No mistakingNBA’s elite

Jan 17, 2006 4:16 AM

The NBA is approaching the halfway point in the season and the standings are increasingly reflecting the gaps between the haves and have-nots.

Detroit has built an eight game lead over Miami for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. At 29-5, the Pistons have the best record in the entire NBA and only San Antonio (9) has fewer than 10 losses.

The Spurs have a 3½-game lead over Phoenix for the top seed in the West, but only a game edge over Dallas in the division. After edging Memphis by a single point at home Saturday, the Spurs are four games ahead of the under-the-radar Grizzlies heading into Monday’s rematch in Memphis. All three teams should be factors in the West, especially with San Antonio continually concerned about the health of star Tim Duncan.

Phoenix has opened a 3½-game lead in the Pacific Division at 24-12 and awaiting the return of Amare Stoudamire, perhaps after the All Star break. When at full health, Stoudamire will have fresh legs for the stretch run and playoffs. That alone makes the Suns a dangerous contender. Add in Steve Nash and Shawn Marion and the Suns have three All Star caliber players — often considered the benchmark for a team’s real chances of winning an NBA title.

Miami, Detroit and New Jersey remain division leaders in the East with three of the four teams trailing Detroit in the Central. Each has a winning record and currently holds down playoff berths. Philadelphia is 18-18 and would be seeded seventh. Washington, three games below .500, would be seeded eighth.

In the West, seven of the top eight teams have winning records. Both Denver and Minnesota begin the week at .500 and tied for the No. 8 seed. Although Detroit has the NBA’s best record, the teams with the next four top marks are all in the West.

Here are our three top selections this weekend.

Spurs at Heat (Fri): San Antonio won the earlier meeting 98-84 in early December when Miami was without an injured Shaquille O’Neal. The teams split both meetings last season with each game "under" posted total by small margins. This is Miami’s first home game since New Year’s Day but the Heat have not played since the showdown at the Lakers on Monday. Pat Riley is now on the sidelines and with several extra days of practice breaking down films, expect the Heat to be well prepared. MIAMI.

Bulls at Pacers (Sat): Indiana won the first meeting at Chicago a week earlier, 91-89. The Pacers have adjusted to life after Ron Artest for a second straight season. They are starting to play better basketball after suffering through several key injuries. Chicago has also contended with injuries, but their play is suffering. The Bulls are 3-7 in their last 10 outings. The Pacers will be a slight home favorite of perhaps a couple of buckets. Both teams are off games Friday night, but this is Chicago’s first road contest after playing 9-of-11 at home. Look for the Pacers to give the more sustained effort. INDIANA.

Mavs at Blazers (Sun): Dallas won and covered the first meeting at home less than three weeks ago. Portland remains in a major rebuilding mode after being one of the better teams in the league for nearly two decades. After making the playoffs 21 straight seasons, the Blazers will miss the postseason for a third straight year. Dallas has the talent and depth to wear down Portland. In the earlier meeting, they controlled the fourth quarter. The price will be cheaper than the dozen the Mavs were forced to lay in the 95-81 win, but the result should be similar. DALLAS.

Last week: 3-0

Season: 14-18-1