- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

As recently as four years ago, going through the "Texas Triangle" the nickname for NBA outposts in Texas wasn't the worst trip in the league because at least one of the squads would be having a mediocre season.

That has changed. Dallas increased its victory totals for three straight seasons and has the league's best record; San Antonio still has Tim Duncan; and the Houston Rockets' No.1 overall draft choice, Yao Ming, has made a giant impact.

And this season, the three Texas teams Mavericks, Spurs and Rockets stand first through third, respectively in the Midwest Division, meaning no "Triangle" game is easier than another. The Washington Wizards will take two legs of the trip, against the Spurs tonight and the Mavericks on Monday, as they try to sustain the momentum they have generated with three straight victories.

And the Wizards are getting prepared. After giving his players Thursday off, coach Doug Collins put them through an intense and invigorating practice yesterday that Bryon Russell said was among the team's best, if not the best, this season.

"We came out with a lot of enthusiasm like we're ready for this road trip," Russell said.

The Wizards (12-13) have displayed their best offense of the season in the last two games, averaging 113.5 points in defeating Atlanta and Memphis. Washington was looking to break out against any team after sputtering badly in losses to Portland and New Jersey last week, and the Wizards picked on the Hawks and Grizzlies, two of the NBA's bottom six teams in points allowed. Now they must keep it up against the Western Conference's best.

"We're going to have to control the tempo, and being that we're a young team, it's going to take some discipline to do that," Michael Jordan said. "To give ourselves a chance to win, we have to do that."

The three-game run started with a victory against Toronto in which Jordan matched his career scoring low with two points, although he added nine assists. He has picked it up in the last two, scoring 30 and 33 points, and his teammates' play has flourished in support.

Jordan has said he will play however the team needs him from game to game; on some nights he'll score more, and on others he'll facilitate the offense and distribute the ball. The selfless play Jordan showed against Toronto invigorated his teammates as the Wizards' assist totals soared in the last two games and dwarfed the poor numbers they put up in recording a franchise record-low point total against New Jersey.

"The way he played against Toronto filtered down to everyone on our team," Collins said. "We played that way against Atlanta and Memphis."

Said Jordan: "The thing about me is, I don't think you know where I'm going to help the team, but you know I'm going to help."

More than likely, Jordan is going to have to help a bunch for Washington to take one of the two games. The Spurs, with Duncan leading the way as usual, handed the Sacramento Kings their first home loss of the season Thursday. The Mavericks are an NBA-best 22-4, with their only losses to Indiana, the Lakers with a miraculous comeback, the Spurs and Utah. They were undefeated at American Airlines Center before last night's loss to the Jazz.

Last year at this time, the Wizards were in the midst of winning nine consecutive games and 13 of 15 as they climbed out of a 2-9 hole they had dug to start the season. Collins tempered talk of a similar run this season, citing the challenging schedule, while Jordan stayed optimistic.

"I hope that we're starting to get adjusted to each other, starting to fit in certain roles and be consistent," Jordan said. "As long as we're consistent defensively, we're going to give ourselves a chance to win."

Notes Juan Dixon, on injured reserve with a sprained left elbow sustained in practice Dec.2, said he expects to be ready to return in 10 days. He has not been able to practice, however. Jahidi White had his left knee examined Wednesday, but did not have a timetable for his return. White has been rehabilitating his knee and doing some on-court work, but without contact. A main concern remains his ability to drop some of the weight he's gained.

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