Bettin’ on B’ball by Andy Iskoe
The NBA’s has barely a month and a half remaining until the playoffs begin in late April.
The trading deadline has passed and contending teams have pretty much settled on the rosters that will determine their fates this spring. As we go to press there is one significant move about to be made that could tilt the balance of power in the East further towards the talent of Boston versus the experience of Detroit.
Sam Cassell cleared waivers from the Los Angeles Clippers and is expected to sign with the Celtics anyday for the stretch run. His experience and leadership will further help Boston in its quest to win the NBA title. With Cassell, the Celts would boast a Fearsome Foursome with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Already possessing the league’s best record, this signing should lock up the top overall seed for the Celtics, unless unanticipated chemistry or other problems pop up in retooling a roster that has performed so well through nearly 60 games.
Exhibit A would be the Phoenix Suns. They have struggled since acquiring Shaquille O’Neal a few weeks ago in their trade with Miami. Things have not gone smoothly since the Big Cactus took the court for the Suns. Once leading the Western Conference, the Suns have fallen to the sixth seed.
It may be hard to believe, but there is a possibility that Phoenix could miss the playoffs entirely. The West remains extremely contentious with just three games separating top-seeded San Antonio from the No. 7-seed Dallas. Eighth-seeded Golden State is just two games behind the Mavericks with Denver just 1½ games further back.
Phoenix starts this week 2½ games behind the Lakers in the Pacific Division and just 2½ ahead of the eighth seeded Warriors. It does not take a degree in mathematics to see that the Suns are also just four games in front of the Nuggets. As it is, the Suns are just 5-5 over their last 10 games after going 34-15 over their first 49 games.
The imbalance of power between the conferences remains most evident in that 10 of the West’s 15 teams are playing better than .500 basketball, compared to just 5 of 15 in the East.
Boston and Detroit remain by far the class of the East and appear destined to meet in the conference finals. The Pistons have a shot at catching the Celtics, trailing by 3½ games with a shade more than 20 remaining for each. Third-seeded Orlando is six games behind Detroit and realistically will retain that third seed when the playoffs arrive.
The hottest team in the league remains Houston. Despite losing Yao Ming for the balance of the season to injury, the Rockets extended their winning streak to 15 in a row with Sunday’s victory over Denver. The Rockets have moved up the Western ladder to the fifth seed, just 2½ games from the top.
The bunching of teams in the West means that it will be quite some time before any team clinches a playoff berth. That means we should be treated to some outstanding basketball deeper into the season as teams cannot afford to take games off prior to the playoffs. Also, six Western teams have winning records on the road.
The hottest pointspread teams over the past few weeks have been Houston (9-1), Washington (8-2), the Lakers (7-3) and Philadelphia (7-3). The coldest are Golden State (2-8), Memphis (2-8), Boston (3-7), Denver (3-7) and Miami (3-7).
Here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend.
Jazz at Suns (Fri): The home team has won each of their two previous meetings this season. Both games have been very low scoring relative to the posted totals with the games going under by 24½ and 23 points. Neither team is known for playing strong defense and both teams have multiple weapons on offense.
Those earlier results may cause the Total line to be shaded a bit lower than in those two meetings. Unlike those earlier meetings when one of the teams was playing for a second straight night, both teams are rested. They should be able to trade points in an up-tempo game. OVER.
Hornets at Rockets (Sat): New Orleans has had an outstanding season to date and currently hold the No. 3 seed in the West. Houston could be riding a 17-game win streak at tipoff if getting by Indiana and Dallas earlier in the week. The road team has won both meetings, including a victory by the Rockets in the Big Easy just two weeks ago.
Both games went under by double digits. New Orleans might get a few added points after hosting New Jersey on Friday night, while Houston’s game at Dallas was Thursday. At some point Houston will miss Yao and New Orleans has played well enough all season to take advantage. HORNETS.
Kings at Lakers (Sun): Sacramento has played better basketball recently, but is too far back in the tough West to have a shot at making the playoffs. The Lakers are playing for the top overall seed, beginning the week percentage points behind San Antonio.
The Lakers have benefited greatly from the acquisition of Pau Gasol, while Kobe Bryant continues to show why he remains the best player in the NBA. Bryant, despite an injured thumb, continues to post impressive numbers. The teams met for the first time this past Tuesday in Sacramento. The Lakers took 3-of-4 from the Kings last season when LA was not as strong. LAKERS.