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The midpoint of the NBA season is approaching and as such we can see the race for making the Playoffs starting to take shape. Many of the old familiar faces will be there although mathematical clinching is still months away.

Of more interest perhaps may be whether or not the fine first half play of some formerly downtrodden teams can continue.

This column has praised the play of the Atlanta Hawks for much of the season, admiring the strides the franchise has made in increasing their win total each of the past four seasons. At 21-11 the Hawks are well ahead of the pace that saw them go 47-35 last season. Currently seeded fourth in the East, Atlanta is looking to overtake Orlando in the Southeast Division.

The play of both Memphis and Oklahoma City remains one of the more pleasant surprises this season. These teams were a combined 47-117 last season but Memphis has started 16-16 and Oklahoma City is faring even better at 18-15. They are in contention for the final couple of Playoff spots with the most vulnerable of the familiar faces currently being New Orleans and Utah.

There just seems to be something missing in the play of the Jazz in recent weeks. They still have a solid home record (12-5) but have struggled in many of those wins and have also played poorly against some weaker foes. In fact, the Jazz have lost 2 of 3 to lowly Minnesota, failing to cover in their lone 4 point win against the Timberwolves. Minnesota’s 7-28 record is the worst in the West.

New Orleans’ decline is somewhat of a surprise given the bright future the Hornets seemingly had just two seasons ago. Management has not done that good a job at surrounding star Chris Paul with a viable supporting cast and their 15-16 start is disappointing. Perhaps reflective of poor team chemistry is their dismal 2-13 road record, surpassed in futility by only New Jersey’s 1-16.

Don’t do a double take but the New York Knicks have continued to play some pretty good basketball lately, winning 6 of their last 10 games following their 132-89 demolition of Indiana on Sunday. It’s probably more of an indictment of the quality of teams in the east than a compliment to the Knicks but they are currently seeded tenth in the East despite a 14-20 record. Three teams with losing records currently hold down Playoff spots in the East. In the West one team with a winning record and another at .500 are currently out of a Playoff position.

The Los Angeles Lakers have opened a four and a half game lead over Dallas for the top seed in the West after routing the Mavericks by 35 points this past Sunday and avenging a 14 point loss from the second game of the season.

The Lakers still look like the team to beat even though they’ve been without Ron Artest for the past week as he recovers from a concussion and now may again be without Pau Gasol who injured his hammy in the win over Dallas and may miss a few games.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Dallas at San Antonio (Friday): The home team has won both previous meetings this season when the teams met twice in November. The Mavs and Spurs are one-two in the Southwest Division and figure to battle all season for the second seed in the West behind the Lakers. Tim Duncan continues to shine as he approaches the twilight of his Hall of Fame career while Tony Parker and Richard Jefferson provide solid support. Dallas also has a deep and talented roster, led by Dirk Nowitzki but with the capable support of Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion. Both Jefferson and Marion are new to their teams this season which may explain why both earlier meetings stayed UNDER the Total. With two more months to be assimilated into the flow both should contribute to this being a higher scoring contest than the first two meetings. OVER the Total.

Atlanta at Orlando (Saturday): Orlando won the only prior meeting this season, 93-76 in Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day, dealing the Hawks their first home loss of the season after 7 straight wins. Atlanta enters this week in a slump, off of back-to-back losses to Cleveland followed by a come from ahead loss to the Knicks. Orlando continues to play well and leads Atlanta by two and a half games in the Southeast. Both teams are off of Friday night games with Atlanta facing the tougher foe in hosting Boston while the Magic play at Washington. Atlanta should be a slight underdog here and they do have a winning road record. But they are in a Celtics sandwich, playing at Boston on Monday. Meanwhile this is Orlando’s last home game before they start a westward swing. ORLANDO.

Cleveland at Portland (Sunday): Cleveland seeks to sweep the two game season series for a third straight season after winning at home by 5 a month ago. The Cavs have been hot, winning 7 straight and 12 of 13 before being upset at home by Charlotte this past Sunday. Portland is playing well, battling Denver for the top spot in the Northwest. The Blazers are rested but are off of a game Friday night at the Lakers. Cleveland plays Monday at Golden State. Portland has been plagued by injuries, the latest to LaMarcus Aldridge whose knee was expected to keep him out of some games earlier in the week. Still, this may be something of a statement game regardless of Friday’s result against the Lakers. Either a statement of rebounding from a loss to an elite team or a chance to follow up one elite win with another. And, more to the point, a chance for Portland to finally break through against a team that’s handled them the past few seasons and further elevate Portland’s self esteem as a viable contender in the West. PORTLAND.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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