NBA begins serious stretch run

Mar 5, 2002 9:21 AM

The best part of the NBA’s regular season is upon us.

Barely six weeks remain until the start of the playoffs. After a couple of months of inconsistent play reflective of the NBA equivalent of baseball’s “dog days of summer,” teams in playoff contention get their second wind. Play is often more crisp over the final month and a half with teams in playoff contention raising their level of play.

Beware of teams that begin to fall out of contention and become officially eliminated from the playoff chase. Often such teams will experiment and give added playing time to the very young guys on the roster. Some teams, in an effort to build good relationships for next season, will dole out added time to players with contract incentives.

Other teams may just pack it in and go through the motions. Such teams will often present solid opportunities to play against them in the second of back-to-back games when the energy level is virtually non-existent.

Talk at this time of the season also turns to which player is the MVP. This award has always had much controversy because of the varying interpretations given to it. Certainly, if one were to poll Sports Books linesmakers the answer would be the player who is most valuable to his team.

The absence of an individual player affects the setting of the line in the NBA more than in any other sport. Baseball is somewhat of an exception in that the line will vary according to the quality of the starting pitchers. The absence of a key offensive player has minimal impact on the line. The absence of either Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal from the Lakers could be worth as many as five points in the line.

The same is true of Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson, Toronto’s Vince Carter or any number of the NBA’s elite ”” especially when the star player is his team’s major offensive option. That is why the presence of both Kobe and Shaq on the Lakers is somewhat unique in their line influence. The fact that either has such a high impact is likely due to the widespread opinion that they are the top two players in the game.

The opinion here is that the NBA’s MVP award for this season should clearly go to New Jersey’s Jason Kidd. His arrival has triggered a total turnaround in the Nets. With just one playoff appearance in the past seven seasons, and having won no more than 31 games in any of the past three seasons, the impact of Kidd is obvious.

The Nets just approaching a .500 record and contending for the final playoff spot in the East the season would have been considered a solid success. Yet as the week begins New Jersey leads the Atlantic Division by eight games with a 39-19 record which also puts them at the top seed in the conference. In less than a season Kidd has become the leader and his teammates have responded.

The playoff picture continues to come more into focus and it’s clear again that the quality resides in the West. The current number eight seed, Seattle, is six games over .500. Of the teams with the six best records, five reside in the West.

In the East the team currently seeded fourth, Boston, is only four games over .500 and only six teams are above the break even mark. New Jersey, Detroit and Milwaukee have separated themselves from the rest of the conference but the chase for the other five playoff berths is being contested among seven teams.

An eighth team is playing the best basketball of the bunch. Pat Riley’s Miami Heat are almost .700 over the past month and a real threat to pass several teams they are chasing. With a schedule that features more home than road games the rest of the way don’t be surprised if Riley avoids his first non-playoff season in almost 20 years as a head coach. What was a prohibitive longshot barely a month ago is probably close to a pick ’em today.

Here’s a look at three of the more attractive games that will be played this weekend. Friday, March 8

Pistons at Celtics: Although Portland begins the week as the league’s hottest team with 11 straight wins, Detroit’s recent success has gone largely unnoticed. The Pistons have won 17 of their last 21 games, ascending to the Central. Boston, led by the star tandem of Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, has been in a recent slump. The teams split their two earlier meetings, each winning at home. Boston is the much fresher team with this being only their fifth game over the past two weeks. Take CELTICS. Saturday, March 9

Nets at Sonics: New Jersey continues to set the pace in the East behind the leadership of Jason Kidd and solid contributions from Kenyon Martin, Todd MacCulloch, Keith Van Horn and rookie Richard Jefferson. Seattle has enjoyed a resurgence behind Gary Payton and a solid supporting cast that includes Rashard Lewis and Brent Barry. Seattle has been at home all week while New Jersey is finishing up a four game road trip played in five nights. The Nets won the first meeting way back in November by a dozen points. New Jersey should be fatigued and its best chance to remain competitive is to slow the pace. Take UNDER. Sunday, March 10

Kings at Bucks: Both teams are solid playoff contenders and each has a chance to be the top seeded team in the respective conferences. Sacramento leads the West by a game over the Lakers while Milwaukee trails Detroit by a half game in the Central and is five behind New Jersey in the East. Sacramento, led by Chris Webber, has received balanced support. Milwaukee has several options including Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glen Robinson. In their only meeting back in early January, the teams produced 216 points in a Sacramento win. This starts a five-game road trip for the Kings. Take OVER.

2-NJ/SEA under
3-SAC/MIL over