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Feb 11, 2003 8:18 AM

There was a major development that came out of All Star Weekend ”” the announcement that the opening round of the NBA playoffs will be expanded from a best of five to a 4-of-7 series.

There had been speculation that such a change was forthcoming but the surprise is that it takes effect this season. The change is likely to reduce the likelihood of upsets in what had been a short first round.

It is generally acknowledged in most sports that upsets are more likely to occur in short series ”” that the better team should prevail the longer the teams play. On the other hand the longer series will provide more wagering opportunities for bettors and more entertainment for NBA fans.

Last week’s respite was welcome by most of the players, many of whom will benefit from the time off to help nagging injuries heal. The rest could translate into an elevated level of play over the next few weeks.

New Jersey, Indiana and Detroit have established themselves as the class of the Eastern Conference. They are within one game of one another in the battle for the top seed. Each team is winning more than two of every three games. There is a six-game gap to fourth place Boston, with six other teams within 5½ games of the Celtics.

In the West, Dallas has a 5½ game lead over both Sacramento and San Antonio with Portland another game back. There is then a 3½-game margin to the next set of teams ”” Utah, Minnesota and Phoenix. Houston holds the No. 8 seed, two games behind seventh place Phoenix and just 1½ ahead of the surging Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers still have to make the playoffs but no team had more momentum entering the All Star Break. Both the Lakers and San Antonio were working on five-game winning streaks coming out of the break. Detroit has won four straight as has Portland. The break came at the right time for Memphis, losers of seven straight, and Chicago, which has dropped five in a row.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Knicks at Suns (Fri): These teams met in New York about three weeks ago with the Knicks winning and covering 106-98. Phoenix was a very slight favorite in that contest and should be a solid favorite here. New York has been able to find secondary scoring to compliment Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston while the Suns have also gotten contributions from other than Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion. The Suns have cooled somewhat over the past month but are still holding the seventh playoff seed in the West. The Knicks have improved their play over the past month and a half. New York was within three games of the playoffs and just four games out of the number five position. With multiple scoring options we should see a repeat of the earlier meeting which easily exceeded the total. OVER.

Sonics at Blazers (Sat): These teams have had dramatically different seasons to this point. Seattle was the hottest team in the league for much of November but the Sonics have stumbled since then and are currently not in playoff contention. Portland had an ordinary start to its season but has since been among the league’s best teams for the past two months. Winners of 15 of their last 20 games the Blazers have gotten solid play from Rasheed Wallace but a major boost has come from the play of Scottie Pippen. Portland has won both earlier meetings but the margins have been just 1 and 4 points. Recent form suggests Portland will be a decent sized favorite especially with Seattle having played the night before in Sacramento. But fundamentally Seattle matches up nicely against the Blazers with Gary Payton enjoying another solid season. The play is on SEATTLE.

Spurs at Kings (Sun): This is a very attractive matchup with two of the teams capable of supplanting the Lakers as NBA Champions meeting for the third time this season. Back in December the teams split a pair of games with the road team winning each time, The Kings won the first meeting by 24 while the Spurs won the rematch but by just 2. Sacramento has been bothered by injuries all season, the latest of which has Chris Webber on the sidelines. The Kings won just four of their last ten games preceding the All Star break while the Spurs had won eight of ten with Tim Duncan having another season worthy of MVP consideration. Both previous meetings went under the total including the most recent meeting which featured just 164 total points. UNDER.