Halfway home:
Not whole lot different

Jan 20, 2004 5:04 AM

The NBA season has reached the halfway point with most teams having played 41 games by this weekend.

Teams are more easily classified as contenders or rebuilders and the four division races are taking clearly defined shapes. Teams are positioning themselves for the final six weeks of the season when playoff seeding becomes a major focus. Injuries are always a concern and are a factor in handicapping the NBA.

Scheduling dynamics also take on added importance as fatigue starts to become more of an issue. That especially holds true for rookies and those young players who may be in their first season as a starter or otherwise playing significant minutes for the first time in their career.

Sacramento continues to have the best record in the league and has opened a three game lead in the Pacific Division over the ailing Los Angeles Lakers. No other team in the division is above .500 and third place Seattle is nearly 10 games behind the Kings. It looks as though it will be a two-team race in the Pacific once the Lakers get injured Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant back into the lineup.

The real story in the NBA this season is in the Midwest Division where all seven teams have winning records. In fact, Memphis and Utah are tied for last place with records three games above .500. Minnesota begins the week with a slim half game lead over San Antonio. Dallas remains very much in contention after finally winning three straight road games over the past week.

Indiana continues to rule the East after opening an eight game lead over New Jersey for the conference’s top seed. Detroit and New Orleans trail the Pacers in the Central by less than the margin separating the Nets from Indiana. Milwaukee, fourth in the Central, trails by eight games.

New Jersey is the only team in the Atlantic Division playing winning basketball with second place Boston three games below .500. The Celtics are currently the seventh best team in the East but their record would not even crack the top 10 in the West.

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

Pistons at T’wolves (Fri): Detroit is playing its best basketball of the season under first year coach Larry Brown. The Pistons had a chance Monday to tie the franchise record for consecutive wins having already won 12 in a row. Minnesota has also been on a nice run over the last month so this game should be played at a high level.

Both teams have multiple scoring options with Detroit’s Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups not receiving the same recognition as Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. The teams have very similar records but the perception is that Minnesota is clearly better. Detroit has been a stronger defensive force all season and will be attractive in a likely underdog role. DETROIT.

Hornets at Spurs (Sat): New Orleans has not played as well over the last month as at the start of the season and has fallen several games below .500 during that stretch. San Antonio struggled early in the season and at one point was last place in its division and below .500 at the start of December. But the Spurs have surged and much of the success has come at the expense of the weaker East. San Antonio is 16-4 against East opponents.

New Orleans will be hindered for a few weeks without the injured David Wesley, who is a fine complement to All Star guard Baron Davis in the backcourt. The Spurs won the earlier meeting a couple of weeks ago by 10 in New Orleans. SAN ANTONIO.

Kings at Mavericks (Sun): Dallas has only recently picked up its play on the road but one of the few early season road wins was on Christmas Day in Sacramento when the Mavs prevailed 111-103. That was Dallas’ sixth win in the last nine games against the Kings, including their seven game series win in last season’s playoffs. These are the NBA’s two highest scoring teams, both averaging more than 102 points per game.

Defensively Dallas is the only team allowing more than 100. We should see the highest "over / under" of the season posted for this game. The earlier meeting saw the teams "push" the total. Dating back to last season the teams have averaged 220 total points ”” in regulation only ”” in a dozen games. Expect both teams to again push the pace here. OVER.

Last week: 2-1

Season: 25-10