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Down the Stretch

   by Al McMordie - 03/24/2008

There are a couple of key points to keep in mind from a handicapping perspective as the NBA season begins to wind down. One is that this is the end of a long season. That means teams have had to endure a lot of road trips, airline flights, and all the difficulties that hinder a professional team away from home. Keep in mind that road trips can be very different early in the year, in mid-season and late in the season.

For early season road trips, teams are fresher and can even look forward to trips as a challenge to see how good they are. Late in the year, however, it can be far more of a hassle and a grind as we approach the end of an 82-game season. Bad teams can be more interested in getting the season over with, and even good teams can be more interested in staying healthy, seeing road trips as more of a drag than a challenge. When Minnesota plays at San Antonio on Friday, it will be the 8th road game over the last 11 games for the T-Wolves. And Minnesota is 5-28 on the road.

In addition, line-up changes can be taking place that affect the performance of a team. Phoenix is on a 6-0 SU, 5-0-1 ATS run while getting Shaquille O'Neal settled into the lineup. In a win over Houston, Shaq had 23 points -- his most since coming to Phoenix -- and grabbed 13 rebounds. In fact, the Suns are on a 9-5 run over the total.

Phoenix runs five sets of offenses, all with internal variations. Some are designed for when O'Neal is on the court and some are for when he is out. With a comfort level in the new varied attack, the Suns are averaging 116.2 points during the six-game winning streak. Phoenix is averaging more fast-break points with O'Neal (18.2 per game) than before his debut (17.9 per game). The Suns are shooting 57.6 percent from the field in the past five games. So all the talk about the Suns changing their style of play to fit Shaq in was a bit overblown.

What has been changed is their defense and rebounding. The O'Neal addition has had a positive impact on rebounding (a swing in rebounding differential from minus-5.6 before O'Neal to plus-4.0 with O'Neal) and post defense (opponents are shooting 41.9 percent during the Suns' win streak).

The LA Clippers also have changes – for the worse. LA has lost 15 of 17 games, going 4-13 ATS. "Even at this point, I don't know exactly who my starting lineup will be," Coach Mike Dunleavy said about 90 minutes before the tipoff of the last game. Brevin Knight (lower left leg), Aaron Williams (abdominal muscle) and Chris Kaman (lower back) were out again. They all joined Elton Brand, Shaun Livingston and Paul Davis, who are sidelined because of serious injuries.

This time of the season division titles and playoff seedings are at stake for some teams. You may recall a year ago Denver saw a division title in sight around this time and went on an 8-2 SU/ATS run.

Seattle offers a contrast from one year ago. Down the stretch in 2007, just before the trade deadline the Sonics shipped out several players whom they felt were unmotivated trouble makers. In their place, they had guys who the organization liked, players like Earl Watson and Chris Wilcox who they felt had a strong interest in playing hard. Seattle went on a 6-3 SU/6-3 ATS run, and 7-3 ATS run over ten games.

Now, they have a new coach in P.J. Carlesimo and Earl Watson has a bruised right calf. They also have a lot of new, young players, such as rookies Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. They don’t have that same kind of energy, riding an 11-game skid (4-6-1 ATS). Most embarrassing is the defense, allowing 121, 168, 110, 130 and 115 points the last 5 games. Clearly this group doesn’t care, even going 1-4-1 ATS the last 6 games. "We've got to respond," said forward Donyell Marshall after the loss to Utah. "You know when people throw punches we've got to fight back. We just didn't do that in the second half."

Despite a bad game at Milwaukee, the Cavaliers have been playing sharper defense of late, similar to the kind that helped them win the East a year ago. They are on a 9-5 run under the total, including two strong defensive efforts against the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors. That may continue if Ben Wallace comes back healthy soon. This is why stats and trends are only one small part of the handicapping equation. Changes take place all the time, and it's imperative to keep up and know how to apply these changes, if necessary, with respect to betting numbers.

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