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Streaking/Slumping Toward the Finish Line

   by Al McMordie - 03/30/2008

As we come down the home stretch of the NBA season, it’s a great time to utilize a different handicapping angle. Namely, are teams motivated to finish strong? Or have they given up? Teams fighting for playoff berths are the most obvious at being extra-motivated.

But other times, even teams with losing records can be motivated to finish the season at .500 or with a winning mark. On the flip side, even good teams can coast down the stretch if they have nothing to play for. Some coaches will rest players knowing they can’t gain or lose postseason positioning. Of course, the most obvious go-against spots are bad teams that have given up.

The Memphis Grizzlies are a tough team to figure right now. They are awful, but have been good at covering the last few weeks. They even pulled a stunning 114-111 win at the Lakers as a +13 dog. However, the very next night they got beat up by the miserable Clippers.

Memphis had 17 turnovers punctuated with a defensive effort that allowed the Clippers to shoot 53 percent! The Grizzlies appeared out of sync on both ends of the court. "They had more energy," Memphis head coach Marc Iavaroni said. "At the end, they pulled away and some of our guys looked tired." "We didn't come out like we wanted to play," guard Mike Conley added. The key question is: Were they just tired? After all, it was their third straight game away from home. Or have the players mentally begun to pack their bags for summer vacation a little early?

Another team to keep an eye on this week is Portland. Saturday night at the Rose Garden, the Blazers labored through one of their poorest finishes and endured one of their most discouraging losses of the season, 93-85, to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats. The poor finish prompted coach Nate McMillan to lash out at his players in his postgame news conference, questioning their heart and motivation with eight games remaining.

McMillan labeled it "really bad," and questioned his team's passion and wondered for the first time if his players had prematurely checked out for the season. "The body language, the passion -- I didn't see the passion there," McMillan said. "The season is not over yet and we are going to play the season out. It would be a waste of a year if they approach it that way because they've had a pretty good year. We have to come out with a passion to finish this season out."

The defeat was especially demoralizing because it put a significant dent in the Blazers' goal of finishing with a winning record. With eight games left, the Blazers need four victories. "If anyone has already made plans for the summer, that's a sellout," McMillan said. "That's not what we're looking for here." Sometimes a coach can only do so much and note that the Blazers are on a 4-5 SU, 3-6 ATS run, losing twice as chalk.

And what is going on with the Cavaliers? Are they a playoff team with nothing to play for right now? The Cavs are in the No. 4 slot in the East, sandwiched between the Wizards and Magic. They’re probably not going to be caught by Washington and are too far behind Orlando. Cleveland is certainly playing like a team just waiting for the postseason to start, on an 0-3 SU/ATS run. They were favored against the Bucks and Hornets, yet lost both, then had an ugly loss at Detroit, 85-71.

"Detroit came out aggressively and we were passive," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "We were nonchalant about it." Sports bettors should note that it was the Cavs' sixth straight road loss, going 1-4 ATS their last 5 away. There are no more excuses with injuries, as Daniel Gibson and Ben Wallace are back. "It was a complete domination," Lebron James said. Last year’s Eastern Conference champs don’t look the same.

One bad team that may offer some value is the Seattle Sonics. After some record setting blowout losses where they gave up defensively, the Sonics have been playing some decent defense. They have gone 4 straight games under the total while going 3-0-1 ATS. They had a frustrating home loss to the Bobcats, but the consolation for the Sonics was they continue to play hard, refusing to join the list of teams conceding the season in hopes of improved draft lottery status.

After surrendering 38 points in the first period, the Sonics handcuffed Charlotte, limiting the Bobcats to 38 percent shooting and just 58 points over the final three quarters. If you can’t bring yourself to back such a bad team, keep in mind the Sonics have gone under the total by 18 and 19 points in two of the last three games. Late season basketball isn’t just about playing on playoff-motivated teams. There are all kinds of team and handicapping dynamics to focus on. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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