Hornets continue their streak

Jan 2, 2001 11:27 AM

About a third of the NBA regular season has been played. Division races are starting to take more definitive shapes. Some teams that struggled early have made adjustments and are playing better. Some that got off to hot starts have cooled and fallen back in the standings. Other teams have maintained surprisingly strong or weak starts.

Philadelphia has started to play well again, having a successful West Coast swing marked by the return of Allen Iverson to the lineup. Road wins at Utah and Sacramento have made them the current favorite to win the Eastern Conference since so few eastern teams have had success against the West.

Charlotte has gained control in the Central Division and leads both Cleveland and Milwaukee by 2 1/2 games. Cleveland must again contend with the indefinite loss of Zydrunas Ilgauskas to yet another foot injury. He might be lost for the season. If so, the Cavs’ playoff chances will have been dealt a severe blow — although Randy Whitman has done a fine job coaching a team that really lacks name players. Struggling Utah continues to set the pace in the Midwest Division, although both San Antonio and Dallas begin the New Year just a half game behind the Jazz.

In the Pacific Division, Sacramento has a half-game lead over both Portland and the L A Lakers, with Phoenix just two games back. The Kings have the fewest losses of any team in the league (along with Philadelphia), and have the league’s best home record, 13-2.

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

Milwaukee at Portland (Friday) — Milwaukee has overcome a poor start to the season to get right into the thick of the Central Division race and begin the New Year as winners of eight of their last 11 games. Ray Allen and Sam Cassell lead the backcourt, with Glenn Robinson providing the scoring punch and rebounding up front. Portland got a huge psychological boost from their Christmas Day win over the Lakers. That fueled their rise to within a half game of Pacific Division-leading Sacramento and a tie with the Lakers. The Blazers seem to have embraced the team concept, as Rasheed Wallace is the only Portland player among the top 50 scorers in the league. That balance, combined with their depth, makes Portland dangerous in every game, especially when they or their opponent are playing back-to-back games.

That’s not the case here. This is an East/West clash in a season dominated by Western conference teams. Portland figures to be favored by from 7 to 9 points. That seems a bit much, although Milwaukee is playing its third game in four nights. Portland is wrapping up a nicely spaced four-game home stand that spanned the New Year’s holiday. Expect a fast paced, high scoring contest. The play is on the OVER.

Utah at Houston (Saturday) — Sometimes teams age gracefully and sometimes teams get old all at once. After starting the season as though they might be able to make yet another run at that elusive NBA title, the Jazz seem to have hit the wall. Their performance over the last month suggests that Karl Malone and John Stockton just can’t carry the same burden they carried in the past. Utah begins the year as losers of six of their last 10 games. Although they still cling to a slight lead in the Midwest Division, the Jazz are just 9-6 straight up at home, where they lost just 10 games all of last season. They played in Denver last night in what should have been a high-scoring game.

Utah is still a talented team and capable of playing very good basketball in spurts. Houston is being paced by Steve Francis and Cutino Mobley, but should be without an injured Hakeem Olajuwon. But the Rockets have been basically a .500 team all season and trail 10 teams in the playoff chase. In a game that should be competitively priced, look for Houston to get a win by from 7 to 10 points.