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Jan 21, 2003 6:33 AM

The NBA season has reached the halfway point for many teams and the season has taken a clear shape.

As has been the case for the past several seasons the power is in the Western Conference. With the Los Angeles Lakers beginning to make their move, it appears likely that there will be one team in the West that will miss the playoffs despite having a winning record. Contrast that to the East where we could have at least one and perhaps three teams making the playoffs with a record at or below .500.

New Jersey and Indiana are vying for the top spot in the East with each having lost just 11 games beginning the week. Both have enjoyed great success defending their home court but each is just average on the road. New Jersey has split their 18 road games, while the Pacers are 11-10 away from home. Detroit (12-9) is the only other East team with a winning road record.

Surprisingly, despite the West being by far the better overall conference, only three teams have winning road records. Dallas, at 13-6, tops the list. Sacramento (12-9) and Portland (11-9) are the other two West squad above the .500 mark.

The recent Dallas road slump has given hope to other conference teams looking to improve their playoff positioning. After three straight losses, the Mavericks still lead San Antonio by six games in the Midwest Division and Sacramento by two and a half for the top record in the West.

Keep an eye on the Kings. They had the league’s best record last year and have had to contend with key injuries over the first half of the season. But they are getting healthy and are considered by many NBA observers to be the team to beat, despite the hot start by Dallas and the daunting presence of the three time champion Lakers.

Here’s a preview of three games to be played this weekend.

Suns at Magic (Fri): Phoenix continues to play surprisingly well with most of their success built on their outstanding 18-3 home record. The Suns are in the middle of a five game road trip that is part of a larger seven road games and one home game stretch, They begin the week just 7-13 away from home.

Orlando, playing .500 ball, will be without the oft-injured Grant Hill for likely the remainder of the season. Tracy McGrady will remain the key to the Magic offense and the removal of the uncertainty surrounding Hill’s day to day availability might be a positive force. Phoenix is 11-3 straight up against teams from the East and the overall healthier team. The Ssuns are getting solid contributions from apparently content Penny Hardaway and Stephon Marbury. PHOENIX.

Pistons at Spurs (Sat): Both teams are currently in third place in their respective conferences and will easily make the playoffs. The Spurs have been a solid team for several seasons despite undergoing several changes in their backcourt. The presence of the soon to be retired David Robinson and Tim Duncan have made the Spurs perennial contenders.

The Pistons made a surprise run to the playoffs last season behind first year coach Rick Carlisle, improving by 18 games over the prior year. With the defensive presence of Ben Wallace and the replacement of Jerry Stackhouse by Rip Hamilton, Detroit is proving that last season was no fluke. Both teams emphasize defense. UNDER.

Blazers at Mavs (Sun): The Dallas losing skid began with a 123-94 spanking suffered in Sacramento last week. The Mavs failed to rebound, losing at both Phoenix and Seattle. Perhaps Coach Don Nelson is relying on his starters too much and they are getting fatigued. Maybe other teams are beginning to make adjustments which Nelson is unable to counter or perhaps it’s just a midseason slump.

Portland is without star Rasheed Wallace, who is serving a seven game suspension pending a decision to appeal. Portland is wrapping up a four game road trip while Dallas is playing its third one-game homestand of the month. Portland has scorers other than Wallace to rely on. This shapes up as a fast paced game. OVER.

WEEKEND PICKS

Phoenix +2 (Fri)

Det/SA under (Sat)

Por/Dal over (Sun)