Jordan ending 2001 with style

Jan 1, 2002 1:13 AM

The NBA season closes the 2001 calendar year on the heels of a franchise record-setting performance by Washington’s Michael Jordan.

Last Saturday against Charlotte, MJ poured in 24 first-quarter points en route to 51. The Wizards won, which made the accomplishment even sweeter.

The Wizards are among a host of teams in the Eastern Conference on track to return to the playoffs after a long absence. While Detroit’s play has slipped of late the Pistons still have a record that would qualify for the playoffs while both New Jersey and Boston continue to play well in the Atlantic Division.

And, watch out for Coach Isiah Thomas and his Indiana Pacers. This aging veteran team of the past few seasons has infused some solid young talent to blend with several holdover veterans, including Reggie Miller, to challenge Central Division leader Milwaukee.

Out West things remain pretty much the same although the Lakers have a real concern about ”˜Le Toe.’ Shaquille O’Neal’s injured digit has landed the league’s most dominant player on the injured list.

The injury could be one that lingers all season and hamper Shaq’s ability to play at full force. That in turn would place an added burden on Kobe Bryant who has indicated in the past that he welcomes the challenge to be ”˜Da Man.’

The Lakers still have the NBA’s best record although San Antonio begins the week with just one less loss. The Spurs, Sacramento, Dallas and Minnesota continue to distance themselves from the rest of the conference, though Phoenix has settled as the sixth best team in the West.

Here’s a look at three of the better matchups to be played over 2002’s first weekend:

Friday, Jan. 4
Jazz at T’wolves:
Utah has overcome a horrible November to play better basketball over the past month, working themselves back up the ladder in the chase for a playoff spot. The upfront tandem of Karl Malone and Donyell Marshall are as good a pair as there is in the NBA and backcourt mate John Stockton is still capable of a 40-minute effort. Minnesota is not quite elite team in the West but Kevin Garnett is an elite player. Utah comes in very well rested, having not played since last Saturday. Take UTAH.

Saturday, Jan. 5
Spurs at Mavericks:
These teams met just over a week ago in San Antonio in a game that saw the Spurs’ Tim Duncan score 53 points in an overtime loss. The Mavericks have been involved in many games that topped 200 total points. Dallas likes to force the pace and, with the Spurs likely leg weary from their efforts of the past 10 days, the Mavericks are in a good position to wear San Antonio down in the fourth quarter. Take DALLAS.

Sunday, Jan. 6
Bucks at Kings:
Both teams have balanced, deep rosters. Milwaukee has had to contend with recent injuries to both Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen. Sacramento star Chris Webber is still working himself into game shape after missing the first month and a half of the season. Both teams played Saturday night on the road, which means we could see some tired players struggle to find an early rhythm. The posted total should reflect a pair of high scoring teams but travel fatigue could result in several scoring droughts. Take UNDER.