East has ways to go before matching up with West

March 19, 2002 8:21 AM
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Less than a month remains until the regular season concludes on April 17 and much is still undecided about the playoff fates of most teams.

Over the next few weeks, teams will begin to start clinching playoff berths and, in some instances, division titles and first-round home court edges. Teams will also be eliminated and begin to play out the string.

There will be many significant games played during the final four weeks of the season that may provide clues about how such teams may fare during the playoffs. As has been the case for the past several seasons, the quality of play has been much better in the Western Conference than in the East.

 The Los Angeles Lakers have been odds-on favorites for much of the season to win a third straight world title. Of late, the Lakers have started to elevate their play to playoff level as they seek to claim the league’s top overall seed. With their win over Dallas this past Sunday the Lakers have pulled even with Sacramento atop the Pacific Division.

Midwest Division leading Dallas trails L.A. and Sacramento by a game and a half. San Antonio started the week one game behind Dallas. The Lakers and Kings have separated themselves from the rest of the Pacific Division, leading third place, and surging, Portland by seven games.

The Mavericks and Spurs have also found separation from third place Minnesota in the Midwest, following the Timberwolves’ current seven game losing streak. The Wolves are six games out of the division lead and have fallen behind Portland for the conference’s number five seed.

Barring a dramatic change, the Lakers, Sacramento, Dallas and San Antonio will have home court advantage for the opening best of five series. Portland is currently fifth and Minnesota sixth. Those teams figure to battle for those two spots the rest of the way.

Seattle is currently seventh, trailing Minnesota by three and a half games while Utah holds the final playoff berth, a half game behind the Sonics. Realistically only one other team, the Los Angeles Clippers, has a shot at making the playoffs.

The Clippers trail the eighth place Jazz by two and a half games. Phoenix had been a factor for much of the season but recent woes have the Suns seven games below break even and trailing the Clippers by four games.

Things have not changed much in the East over the past week. New Jersey still has the top record in the conference and leads Boston by four games in the Atlantic Division. The Nets also have a four game edge over Central Division leading Detroit for the East’s best record.

Detroit has a one game edge over Milwaukee in the division but both Indiana and Charlotte are within a half dozen games of the lead. Both are just a six or seven game winning streak away from contending for Division honors. New Jersey, Detroit, Boston and Milwaukee currently have first round home court advantages but Orlando, Philadelphia and Indiana all are within distance of at least the fourth seed.

The eight and final playoff berth currently belongs to Charlotte. The Hornets are a game below .500 and have a slim game and a half lead over charging Miami with Washington just two more games back. The biggest fade down the stretch has been by Toronto.

Despite the return of Vince Carter the Raptors have continued to struggle and begin the week seven games below break even. The Raptors are losers of 16 of their last 17 games.

Scheduling continues to be a significant factor at this late stage of the season. Teams in back to back situations, especially if both games have playoff implications, can present “go against” opportunities if the first of the back to back games is tightly contested.

The race to the playoffs will produce some of the best NBA basketball we’ll see this season as teams begin to raise their level of play in preparation for two months of a playoff run.

Here’s a look at three matchups for this weekend:

Friday, March 22

76ers at Celtics: These long time rivals meet for the fourth and final time during the regular season as Boston seeks to even the series. Philadelphia has battled injuries all season and has not resembled the team that won the East last season.

Allen Iverson still puts up outstanding numbers but the support from his teammates has been inconsistent. Dikembe Mutombo remains a dominant defensive force and that should be a major Philly edge here. Boston continues to get steady production from the duo of Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker and the recent addition of Tony Delk gives the Celts a sharp shooting three-point option who can be very streaky.

The first three games between the teams have gone over the total and this game also figures to be played at an up-tempo pace. Boston should be a moderate favorite of from 3-5 points. Both teams are rested and don’t play Saturday. Boston has played very well at home this season while Philadelphia is under .500 on the road. Take CELTICS.

Saturday, March 23

Blazers at T’wolves: It was only a few weeks ago that Minnesota was being proclaimed a legitimate contender in the West. But the T-Wolves have faded over the past month and began this week mired in a seven-game losing streak.

The loss to injury for the balance of the season to PG Terrell Brandon has taken a while for the impact to hit but his on court leadership is sorely missed. Minnesota is getting solid production from Chauncey Billups and Anthony Peeler. Kevin Garnett is having another outstanding season, but Brandon’s absence seems to have sapped the confidence from the team.

Portland is playing with renewed enthusiasm. The Blazers are getting balanced production and seem to have shed the negative attitude that pervaded this team over the past two seasons. Scheduling dynamics work against Portland here. The Blazers are wrapping up a four game road trip that saw them play in Chicago last night. Minnesota is in the midst of nine game stretch which features eight home games. Take TIMBERWOLVES.

Sunday, March 24

Lakers at Kings: This game presents a chance to see if the Lakers are capable of just turning it on when the mood hits. The Kings and Lakers began the week tied for both the lead in the Pacific Division and the NBA’s best overall record.

The teams have split their two earlier meetings with the home side winning each time. The teams will meet again on the final night of the regular season in Los Angeles, quite possibly with the league’s top playoff seed at stake. Both meetings went under the total points with neither team ­­scoring more than 97.

The Lakers were favored in both meetings, including being a three-point choice in the game they lost here. This would appear to be a “statement” game for both teams with Sacramento looking to prove a point about its dominance at home (30-3). Los Angeles wants to remain the team to beat. Both teams are rested and fairly healthy. The Lakers would be very attractive as an underdog but even laying a bucket or so should be fine. Take LAKERS.