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NEW TGS COVER STORY...LOOK-AHEAD TO NBA PLAYOFFS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldhseet.com Editor


This has certainly been a unique NBA season, with a 66-game schedule compressed into roughly four months of time after the work stoppage that extended into late December. It created some interesting and unique dynamics in the regular season which could continue into the postseason.

Before we sign off for this publishing season, and with the playoffs commencing this coming weekend, we'll preview conference title prospects for the individual teams. Remember, even though this is our last issue of the season for TGS Hoops, we will continue to provide NBA selections on a daily basis throughout the postseason, which can be accessed on our website at www.goldsheet.com or by calling 1-800-798-GOLD (4653) and signing up for our special Late Telephone Service package throughout the playoffs.

Odds listed after each team reflect conference title prices.

EASTERN CONFERENCE


TOP CHOICE: We're not sure how much value there is in the price on the Miami Heat (4/5) to advance to the Finals for a second straight year. With all hands on deck, however, we still think the Heat is probably the team to beat in the East. Recent injuries to Chris Bosh (hamstring) and Dwyane Wade (dislocated index finger) are considered minor and not expected to cause either to miss playoff action, but they are part of a season-long narrative for Erik Spoelstra's club, which has been dealing with such minor annoyances practically the entire, compressed campaign. The recent return of sharpshooter Mike Miller from an ankle injury is good news, and Miami looks better prepared for a title run with improved depth thanks to the additions of Shane Battier and Ronny Turiaf since last season. A pair of recent losses to Boston have caused alarm bells to ring in South Beach, however, and the pressure is squarely on LeBron James to finally deliver a title after so many playoff disappointments in the past.

TOP CONTENDER: The Chicago Bulls (6/4) are likely to have homecourt edge throughout the East half of the playoffs, just as they did a year ago. But that wasn't enough last spring to beat the Heat in the conference finals and might not be enough again this season unless Derrick Rose, who has been limited and played little due to a recurring groin strain for the past six weeks, isn't at 100%. Last Thursday's 83-72 loss at Miami, when the Bulls were minus Rose, is a warning sign that Tom Thibodeau's club needs a healthy Rose to make a serious run. On the plus side, Rip Hamilton, who missed considerable time due to hip, groin, and shoulder injuries this term, finally appears to be healthy; his offseason addition, providing the Bulls with an extra and much needed shot-creator besides Rose, is the X-factor for Chicago and the main potential upgrade from a year ago. If a rematch occurs vs. Miami in the East finals, note how much trouble the Bulls have had matching up with LeBron James (32 ppg this season vs. Chicago) this term; Thibodeau's top defender, Luol Deng, usually draws the matchup vs. Dwyane Wade when Chicago faces the Heat.

KEEP AN EYE ON: It has been a rollercoaster season for the Boston Celtics (10/1), who have banded together for what appears to be one last title run after the veteran core was nearly disassembled at the trade deadline. This is almost assuredly the last rodeo together for the "big three" (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen), especially with K-G and Allen due to become unrestricted free agents. But after rallying in late March, Boston has flattened out a bit down the stretch (only 7-5 SU last 12 thru April 23) with nagging injuries to Allen (ankle) and Rajon Rondo (back) limiting their recent contributions. Recent road losses to the Knicks and Hawks indicate the Celtics can be very vulnerable at less than full strength, and it might be asking a lot of the veteran core to be healthy enough to make a deep run. If Boston advances past either Atlanta or Orlando in the first round, note that likely second-round foe Chicago won three of four vs. the Celts this campaign.

Perhaps overlooked have been the Indiana Pacers (18/1) , who have been to the playoffs before and who many believe are better-suited to make some noise this postseason with more frontline presence, thanks to the main offseason addition, PF David West, and improving ex-Georgetown C Roy Hibbert. The emergence of explosive swingman Paul George to remove some of the scoring burden from Danny Granger has also been a plus, and ex-Spur George Hill has improved backcourt depth and has stepped seamlessly into the starting lineup with Darren Collison (available again) nursing a sore groin. The trade deadline addition of G Leandro Barbosa has given Frank Vogel even more options off his bench. Third-seed Indiana has closed the season with a rush (11-2 SU last 13 thru April 22), but if it advances to the second round, likely gets the Heat, who provided matchup problems before the Pacers finally won in the fourth reg.-season meeting on March 26. Dangerous longshot with a puncher's chance to upset one of the big boys and worth a look at this attractive price.

TAKE A FLYER? We wouldn't count out the New York Knicks (22/1), who have been a different team since Mike Woodson took over from Mike D'Antoni on the sidelines in mid-March. Although some have wondered aloud about on-court chemistry issues between Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire (amplified when the Knicks recently lost to the Cavs in Stoudemire's first game back from injury), a subsequent win at Atlanta suggests those concerns might not be warranted and that the Knicks should not be dismissed, especially with Carmelo posting huge offensive numbers in recent weeks. Much more dangerous than at this stage a year ago, when the Knicks weren't playing much defense for D'Antoni and were swept by the Celtics in the first round.

NOT MUCH HOPE: The Atlanta Hawks (35/1) are a playoff regular and advanced to the second round a year ago, and HC Larry Drew did a superb job keeping the Hawks afloat by patching together a serviceable frontline in the wake of Al Horford's early season-ending pectoral injury. But minus Horford, the Hawks were never going to be considered a conference title threat. Ditto for the Orlando Magic (65/1) minus Dwight Howard, whose soap opera-like season has ended with back surgery, rendering the Magic as target practice for their first-round opponent (likely Indiana). The matchup Orlando wanted to avoid was vs. Boston, which dominated the Magic even when Howard was available, but without "Superman" in the lineup, Orlando is due for a quick exit. So, too, appear to be the Philadelphia 76ers (65/1), whose early-season success was mostly due to a favorable slate. But the Sixers have floundered since the All-Star break and look to have barely squeezed into the playoff mix (the magic number was one as we went to press on Monday), and appear unlikely to make much noise.

WESTERN CONFERENCE


TOP CHOICE: They're not even the betting favorite in the West, but we think the San Antonio Spurs (11/4) are the team to beat in the conference. Give HC Gregg Popovich high marks for navigating through the grueling regular-season slate and providing proper rest to his aging core components Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili (the latter finally healthy after a series of nagging hurts the entire season). "Coach Pop" used the regular season as an opportunity to develop added depth, and the likes of swingman Danny Green and San Diego State rookie F Kawhi Leonard quickly emerged as solid contributors. The late-season addition of rugged frontliner Boris Diaw from Charlotte was another valuable piece to allow Popovich to further spot Duncan as necessary. The Spurs enter the playoffs as the deepest team in West and likely with the top seed in the conference after a late-season hot streak, winning 18 of their last 20 SU thru April 22. Also, don't forget that San Antonio won the title in the last lockout-impacted, reduced regular season in 1998-99, as some view Popovich as the hoops version of Joe Gibbs, whose organizational skills proved invaluable in NFL work stoppage-shortened seasons in 1982 & '87, when Gibbs' Redskins won the Super Bowl. The Spurs appear to provide excellent value to win the West at that favorable price.

TOP CONTENDER: In truth, San Antonio and the Oklahoma City Thunder (10/11) are choices 1A and 1B in the West. We highly doubt another team breaks through and represents the conference in the Finals, as the power base in the West clearly rests between the AT&T Center and Chesapeake Energy Arena this season. With a slightly more-favorable price at the moment on San Antonio, however, we simply believe the Spurs provide a bit better wagering value. But the Thunder might be prepared to make the jump to the league Finals after getting their feet wet in the postseason the past two years (eliminated in a compelling 6-game set vs. the Lakers in the first round two years ago before advancing to the West Finals last season). The core of the team has the enviable combo of playoff-seasoning and relative youth, and Kevin Durant's game (which has him as the league's leading scorer entering the week) has never been better. Last year, G Russell Westbrook's wildness proved an albatross, especially vs. Dallas in the conference finals, but he seems to have settled down this season. Can Ok City also take it the distance with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins manning the frontline? We'll see. Note that the Spurs won two of the three reg.-season meetings.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Remember, Lionel Hollins' Memphis Grizzlies (12/1) took out San Antonio in a major first-round upset a year ago and the enter the playoffs relatively healthy with Zach Randolph having had ample time to get comfy in the lineup after missing over two months with a knee injury. With Randolph and Marc Gasol (back in action after a recent injury) good to go, the Grizzlies could be ready to cause more problems. Remember, Memphis was minus Rudy Gay due to a shoulder injury for the playoffs a year ago, and Gay's steadying influence has been a plus. The Grizzlies are also making a nice fortress out of FedEx Forum, winning their last nine SU as host thru April 22. Memphis did lose seven of eight games this season vs. San Antonio and Ok City, though Randolph was absent for several of those clashes.

The LA Clippers (11/1) haven't been to the playoffs in five years, and the franchise has not had much success in the postseason since campaigning as the old Buffalo Braves in the mid '70s and winning playoff series in back-to-back years (1975 & '76) with teams featuring Bob McAdoo and Randy Smith. That lack of postseason experience is something that vet and past title-winning G Chauncey Buillups could have alleviated had he not ruptured an Achilles tendon at midseason. There are still potential difference-makers in Chris Paul (who has been to the playoffs in the past with New Orleans) and of course Blake Griffin, and the Clips have steadied themselves in recent weeks, winning 14 of their last 17 games thru April 23. But we thought the Clips were a much more dangerous threat with Billups than without him.

WORTH A LOOK? We'll see if the LA Lakers (13/2) are going to be without Metta "Ron Artest" World Peace for any extended period of time (which appears likely) as he looks at a likely suspension following the dangerous elbow he threw that connected with the head of Ok City's James Harden on Sunday. By the way, what was with the response of the many insufferable Lakers fans who decided that World Peace was due a standing ovation and high-fives from the crowd as he exited the court after being ejected for that flagrant act against Harden? Were they kididng, or did they just not see what happened? Kobe Bryant has returned to active duty from his recent shin injury, and the presence of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the frontline means the Lake Show cannot be dismissed. But results have been a bit mixed since adding G Ramon Sessions at the trade deadline, and recent blowout losses to the Spurs suggest that the Lake Show is far from the team to beat in the West this postseason.

The Dallas Mavericks (18/1) are the defending champs, but we suggest are more likely to resemble the postseason underachievers of the years prior to last season's surge to the NBA crown. The Mavs have missed the interior presence of Tyson Chandler (who moved to the Knicks in the offseason) the entire campaign, and the Lamar Odom experiment blew up in Mark Cuban's face. The backcourt has been injury-hampered all season, and aging Jason Kidd and Jason Terry have yet to display the same spark as they did in last spring's playoffs. It will take heroic work from Dirk Nowitzki for Dallas to make another deep run, but even the big German has dealt with recurring knee issues during the campaign. Dallas doesn't look as menacing as a year ago and had split its last 18 games SU entering the reg.-season finale vs. Atlanta.

ANY OTHERS? The last spot in the West will come down to the Utah Jazz (80/1) and Phoenix Suns (65/1), who have a showdown scheduled for Tuesday night in Salt Lake City. Of those two, we might be more inclined to keep an eye on the Suns, who have made a sustained run since mid-February, fueled by vet G Steve Nash and an improved supporting cast that HC Alvin Gentry finally learned to use correctly midway through the season. As for the Jazz, they have navigated through injuries and exceeded expectations for HC Ty Corbin, but are unlikely to cause much trouble should they qualify. Also unlikely to cause much trouble are the Denver Nuggets (50/1) , who could avoid facing the Spurs or Thunder in the opening round if they squeeze into the sixth seed ahead of Dallas, but figure to be big underdogs nonetheless. George Karl's team has dealt with injuries all season and now has to worry about frontliner Al Harrington's knee after Wilson Chandler (hip) and Rudy Fernandez (back) have already been declared out until further notice. Not this year for the Nuggets
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