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Playoff faces are on

Mar 4, 2003 6:24 AM

With just over a month left in the NBA regular season, teams have begun developing a playoff mentality.

Beginning the week three teams were on winning streaks of at least six games. Philadelphia had won nine straight, while Minnesota had won seven in a row and New Orleans six. The 76ers have now moved into the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, just 3½ games from the top.

Allen Iverson & Co. trail New Jersey by three games and are just two games behind struggling Detroit for the third seed. New Orleans has tied Boston for the fifth seed, 3½ games up on No. 7 Orlando. The Magic are just a half game ahead of both Milwaukee and Washington.

In the West, things have tightened. Five teams, including red-hot Minnesota, are within six games of top seeded Dallas. The Mavericks have led the conference all season but are now just 3½ games ahead of division rival San Antonio and four up on Sacramento.

Portland and Minnesota are tied for the fourth and fifth, six games back. There is a significant five game gap to sixth seeded Utah. The Jazz are just 1½ games ahead of the surging Los Angeles Lakers. The defending champs are finally starting to play consistent ball and will be a threat down the stretch. It looks unlikely that the Lakers will be seeded higher than sixth.

Phoenix currently holds the final playoff spot, 1½ games behind L.A. and just a game ahead of Houston. Golden State and Seattle are each playing well and can’t be dismissed as contenders. The Warriors are just two games out of the playoffs, while the Sonics are 3½ back. Both Phoenix and Houston have been struggling over the past month, so that final playoff berth could well turn into a four-team battle.

Six teams begin the week having won at least 14 of their previous 20 games. Minnesota and San Antonio are each 17-3 over the past month. Portland is 15-5, while Dallas, the Lakers and Philly are each 14-6.

The lines maker is also having an outstanding season in balancing league results. Home teams are 428-413-16 ATS. Home underdogs are covering slightly less than 52 percent of the time. Totals players have seen the Over go 440-402-15 (52 percent) but not quite high enough to show a profit.

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

T’wolves at Lakers (Fri): These teams have met twice this season but not since mid December when the Lakers were still struggling. Minnesota prevailed by 3 in Los Angeles and 16 at the Target Center a couple of weeks later. The game features three MVP candidates in Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. The Lakers will be favored in this game but Minnesota’s recent run may keep this line down a couple of points. Both teams should be focused as neither played the night before or the following day. LAKERS.

Jazz at Mavericks (Sat): The old men of Utah (Karl Malone and John Stockton) just keep getting it done. The Jazz are on course to make the playoffs for the 20th straight season. Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley key the Dallas offense but fatigue might be setting in for the West leaders. Depth is also becoming more of a concern. Both teams played on Friday and will have traveled to get to Dallas. Tired legs might be evident in the second half, which could point to less scoring than normal. The road team is 2-0 in the series. UNDER.

Nets at Hornets (Sun): New Jersey has been having the better season, but New Orleans is playing better at the moment. The Nets, led by Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, have won just 40 percent of their road contests. New Orleans continued to win despite the loss to injury of Baron Davis. Jamal Mashburn and a solid, though not spectacular, supporting cast have stepped up without Davis. New Jersey won the earlier meeting at the Meadowlands in late January, 89-72. The Nets are a bad scheduling spot, playing their fourth game in six nights after finishing a swing through Texas. Both teams want a better playoff seed. HORNETS.

Last week: 3-0

Season: 28-21-1