Kings!

Mar 2, 2004 5:31 AM

With six weeks remaining in the NBA regular season, three teams are in a tight battle for the top overall playoff seed.

Indiana, Minnesota and Sacramento begin the week with 43 wins apiece. Sacramento’s edge rests in its 15 losses, one less than Indiana and two fewer than Minnesota. Getting the league’s top overall seed and the resulting home court advantage for the NBA Finals will be extremely important.

The Pacers would greatly enhance their relatively longshot chances of winning the title if they were to gain the home court edge. For the Kings and Timberwolves it would provide an added cushion of comfort following what figures to be a grueling West playoff run played at a high level.

The Divisional races are much more one sided with only the Midwest featuring a race involving more than two teams. Minnesota has opened up a 3½-game lead over San Antonio with Dallas a half game further back. Surprising Memphis trails by 7½. In the Pacific,Sacramento has a five game lead over the Lakers. No other team is within 10 of the Kings.

Things are even more lopsided in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey has opened a double-digit lead over second place New York in the Atlantic. The Nets are the only team in the division with a winning record. Indiana holds a 6½ game lead over Detroit in the Central with no other team within 10. Indiana’s lead over New Jersey for the top seed in the East is 6½.

The race to just make the playoffs in the weak East is competitive if nothing else. There figures to be three teams with losing records with a shot to win the conference title. New Orleans and Milwaukee are fighting for the fourth seed, seven ahead of the current No. 6 seed.

The West has much more evenly spaced teams battling for the playoffs and, in contrast to the East, no teams with a losing record are likely to be left out. Eighth seeded Denver is currently five games above .500 and 2½ up on ninth place Utah. Portland is a half game further back with Seattle in trouble after losing seven of its last 10 games.

The elite teams in the West are playing excellent basketball right now. The top five teams have each won eight of their last 10 entering the week.

The lines maker continues to do a remarkable job of achieving global balance in the NBA with home teams holding a very slight 426-420-14 edge over road teams in covering the pointspread and "unders" holding a 429-416-15 edge against "overs" in totals results. For the season, underdogs have just a 417-414 edge over favorites (with 14 pushes and 15 games going off at pick ”˜em).

These results show that it is more important than ever to focus on factors other than Power Ratings to make prudent selections. Scheduling dynamics, fatigue, travel and other intangibles must be studied and evaluated in order to improve one’s chances of success. Just comparing final scores and looking at the standings doesn’t cut it any more.

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

Rockets at T’wolves (Fri): Possible preview of an opening round playoff match. The teams have split one-sided home wins earlier this season with both games going "under" the total. The success of the Rockets under first season coach Jeff van Gundy, however, may be a bit illusory. At 4-11, Houston has the fewest wins against fellow division foes than any other team in the league. The Rockets also have a losing record on the road, while Minnesota is one of the NBA’s top home teams. Lay the points. MINNESOTA.

Pistons at Nuggets (Sat): Denver has had a solid season behind rookie Carmelo Anthony and the emergence of Marcus Camby. Detroit is still working newly acquired Rasheed Wallace into its system. Wallace gives the Pistons a much need offensive option. Detroit has an impressive front line while Denver’s edge will be in overall team speed. The scheduling situation also favors the host. The Nuggets have been off since Tuesday and are in the midst of a four game homestand. Detroit is playing the fourth of a five game, eight-day road trip which ends Sunday in Seattle. Denver has won 22 of 31 home games. Could be a pick’em at tipoff. DENVER.

Hornets at Raptors (Sun): Toronto is trying to hold onto the seventh playoff seed but has been in a tailspin over the past two weeks. Playing without stars Vince Carter and Jalen Rose for much of this period, the Raptors have lost 9-of-10 entering this week. The teams met twice in January and both games went well "under" the total. Toronto begins the week having played six straight "unders". New Orleans has played three straight "unders." This game figures to be played along those same lines with 80 points likely enough to get the win. UNDER.

Last week: 2-1

Season: 34-17