Tuesday, February 11, 2003

NBA: Here they come, down the stretch

Good second half may be difference in making playoffs

The Associated Press

ATLANTA - While most of the focus was on Michael Jordan at his final All-Star game, Kevin Garnett had an unforgettable night, too.

Garnett shot 17-for-24 and scored 37 points, nine of them in the second overtime, and was the MVP as the West defeated the East 155-145 Sunday night.

The six-time All-Star and his Minnesota Timberwolves are often overlooked. They hope that isn't the case in the second half of the season as the push for the playoffs begins.

"It got really, really intense," Garnett said. "I think the second overtime was really, really, really intense."

Wait till he sees what the second half of the season has in store.

The Timberwolves return to work Tuesday night, taking a record of 29-20 into their matchup against the Dallas Mavericks, the team with the league's best record at 38-10.

Minnesota is currently tied with Utah for fifth in the Western Conference, from which eight teams will advance to the playoffs.

If the season ended today, the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers wouldn't qualify for the postseason.

Finally over .500 with a record of 24-23, the Lakers still must catch one of the teams ahead of them to have a shot at title No. 4.

Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant displayed no fear of failing to make the top eight as they spoke with reporters for 45 minutes early Sunday.

O'Neal said he wants his legacy to be that of a five-time champion.

Los Angeles will play eight of its remaining 11 February games at home. In March, the Lakers play six home games and 10 road games.

While everyone seems to believe it's a given that the Lakers will continue to shake off their early-season struggles, there are no guarantees that Los Angeles will play good enough basketball in the remaining 35 games to qualify for the postseason.

Included on their schedule are three games against Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets - the Western Conference team widely considered the most likely to slip out of the playoff picture in the second half.

"In the second half of the season, we should work harder because I know the team which is following us is the Lakers," Yao said.

In the Eastern Conference, Jordan's Washington Wizards currently reside in eighth place with a record of 24-25.

Jordan had an up-and-down farewell at Sunday's All-Star game, and the trick over the next two months will be to ratchet up his game one last time so that his final pro appearance doesn't come in his final regular-season game.

The Wizards will try to stay ahead of Orlando, New York and Atlanta to grab one of the eight postseason berths. If they make it, it's safe to assume that Jordan probably has one more magical moment that he will unfurl before walking away.

Sort of like the shot he hit with 5 seconds remaining in the first overtime of Sunday's showcase game.

"I have a lot of memories of a lot of places, but I just want to go and try to make the playoffs, keep beating teams that we can beat. Teams we haven't beat, I want to beat them, too. Just try to keep moving on, get this thing over and done with," Jordan said.

Officially, over-and-done-with night is April 16 - the final night of the regular season.

The playoffs will begin three days later, and we'll all know by then whether Jordan is finally finished and whether the Lakers will have earned a chance to go for a four-peat.

TV RATINGS: Jordan's final All-Star Game gave Turner Network Television the best rating for a college or pro basketball game in cable history.

Sunday's game was watched in 4.9 million households, according to Nielsen Media Research. The game generated an overnight cable rating of 9.8 for TNT, which carried the NBA All-Stars for the first time.

Last year's overnight rating on NBC was 9.8, representing 6.5 million households.

CELTICS: Boston forward Vin Baker was cleared to play tonight in Seattle after meeting Monday with team doctors to discuss the lightheadedness that kept him out of Boston's last game.

He skipped the team's flight to Seattle on Monday so he could meet with the doctors.

RAPTORS: Toronto signed forward Maceo Baston for the remainder of the season and released center Zendon Hamilton.

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Tuesday's sports on TV, radio