Final month looks big in NBA

March 26, 2002 8:35 AM
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Less than a month remains before the NBA playoffs begin and much will be decided over the final dozen or so games for each team in contention for the post-season.

Last Sunday’s one point win by the Lakers over Sacramento drew Los Angeles within one game of the Kings in the loss column. The teams will meet again on the final night of the regular season, which could decide both the Pacific Division title and home court advantage throughout the playoffs.

However, a couple of teams in the Midwest Division, Dallas and San Antonio are still very much within striking distance of catching and overtaking the Lakers and Kings.

Sacramento has a one game lead over the Lakers in the Pacific Division beginning the week. In the Midwest, Dallas and San Antonio begin the week with identical 48-21 marks.

With four teams separated by less than two games for the NBA’s best overall record, the final few weeks of the regular season will present many games played with playoff intensity.

The bottom half of the West bracket has Portland with a game lead over Minnesota in the 5-6 race and Seattle with a half game edge over Utah in the 7-8 battle. Right now the Los Angeles Clippers are in that frustrating ninth position, trailing Utah by two and a half games for the final berth.

The Clippers are two games above .500 and have a real shot at their first winning season in a decade. They are a team on the rise but have the misfortune of playing in the conference that has the vast majority of the NBA’s best teams. If management is able to keep the nucleus of the team intact, the Clippers could approach 50 wins.

In the East, New Jersey in the Atlantic and Detroit in the Central have established gaps between themselves and their nearest challengers. New Jersey begins the week with a six game lead over Boston, while Detroit holds a three and a half game edge over Milwaukee.

The Nets lead Detroit by three and a half games for the conference’s overall best record. Boston currently sits third in the conference with Milwaukee in fourth. These four teams seek to enjoy home court advantage in the opening round playoff series which are best three of five.

Milwaukee’s hold on the fourth spot is tenuous at best. Philadelphia and Orlando begin the week just a half game behind the enigmatic Bucks. The 76ers will be without ­­superstar Allen Iverson for the rest of the regular season while Orlando’s big gun, Tracy McGrady, injured his back over the weekend and is day to day at best.

Charlotte and Indiana are currently seeded seventh and eighth but neither team is ­­assured of making the playoffs. Toronto, Washington and Miami have the difficult task of making up three and a half games. Normally such a deficit would be extremely difficult to overcome but considering that the teams in the bottom half of the eastern conference Playoff chase are merely flirting with .500 should any of the contending teams break out with a four or five game winning streak it could be enough. The gap between the two fifth seeded teams and the three teams currently sitting ninth through eleventh is just five and a half games. Much can change in the course of a week with so many teams so tightly bunched and playing several games amongst one another.

Two teams that have been playing exceptional basketball over the past month have gone largely unnoticed. Detroit in the East and Portland in the West have made major moves in the standings since the All Star break.

San Antonio is also playing its best ball of the season of late. Despite the status of the Lakers are substantial favorites to win it all this season could be the most contentious in a decade with incredibly tight races that are likely to be decided by which team is able to stay the healthiest or is best able to overcome the absence of a key player.

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

Friday, March 29

Mavs at Celtics: One of the more remarkable wagering aspects of the 2001-2002 NBA season has been the linesmaker’s inability to achieve balance in Dallas totals. Through last weekend the Mavs had played a remarkable 47 Overs to just 22 Unders. More than half of those OVERs have exceeded the line by at least 10 points! We’ll probably see a high number posted here as well but the teams did play to just 190 total points in their mid-February meeting.

Still, the pace figures to be up-tempo. Dallas has major scoring punch from several sources including Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley, Steve Nash and the recently acquired Nick van Exel. Boston relies principally on the duo of Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker but has gotten offense from recent additions Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers. Boston is the much better defensive team but capable of running the court. Take OVER.

Saturday, March 30

Sixers at Nets: Philadelphia is literally in a world of hurt with star Allen Iverson likely lost for at least the rest of the regular season. The 76ers are currently in the playoffs but in danger of being ousted should they fail to overcome Iverson’s loss. New Jersey has held the top seeding in the East most of the season behind the on-court leadership of Jason Kidd.

The Nets have been dominant at home of late with several double digit victories over quality teams the past month. New Jersey is likely to be a small favorite. Philly’s best chance for the upset is to control the tempo and not allow New Jersey to get on a roll. Thus a defensive struggle can be expected. The home court has been good to Jersey. Neither team played on Friday so fatigue should not be a factor.  Take NETS.

Sunday, March 31

Spurs at Lakers: This game is likely to impact the post-season seedings out West. The Lakers won the first two meetings in January but San Antonio had an impressive 108-90 home win 10 days ago. Tim Duncan is once again having an MVP-type season with double-doubles on almost a nightly basis. The Spurs began this week having won twelve straight games and are peaking.

The Lakers still depend on Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant for the majority of their offense and are capable of raising the level of play. The Lakers will be solid favorites for the final meeting of the regular season. Both teams are rested but San Antonio is off of road games in Portland and Seattle. Laker coach Phil Jackson has proven to be a master of psychology and should have his team prepared to make a statement. Take LAKERS.