Like Magic, Orlando is back

Dec 7, 2004 7:48 AM

Most teams have played about 15 games, roughly one fifth of the schedule, and some semblance of form is taking shape.

We have had an opportunity to observe all teams and see which ones are showing signs of improvement after rough starts and those continuing to struggle. Most teams have played a fairly balanced schedule, with pretty much the same number of home games as road games.

One glaring exception is Denver. The Nuggets have played 12 of their first 16 games on their home court, winning eight. As a team expected to contend for a playoff spot in the highly competitive Western Conference, Denver will play more road games over the rest of the season.

The home court is as strong in the NBA as in any other sport. It is very rare for a team to have a better road record than at home. As is true in virtually every sport at every level, wagering value comes with road teams and underdogs.

Of the 247 games played through Sunday, home favorites are 82-90-3. Home underdogs are 33-36-1. It’s still too early to draw any definitive conclusions but overall this season is unfolding in a fairly typical fashion.

One of the more pleasant surprises has been that "other" Los Angeles team. The Clippers begin the week at 10-7, tied with their co-tenants the Lakers. It’s a small sample, but the Clips have a winning road record (4-3) and are playing with confidence for Coach Mike Dunleavy. They are still a longshot to make the playoffs.

The West is again the dominant conference with the three top teams in the league all West of the Mississippi. San Antonio and Seattle are tied for the best record at 15-3, with Phoenix having played one less game at 14-3. Nine of the 15 Western teams have winning records, one more than the number of playoff berths available.

Orlando and Washington are tied (10-5) for the best records in the East. Just three other teams (Cleveland, Indiana and Miami) are above .500. We can expect Detroit, which began the week 8-8, to improve now that Ben Wallace is back from suspension.

The New York Knicks lead the Atlantic Division with a .500 record. The winner of that division has a real chance to finish close to or below break even at season’s end. In general, the quality of play in many games is up this season, with more teams playing an uptempo pace.

Scoring is up nearly five points per game from last season and there have been more "overs" (127) than "unders" (117) thus far.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend:

Kings at T’wolves (Fri): Minnesota won a high scoring game in Sacramento late last month, handing the Kings their only home loss this season. The Kings are still a contender, but are not as strong or deep as last season. Revenge players will look to take the points with Sacramento in this spot, having been idle since Tuesday. Both sides play on the road Saturday. Minnesota has shown to be the better club, having now won 8-of-12 including last season’s playoff series. MINNESOTA.

Cavs at Spurs (Sat): Cleveland gets a chance to measure its level of improvement, going against arguably the NBA’s best team. The teams split last season, with each winning at home. San Antonio has been winning by margins this season, with only one victory below eight points. Cleveland has also been winning by healthy margins, but the last three losses (all on the road) have been by double digits. LeBron James may be the King in waiting, but the Spurs Tim Duncan is still the master of this matchup. SAN ANTONIO.

Magic at Lakers (Sun): Orlando won the earlier meeting a month ago in a high scoring contest as a small home favorite. The return of Grant Hill to relatively full health makes the Magic a contender in the East, with a solid starting five and decent depth. The Lakers are still adjusting to the loss of Shaq, but Kobe Bryant is showing signs of being more of a team player and getting his mates more involved in the offense. Look for both teams to run the court and, with no intimidating presence in the middle, expect plenty of points. OVER.

Last week: 1-2.

Season: 8-6.