- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

LAS VEGAS — They are without Antawn Jamison and have lost four of their last six games. But the Washington Wizards lead the Southeast Division with a 29-21 record — and that’s the focus for coach Eddie Jordan.

“We’re sitting really good with our bench contributing and getting healthy,” Jordan said while walking back to the East All-Stars’ locker room at Thomas & Mack Center 90 minutes before last night’s game. “It’s pretty good that we won the last game before the break.”

The Wizards’ 92-85 victory at Philadelphia on Wednesday helped give the team some positive momentum entering the All-Star break. But Jordan knows the team has much work left to do.

Washington plays host to Minnesota tomorrow, the first of six games in nine days, and has a five-game Western Conference trip next month that includes four games in five nights.

The Wizards lead the division by 3 games over Orlando. Miami, back to .500, is four games behind and has Shaquille O’Neal back in the lineup.

“I can’t disrespect Miami,” Jordan said. “They’re the defending champion, and they’re getting guys back. I’d say Miami and Detroit are the guys you have to get through to contend for the Eastern Conference.”

Detroit, the conference leader, has won seven of eight games, a streak Jordan attributes to the arrival of Chris Webber.

“Chris is involved now in what they do,” Jordan said. “When Chris Webber has the ball, everybody is dangerous. He’s shown to be a great passer. He’s a terrific facilitator, and yet he can score in the paint [and] he can score on the perimeter. It opens things up for everyone else to be cutters. He gives them another dimension that’s almost unguardable.”

Jordan hopes to emulate that formula when he gets his best inside player, Jamison, back in the next 10 days. The coach has relied on Andray Blatche, Darius Songaila and Calvin Booth in Jamison’s absence and is pleased with Blatche’s emergence in his second season.

Blatche, who had his first-career double-double against Philadelphia with 11 points and 10 rebounds, has played at least 17 minutes in the last six games. Songaila, who made his season debut five games ago, had 12 points and four rebounds in 14 minutes against the 76ers. Booth had eight rebounds against Philadelphia, and Michael Ruffin played in the last two games after missing more than two months with an injury.

“They’re very anxious to play, and I think we can get equal minutes for them,” Jordan said. “It’s good that our bench is finally up to par and healthy and has a little rhythm now.”

Iverson optimistic

Former Georgetown star Allen Iverson, who sat out last night’s game with an ankle injury, was expected to help turn Denver into a championship contender after his trade from Philadelphia. But the Nuggets (26-25, seventh place in the Western Conference) haven’t experienced the full effect of the December trade, both because of injuries and suspensions.

Iverson, who has averaged 26.8 points and 7.8 assists in 20 games since the trade, has missed eight of the last nine games with that ankle injury. He has played just six games with Carmelo Anthony, who was suspended for Iverson’s first 14 games with Denver because of his involvement in a fight with New York.

“We can be good. Even without me in the lineup, the team has been playing well, and I think with me in there we’ll be better,” Iverson said. “Once everybody gets a chance to be on the floor at the same time and practice with each other, we can get better and better.”

Chasing Dallas

Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns have won 39 games, seven more than any team in the Eastern Conference. But in the Western Conference, that is good enough only for second place.

Phoenix is four games behind conference-leader Dallas (44-9).

“We’re not going to catch [Dallas] if they don’t lose, and I really hope they would cooperate a little bit and lose every once in a while,” D’Antoni said. “If we catch them, we catch them. If we don’t, we’ll meet them later. Both teams have shown they can win in every building.”

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