Piercing

Dec 16, 2003 6:52 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: GamingToday columnist Andy Iskoe is trying for this third straight 3-0 week and is hitting a stellar 75 percent of his selections.

With the NBA season entering its second quarter, the best teams continue to reside in the Western Conference.

All but three teams have winning records and five are at or above the .600 percent mark. In the East, there are just four teams with winning records and all are in the Central Division.

Indiana has the best record, a game ahead of New Orleans. Both teams have new coaches and the players have responded well. They are also the only two Eastern teams with winning records on the road.

Detroit and Toronto are the other Eastern teams above .500. Boston and Philadelphia are tied for the lead in the Atlantic Division with .500 records while New Jersey is just a half game back.

The two-time conference champion Nets are fortunate to be in the weaker Atlantic Division where their overall talent suggests they should sprint past both the Celtics and 76ers as the season progresses. Often at this time of season a team playing one game below .500 is at least six games out of the Division lead. The Nets are a fortunate beneficiary of geography.

There are no perfect home teams remaining in the NBA after the Los Angeles Lakers lost to Dallas over the weekend. Sacramento and Dallas also have just one home loss and those three teams have the best overall records in the West.

San Antonio’s recent fine play, which included a home and road sweep of Houston, has vaulted the defending NBA champions within a half game of the Mavericks in the Midwest Division, tied with surprising Denver. All seven teams in the Midwest have winning records beginning the week.

In the Pacific, the Lakers hold a one game edge over Sacramento. The Kings and Lakers don’t meet for the first time until mid-January. In the early going the Lakers edge comes from their ability to win on the road. Only one other team in the West, Minnesota, is above .500 on the road.

Most of the teams in the West have been dominant at home. Nine teams are winning at least 70 percent of their home games, compared to just three such teams in the East.

Here’s a look at three games to be played over the weekend.

Jazz at Celtics (Fri): Utah coach Jerry Sloan continues to do a masterful job of keeping the Jazz competitive at 13-10 despite the loss of John Stockton and Karl Malone. Utah is a more disciplined team than the Celtics. Boston clearly misses the scoring punch of Antoine Walker, putting tremendous pressure on Paul Pierce. Utah is still fundamentally sound defensively and worth considering as an underdog. JAZZ.

Rockets at Suns (Sat): As disappointing as Orlando has been in the East, Phoenix has been equally bad in the West. The Suns have the worst record in the West, winning just one of every three games. There is talent on the roster but the coaching change has yet to light a fire. Houston is playing well for first year coach, Jeff van Gundy, who brings a defensive philosophy to the court. This is a contrast in styles with Phoenix preferring to run and gun under new coach Mike D’Antoni. Houston executes its style better. UNDER.

Blazers at Kings (Sun): Sacramento has finally started to show the form expected as title contenders. After a 4-4 start, the Kings won 12 of the next 13 games. Portland has not crossed the .500 mark, does own a win over the Kings. The Trailblazers continue to be plagued by off the court distractions and had to face San Antonio the previous night in Portland. The Kings return home following a brief road trip where they played three games in four nights. UNDER.

Last week: 3-0

Season: 16-4