West has power, but East remains most intriguing

April 16, 2002 10:04 AM
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For almost six months, 29 NBA teams battled each other to eliminate less than half the league and gain positioning for the post-season. The regular season ends Wednesday and as we go to press much has yet to be decided for the playoffs which begin this weekend.

All eight teams in the Western Conference have been determined but most of the seeds are still unknown. Sacramento has secured the top seed and the league’s best overall record and thus will have home court advantage for as long as they remain in the playoffs.

 The Kings unseated the Los Angeles Lakers as champions of the Pacific by fashioning the NBA’s best home record. They’ve won 35 of 40 home games with just Tuesday’s home finale against Golden State remaining. The Kings will open the Playoffs against either Utah or Seattle, the teams currently tied for the seventh and eighth seeds.

Whichever of those teams winds up as the seventh seed will battle the Midwest Division winner, either Dallas or San Antonio. The Mavericks and Spurs have identical records with two games remaining. San Antonio holds the tie breaker after defeating Dallas three times in four games this season. The second place finisher in the Midwest will be seeded either third or fourth since the Lakers begin the week with the same record as the Spurs and Mavs. Minnesota is likely to end up as the fifth seed and Portland as the number six seed.

Most of the Eastern Conference playoff teams are known with six teams having already clinched berths. Milwaukee, Toronto and Indiana are battling for the final two berths and the right to face either New Jersey or Detroit. New Jersey has clinched the top seed in the Conference and won the Atlantic Division title ”” their first Division crown since entering the NBA over a quarter of a century ago. Detroit is the East’s second seeded team having won the Central Division ­­title.

Boston will be seeded third in the East. Orlando and Philadelphia are tied, a game ahead of Charlotte thus meaning that any of the three could be seeded fourth or sixth. Toronto is just another game back and could improve their current seventh seed. Or, with a pair of losses and two wins each by Milwaukee and Indiana, the Raptors could be out of the Playoffs.

It’s hard to remember any season since the NBA expanded the playoffs that so much has rested on the results of teams’ final two games.

Since exact matchups are not known at press time it is impossible to make specific recommendations on the opening round, best of five, series. Rather, what follows will be general in nature by looking at those teams most vulnerable to being upset in the first round and those teams likely to pull upsets and advance to conference semi-finals.

No team in the East has been playing outstanding basketball over the last month and a half. Boston has won 14 of their last 20 games heading into Monday night’s game at Minnesota and that is the best mark in the conference during this stretch. Contrast that to the performance of both San Antonio and Sacramento. The Spurs and Kings have won 18 of 21 games entering the final two games of the season.

The Eastern conference is wide open. The top three seeds, New Jersey, Detroit and Boston, did not even make the playoffs last season. Experience is a factor in playoff basketball so the lack thereof makes any of these top seeds vulnerable, especially with none of the three entering the post season on a lengthy winning streak. Jason Kidd gives New Jersey a formidable weapon in controlling the pace of their games. The halfcourt game is extremely important in the Playoffs which gives teams with solid floor leadership an advantage.

Detroit may be the most vulnerable of the top three seeds and may well be worth playing AGAINST if they happen to face Milwaukee in the opening round. The Bucks are a very talented team that has underachieved most of the season. Yet they took Philadelphia to the wire in last season’s conference championships. They are a dangerous team and are worth backing to pull a first round upset but ONLY if they are made the underdogs in their series. Defending conference champion Philadelphia’s chances hinge on the availability of Allen Iverson, out for the past month with an injury. If Iverson is available the 76ers will likely be favored in their opening round matchup.

Philadelphia may have a better chance of advancing if they have to play without Iverson. Philly may actually play with greater intensity knowing that they don’t have their superstar on whom to rely.

The West is much more interesting and the quality of the series should be at a much higher level than in the East. Sacramento and San Antonio should advance easily but will be too high priced to back. The best propositions may be to take either the Spurs or the Kings to advance in a sweep if you can find it offered at any of the Sports Books.

 The Mavs are likely to be solid favorites to advance and if they have to face Portland or Utah a first round upset is worthy of consideration.

In general playoff games are lower scoring than regular season games by an average of from six to eight points. But the linesmaker has recognized this development and has set lower Over/Under lines in the Playoffs. Yet the percentage of games going UNDER the total has historically been greater in the playoffs by from three to four percent. So the first way to look at totals is to the UNDER.

The “zig zag” theory is also worth tracking in the playoffs. This theory, which has been popularized by the Gold Sheet over the years, holds that you play on the loser of any Playoff game in the next game.

Thus, you’d have no plays in the first games of series but you’d play the loser of game one in game two, the loser of game two in game three, and so forth.

Right now it’s hard to go against the Lakers. But, the best opportunity for a longshot winner resides in the East. The Charlotte Hornets should carry an attractive price to make it to the NBA Finals.