral ligament in is right knee. The latest Bynum injury will sideline him anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks. This setback could again prove fatal to the Lakers’ title hopes.
Boston leads the Cavs by just 1½ games. That edge can easily be erased since Cleveland has two more home than road games over the balance of the season. Boston will play three more times on the road than at home. While the Celtics are a stellar 24-2 at home, the Cavs are a perfect 22-0 playing in front of their home fans.
The key to being a legitimate title contender is the ability to win on the road and all five of the teams just mentioned have fashioned outstanding records away from home. In the West, the Lakers are 14-5 on the road while San Antonio is 14-7. In the East, the best road record is Orlando at 18-6. Boston is 16-7 and the Cavs are 15-9.
It would be a shock if the NBA champion does not come from this quintet of teams, barring significant injuries.
A few teams that struggled early in the season have upped their game in recent weeks and should present good value in coming weeks. Both Philadelphia and the New York Knicks got off to sluggish starts but each has played well of late.
While the 76ers have received some attention, the Knicks by and large have not. Yet they’ve won seven of their last 10 games for first year coach Mike D’Antoni. New York starts the week having covered each of its last seven games heading into Monday night’s home matchup against the Lakers.
The Knicks had a similar point spread streak in early December, also covering seven straight. But unlike that earlier streak in which the Knicks won just four of the seven straight up, in this current run New York has won six of seven.
A team to fade over the next few weeks is Toronto, which has failed to improve following the coaching change made a couple of months ago. In fact, the Raptors are in last place in the Atlantic Division with a 19-30 record, second worst in the conference. Their recent three game winning streak came after nine consecutive losses.
The All-Star break is about 10 days away with Phoenix hosting the annual event a week from this Sunday. We should see several teams make trades over the next few weeks in attempt to either become part of the playoff field or improve their position.
Things are especially interesting in the West where there are nine teams battling for eight playoff spots. There is a nine-game gap between ninth-seeded Utah and tenth seeded Minnesota. The bottom six teams, battling for the final five spots, are separated by just four games.
Here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend:
Hawks at Bobcats (Fri): Atlanta is currently seeded fourth in the East which would mean home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The Hawks need to win games against lesser competition and, on the surface, Charlotte would seem to be in that category. But as been the case throughout his coaching career, Larry Brown teams show steady improvement over the course of his initial season behind the bench.
And the Bobcats seem to be following in that pattern. After starting 9-18, Charlotte has split its last 20 games and its 10-10 record is identical to Atlanta’s over the same period. Atlanta has won the first two games between the teams this season but both were at home and by just four and five points. Improving Charlotte seeks revenge and is in a favorable spot to get it. BOBCATS.
T’wolves at Rockets (Sat): Although they will not make the playoffs, Minnesota is playing well with an eye towards next season. After revamping the roster prior to last season, the Timberwolves are starting to regain an identity. Youngsters Al Jefferson and Randy Foye form the nucleus of a team that could contend in the West in a couple of seasons.
Houston is a veteran laden team that has had to deal with nagging injuries. Minny should be a healthy underdog in this game. Both teams have been involved in mostly single-digit games over the past month (Minnesota 10 of 11, Houston 12 of 14) including Houston’s 7-point victory at Minnesota back in mid December. TIMBERWOLVES.
Spurs at Celtics (Sun): This could be a preview of the NBA Finals as San Antonio is currently second in the West and has played excellent ball since getting to full strength. Boston won both games last season, by eight and two points. The Spurs have been streaky of late, with several three, four and five game win streaks surrounding infrequent losses.
Boston starts the week having won 11 in a row so both teams are playing well. Although the Spurs might normally make for an attractive underdog, the Celts might approach this game as a challenge in facing one of the leagues better teams. Boston is off of games against division rivals that surrounded a revenge game against the Lakers and could be drained. The Spurs are well rested having last played on Tuesday. That could mean rust and a sluggish start. UNDER.