LA boosts NBA from
All Star Weekend

Feb 17, 2004 7:41 AM

The NBA’s All Star Weekend was definitely a huge success, widely popular with the fans in attendance in Los Angeles and with TV viewers worldwide.

The fan friendly event is expected to have a positive impact on generating additional interest for the final two months of the regular season and the playoffs that follow. Most teams have roughly 30 games to be played before the regular season draws to a close in mid-April. The trading deadline occurs later this week and the stretch run begins for those teams still in contention for postseason play.

We have already had several significant trades in recent weeks with the New York Knicks, under the new leadership of Isiah Thomas, being most active. In the wide-open Eastern Conference the Knicks are making a serious run for the playoffs and are also restructuring their roster to a contender to win the Conference title.

Though still four games below .500 at the break, the Knicks currently hold the seventh seed in the East and are closer to sixth seeded Toronto than to No. 8 Boston. The overall play in the East has been so poor of late that the Knicks are only one of three Eastern teams to have won more than five of their last 10 games prior to the All Star break.

New Jersey and Indiana are the other teams to have played winning ball over the past three weeks. The Nets have been especially hot, having won 10 straight games, nine of which have been under their new coach Lawrence Franks who replaced Byron Scott last month. Indiana has won seven of their last 10 and maintains the top seed in the East, a full seven games ahead of New Jersey in the battle of current Division leaders.

Both the Nets and Pacers have opened up sizeable margins in their respective races. New Jersey has a 7½ game lead over New York in the Atlantic Division. Indiana is 6½ games clear of Detroit in the Central.

Things are somewhat tighter in the much stronger Western Conference where Sacramento has the league’s best record and a one game lead over Minnesota for the top seed. That edge is a bit deceiving since both teams have the same number of wins but Minnesota has two additional losses. Sacramento does hold a six game lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Pacific Division with no other team within 13 of the Kings.

The fun is really in the Midwest Division. Minnesota has a 2½ game edge over San Antonio with Dallas just four back. Utah is the only team in the division with a losing record. Denver, owning the eighth and final seed in the conference, begins post All Star play eight games above .500.

In approaching how to play the balance of the regular season beware of teams that have shown signs that they have quit on the season. This may be especially the case with teams that had higher expectations such as Orlando and Phoenix. Both were in the playoffs last season but are in last place in their respective divisions and likely to finish there.

The best situations to play against such teams would be in the second of back to back games when fatigue and disinterest are likely to be high. This would be even more likely should these teams actually have given a competitive effort in the first of these games but still lose.

Here’s a look at three attractive matchups this weekend.

Sixers at Lakers (Fri): Allen Iverson has played hard all season but the lack of effort in some of his teammates has been very noticeable. The Lakers should have three of their four stars on the court for this game as they try to make a run at Sacramento. The 76ers begin the week just a half game out of the final playoff berth in the east. But this is a poor scheduling spot for them, playing their third game in four nights, all on the road. The Lakers are also playing their third game of the week but were off last night while Philadelphia was in Seattle. Expect fatigue to set in late as the Lakers show signs of regaining their early season rhythm as they avenge a 23 point loss in Philly just a few weeks ago. LA LAKERS.

Rockets at Mavs (Sat): These long time rivals meet for just the second time this season and it’s been over three months since Dallas won the initial encounter. In recent weeks Houston has been hotter, winning 13 of their last 16 games before the break, including seven of their last eight at home. Houston emphasizes defense and Dallas prefers to run. Dallas is the more talented and deeper team which suggests that Houston’s best chance to win is to really slow down the pace and make this a half court game. Both teams are very well rested so the intensity level should not be diminished in the fourth quarter. UNDER.

Spurs at T’wolves (Sun): Minnesota assumed control of the Midwest at about the time they won at San Antonio in mid January. Since then Minnesota has held on to the top spot even while the Spurs continue to play well. The Timberwolves undertook a major overhaul to their roster during the offseason and provided star Kevin Garnett with some outstanding support in Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. San Antonio’s Tim Duncan does not have nearly as capable a supporting cast and those added options suggest Minnesota might well open up some distance between themselves and the Spurs over the balance of the regular season. MINNESOTA.

Last week: 1-0

Season: 30-15.