- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

The New Jersey Nets reshaped their roster last summer following the best season in franchise history. They rolled the dice in a deal for center Dikembe Mutombo that would ensure a return trip to the NBA Finals after being swept by the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Nets acquired Mutombo from Philadelphia for much-maligned forward Keith Van Horn and center Todd MacCulloch but now have lost him at least until March following surgery to repair ligament damage in his right wrist.
The loss hasn't fazed the Nets, who will play host to the Washington Wizards tonight at Continental Airlines Arena. Since Mutombo's injury, New Jersey has played better without the 7-foot-2, four-time Defensive Player of the Year, winning six of seven. They are nearly unbeatable at home with an 11-1 record, including six straight victories.
"You can look at that in many ways," said Michael Jordan of the Wizards. "Either we can get massacred coming off the worst game we've played [Tuesday night's 98-79 home loss to Portland], or we can come, get focused and play the way we did in Detroit [an 88-83 victory Dec. 4]. We've been up and down so much this year. I'm just hoping that we can come in with that up mentality instead of that down mentality."
If the Wizards (9-12) come out flat against the Nets, they are in for a long night and a bad start to a crucial road trip that proceeds to Toronto and Atlanta. In their five previous home games, the Net have won by 122 points, an average of 24.4.
Led by point guard Jason Kidd (21 points, 8.6 assists) and emerging second-year forward Richard Jefferson (14.7 points, 6.7 rebounds) the Nets, currently in second place in the Atlantic Division, appear to be in sync.
Following a rough start when they had a hard time integrating Mutombo into the offense, New Jersey resembles the team that was the best in the Atlantic Division last season.
"I think a few teams in the league probably feel we're going to fall on our face now and are looking forward to it," said New Jersey coach Byron Scott. "They probably want to play us now. I like that."
Indiana Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh, for one, isn't buying.
"They have enough to keep going at a very high level," Walsh said. "I don't think Dikembe was really integrated into their offense yet, and now they have guys who are familiar with it. And if Mutombo can make it back for the playoffs, that's what counts."
The Nets trounced the Orlando Magic 121-88 in a game that saw them make 55 percent from the field and forward Kenyon Martin limit league-leading scorer Tracy McGrady to 4-of-20 shooting and 16 points. After that game, Orlando coach Doc Rivers elevated the Nets to the top of the heap in the Atlantic Conference.
"They've made some changes. It takes time to get that rhythm going, so they're absolutely the team to beat," Rivers said.
Note An MRI on the sprained left elbow of Wizards guard Juan Dixon didn't reveal further damage. Dixon will be eligible to come off the injured list for tonight's game, but he won't be ready for any contact for at least another two weeks.


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