NBA reaching decision time

January 22, 2002 8:02 AM
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The NBA season reaches the mathematical midpoint this week and, interestingly, pointspread results through last weekend produced the same number of winners at home (269) as on the road.

The linesmaker continues to do an excellent job at balancing the number. The results were almost exactly even for last season as well. Although home teams are winning games at a healthy 61 percent rate, the pointspread results have shown no bias in general. There have also been slightly more “Overs” than “Unders” this season (287 vs. 274) although scoring is up by just a half point per game over last season.

With a half season of play in the record books there can now be meaningful assessments made concerning the playoff prospects of many teams. Much basketball still remains to be played but there are clearly some teams in danger of not making the playoffs and facing decisions as the trade deadline approaches next month.

New Jersey and Milwaukee have created small gaps in the Atlantic and Central Divisions as the two top teams in the East. Milwaukee begins the week riding a seven-game winning streak and playing the kind of ball many expected from the team that took Philadelphia to seven games in last season’s Eastern Conference finals.

Currently the teams ranking third through eighth place in the conference are Boston, Toronto, Washington, Orlando, Indiana and Detroit with both Philadelphia and Charlotte right on their heels. There is then a significant gap to the rest of the conference, which includes both New York and Miami, both of whom appear destined to miss the playoffs barring a major second half run.

In the West, Sacramento has overtaken the Lakers for the best overall record in the NBA although it’s because the Kings have played two more games than Los Angeles. Both teams have nine losses. Still, Sacramento’s rise in just a few seasons is to be applauded and their outstanding 22-1 home record makes the Kings a formidable force in the playoffs.

Minnesota, San Antonio and Dallas join the Kings and Lakers as the other teams to be winning at a pace of .700 or better. All five teams are ahead of East leader, New Jersey. The sixth and seventh spots are currently held by Utah and Seattle, while Phoenix and Portland are tied for the final position.

The Los Angeles Clippers, following a rough road trip, have slipped a half-game back of the final playoff spot. The race in the West appears to be shaping up as involving five teams battling for the final three playoff berths.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Friday, Jan. 25

Spurs at Lakers: The Lakers defeated the Spurs by 17 points last Saturday in San Antonio despite the absence of Shaquille O’Neal, who was serving the finale of a three-game suspension. San Antonio got off to a quick start in the first quarter but the Lakers quickly recovered and took control before halftime. The Spurs appeared to be psychologically intimidated by the Lakers who swept them in last season’s conference finals.

San Antonio had hoped to make a statement in that game, but the gap still exists between the teams. Neither team played the night before and should be fresh. The Lakers will be a sizable favorite and likely will be bet up. The Spurs still want to make that statement and, considering they will be getting a few more points, they’ll be worth backing in the underdog role. Take SPURS.

Saturday, Jan. 26

Kings at Jazz: The pecking order in the West has changed over the past couple of seasons with Sacramento supplanting Utah as a legitimate contender for the conference title. The Kings have been strong at home but an ordinary 8-8 on the road. Utah has played much better at home after struggling early in the season. The teams will have just met on Thursday in Sacramento in their first meeting this season.

Sacramento won three of four meetings last season with all but one going Under the total. Normally the first instinct would be to look for a form reversal and back the loser of Thursday’s game, most likely Utah. But the total might be a better play. Despite last season’s results, both teams have played more Overs than Unders this season and Sacramento is allowing nine points more on the road than at home. Take OVER.

Sunday, Jan. 27

Lakers at Sixers: This was expected to be a Super Bowl appetizer until the events of last Sept. 11 caused the NFL to push back its championship game one week. Still, it’s an intriguing contest between last year’s NBA finalists. The Lakers won the final four of that five-game series and took the earlier meeting this season on Christmas Day, 88-82. The 76ers have battled injuries all season but may finally be getting back to full strength on a consistent basis.

This is the first of a five-game road trip for the Lakers. It’s a homecoming for Kobe Bryant, who was a prep star in Philadelphia. Expect Philadelphia to place much greater emphasis on giving a good effort. Philly should pull the upset as a slight home underdog. Take SIXERS.