Much will be decided in NBA's second half

Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2004

LOS ANGELES Jason Kidd walked off the interview podium after the NBA All-Star game and delivered a nifty parting shot that could pass as a prediction: ''See you at the finals.''

The season resumes Tuesday, and no team has been playing better recently than Kidd's New Jersey Nets, winners of 10 straight all by double-digit margins.

New Jersey is one of three first-place teams with large leads; the Nets are 7 1/2 games ahead of the ever-changing New York Knicks.

New York team president Isiah Thomas and the rest of the league's executives have only a couple of days to make major changes to their rosters before the NBA trading deadline arrives Thursday afternoon. It figures to be a busy deadline day.

The Utah Jazz are auctioning off their salary cap space and trying to horde draft picks, the Toronto Raptors are desperate for a big man, Portland needs an outside shooter, and the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers want to shed contracts. The Suns and Clippers are among the teams that want to get further under the salary cap for a run at a free agent class that includes ''Laker for Life'' Kobe Bryant just in case he changes his mind.

''Everybody else is playing at their peak, and we have a lot of room for improvement,'' All-Star game MVP Shaquille O'Neal said. ''We're only four or five games out of first. We have a long second half, and everybody is going to get back healthy, and we'll be fine.''

Actually, Shaq, your team is six games out of first place and the second half isn't all that long.

The Lakers have just 32 games until the postseason, and after that they'll have to deal with the prospects of Phil Jackson possibly leaving, Bryant going on trial and nine members of O'Neal's supporting cast being eligible to leave as free agents.

While the Western Conference has a majority of the league's best teams, there's a ''lack of respect'' rallying cry floating around the East that figures to become a factor at the beginning of June.

Jermaine O'Neal said he believes the Pacers can become the team to bring the title back to the East for the first time since 1998.

Indiana comes out of the All-Star break just percentage points behind the Sacramento Kings for the league's best record, and the Pacers will play 15 of their remaining 29 games at home 10 of those home games against teams with losing records.

Sacramento has put together its 37-13 record without Chris Webber, who will have to serve a league suspension when he is activated from the injured list after knee surgery.

Minnesota is right on the Kings' heels, and the Timberwolves' new backcourt of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell is confident of ending the franchise's streak of seven consecutive first-round playoff exits.

One low-profile team to keep an eye on over the next two months is Jerry West's Memphis Grizzlies, who have already broken the franchise record for victories with a 10-deep rotation that should scare any playoff opponent.

Memphis is tied for seventh in the West, a conference with eight above-.500 teams. It also has the Trail Blazers, who could make a run at the Denver Nuggets for the conference's final postseason berth following the acquisitions of Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff and Darius Miles.

The prospect of at least one below-.500 team making the playoffs out of the East is strong, with the Cleveland Cavaliers (20-33), Miami Heat (22-32), Boston Celtics (23-31) and Philadelphia 76ers (22-31) vying for the conference's final two postseason berths.

The schedule resumes with 11 games Tuesday night, eight more on Wednesday and a marquee matchup Sacramento-Minnesota on Thursday.

''Everybody be safe and get home,'' were Kevin Garnett's parting words.

Now it's time for the home stretch.

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