Although much of the sporting world’s attention will be focused on New Orleans and Super Bowl XXXVI this weekend the NBA season is reaching the halfway point. The upcoming All Star break and trading deadline will keep the professional hoopsters in the news.
Next week’s All Star festivities will take place in Philadelphia. The coaches have been determined with New Jersey’s Byron Scott guiding the East and Dallas’ Don Nelson leading the West.
Sacramento’s Rick Adelman earned the honor but since he coached in last season’s game Nelson was chosen as a replacement. Note that Phil Jackson will not be on the sidelines for the West. The Lakers’ lethargic play of recent weeks, due partly to the absence of Shaquille O’Neal for stretches of games, has caused the Lakers to no longer have the Conference’s best record.
In fact, the Lakers begin this week with the league’s fourth best winning percentage although only Sacramento has fewer losses. Los Angeles has played fewer games than Minnesota and Dallas but all three teams have 12 losses, two more than Sacramento.
The race for the playoffs in the West is most interesting with these four teams plus San Antonio all jockeying for the top five seeds. The top four seeds get home court advantage in the opening round’s best of five series (which is rumored to be changed to a best of seven series beginning next season).
The gap between first place Sacramento (33-10) and fifth place San Antonio (29-13) is just three and a half games so the second half of the season will feature many games of importance between the league’s best teams. There is a sizable gap after the West’s top four teams but Seattle, Portland and Utah currently hold down the final three Playoff spots with records above .500.
Lurking right behind this group are the Los Angeles Clippers (22-22) and Phoenix (21-22). There will be many intriguing battles over the next two and a half months and it is quite possible that a pair of teams with winning records will miss the playoffs.
In the East, New Jersey leads the conference and the Atlantic Division with a record that would put the Nets in sixth place in the West. Central Division leading Milwaukee holds the number two spot in the East. Boston is the only other Eastern Conference team playing better than .600 ball as the week begins.
Toronto currently holds down the fourth spot but no other team is more than one game over .500. Five teams are tightly bunched for the final four playoff spots with Washington, Philadelphia, Orlando and Detroit a game over .500 and Indiana at exactly the break even mark.
Charlotte is in striking distance with a 20-23 record. One of the hottest teams currently is Miami but Pat Riley’s charges are still just 15-27 despite winning seven of eight and going 10-4 over the past three weeks.
To reach .500 and have a chance at securing the final playoff spot in the East, the Heat would have to go 26-14 the rest of the way. That’s a 65 percent clip over half a season and is likely asking too much.
But with so few outstanding teams in the East and the motivational skills of Riley, if any team can make such a run it would be Miami. The Heat are still a large favorite to not make the playoffs for the first time in Riley’s nearly 20-season coaching career.
Here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend.
Friday, Feb. 1
T’wolves at Celtics: Minnesota continues its solid play and recently welcomed Terrell Brandon back to the lineup after missing about a month due to injury. Brandon complements Kevin Garnett and Wally Szczerbiak and gets the entire team involved in the offense. Boston continues to be paced by Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker but is at a disadvantage when going up against Garnett. Both teams can play up-tempo and have shot makers. Take OVER.
Saturday, Feb. 2
Blazers at Jazz: Both teams are past their primes in being contenders to win the NBA Title and neither has fully begun the rebuilding process. Both teams rely too much on aging veterans although Portland’s Rasheed Wallace is one of the top players in the league. Utah still relies on Karl Malone and John Stockton but has suffered recently from the loss of Donyell Marshall to injury. Russian import Andre Kirilenko has been making more of a contribution. Utah has won two of the three meetings after Portland took three of four last season. Most of the games have been defensive struggles. Take UNDER.
Sunday, Feb. 3
Lakers at Mavs: The Lakers have shown signs of vulnerability in recent weeks and have played close to just .500 ball over the past month. Dallas is playing some of the best ball in the league right now and its offense has been unstoppable. The Lakers may be repeating last season’s tendency of losing interest during the regular season and conserving their strength for the playoffs. Against a “legitimate” contender such as Dallas we should see Los Angeles elevate their game. We’ve already seen the Lakers deliver a similar message to San Antonio twice over the past two weeks. Los Angeles won the earlier meeting 98-94 at home in early December and they wrap up a five game road trip with this game. Take LAKERS.