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Dirty 2 dozen

Feb 25, 2003 6:34 AM

Editor’s Note: The Iskoe selections are according to the Stardust lines and totals on game day. Should the contest be taken off the board, the result will not count.

With less than 25 games remaining in the NBA regular season, teams more than six games from the No. 8 spot in the playoffs are realistically out of the picture.

The regular season ends April 16, a mere six weeks away. It’s tough to make up that many games in the standings barring a lengthy winning streak. Teams needing to chop off three games or less ”” one game every two weeks ”” can be truly considered too control their own destiny. However, a little help from other teams wouldn’t hurt.

The week begins with a very competitive race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Detroit leads Indiana by half a game and New Jersey by 1. The Pistons and Pacers are battling for the Central Division title, while the Nets have a somewhat comfortable five game lead over both Philadelphia and Boston.

The fourth through eighth seeds are separated by just four games -- plenty of time for things to totally turn around. Joining the Celtics and 76ers are New Orleans, Milwaukee and Orlando. Washington is only one game behind the Magic for the final playoff berth. New York lost some ground on the West Coast, but is only four games out of the No. 8 slot.

In the Western Conference, Dallas continues to own the league’s best record. The Mavericks are 5 ½ games up on both San Antonio and Sacramento. Three games further back are Portland and Minnesota, creating a nice battle for the final homecourt playoff spot in the opening round.

Utah currently holds the No. 6 seed with the surging Los Angeles Lakers a half game ahead of Phoenix for the seven spot. Houston is currently the team on the outside, trailing the Suns by just a half game. We could see a great three-team race for the final two playoff spots among the Lakers, Suns and Rockets.

Bettors should be wary of playing teams with need in natural flat spots when they have big games either the day before or the day after. Often that will mean taking a large number of points with a bad team against a contender. The contending teams realize that although all games are important, thus games against fellow contenders carry more impact.

Here’s a look at three attractive matchups this weekend involving teams involved in battles for top four conference seeds and division titles.

Jazz at 76ers (Fri): Both teams appear secure of being playoff teams and neither has a realistic shot at the division title. The Jazz won the first matchup at Utah in late December by 29 points. Utah is in the midst of a nicely spaced out road trip with no back to back games. This is Philly’s final game before a five-city West Coast road trip. A win here takes on added importance. The 76ers have been able to improve their scoring of late and should be a very slight favorite. Despite the rest for Utah, the situation favors the host. PHILADELPHIA.

Kings at Spurs (Sat): Dallas still has a comfortable margin over the Spurs in the Midwest may still be the team to beat out West. Sacramento has had trouble staying healthy all season but is one of the league’s deepest teams. San Antonio continues to rely on Tim Duncan but the contributions of second year player Tony Parker have been immeasurable. Neither team played last night and the Spurs are in Houston on Sunday. The Spurs have won two of three meetings this season but by just two and three points. Sacramento won the first meeting by 24 points. The road team has won all three meetings. SACRAMENTO.

Pistons at Blazers (Sun): The records of both teams are similar, a testament to the strength of the West. Portland won the earlier meeting two months ago in Detroit, 85-74. Since that time Portland has continued to play solid ball while the Pistons have backed up a bit. Detroit has developed the reputation as a solid defensive team. However, Portland has also been solid defensively in recent weeks. The Blazers have held five straight foes under 100 points and 13 of 15 prior to this week. UNDER.