The Associated Press
PHOENIX Ä Phoenix Suns coach Paul Westphal was only joking when he tried to coax Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon into doing something dangerous during the NBA All-Star Game.
After all, with Olajuwon out of the way, the path to the NBA Finals would be a lot less daunting for the Suns, who have the league's best record going into the second half of the season.
Olajuwon resisted Westphal's attempts to drag him toward an electric catapult that was sending the Suns' Gorilla mascot hurtling through the air during a timeout in Sunday's All-Star Game. Charles Barkley wanted to try the contraption, but his fast-thinking coach went after last season's league MVP and stopped him.
''The plan was to get Hakeem out there,'' Westphal said, laughing. ''We were trying to reel him in there and get him injured, but he is too smart for that.''
Now that the All-Star frolicking is over, the serious part of the season resumes.
In fact, no sooner was the game over Ä a 139-112 romp by the Western Conference Ä than players' thoughts turned toward the business of jockeying for playoff positions.
The Rockets, the defending champions, have some serious catching up to do. They are third in the Midwest Division with only the sixth-best record in the conference.
''The West is so competitive,'' Olajuwon said. ''You can't say it's just those two teams (Houston and Phoenix). We have Seattle, San Antonio, Utah, Phoenix.''
Houston's task is tough, and it starts with an Eastern road trip that includes stops at Central Division leader Charlotte and New York.
The best-shooting team in the league and the surprise Midwest leader, the Utah Jazz, figure to keep rolling now that the distraction of John Stockton's NBA assists record is safely out of the way.
''I think it was good for us to take a break and get away from each other for a while, because we had a lot of things going on before the break, with Stockton's assist record and the road streak (15 straight wins),'' Karl Malone said.
Then there are the Spurs, who have won 22 of 28 after corraling unruly Dennis Rodman. With Rodman's league-high average of 16.3 rebounds per game, David Robinson hasn't had to attack the boards as much and is putting up MVP-type numbers for the second straight season.
After their first-round playoff flameout last season, the Seattle SuperSonics have buckled down and piled up wins, compiling a 33-12 record, No. 2 in the conference.
''I think we are in good shape, as good as anybody else,'' Sonics forward Detlef Schrempf said. ''We have matured. We have a young, emotional team, but overall we have matured a lot, and we are still maturing.''
Despite losing leading scorer Cedric Ceballos for at least six weeks with a thumb injury, the Los Angeles Lakers appear virtually certain to make the playoffs after missing out last year. Portland and Sacramento should get the remaining two spots, because Denver has lost 10 of 12 since Dan Issel quit as coach.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference isn't nearly as tight. With a 37-10 record, Orlando has taken the suspense out of the chase for top seeding in the playoffs.
But Shaquille O'Neal, who's having an MVP season, was eager for the Magic to start playing again.
''Now it's time to get back to my real job,'' said O'Neal, who had 22 points in Sunday's game.
And now that O'Neal has had a strong All-Star showing for the first time in three appearances, is it time for his young Magic team to win its first playoff game?
''If we want to be best in the East, we have to go through New York,'' said O'Neal, although Orlando leads the Knicks by 6 1/2 games in the Atlantic Division. ''They are a great team. I know they've had some injury problems, but they are still a great team. When we play the Knicks, we have to do everything right.''
But the Knicks, who have shaken off the absence of Charles Oakley and climbed from .500 to 30-16, aren't the only team to be reckoned with in the conference.
Charlotte's Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning are showing how formidable they can be when healthy. Mourning is averaging 20.2 points and 10.8 rebounds and Johnson is averaging 18.9 points per game.
''We have stepped up our offense, and we are turning some heads,'' Johnson said. ''People are seeing what's going on in Charlotte.''
What's going on in Cleveland has been just as remarkable, with the Cavaliers using a slowdown style to win. With a rash of injuries, including Mark Price's broken wrist, they've had no choice.
After reaching the conference finals last season before losing to New York, Indiana has been erratic. But the Pacers Ä third behind Charlotte and Cleveland in the Central Ä are counting on their defense to carry them in the second half.
Because the conference is so weak, a sub-.500 Chicago team probably will reach the playoffs, even if the Bulls make the trade Scottie Pippen is demanding.
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