The first race is among those teams seeking just to qualify for the playoffs. The second is contested by the playoff contenders as they jockey for a better seeding position and, consequently, more rounds of having the home court advantage.
Since last week there have been significant developments in both conferences. In the East, New Jersey’s lead over Boston in the Atlantic Division has been cut in half.
The Nets’ rough road trip last week, which saw them drop four games in five nights, enabled Boston to cut the deficit to four games. The Celtics begin this week having won four straight games. Even surging Philadelphia and Orlando are now within six games of New Jersey for the Division lead with 20 remaining.
Detroit leads Milwaukee by a half game in the Central Division. The Pistons and Bucks are within four games of New Jersey for the best record in the conference and the East’s top seed. Currently 11 teams are realistically vying for eight playoff spots.
Teams on the rise include Philadelphia and Miami while Washington and Toronto are on the decline. Only six have winning records in the East. If the playoffs were to start today, the matchups would have New Jersey playing Charlotte, Detroit meeting Indiana, Milwaukee opposing Orlando and Boston having the home court edge against Philadelphia.
The West race remains close with fewer than five games separating the top five teams. This is significant because the team that finishes fifth will not have home court advantage in the opening round.
Sacramento holds a one game lead over the Los Angeles Lakers for the Pacific lead. Midwest leader, Dallas, trails Sacramento by just half a game for the conference’s overall best mark. San Antonio trails Dallas by three games while Minnesota is four back. The Timberwolves are that tough luck fifth team in the West.
Nine clubs in the conference have winning records while Phoenix, is just three games below break even. The Los Angeles Clippers are currently in ninth position and would miss the playoffs by two and half games, despite a .500 record.
Were the playoffs to begin now, Sacramento would face eighth seeded Utah, Dallas would take on Seattle, the Lakers would play Portland and San Antonio would have the home court edge against Minnesota.
While much of the sports world’s attention over the next three weeks will be on the NCAA Tournament, the NBA will feature many interesting games that will impact the playoff races.
Be alert for such opportunities despite the less than usual coverage that will be given to the pros while the colleges get the spotlight.
Here’s a look at three attractive matchups this weekend.
Friday, March 15
Heat at Nets: Although Miami will not catch New Jersey in the standings there is a chance these teams could meet in the opening round of the playoffs. Alonzo Mourning, Eddie Jones and their Heat teammates have gelled nicely since the first of the year and begin the week just five games below the break even mark after having the league’s worst record back in December.
New Jersey’s challenge is to overcome its poor performances last week on the West Coast and play better now. Jason Kidd continues to play at a high level but his mates appear to be fatigued. The scheduling spot favors the visitor. New Jersey is playing its third game in four nights while Miami has not played since Tuesday. The Heat figure to be a small underdog and considering their four straight road wins, look attractive. Take HEAT.
Saturday, March 16
Pistons at Bucks: These teams have been battling for the Central lead for several weeks and have opened up a sizable gap over third place ÂÃ‚ÂIndiana. Milwaukee won both earlier meetings. Detroit has gotten solid play from Ben Wallace up front with the ÂÃ‚Âoffense powered by Jerry Stackhouse. The Pistons have has displayed excellent chemistry for first year coach Rick Carlisle.
Milwaukee, despite its position in the standings, has been an underachiever. The Bucks are a talented team with Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson but there appears to be some serious chemistry problems as evidenced from a lopsided loss to Sacramento. Detroit has been playing some of the best basketball in the league over the past six weeks and is an attractive underdog. Take PISTONS.
Sunday, March 17
Mavericks at Lakers: This game has clear playoff implications in the Western Conference with both teams battling with Sacramento for the NBA’s best record. The Lakers have won both meetings in a pair of competitive games and the teams will meet again in Dallas in just two more days. Los Angeles is well rested while the Mavericks played Saturday night in Golden State. Dallas has adjusted to the roster changes brought about with the acquisition of ex-Laker Nick van Exel and Raef LaFrentz at the trading deadline. The Dallas bench is solid.
The Lakers have the two best players on the court in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Los Angeles has picked its spots to turn raise the level of play and we can expect this will be another situation. A win clinches the season series between the clubs. The Lakers will be laying a heavy price but are worth backing at home, rather than in the rematch 48 hours later. Take LAKERS.