Mar 9, 2004 7:27 AM

The NBA regular season is nearly three quarters complete and over the first 4½ months we have basically determined which teams have legitimate shots to win the NBA Championship.

In the Western Conference five teams are capable of capturing the title. Defending champion San Antonio tops the list so long as Tim Duncan stays healthy. Recent odds had the Spurs 9-2 to repeat. The Lakers. winners of three straight NBA titles before last season, are currently the prohibitive favorites at 5-8. That’s right!.

You must lay $160 to win $100 — a clear signal that the Sports Books are overloaded with Lakers money and would prefer not taking on any additional risk. When healthy the Lakers may be the best team in the league, particularly with their starting lineup. With Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone in the lineup, the Lakers have won better than 75 percent of their games.

Unfortunately that 16-5 record spans just the very early part of the season and there are no assurances that all four will be healthy before the end of the regular season, much less for the playoffs. The Spurs and Lakers have the most positive playoff experience of the contenders.

Sacramento is considered to be the deepest team in the NBA and the current co-second choice at 3-1. The Dallas Mavericks have also fallen short in recent seasons and are priced at 5-1. Minnesota (3-1) is perhaps the best team, owning the second best starting lineup and a deep bench. But Timberwolves have yet to win a first round playoff series and possess the least favorable postseason history of the five Western contenders.

Only three teams in the weaker Eastern Conference have realistic shots at making the Finals. Two time defending East champion New Jersey is holding at 10-1 to win it all. Conference leading Indiana is 8-1 with improving Detroit at 12-1 to win the league championship.

There is no value in playing any of the five Western Conference teams to win it all. Dallas (5-1) has the most attractive odds, but its inability to win with consistency on the road is a weakness. Currently seeded fifth, the Mavericks quite likely won’t have home court advantage for any round of the playoffs.

The value in playing the futures lies clearly in the East. First, the three contenders are attractively priced from 8-1 to 12-1. If we are able to predict the East winner, there will be an attractive opportunity to ”˜hedge’ come the NBA Finals. The East champ is likely to be a solid underdog against whichever team emerges from the West. Second, the team from the West may very well have to survive at least two, if not three, grueling series to make the Finals.

Of the three Eastern contenders, New Jersey has a huge edge in experience. With a healthy Jason Kidd, the Nets would be top choice. Indiana has had the best record in the East all season and is in position to have the league’s top overall mark. Detroit made the most significant in season acquisition when acquiring Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline.

First year coach Larry Brown is considered one of the all time best in his profession and took Philadelphia to the NBA Finals just a few seasons ago. Our preseason prediction was New Jersey to prove that the third time would be a charm. At 12-1, the Nets are still an attractive play. They changed coaches in midseason, but the core nucleus of players have Finals experience.

Indiana’s league best 23-10 road record, including an impressive four straight wins in a recently ended trip West, make the Pacers an attractive play at 8-1. With two more home games than Sacramento down the stretch, the Pacers are in excellent position to gain that overall home court advantage. Detroit has played well in several spurts this season but would only be sixth seeded if in the West. At 10-1, the Pistons might be the least attractive of the East contenders.

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

Knicks at Sixers (Fri): Both teams have struggled over the past month, winning just 4 of 13 games. Philadelphia has had to contend with numerous injuries all season while the Knicks have had to adjust to a made over roster during the past month or so after Isiah Thomas took charge of personnel. New York has won both meetings this season although each was played at home. Still, the Knicks have the better overall talent and should be a small underdog here. In their meeting a week ago the Knicks held Allen Iverson to a career low 2 for 21. NEW YORK

Grizzlies at Rockets (Sat): Memphis continues to be the story of this NBA season, having won 39 games and on pace to hit 50. The Grizzlies won both earlier meetings with the Rockets, including very early in the season on the road when Houston was getting off to a quick start. Houston should be a light favorite after being idle on Friday while Memphis was hosting the L A Clippers. Houston’s emphasis on defense suggests the pace of the game will be slow. The first two meetings resulted in totals of just 150 and 171 total points. The Grizzles have held their last five foes to 92 points or less. UNDER

Spurs at Kings (Sun): The first two meetings resulted in victories for the road team. Both teams were idle Saturday and the Spurs have a very winnable game Monday at Golden State. Sacramento has been bolstered with the return of Chris Webber to the lineup. Tim Duncan should be back for the Spurs after being hobbled with a thigh injury. Duncan’s presence will keep the line deflated with Sacramento still being favored. Late in the season teams pick their spots to put forth a maximum effort. This is such a spot for the Kings, who look to make a statement against the Spurs. SACRAMENTO.

Last week: 1-2

Season: 35-19