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NBA races tight heading to break

Feb 5, 2002 9:35 AM

Now that the New England Patriots have been crowned champions of the NFL by winning Super Bowl XXXVI, the attention of the professional sports world turns full force to the developments in the NBA.

The season is more than halfway complete although this weekend marks the figurative midpoint with All Star game and surrounding festivities taking place in Philadelphia.

Most teams have between 35 and 40 games remaining and divisional races and positioning for the playoffs have very well defined shapes.

New Jersey, in the Atlantic, is the only division leader with more than a two and a half game lead. The Nets lead Boston by five and have a four-game edge over Milwaukee for the best record in the Eastern Conference. To put things in proper perspective, however, the Nets would rank fourth in the much stronger West.

Michael Jordan and Washington are currently tied with Detroit for the fifth best record in the conference, but the Wizards have been boosted by the return of Richard Hamilton. Jordan appears to have taken a special liking to Hamilton, who showed signs late last season of emerging into an All Star caliber player.

Other teams that would currently make the playoffs in the East include Toronto, Philadelphia and Indiana. The Pacers hold down the final spot, but their lead over both Charlotte and Orlando is the slimmest of all margins, just a half game.

There is then a sizable gap to New York and Miami. Despite the fine recent play by Miami, the Heat still occupy the cellar in the Atlantic and must make up a half dozen games in the final two months of the season to keep coach Pat Riley’s perfect coaching record of making the playoffs each season intact. The Heat are a longshot and need to finish the season 23-13 just to reach the .500 mark and have a shot at the final playoff berth.

Sacramento has extended its lead over the Lakers in the Pacific and begins the week with a two and half game bulge over Los Angeles. Virtually unbeatable at home, the Kings have also played well on the road, playing better than .500 ball.

Both teams have better records than the top three teams in the Midwest Division ”” Dallas, Minnesota and San Antonio. A significant gap then exists with Portland and Utah battling for the number six seed. There is also a three-way battle for the eighth and final seed among Phoenix, Seattle and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Any of these five teams can finish as high as sixth or totally miss the playoffs. It will likely come down to which of these teams is able to squeeze out some road wins, especially against fellow contenders.

Over the past decade or so the NBA All Star game has been a high scoring contest with little defense being played and shots being launched about every eight seconds. The oddsmaker has compensated for the high scoring games and we’ve seen lines in the 240-260 range in Âí­recent seasons.

Playing time and rotations used are always issues that make wagering on this game rather hazardous at best. But there will be numerous propositions that can be wagered upon. Not nearly to the extent of last week’s Super Bowl but more and more properties will be posting player vs. player props as well as pointspreads and totals for the quarters and the halves.

Often props will involve matching a player from the East vs. a player from the West. Somehow Shaq’s free throws will find a way to be included. Since the game will be in Philadelphia you might consider playing Allen Iverson in some propositions.

It has often been the case that the hometown hero is often highlighted and receives extra playing time in front of the home crowd, largely in an effort to keep the fans involved. So it would not surprise at all if Âí­Iverson emerges as the game’s high scorer.

The schedule for Thursday, the final day of action before the All Star break, is relatively light. However, here are a couple of the more attractive matchups to consider.

Thursday, Feb. 7

Sixers at Hornets: After struggling for most of November and December, Philadelphia is playing its best basketball of the season and in position to make a run for the playoffs. At two games above break even, the 76ers have surpassed Charlotte in the standings.

Philly currently holds down the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference with the ability to gain another couple of spots with a trio of wins heading into the break. Although still not 100 percent healthy, the Sixers have more of their frontline players available so Allen Iverson does not have to do it all by himself every night.

Charlotte has been consistent all season, appearing to essentially be a .500 ballclub and likely get the final playoff spot in the East. The Hornets have a solid backcourt with Baron Davis and David Wesley and there is decent strength up front with P J Brown and an emerging Lee Nailon. However, the general opinion is that the Hornets have underachieved.

Philadelphia has won two of the three meetings this season with each game being decided by a smaller margin. Charlotte is likely to be favored by around three points. This will be Philly’s third game in four nights while Charlotte’s schedule the past week has been a bit more evenly spaced. Take HORNETS.

Friday, Feb. 8

Spurs at Raptors: San Antonio is among the league’s elite, but even the best teams go through stretches when they struggle. Such has been the case recently with the Spurs as they begin the week having lost eight of 13 games over the past few weeks.

San Antonio begins the week in third place in the Midwest and holds down the No. 5 seed in the West. The Spurs would not have home court advantage in the opening best of five round of the playoffs.

Toronto has been fairly consistent this season, trailing Milwaukee by a game in the Central and tied for the No. 3 seed in the East. San Antonio won the earlier meeting at home after the teams each won on the other’s court last season.

San Antonio’s Tim Duncan is having another great season with a double-double virtually every game. Toronto’s Vince Carter is one of the league’s most exciting players and his supporting cast is largely under-appreciated. This game figures to be close to a pick’em. Given the recent struggles by the Spurs, look for the Raptors to even the season series. Take RAPTORS.