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My Patriotic duty:
Turning to basketball projections

Feb 3, 2004 6:35 AM

With the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl, the focus of the sports world for the next several months shifts to basketball.

In the colleges, the talk begins to heat up about the Madness that is March. In the pros, the NBA All Star break is just a couple of weeks away and marks the figurative halfway point in the season. All teams are well into the mathematical second half of the season but the All Star break is usually the starting point for increased intensity as the battle for playoff berths and positioning heats up.

The trading deadline also occurs Feb. 19, just after the All Star game. Over the next few weeks, teams will continue to assess their realistic current season objectives and act accordingly. Veterans may be traded to increase salary cap space for next season while providing additional help to teams contending for the title or making the playoffs.

The Western Conference will have several good teams fall short of the postseason. Nine teams have winning records and another two are a short winning streak away from joining that group. In the East, only five teams are playing winning basketball. The teams currently occupying the final two playoff spots are five games below .500.

Things have been unsettled in the East. With the firing last week of Byron Scott at New Jersey and the resignation Jim O’Brien in Boston, Terry Stotts is the longest tenured coach in the 15 team conference. The Atlanta head coach has been on the job barely more than a year. It’s hard to establish any continuity with such constant change.

Indiana, Minnesota and Sacramento remain the top teams in the league and the only ones winning more than two of every three games. Indiana has a huge 8½ game lead over New Jersey for the top seed in the East.

The Pacers hold a similar margin in the Central over New Orleans and Milwaukee. The Hornets and Bucks are tied for third behind Detroit, which trails Indiana by three games for the division lead. Toronto, Boston and New York hold the remaining three playoff spots although Toronto has started to struggle, losing eight of its last 10 games entering this week.

Miami has also played well recently, closing within one-half game of the final playoff berth. Philadelphia has fallen behind the Heat, thanks to numerous injuries and losing eight of the last 10 games. The Sixers are not a very deep team and their struggles are likely to continue.

Sacramento has a slim half game lead over Minnesota for the top seed in the West but both have opened some gaps over their divisional runner-ups. Minnesota has a 3½ game edge over defending champion San Antonio. Dallas is a game further back and the other four teams in the Midwest Division are each over .500 and within 10 games of the first place T’wolves.

The Kings lead the Pacific by 4½ over the Los Angeles Lakers. No other team is within 10 of the Kings. Winning on the road continues to be the key to success in the NBA and is usually what separates contending teams from those unlikely to pose a threat in the playoffs.

Indiana (16-8) and Detroit are the only Eastern teams with winning road records. Minnesota (17-8), San Antonio and Sacramento are the only Western teams with winning road marks. The preseason favored Los Angeles Lakers are just 8-12 SU away from home. Of course they have been without several of their stars for extended stretches.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Brewers at Grizzlies (Fri): Both teams have nearly identical records. Michael Redd has become a real force for the Bucks. Memphis has really benefited from the approach of coach Hubie Brown. The Grizzlies will set a franchise record for wins within days. Memphis rates the scheduling edge here and should be small favorites. The Grizzlies are also a better balanced team and have played excellent defense at home. MEMPHIS.

Pistons at Mavericks (Sat): Both teams are playing solid basketball at the season’s midpoint. Detroit scores and allows nearly 14 points per game less than does Dallas. In their first meeting, Detroit defeated the Mavericks in a high scoring game that was played at Dallas’ preferred pace. The inside presence of Detroit’s Ben Wallace might again deciding the outcome. Dallas is well rested, but defensive underdogs are very attractive when two good teams meet. DETROIT.

Nuggets at Kings (Sun): Denver is poised to make the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons. Rookie Carmelo Anthony has received most of the attention but the contribution of a healthy Marcus Camby cannot be overlooked. Sacramento has fashioned the league’s best record without star Chris Webber seeing a minute of action. The first two meetings produced a pair of "over" results. The total will again be around 210 range, but both teams can top that figure. OVER.

Last week: 1-2

Season: 27-14