Jan 27, 2004 6:32 AM

The second half of the 82-game NBA season is underway and the trading deadline is less than a month away.

Those teams that consider themselves contenders will attempt to strengthen their rosters for the stretch run. Teams that are out of contention will be looking to slash payroll and open up room under the salary cap to pursue free agents after the season. Such teams may well part with some All Star caliber players as they acquire draft choices and look to the future.

Because of the imbalance between the Eastern and Western Conferences the final three months of the season will be very interesting.

In the East, only five teams have winning records. At present three teams with losing records would make the playoffs. Five teams with losing records are separated by just three games at the midway point so even Miami, at 18-26, can get hot for a week or two and slide into playoff contention and then hope to play break even ball the rest of the way.

Clearly the East remains very weak. The power is in the Central Division where the top four teams each have better records than New Jersey. The Nets lead the Atlantic Division with a 22-20 record and fired head coach Byron Scott on Monday. Scott led the Nets to the NBA Finals in each of the past two seasons. So much for job security.

Indiana continues to have one of the best records in the league and have opened a 3½ game lead over second place Detroit. The Pistons similarly have a 3½ lead over New Orleans. Milwaukee is a half game further back and the only other team in the East with a winning record.

The Pacers might be the one team from the East that appears capable of battling the Western Conference survivor. Indiana has won 16 of 24 road games, by far the best mark in the East and second only to Minnesota in the entire league.

The T’wolves have won 9-of-10 and are playing the best basketball in the league. Minnesota seems poised to finally win a playoff series as long as they remain healthy. But don’t concede the Midwest title to the Wolves just yet.

San Antonio is still a formidable foe despite a recent slump. The Spurs fell 2½ games behind Minnesota for first place. Dallas is playing its best ball of the season, having won eight straight games beginning this week.

Upstart Memphis also begins the week riding an eight game winning streak. The Grizzlies set a franchise record with 28 wins last season and may equal that mark by the end of this week. Utah is one game under .500, having battled key injuries over the past couple of weeks.

The recent slump of the Los Angeles Lakers, who have been short handed without stars Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone, has enabled Sacramento to open up a 3½-game lead in the Pacific Division. Bryant returned over the weekend to help the Lakers snap a nine game road losing streak. O’Neal is expected to return any day.

The benefit from these injuries is that the Lakers have been able to develop depth. Come playoff time, a healthy Lakers team will still be the favorites to win the NBA Title.

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

Pistons at Raptors (Fri): After winning 13 straight games, the Pistons have lost three in a row beginning the week. Still, Detroit should be considered one of the teams to beat in the East. The Pistons have a strong defensive presence with Ben Wallace on the court and Larry Brown on the sidelines. Toronto has lost five in a row starting the week to slip below .500. The offensive spurt received after trading for Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall has vanished. The first meeting between the teams was a relatively high scoring game. This one should be played more at the usual pace. UNDER.

Kings at Sonics (Sat): Sacramento still awaits the return of Chris Webber but has managed to share best record in the NBA with Minnesota. That fact is mostly due to an outstanding 21-3 home record. The Kings are just .500 on the road. Seattle is just two games below .500 and two games out of the final playoff berth in the West. Ray Allen has been sharp after returning from injury, but the Sonics are just 5-5 over the last 10 games. Both teams are rested although Sacramento has just completed a three game swing through Texas. The situation favors the host and they are likely to be underdogs as well. SEATTLE.

Sixers at T’wolves (Sun): Philadelphia continues to battle injuries with Derek Coleman the latest starter to miss time. Philly has a strong backcourt with Eric Snow a perfect compliment to Allen Iverson. Minnesota has the leading candidate for MVP, Kevin Garnett, and a supporting cast that provides multiple scoring options. The teams split two games last season with each winning on the road. But this is a much stronger Minnesota team while the 76ers are weaker both on the court and the sidelines. MINNESOTA.

Last week: 1-2

Season: 26-12