‘March Madness’ can carry over to NBA

Mar 18, 2003 4:58 AM

Most of the attention of basketball fans will be focused on the ongoing NCAA Tournament over the next few weeks, but the NBA season is approaching its glamour time as well.

Barely a month remains in the regular season and the charge for the playoffs intensifies. The season concludes for 13 teams in mid-April. As for the 16 others that qualify for the playoffs, it becomes a two-month grind toward the NBA Championship.

The conference races tights, especially in the East where no fewer than six teams are within five games from the top seed. Detroit, Indiana and New Jersey are now being pushed by Philadelphia, Boston and New Orleans.

The 76ers have passed slumping Indiana for the No. 3 seed. Unless the Pacers can recapture their fine play of the first half of the season they could end up without home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.

Orlando leads Michael Jordan and Washington by 1½ games for the seventh seed starting the week. The Wizards have a slim half-game lead over Milwaukee for the eighth seed.

In the West, Dallas has had the NBA’s best record since the opening game of the season. The Mavericks’ lead over San Antonio is down to just 2½ games, even after finally defeating Sacramento this past Sunday. Over the past 30 contests, the Spurs have picked up five games Dallas.

San Antonio is still seeded third in the West despite being the Mavs’ closest pursuer. The No. 2 seed is Pacific Division-leader Sacramento, which trails Dallas by 4½. Portland and Minnesota are separated by just a half game in the battle for No. 4 slot and final homecourt seed for the opening round of the playoffs.

The Lakers are four games back at No. 6 and hold a half game lead over Utah. Houston currently holds the final playoff berth in the West.

Golden State’s fine play needs to be acknowledged. This long forlorn franchise has started to turn things around, going 23-17 SU over the last 40 games.

Here’s a look at three matchups to be played this weekend.

Bucks at Hornets (Fri): These teams will next meet just 24 hours later on Saturday in Milwaukee. The series stands 1-1 with the road team winning each contest this year. The Bucks played well for a stretch after acquiring Gary Payton prior to the trade deadline. However, that fine play has turned around sharply. New Orleans has played well over the past month, winning 14 of its last 20 games. Milwaukee has been a disappointment for the past two seasons. On the other hand, the Hornets have tended to be more of an overachiever. NEW ORLEANS (—3).

Kings at Blazers (Sat): These teams have virtually identical records dating back to mid-November. Sacramento has battled injuries but remains the best-balanced team in the league. The Trailblazers have gotten solid play from several players all season, most notably Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells. Sacramento has won two of three meetings this season, including an opening-week 28-point blowout win. The last two meetings have been close, with the Kings winning at Portland by 1 and the Blazers upsetting the Kings in Sacramento in overtime. Scheduling dynamics favor the host. The Kings come off a home game against the Lakers two nights ago and host Houston on Sunday. PORTLAND (+2).

Lakers at Spurs (Sun): These teams have combined to win the last four NBA league championships. San Antonio is looking to complete a four game season series sweep of the Lakers, although all three wins have been by eight points or less. The Lakers have leveled off a bit in the past two weeks after a tremendous February. The Spurs began the week having won 21 of their last 25 games. SAN ANTONIO (—4).

Last week: 1-2

Season: 31-24