Lakers making their move in NBA West

Mar 30, 2004 6:56 AM

Barely two weeks remain before the NBA’s "Second Season" (aka the playoffs) begin. Much has yet to be decided but clearly we are receiving ”˜buy’ and ”˜sell’ signals for most of the contending teams.

The Eastern Conference situation remains laughable once you get past the top three seeds. Indiana, New Jersey and Detroit have long since secured those top seeds and even within that trio large gaps exist.

But the fourth through eighth seeds may involve five teams each with losing records. New Orleans, currently seeded fourth, is just one game above .500 and has played losing basketball over the past month. There is just a seven game gap between the Hornets and the No. 12 team, Toronto.

Of the eight battling for the final five berths, only Miami, Boston and Cleveland have winning records over their last 10 games. Miami has been the best story of late. After starting the season 0-7, the Heat are in excellent position to secure the fourth seed in the East and home court advantage in the first round.

Things are more unsettled in the West where the quality of play and teams is at a much higher level. Sacramento and Minnesota have been battling for the top seed all season but they now have to contend with the Los Angeles Lakers. Actually the Lakers have caught Minnesota, have one less loss than the Timberwolves, and are within two games of the Kings.

It looks as though the Lakers will be seeded either first or third in the West after having been dismissed by many as the team to beat back in January. Minnesota’s recent slump has enabled San Antonio and Memphis to draw within a pair of games of the top spot in the Midwest.

Over the weekend Memphis clinched the first playoff spot in franchise history and is just two losses behind Minnesota with the Spurs sandwiched in between. Dallas is also less than five games out and is currently seeded sixth.

Houston seems set in seventh but there is a three-way battle for the eighth and final seed in the West. Portland and Utah have each made the playoffs for the past two decades but it’s likely at least one of those streaks shall end.

The Jazz and Blazers are each a half game ahead of Denver, which had been in the top eight all season. Both teams have some tough tests remaining but Portland does control its own destiny, carrying the fewest losses among the three teams.

The linesmaker continues to achieve balance between home/road teams and favorites/ underdogs against the pointspread. The "under" is hitting at nearly 58 percent during the past three weeks. This may be largely due to so many teams still having reason to play hard, either for making the playoffs or improving their seeding.

The best scenarios for high scoring games occurs when two teams out of playoff contention meet and the defensive intensity just is not present.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Cavaliers at Bucks (Fri): Milwaukee begins the week seeded fifth in the East while Cleveland is currently ninth. But with just a 3½-game gap between the teams and eight teams within seven games of one another for five playoff spots, this matchup has great importance. Especially for the Cavaliers. Certain Rookie of the Year LeBron James has even exceeded the lofty expectations set for him as he has his team on the edge of the playoffs.

After a surprisingly strong start, Milwaukee has struggled lately. The Bucks have dropped 10 of their last 13 games. The host has won both meetings this season although the Cavs covered in both. Cleveland will be without Jeff McInnis who has also been instrumental in their recent surge but that just adds value to the line. Cleveland is clearly in better form and has the best player on the court. CLEVELAND.

Hornets at Blazers (Sat): Since trading Rasheed Wallace, Portland has played outstanding basketball and has finally made it to the No. 8 seed in the West. The Blazers have been in danger of having their record 21 straight seasons of making the postseason come to an end. Zach Randolph has emerged as the new team leader and better overall chemistry has been evident.

New Orleans surprised many with its strong 17-7 start to the season, but over the last month the Hornets are a disappointing 5-15. The Hornets have been unable to win most of their key games in this period. Coach Tim Floyd seems to have lost control and the players have not responded. Portland is returning from an East Coast trip while New Orleans is rested. The current momentum suggests Portland is well positioned to avenge its 22-point loss in New Orleans last November. PORTLAND.

Spurs at Lakers (Sun): The Lakers have been on fire since the All Star break and have a very realistic shot at not just winning the Pacific Division but also securing the top seed in the West. Los Angeles has won 19 of their last 23 games and is currently seeded third. The Lakers have sent messages in recent wins over Sacramento and Minnesota that, with the full contingent of players, they are still the team to beat.

San Antonio star forward Tim Duncan has been bothered by nagging injuries the past couple of months, while the supporting cast is considerably weaker than last season. The Lakers have won the first three meetings this season but the teams have not met since early December. Now the message becomes clearer. LA LAKERS.

Last week: 1-2

Season: 40-23