DRAWING A CROWD: According to research conducted by the Chicago Sun-Times, Bulls guard Michael Jordan has played before 20 million people in his NBA career. He topped the milestone one week ago at Milwaukee. When told of it, Jordan rolled his eyes and said it was news to him.

"I haven't counted them," he said.Teammate Ron Harper, however, thought it was quite an accomplishment.

"They know that Michael is going to give them his all every time he takes the court. He's not going to cheat the people or cheat the game, and people like the fact he's going to give them their money's worth."

MOST IMPROVED: When David Robinson joined the Spurs in 1989, San Antonio improved from 21 to 56 wins. The 35-game improvement set a NBA standard that has yet to be challenged - until now. The addition of Tim Duncan has San Antonio (20-62 in 1996-97) on the verge of breaking their own record. With seven wins in their final 10 games, the Spurs can top the mark.

"I expected us to win," said Duncan, a sure bet to win NBA Rookie of the Year honors. "They had such a core of veteran players that were injured last year. (In 1995) they went to the Western Conference finals."

SHAQ ATTAQ: Greg Ostertag and Utah Jazz fans may get a kick out of this one. After scoring 50 points in a win at New Jersey, Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal was complaining about how rough people are in defending him.

"The only thing I don't like about this league is the inconsistency. They make the rules up every year," O'Neal said. "One of these days, somebody's going to hit me and I'm probably going to go crazy."

The only thing nuttier than the slap artist's postgame comments was his 14 of 20 performance from the free throw line. The career 50 percent shooter even connected on a technical foul shot.

PLAYOFFS OR BUST: Knicks boss Dave Checketts has laid down the law in New York.

"The jury is out on everybody. We've got to make the playoffs now. Everybody is on notice. That's our goal," Checketts said. "The team and Jeff (Van Gundy) have done better than expected (without injured center Patrick Ewing), but there is no `X' next to the Knicks in the standings. I'm going to hold back the accolodes until then."

THE NEW NBA: Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff is well aware his team showboats. The reputation, he hopes, will subside should injury-plagued Washington manage to make the playoffs.

"People say `undisciplined.' That's the way they are. Sure, we need to improve our decisionmaking and not try to make the highlight play 98 times a game. But you don't want to take away what they do best," Bickerstaff said of his squad that includes loose cannons Rod Strickland and Chris Webber.

"The game changes. You deal with it. Everything is confrontational now. Every dunk is `in your face.' That's this new generation. I drove past a playground yesterday. There was one little kid on it. All he was doing was practicing his Allen Iverson moves behind his back.

"People may think I'm crazy, but, with everything that's happened this year (Georghe Muresan's injury as well as Strickland and Webber's brushes with the law), I think we're fortunate to have a shot at the playoffs at all," Bickerstaff said. "This is a great opportunity for everybody on this team to show what kind of committment and heart they have."

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL: While the Golden State Warriors have hired the public relations firm of Burson-Marsteller to improve their image, forward Donyell Marshall has also sought professional help in his bid to win the NBA's Most Improved Player award.

"It would be a great award to win, but that's not something I'm focusing on," Marshall said after hiring ProServ to promote his cause. "I'm focusing on helping this team get better and helping myself get better as a player."

Sound bite: "To get in is the first step. Let's do it now. Why wait until next year? So back in, sideways, cartwheel. I don't care how. Let's get in. I have faith in this team." - Nets coach John Calipari on the importance of making the NBA playoffs.