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Mav-elous deal

Feb 26, 2002 8:08 AM

The NBA trading deadline passed with several trades completed, including the expected transaction involving the unhappy Nick Van Exel.

Denver sent Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz to Dallas while the Mavericks jettisoned the disappointing Juwan Howard and Tim Hardaway. Dallas is clearly strengthened by this deal and perhaps the gap between the Mavs and the Pacific Division duo of the Lakers and Sacramento has been narrowed.

Don’t be too quick to overlook New Jersey in the East. The Nets trail Sacramento by just two games for the NBA’s top record. No fewer than four teams are currently contesting the overall best record and league’s top seed. Despite the presence of the two-time champion Lakers, the league is showing remarkable balance at the top of the standings. The bulk of the power still resides in the Western Conference.

Most teams have completed about two thirds of their regular season, which means that fewer than 30 games remain. Playoff races continue to be tightly contested for the most part. But in looking for teams that may surprise in the postseason, a team’s performance over the final third of the season is often a more telling sign about a team’s prospects for advancing in the playoffs.

Beware of teams that start quickly and then play just mediocre basketball following the All Star break. Often this is the sign of a lack of depth (perhaps due to injuries) or a coaching staff that has been unable to make adjustments.

The Los Angeles Lakers are clearly the dominant team in the NBA and are the team to beat. They showed last year the ability to turn it on come playoff time. In the strike-shortened season, San Antonio parlayed a strong finish to the shortened season into an NBA title. Times are different with a dominant Lakers team standing in front of any team that might catch fire.

Perhaps the best chance for such a team lies in the weaker, albeit extremely well balanced, Eastern Conference. Be aware of any team that finishes with a strong kick over their final 25 to 39 games, perhaps winning close to 75 percent of those contests. Such a team, regardless of where it is seeded, could make for an attractive longshot. With so many teams in the East so tightly bunched, and New Jersey lacking in playoff experience, there might be such an opportunity this season.

Here’s a look at three attractive matchups this weekend.

Friday, March 1

Nets at Sixers: This game features the current East leader New Jersey against defending conference champ Philadelphia. The 76ers began the week at .500 and are amongst a group of five teams currently seeking the final three playoff berths. This is only the second meeting of the season between the teams and they’ll meet twice more before the end of this month. The Sixers beat the Nets as small road underdogs, 94-82. That game was played while New Jersey’s Jason Kidd was still getting comfortable with his new teammates. Since then, the Nets have become legitimate contenders. They have received strong contributions from Kenyon Martin and rookie Richard Jefferson. In what should be a competitively priced game, the Nets should send a message to the 76ers that they are now the team to beat in the East. Take NETS.

Saturday, March 2

T’wolves at Jazz: Minnesota continues to play excellent basketball. Utah has overcome a poor start to the season and now is battling with Portland for the sixth seed in the West. Minnesota won the first two meetings this season but must go the rest of the way without PG Terrell Brandon. Veteran Chauncey Billups has filled in admirably and Kevin Garnett is having another outstanding year. Utah may have Donyell Marshall back for this game. Marshall has provided strong support to Karl Malone and John Stockton. Utah is well rested and will be playing just their third game in 10 days. This will be their second game back home after their lengthy road trip necessitated by the Winter Olympics. Minnesota hosted San Antonio on Friday night and is playing its sixth game in 10 days. Utah, likely a slight favorite, clearly has the more favorable scheduling situation. The first two matchups both went Under the posted total and this should likewise be played at a low scoring pace. The preference is to back the fresher home team. Take JAZZ.

Sunday, March 3

Magic at Wizards: Both teams are in the thick of the playoff chase in the East with Orlando holding a two game edge over the Wizards as the week begins. Currently the Magic control the fifth seed and Washington is in a three way tie for the eighth seed. Washington’s Michael Jordan is starting to show the wear and tear of age and recent inactivity. There is some speculation that MJ might be placed on IR due to leg problems that flared up over this past weekend. The Wizards begin the week having lost five in a row and might have reached the limit of their upside for this season. Orlando is clearly Tracy McGrady’s team and he continues to mature as a player and a leader. The teams have split their first two meetings with the road team winning each time. They’ll meet again in less than a week. Neither team played on Saturday and neither plays again until Tuesday. Both matchups went Under the total by at least 10 points each time with neither team scoring more than 96. Orlando is likely to be favored, and are the more talented and deeper team. Take MAGIC.