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NBA play should begin to rise

Apr 1, 2003 5:09 AM

The level of play in the NBA should pick up noticeable with just over two weeks left in the regular season.

Most teams have about 10 games remaining. The races for the top seeds in each conference have tightened up, along with the battle for the eighth and final playoff seed.

Detroit leads New Jersey by 1½ games in the Eastern Conference with Philadelphia three behind and Indiana 3½ back. Both the Atlantic and Central Division titles are up for grabs. These four teams have already clinched spots in the playoffs.

There is a 2½ game gap to New Orleans in the No. 5 slot, a game better than Boston. Orlando is a half game behind the Celtics in seventh. There is a 4½ game gap between the Magic and Milwaukee, which is just a half-game up on Washington for the eighth and final spot. Most likely the Bucks and Wizards will wind up with a losing record.

In the West, Dallas still owns the NBA’s best record, leading division rival San Antonio by just two games as the week begins. Dallas has several tough games remaining before they face the Spurs in San Antonio on the final night of the regular season.

If the Spurs win the division, Dallas could end up seeded third and face the Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round best of seven series. The Lakers have dominated the Mavericks in recent seasons, especially at home. Dallas and the Lakers meet twice before the end of the season, including this Thursday in Dallas.

Sacramento trails Dallas by 3½ games but the Kings currently hold down the second seed in the West by virtue of leading the Pacific Division. The Kings, Mavs and Spurs are the only teams in the West to have officially clinched playoff spots. Portland currently holds down the fourth seed with a half-game edge over Minnesota, although the Blazers have a two game edge on the Timberwolves in the loss column.

Utah and the Lakers have each picked up a pair of games over the past couple of weeks and could wind up with the No. 4 seed. Utah trails Minnesota by two games and Portland by 2½ while the Lakers are just 1½ behind the Jazz. There is a four-game gap back to Houston and Phoenix tied with identical records. The Rockets hold the tiebreaker edge. Here’s a look at three games with playoff implications this weekend.

Kings at Celtics (Fri): The Kings have won a dozen more games than the Celtics and in their only other meeting this season routed Boston at home by 22. The Kings are in the final stages of an Eastern trip but still have a game Sunday in Philadelphia. Sacramento matches up well against Boston with better depth and more scoring options. Boston has had several poor offensive games. KINGS (—4).

T’wolves at Suns (Sat): This game is more urgent for Phoenix. Minnesota is trying to sweep the season series from the Suns but the first three wins were by margins of six, two and seven points. Both teams are well rested, with the Suns idle since Tuesday. Both have key games on Sunday with Minnesota going head to head with Portland on the road. SUNS (—3).

Spurs at Pistons (Sun): These teams met in Texas in late January with the Spurs winning a one sided contest, 108-76. The Western Conference has again proven to be vastly superior to the East. Detroit should put forth a better effort here and the matchup of Ben Wallace against the Spurs’ Tim Duncan should be a treat. Both teams excel defensively so perhaps only 85-88 points is needed to get the win. UNDER (185).

Last week: 3-0

Season: 35-26