A Hot Atlantic Division Race Leads Up NBA Weekend Action

The basketball world might be dominated with talk of March Madness from now until April 2 when the nets come down in New Orleans, but TheSportsNotebook hasn’t forgotten about the NBA, where the jousting for playoff berths and position continues in full force with less than two months to go in the regular season. Let’s take a look at the weekend ahead.

One of the most intriguing races is that for the Atlantic Division title right now. Based strictly on record, Philadelphia, Boston and New York would be the 6-7-8 seeds in the Eastern Conference. But NBA rules prohibit a division winner from falling only lower than the 4-spot, thus ensuring them homecourt advantage. So as bad as the Celtics have played, they’re only two back of the division-leading Sixers. In spite of the fact the Knicks were lousy before Jeremy Lin and have started to come down to earth again after the All-Star break, one of these teams is going to have a higher seed than someone like Atlanta, Indiana or Orlando. Hence, Sunday becomes a big day. The college kids from the Big East will have cleared out of Madison Square Garden after Saturday’s tournament final, and on Sunday the pros take over when the Sixers come to town to play the Knicks. And the day’s marquee game on ABC is the Celtics-Lakers at 3:30 PM ET.

The 3-seed is available to a non-division winner, and that’s where the race between Orlando, Indiana and Atlanta become so vital. I don’t really think the Hawks can do it and expect them to settle in at #6 or perhaps even slide to #7 behind the Atlantic runner-up. Atlanta’s got some nagging injuries in the backcourt right now, including to premier scorer Joe Johnson and floor leader Jeff Teague. Indiana’s bee slipping in recent days, and has a huge weekend in the Sunshine State. It starts Saturday at Miami and then a big showdown game with Orlando on Sunday. The Magic are 26-15 and currently lead the race for the 3-spot, but how long will the game’s best rebounder in Dwight Howard be in town? The trade deadline is next Thursday and Orlando has a hard decision to make about the discontented Howard. If he’s happy and focused, Orlando can make the conference semi-finals and be a live dark horse to give Miami or Chicago a real run. Without Howard, they likely plummet to the bottom of the playoff standings and say a quick goodbye at the hands of one of the two favorites, only one round earlier and in a lot less competitive fashion. A lot of people feel there’s no difference between the two. I think there’s a substantial difference, but also respect that Orlando can’t let Howard walk at the end of the season, so it’s a tough call for management to make.

New York visits Milwaukee on Friday night and the Knicks are likely to be without Tyson Chandler, who has a hamstring injury. The Bucks, along with Cleveland are slipping out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and it’s becoming last stand time. If Milwaukee can’t win at home against a shorthanded team they have to catch, then we might as well write them off.

In the West, Memphis is moving up the ladder, making San Antonio sweat in the Southwest Division and sliding into the #3 spot, ahead of the LA Clippers. The Grizzlies are still doing it without power forward Zach Randolph, whom they realistically need if they’re going to make any kind of a playoff run. The standings right now show the Clippers and Lakers destined for a 4-5 battle in the first round, and as they’re the only real contenders in the Pacific Division, we’re at least assured that one of them will have homecourt advantage for the first series. But there are a lot of contenders battling to move up to 5th, or even 3rd and they’re led by Dallas. Also keep an eye on Minnesota. The T-Wolves came through a tough stretch out west, they’re still standing and they get a home game with the suddenly slumping Lakers on Friday night. The Southwest Division could tighten further, as San Antonio has to be the LA Clippers tonight, and Memphis can try and make up ground with a winnable road game in Denver on Sunday.

One team that’s slumping badly is the Houston Rockets, who’ve dropped five in a row and would miss the playoffs if the season ended today. Point guard Kyle Lowry, essential to the team’s success is battling some nagging injuries and in the much deeper Western Conference, there’s no room for error. Not when you have to catch either Minnesota or Denver to play your way back in, and you have teams like Utah and Portland also on the outside looking in. The Trail Blazers host Boston on Friday night and the Jazz get a home game with the Bulls, who may be without Luol Deng, on Saturday.