NBA form starting to take shape

Dec 18, 2001 5:22 AM

As the season unfolds, form is starting to take shape. While the Western Conference is looking much like it did last season things are very much upside down in the East. Of the eight teams that made the Playoffs in the East last season, only three would qualify this season based on the current standings.

A fourth, Charlotte, tied for the final spot with, of all teams, Washington. All four playoff teams from the Atlantic Division (Miami, New York, Orlando and Philadelphia) are below .500 and would not make the postseason. New Jersey and Boston are separated by a half game atop the Atlantic and have opened up a four-game gap on third place Washington.

Detroit continues to set the pace in the Central with Milwaukee a half game back with three playoff teams from last season (Indiana, Toronto and Charlotte) all closely grouped a few games further back. Aside from Detroit this division shapes up as being fairly close to form as compared to last season.

Out West, six of last season’s playoff participants are clearly in good current position. The four best teams in the league (the L.A. Lakers, San Antonio, Sacramento and Minnesota) hold the top four spots and Dallas is also playing better than .600 ball. Phoenix is playing well and currently sits sixth in the West while Portland is eighth behind the Los Angeles Clippers.

Yes, the Clippers.

On the outside is Utah, but the Jazz have recently picked up their level of play and trail Portland by just a game.

Here’s a look at three attractive games to be played this weekend.

Wizards at Magic:
The resurgent Wizards are among the hottest teams in the NBA as the week begins, having won six in a row including several on the road. Sure, Michael Jordan is rounding into form but Richard Hamilton is also playing to his potential with more consistency. This is Orlando’s second game back home following a rough six game road trip. The Magic must also play in Dallas on Saturday. The matchup of Jordan vs. Orlando’s Tracy McGrady is intriguing. Orlando won the first meeting 96-87 three weeks ago. Take the Wizards.

Kings at L.A. Clippers:
It’s been many seasons since the L.A. Clippers were in a featured matchup, but with almost a third of the season complete Los Angeles is over .500 and a playoff contender. The Clippers have benefited from a very favorable early season schedule that has seen them play 18 of their first 24 games at home. The Clippers are young and playing with confidence and enthusiasm. The Kings are talented and deep and love to run the court. Take the OVER.

Bucks at Spurs:
Both teams are considered reasonable longshots to win the NBA title should the Lakers falter. Milwaukee won both games between the teams last season so there is a bit of revenge on the side of the Spurs. San Antonio’s Tim Duncan is an early MVP candidate off a strong start. On balance Milwaukee has better overall talent, but has played inconsistently over the season’s first seven weeks amid reports of poor team chemistry. The Spurs are more disciplined and plays better defense. Take the SPURS.