Many questions remain
as playoffs draw close

Apr 8, 2003 6:35 AM

The college basketball season has ended and hoop junkies are left with the big boys for another two months.

The NBA’s regular season ends in the middle of next week when we will be treated to basketball at the highest level until the NBA champion is crowned in late June. Will the Los Angeles Lakers with a fourth straight title? Will San Antonio end the Lakers run after being the team that last won the title before L.A.?

Will Sacramento finally win its title after several years of building to this point? Will Dallas complete a wire-to-wire run as the league’s best team this season with a title? Or might the basketball world be shocked by a team from the admittedly much weaker Eastern Conference sneaking past the survivor in the grueling West.

As this week begins, seven teams have clinched playoff berths in the West. Only Houston and Phoenix are left to compete for the final spot. Phoenix currently leads the Rockets by a slim half game (one less loss) with a half dozen games to play.

Only five Eastern Conference teams have officially clinched playoff spots with Boston about to join that group in another day or two. Orlando is in a comfortable position to clinch over the next few days as well. Milwaukee will have to hold off Washington for the final spot in the East. The Bucks currently have a two game lead over the Wizards.

As teams continue to fill out the playoff field, seeds and positioning remain very much in doubt in both conferences. New Jersey begins the week with a half game lead over Detroit in the East but the teams are even in the loss column. Philadelphia, currently sitting third, trails New Jersey by 2½ games in the Atlantic Division race.

Detroit leads Indiana by 1½ games in the Central. Overall, there are four teams separated by just 2½ games in the race for the East’s top seed. Each of these teams should at least secure homecourt advantage in the playoff’s opening round with just five or six games remaining for each team.

The West is just as tight with a three-team battle for the top seed. After leading the league for the entire season, Dallas has seen its margin dwindle to just a half game over San Antonio, with Pacific leader Sacramento just two back. Dallas still has to play a game at the Lakers and will end the regular season at San Antonio.

The third seeded team would currently play the Lakers who lead Utah by a game for that spot. Dallas is well aware of its problems with the Lakers, so the final 10 days of regular season play should feature much playoff-intensity by many of the contending teams.

Here’s a look at three key games this weekend.

Mavericks at Jazz (Fri): Although Dallas leads Utah by more than a dozen games in the standings; the teams have virtually identical records over the past half season. Led by John Stockton and Karl Malone, the Jazz are most likely making their last run at a title. Dallas is a team still on the rise with bright potential for the next few seasons. The Mavs have won two of three meetings this season with all three games going UNDER the total by 13, 17 and 25 points. The play is UNDER 198.

Celtics at Magic (Sat): Boston is led by the tandem of Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker while Orlando relies on Tracy McGrady for the bulk of the offense. Both teams have struggled to play .500 ball over the past month. The Celtics have won three of four earlier meetings, but the teams have not met since late January. All four games were decided by eight points or less. Boston has an extra day of rest with Orlando having played at Indiana on Friday night. The Magic have been more consist and rate the edge. ORLANDO (—5).

Spurs at Suns (Sun): Over the last 41 games, the equivalent of a full half-season, San Antonio has won 35 games. The Spurs are clearly the hottest team in the league as David Robinson winds down his career in a supporting role to MVP candidate Tim Duncan and rising point guard Tony Parker. After going 25-16 over the first half of the season Phoenix has gone just 15-20 since. Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion continue to have solid seasons. With the playoffs at hand the edge goes to the better defensive team. SAN ANTONIO (—3).

Last week: 2-1 Season: 37-28