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Halfway done, West has won

Jan 14, 2003 7:49 AM

It’s hard to believe with all of the attention being paid to football, but the NBA season is almost at the halfway point. Once again, the balance of power resides in the West.

Dallas has the league’s best record and all eight teams that would currently qualify for the playoffs are above .500. Five teams playing at least .600 ball, but the Lakers are not in that list. However, the three-time defending champs are playing better of late. The Lakers can be counted upon to make the playoffs, starting the week at 17-20 with a four-game winning streak.

Presently, the Lakers are in ninth position in the West. They are just 2½ games behind Minnesota for the No. 8 seed and just 6½ behind third-seeded Phoenix. There is plenty of time for the Lakers to move up and secure the homecourt edge for at least the opening best of five round of the playoffs.

There is a tight race taking place in the East. New Jersey and Indiana begin the week tied for the best record at 27-10 with Detroit just two games behind. There is a considerable gap back to fourth seeded Boston, the only other team in the East that began the week more than a game above .500. The bottom four seeds ”” Philadelphia, Washington, Orlando and New Orleans ”” are each exactly one game above break even.

Here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend.

Lakers at Rockets (Fri): The much anticipated matchup between Shaquille O’Neal and Houston rookie Yao Ming takes on added intrigue following Shaq’s much-publicized recent comments said in jest about his young foe. This is also a test to measure how much improved the Rockets may be this season. The Lakers have been hot, albeit at the expense of lowly Cleveland, Miami and a Seattle team that has struggled since a strong November start. Both teams are rested having played last on Wednesday. The Lakers lost in November when Shaq was sidelined, 93-89. This game should be dominated by the two big men on defense. Look for a low scoring tilt. UNDER.

Pistons at Pacers (Sat): The top two teams in the Central Division meet for the second time this season. In late November, the Pistons won here 106-92 as five point underdogs. Detroit continues to play excellent defense. Both teams played Friday night with Indiana returning home from Boston while Detroit hosted the Knicks. Indiana now owns the league’s best home record at 16-1, with the only loss being that earlier game to the Pistons. The Pacers are playing with revenge and should be favored by about 4 to 6 points. Detroit is one of just a handful of teams with winning road records but the situation favors the host. INDIANA.

Mavericks at Sonics (Sun): Dallas continues to have the NBA’s best record, starting the week at 31-5. The Mavericks road record of 13-3 is better than the home records of all but four other teams. They have established themselves as the team to beat this season. Dallas has a well balanced team that can shoot from the outside or take it inside. And, there is have a nice blend of youth and experience. Seattle has struggled since a strong 8-2 start. The Sonics are just 8-18 in their last 26 games, the worst stretch in the league. Seattle is playing its third game in four nights while Dallas is in the final game of a four game road trip. Dallas won the earlier meeting at home, 115-105. OVER

Last week: 1-2. Season record: 18-13-1

WEEKEND PICKS

LAL/Hou under (Fri)

Indiana -4 (Sat)

Dal/Sea over (Sun)