Bettin’ on B’ball by Andy Iskoe |
Just three days and 28 games remain before the NBA’s regular season concludes and little has been decided regarding first round playoff matchups.
Seven spots have been reserved in each conference with the eight and final seeds still up for grabs as we go to press. Atlanta in the East and Denver in the West have the inside tracks on those final seeds but both can be caught by Indiana and Golden State respectively.
Interestingly, if both Denver and Golden State win out and are tied, Denver wins by virtue of the tiebreaker rules. At 50-32 Golden State would be a 50-win team that misses the playoffs.
That possibility alone should say something about how strong and deep the Western Conference playoff field is this season. The Los Angeles Lakers control the top seed in the West and a win in their season finale Tuesday over Sacramento would give them a 57-25 record.
That would create a narrow seven-game gap between the top seed and bottom seed, clearly indicating that an upset in any first round or later series for that matter should not come as a huge surprise.
The Nuggets could actually wind up seeded seventh if they win their final game Wednesday against Memphis and Dallas loses the same night at home to New Orleans.
A change in the rules this season gives home court advantage in each series to the team with the better regular season record regardless of how those teams are seeded.
As it stands, Utah will be seeded fourth by virtue of having won the Northwest Division while Houston likely will be seeded fifth. With each team still having two games to play, the Rockets are one better than the Jazz and would enjoy the home court, though the lower seed.
The Eastern Conference is somewhat clearer. The top three seeds have been locked in for some time. Boston will finish as the NBA’s top overall seed with the league’s best record. The Celtics have been an amazing story and by winning on Monday and Wednesday would finish 66-16 after finishing 24-58 a season ago.
Boston has already set the NBA record for the greatest single season turnaround with any additional wins just increasing that record and will be heavily favored to win its opening round series, most likely against Atlanta.
The Celtics won all three games against the Hawks this season, winning each by double digits and with all three games staying under the total. Should the Pacers catch the Hawks and earn the eighth seed, they should fare no better against Boston. Again, Boston won all three games against Indiana during the regular season.
The playoff matchups are not set so we cannot offer specific recommendations for this weekend. Rather, here are some generalized thoughts about possible first round results, including potential upsets and how some series may flow.
Two of the most important factors that govern playoff success are defense and an ability to win on the road.
The top six teams in terms of fewest points allowed on the road are Detroit, San Antonio, Boston, Houston, New Orleans and Dallas. That last team -- Dallas -- should come as a surprise to many casual NBA observers as the Mavericks have been thought of as an offensive oriented team.
The inability to fashion a winning road record tempers the enthusiasm for the Mavs to advance. The 17-24 road record is a concern and the Mavs are one of three Western playoff teams to have a losing record away from home. Utah and Denver are the others. The Jazz own the league’s best home record, currently 36-4.
New Orleans has been the Western version of the Celtics, rising from mediocrity a season ago (39-43) to challenge for the top seed in the conference. The Hornets will be worth backing in their opening series if underdogs against any team other than San Antonio. A win at Dallas on Wednesday would tie New Orleans with the Lakers for the best road record in the West at 27-14.
The Lakers should be the top Western seed and will be solid
favorites Tuesday night against Sacramento. But, they will be highly priced to
win their opening round matchup against either Denver or Golden State. The
Lakers took all three games from Denver this season and split their four against
the Warriors. The Lakers will be worth backing at -200 or less (which is
unlikely) against either team.
Phoenix is one of the more interesting teams. It took a while following the trade for Shaquille O’Neal for the Big Cactus to fit into the Suns’ system. But Phoenix has played well down the stretch and could be a real dark horse to go far in the playoffs. The Suns took 3-of-4 from the Spurs, but lost all four against New Orleans.
Houston’s 22 game winning streak was the most impressive team feat of the season, but the absence of Yao Ming will hurt. Over the course of a seven game series adjustments are continually made. Houston is worth playing as underdogs to get by Utah in the opening round if gaining the home court advantage. But it’s hard to see the Rockets going any farther.
San Antonio still has to be accorded respect due to defending champion, especially because their preferred style of play is so conducive to post season play. The multiple titles over the past decade makes them extremely dangerous. At -250 or less, the Spurs are worth playing against any first round opponent.
In the East, aside from Boston both Detroit and Orlando should advance rather easily. A win Tuesday in Atlanta would Orlando for the second best road mark in the entire league (27-14) behind Boston. The Magic split four games against Detroit and won 2-of-3 against Boston.
It’s hard to see Boston, Detroit or Orlando not advancing in the opening round. What would be surprising isif any of the teams is extended beyond five or six games.
The four-five matchup figures to be competitive and likely matches Cleveland against Washington. With Gilbert Arenas back for the Wizards the chances of the defending Eastern champion Cavaliers to be an early elimination are very real. Washington at +120 would be a nice play to win that series.
Because of the competitive balance in the West, consideration should be given in Game 2 to playing the loser of Game1 if underdogs.
In the Eastern conference Boston, Detroit and Orlando can be played in both Games 1 and 2 if favored by no more than 7. This likely results in no play on the Celtics.
BEST IN WEST?