The last time the Dallas Mavericks visited the Salt Palace, we checked the Midwest Division standings to find four teams playing .600 basketball and figured that 50 wins might be good enough for only third or fourth place.

A lot has happened since then.Lately, Houston and the Jazz keep giving the division lead back to each other, while Dallas and Denver are on the border to even make the playoffs - but are still not out of the Midwest race.

Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, meanwhile, avoids dwelling on the standings. "The more you watch them, the more frustrating they become," he says. "You just have to watch yourself - there are so many different variables."

While the Jazz can tie Houston for the lead at the All-Star break if they win and the Rockets lose at Portland, tonight's game means more to the Mavs. A Dallas loss would unofficially declare the Midwest a two-team race, although Denver might still have a say in things with five games left against the Jazz. A division update:

Houston - The Rockets lost control of the division by losing four games on a January western trip and face a tough immediate schedule with two eastern trips ahead of them. Starting Feb. 18, they play eight of 10 on the road, and one of the home games is against the Lakers.

Three games with the Jazz - including April 14 in the Salt Palace - could determine the division winner.

Jazz - This is their chance to make a move. After the break, they'll have five straight home games, which is important to them for this reason: a day off between games.

As the minutes rack up for Karl Malone, John Stockton and the rest, the young Jazz bench will be a big factor, as will the fact they have fewer games left.

Dallas - Amid all the Mavs' troubles and talk of the lottery, the funny thing is they could still make a run. But no matter what happens with Mark Aguirre, the loss of Roy Tarpley to drug rehabilitation is damaging.

So is their road play - they've lost 11 of 12 on the road, counting Tuesday's game at Portland, where they had a 12-point lead entering the fourth quarter and lost by nine. Starting tonight, 22 of their last 38 games are on the road.

Denver - Remember the Nuggets, the defending division champs? They're not out of the picture.

By beating Miami tonight, they'll be no more than five games behind with a chance to make up ground on the Jazz, if they can get some help with Houston.

In the meantime, the Midwesterners had better watch out for the Pacific Division teams. For the first time in the six years of the 16-team playoffs, the Pacific could have more entries.