Wizards go to wire with Bucks, Magic

Washington pays price for recent weak efforts

Pro Basketball

March 14, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The way Orlando Magic coach Doc Rivers looks at it, rather than being asked about whether his team can hold off the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards for one of the final two NBA Eastern Conference playoff berths, the question should be turned on its head.

"The way the front guys are playing, they're in it, too," joked Rivers before Tuesday's game with the Wizards. "Maybe they're all in this. You never know, the way this thing is going. Us three could end up 1-2-3 before this is all over."

Though the Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets and Indiana Pacers have certainly come back to the pack in recent weeks, the Bucks, Wizards and Magic will have enough to worry about just getting into the playoffs without thinking about crashing to the head of the class.

The three teams are stacked neatly in the 7-8-9 positions in the East, with one game separating the seventh-place Magic from the ninth-place Wizards. All three clubs are hovering at or near the .500 mark with fewer than 20 games to play.

The Bucks have a key tiebreaker edge over Washington, having beaten the Wizards in two of their three meetings this season. The Magic and the Wizards split their four games, and Orlando is 2-1 against Milwaukee, with the teams meeting to close the regular season at the Bradley Center on April 16.

Here's a look at the three teams as they make the turn for home:

Milwaukee

After dealing Glenn Robinson last offseason, the Bucks started the season winning only 13 of their first 32 games, but have picked up the pace in their next 33, moving up as high as fifth in the conference playoff chase.

Milwaukee rolled the dice in the biggest deal before the NBA's Feb. 20 trading deadline, sending guard Ray Allen and a first-round pick to the Seattle SuperSonics for guard Gary Payton and forward Desmond Mason.

The talk after the trade was that Payton and holdover point guard Sam Cassell could not peacefully co-exist and Milwaukee would slump with not enough offensive opportunities to keep the two veterans happy.

"I didn't get it when people were putting that out there," said Milwaukee coach George Karl. "I was like, `Huh?' I mean, you put two passers on the court, two guys who can get you 20 and 10 assists. What's going to cause a problem?

"I mean, we play fast. We try to create extra possessions, anyway, and they're going to be controlling the ball. Actually, it's how we distribute it to other people that's going to be interesting and whether we can get it inside more."

The two have combined to average 42.5 points and 14.6 assists since the trade.

Milwaukee is thin up front, and with games still left against the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, the Bucks could be in for long nights inside.

Orlando

Though the Bucks made the splashiest trade-deadline move, the Magic took the biggest gamble, sending former Rookie of the Year Mike Miller to the Memphis Grizzlies for rookies Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek, inserting callow youth into the midst of a hot playoff race.

"If we have a fear going down the stretch run, it's that we have two guys who have never been in the NBA, let alone in a playoff race or big games," said Rivers before Tuesday's game in Washington.

"Games like [that] are the games that scare you the most, because they've never been in those games with the intensity that they are about to face. But it's good. Hell, I love it. Throw them in the fire, and the only way you're going to learn is to get into the fire, rather than see other people get burned. It's a great thing for us to be there."

The Magic fell short against Washington by one, but that was only the fourth loss in 11 games since the deal. Gooden, a forward, and Giricek, a guard, are combining to average nearly 33 points since coming to Orlando, and Gooden is pulling down 10 rebounds a game.

But Orlando's playoff hopes will rise or fall on the shoulders of guard Tracy McGrady, who is cementing his bid for a Most Valuable Player trophy with one brilliant performance after another. McGrady has led the Magic in scoring in 20 straight games, scoring 30 or more in 15 of them, and averaging 37.7 since the deal.

Like the Bucks, the Magic is woefully thin inside, though it will face only one more team with a solid interior game, the Spurs, the rest of the way.

Washington

The Wizards had hoped to be well above this fray by now, perhaps challenging for home-court advantage in the first round. But with ugly losses to the Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat and New York Knicks in the past two weeks, plus finger-pointing from their Big Two, Jerry Stackhouse and Michael Jordan, Washington has wallowed in turmoil.

"I don't think people have given up," guard Larry Hughes said. "When things are not going as you expected, there are always tugs of war on a team throughout the season."

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