The college basketball world holds the "Sweet Sixteen" round of its annual national championship tournament this weekend while the NBA’s ‘16’ version is but three weeks away.
The long 82-game regular season comes to an end April 15 after which begins a nearly two-month journey to crown this season’s NBA champion.
Unlike the college game the NBA’s Sweet Sixteen are determined on merit, not selected by a committee working in secret. NBA playoff berths are earned by performance on the court relative to other teams and the seedings are determined by the degree of success the 16 teams have achieved.
There’s no opinion involved. The rules are quite clear. Win the most games and you are the top seed.
Of course, not all is perfect in the world of determining the playoff field as geography plays a significant role in limiting otherwise worthy teams from making the field. That is, the split between Eastern and Western Conferences almost always insures that the 16 best teams in the league will not make the playoffs, but rather the eight best teams in each conference will.
Case in point, the Phoenix Suns. Though not quite as good as in recent seasons the Suns are a solid 38-31 with 13 games left to play. However, that mark has them sitting ninth in the Western Conference, 3½ games out of the eighth and final playoff spot.
Were the Suns in the Eastern Conference with that same record, they would be currently seeded fifth and just 2½ games out of the fourth and final seed that carries home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
In fact, as things stand now, two Eastern Conference teams would make the playoffs with losing records (Detroit and Chicago).
Yet interestingly, three of the four teams with the best records in the league reside in the East, led by Cleveland. The Cavaliers, at 57-13, have the best record in the league, slightly better than the Los Angeles Lakers’ 55-14 mark. The two other Eastern powerhouses are Boston (53-18) and Orlando (51-18).
Much remains to be decided over the roughly dozen games each team still has to play. The final few spots in the East will go to the teams that show they are the best of the mediocre lot that are in contention.
The West is where the fun is. There is just a four game gap between second seeded Houston and eighth seeded Dallas. Though currently holding that final playoff berth, the Mavericks have won 60 percent of their games this season and would be fairly secure with the fourth seed were they in the East.
But in the West, teams can ill afford a two or three game losing streak. It’s a thought to keep in mind when handicapping games between Western contenders over the next three weeks.
After a pair of losses a contender may be a good team to play upon to avoid a third straight loss which would make for an attractive play as an underdog in such a situation.
Here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend.
Boston at Atlanta (Fri): Boston is battling for the top spot in the East while Atlanta is battling for the fourth spot which carries home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. That suggests this should be a well played game perhaps with playoff intensity. And Boston also remembers how the Hawks took them to the full seven games in last season’s playoffs.
Boston has won the first two meetings this season, but both were close with margins of just 1 and 3 points. Kevin Garnett is back for the Celtics and is being limited in minutes as he gets back into peak condition. This is Boston’s sixth road game in the last eight.
Although this contest is important for both squads Atlanta may have a bit more motivation to do well against one of the league’s elite teams. And they have the talent and balance to succeed. ATLANTA.
Phoenix at Utah (Sat): Phoenix is slip sliding away from the playoffs in starting the week 3½ games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. After losing six in a row, the Suns start this week having won four straight as they try to recapture the momentum gained when Alvin Gentry replaced Terry Porter as coach in mid February.
Utah sits seventh in the West but is only 2½ games out of the second seed. These teams have split two meetings this season with each team winning on their home court. This is a quick turnaround as the teams met in Phoenix on Wednesday night. Utah has been outstanding at home all season and will be more than comfortable playing at Phoenix’s preferred up tempo pace.
The Jazz should be a solid favorite at home where they are 29-6 for the regular season and winners of 12 straight including eight by at least 13 points. JAZZ.
Dallas at Cleveland (Sun): The only previous meeting this season came during the season’s opening week when the Cavs won at Dallas 100-81 as 4-point underdogs. Cleveland is a remarkable 32-1 at home although the dominance of the wins has declined of late. After capturing 11 of 12 home games by double digits, the last four Cleveland home wins have been by 6 points or less including an overtime win over Portland. The Cavs failed to cover in any of those four wins.
Dallas has struggled on the road all season and is just 3-8 SU/ATS in its last 11 roadies. One pattern that has emerged over the past month and a half has been for Dallas to play unders on the road (10 of last 12) and for Cleveland to play unders at home (8 of their last 11).
Both teams are playing with playoff positioning at stake, making for conditions suitable for these convergent patterns to continue. UNDER.