NBA reaching decision time

Jan 15, 2002 6:49 AM

The NBA season is about a week or so away from hitting the halfway point and another few weeks away from the All Star Break. It’s at about this time of the season that talk about making the playoffs becomes a bit more realistic.

Teams that are clearly in jeopardy of missing postseason play begin to make decisions. Should they make changes in hopes of making the playoffs or pursue a course of looking towards the future?

There is very little in-season trading in the NBA, largely due to complex salary cap issues and complications. Still there may be an occasional major trade between a team on the outside and a team in playoff, perhaps even championship, contention.

Injuries are also more of a factor after more than two and a half months of three to four games a week. Many players are missing a game or two but not having to be placed on the injured list. It’s important to monitor box scores and daily injury reports to learn why a player may have been held out of a game and whether he will return in his team’s next game.

When players are put on IR they must miss a minimum of five games. But day-to-day injuries don’t result in a player being placed in IR. Thank goodness for the Internet.

In a scheduling oddity, no games are slated for Sunday so here’s a look at a Friday matchup and two very intriguing games that will be played on Saturday.

Friday, Jan. 18

Magic at Bucks: The Magic have had more than a month to adjust again to the loss of Grant Hill for the season but begin this week a game below .500. Tracy McGrady has assumed the leadership role on this club and although he’s been bothered by nagging minor injuries he still puts up consistently solid numbers. Milwaukee has also contended with key injuries in recent weeks with stars Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson missing some games. The teams are meeting for the first time this season. Both are rested although Milwaukee is off midweek back to back games against key rival Indiana. Orlando hasn’t played since Monday. Take MAGIC.

Saturday, Jan. 19

Lakers at Spurs: This is the week’s most attractive game but much will depend on the length of the suspension given to the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal following his brawl in Chicago last Saturday. It’s expected he’ll have to sit for more than the mandatory one game and a suspension of at least three games would cause him to miss this encounter against David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Think the NBA might be interested in suspending Shaq for just two games? The expectation is that Shaq will be out for this game but even in his absence this shapes up as a chess match between perhaps the two best teams in the league. This will be the first meeting of the teams since the Lakers ousted the Spurs in a four-game sweep in last season’s Western Conference finals. San Antonio needs a good effort here for their confidence. Take SPURS.

Wizards at Bulls: This is the contest we’ve waited for all season. Michael Jordan returns to Chicago. Washington won the earlier meeting two weeks ago 89-83, failing to cover the nine-point spread but in control throughout. Michael was likely saving his better effort for the Chicago fans and he would love nothing better than to humiliate his former team and therefore Chicago management in front of a throng of agitated Bulls fans.

Easier said than done. Chicago has played much more competitively since Bill Cartwright took over as coach and the players seem to have bought into his leadership. They even have an overtime win over the Lakers. But few players have ever been able to raise their level of play as has MJ. Although the line will likely be inflated to reflect the situation, it’s very difficult to oppose the will of Michael Jordan. Take WIZARDS.