Wizards of odds

Dec 25, 2001 1:56 AM

With the NBA at the one-third juncture, teams are assessing their situations and handicappers can determine whether teams have made progress or regressed.

In the East, Boston and New Jersey continue to be pleasant surprises but the Michael Jordan’s Washington Wizards have shown the greatest improvement.

The Wand Wavers have won nine straight heading into the Christmas break to climb over the .500 win mark. Washington was tied with Toronto for the sixth best record conference starting the week.

On the other hand, Detroit has struggled of late on their recent West Coast swing. The Pistons remain just a half game behind Milwaukee in the Central Division. The Bucks have also struggled recently.

It’s not yet time to sound the alarms but the bells are being polished for New York and Philadelphia. The Knicks have played poorly since coach Jeff van Gundy bailed on them. Philly has yet to hit full stride.

The Sixers have struggled largely because of injuries that have not only sidelined star Allen Iverson at different times, but also members of his supporting cast on a team not blessed with depth.

The paramedics have been summoned for the Miami Heat and Pat Riley is destined to miss the playoffs for the first time in his two-decade coaching career. That is if the frustration doesn’t get to him first and he steps aside before season’s end.

In the West, the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs lead the way as expected. Both teams begin the week with just four losses apiece, four fewer than any other team.

Dallas, Minnesota and Sacramento continue to play well but there is a sizable gap to the next grouping of teams. Included in that group is the other Los Angeles entry, the Clippers.

Although they will not make the playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies would be considered a surprise despite a conference worst 7-19 record. Currently on a pace that would put them close to matching last season’s 23 wins, the relocated Grizz won at New York and then upset the Lakers the following night in Memphis.

Utah is a team that struggled early but has improved over the past few weeks. Don’t be surprised if the Jazz continue to rise in the standings, although it’s hard to envision Karl Malone and his mates rising above the No. 6 seed.

Portland and Seattle continue to struggle and are clearly sliding. But, the team showing the greatest decline is Houston. The Rockets finally snapped a 15- game losing streak over the weekend and clearly miss Steve Francis on a team that suffers from a strong inside presence and a lack of depth.

Here’s three attractive matchups this weekend.

Friday, Dec. 28

Raptors at Lakers: Superstars On Display could describe this matchup as Toronto’s Vince Carter challenges the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Lakers have not been their sharpest of late, managing to lose at lowly Memphis late last week. Toronto will be the more rested of the teams with Los Angeles playing their third game in four nights while the Raptors last played on Tuesday. Los Angeles will be solid favorites of perhaps 9 to 11 points and clearly possesses the more deeper roster. Coach Phil Jackson has always stressed the importance of defense and we can expect to see defense decide the outcome in the second half. Take UNDER.

Saturday, Dec. 29

Celtics at Clippers: It’s been a long, long time since both teams were playoff contenders in the same season but such is the case nearly a third of the way through. Boston is perched atop the Atlantic Division, while the Clippers’ fine early season play has been overshadowed by all the strength in the West. Los Angeles continues to benefit from a very favorable early schedule that is lopsided with home games. The Clippers have taken full advantage by winning 14 of their first 19 home contests. Boston plays in Sacramento the next night and wraps up a grueling four-game in five-night Western road trip following Christmas. Take CLIPPERS.

Sunday, Dec. 30

T’wolves at Blazers: These teams have headed in opposite directions over the past few seasons and now Minnesota is clearly the superior team. Led by Kevin Garnett and a solid supporting cast, the Timberwolves have one of the best records in the league. The Trailblazers are showing their age and team chemistry has not been a strong point the past two seasons. Portland has an extra day of rest and should be able to force the pace. Portland should be a small favorite, which makes Minnesota even more attractive. Take T’WOLVES.