Nuggets fading in NBA playoff chase

Mar 23, 2004 4:02 AM

With less than a month remaining in the NBA regular season, momentum is even more of a factor in sports handicapping.

Also, the linesmaker is all too aware that some teams will be giving increased effort while those teams long out of playoff contention are likely to just be going through the motions. Often this decrease in intensity occurs at the defensive end of the floor, causing many games between also-ran teams to go "over" the posted total.

Indiana, Sacramento and Detroit have officially clinched playoff spots. More teams shall do the same within the next week. Indiana is virtually assured of the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers hold a five game edge over the Pistons in the Central Division and lead Atlantic Division leader New Jersey by nine. Detroit is likely to wind up seeded third in the East.

Indiana is battling Sacramento for the top record in the NBA. The Kings and Pacers each begin the week with 19 losses but Sacramento completed a season sweep of the two game series with last Friday’s come from behind two-point victory.

The playoff chase in the East got a bit more interesting over the past week but not in a positive way. Six teams have been battling for the final three playoff berths, but with the recent woes suffered by Milwaukee ”” 2-8 in its last 10 games ”” there are now seven teams fighting for four spots.

Even slumping New Orleans is not in the clear. The fourth seeded Hornets are only 1½ games ahead of fifth seeded Milwaukee. With 13 games remaining, the Bucks are only 5½ ahead of ninth seeded Boston so a continuation of their slump could have the Bucks on the sidelines a month from now.

Miami and Cleveland have been playing the best ball among the teams contending for those last few playoff spots. Miami has played well enough to pass New York for second place behind New Jersey in the Atlantic Division.

It is not a stretch to think that possibly five Eastern Conference playoff teams will have losing records for the regular season. Contrast that to the Western Conference where a pair of teams with winning records (Portland and Denver) are not among the top eight seeds and would miss the playoffs.

Watch out for the Lakers. Los Angeles shaved another pair of games off Sacramento’s lead in the Pacific Division and now trail the Kings by just four games with a dozen remaining. San Antonio trails Minnesota by just two games in the Midwest with both Dallas and Memphis less than five games behind the Timberwolves.

The play in the West should be at a very high level over the final few weeks as teams seek to gain one of the top four seeds and the home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.

Here’s a look at three of the more significant games to be played this weekend.

Mavericks at Heat (Fri): Miami has won eight of 10 games starting the week and has climbed from oblivion in November to the No. 6 seed in the East as April approaches. Most of Miami’s recent success has come against the weaker teams in the league or ones that have been struggling. However, the Heat did defeat Sacramento on this court just three weeks ago.

Dallas has struggled all season on the road. The Mavs rely on offense while Miami has played great defense recently. Miami is in the midst of a stretch that has seen the "under" go 7-1 in its last eight games. During that stretch, the Heat are 8-2. The value here is with Dallas, which was favored at home by 16 when the teams met in the season’s opening week. The Mavs will be a much smaller favorite here, but are deeper and better. DALLAS.

Nuggets at Jazz (Sat): This is an important game for two of the three teams fighting for the final playoff berth in the West. Utah begins the week a half game ahead of both Denver and Portland. Denver has struggled of late and rookie sensation Carmelo Anthony has increasingly shown signs of fatigue from the long grind of the season. The Nuggets have dropped 12 of their last 16 games.

Utah has shrugged off a midseason slump to go 9-4 in the last 13 games. Denver has won all three meetings this season including a 27-point rout at home less than two weeks ago. The Jazz won three games on their recent five game road trip and catch Denver off a Friday night contest in Seattle. Plus, it is Denver’s fifth game in seven days. UTAH.

Rockets at Bucks (Sun): Both rank in the middle of their respective conferences. Each team has exceeded preseason expectations and is headed to the playoffs under first year coaches. Houston has relied on a strong defense anchored by the continually improving Yao Ming.

Milwaukee has succeeded largely behind improving Michael Redd. The Bucks score and allow nearly 10 points per game more than Houston. The Rockets don’t lack on offense with Cuttino Mobley and Steve Francis forming a powerful tandem, but Houston’s overall philosophy is defense first. Houston has a 22-7 record against the East. Milwaukee is only 7-18 versus the Western Conference. HOUSTON.

Last week: 2-1

Season: 39-21