Washington Wizards majority owner Abe Pollin watched his team practice yesterday and walked away feeling pretty good. The squad that just a few weeks ago seemed on the verge of an early-season collapse recently has been making him look smart.

While the Wizards were spiraling through a six-game losing streak, Pollin remained confident, proclaiming that the team soon would turn around. Not only would it be competitive, he said, it would be playoff bound.

As of yesterday, the Wizards had won four of their past five games and tonight they play a road game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have lost seven in a row. Pollin said he thinks his team could close the century on a roll and open the new millennium with substantial momentum.

"I just believed--and they heard me say it personally--that we have a lot of talent," Pollin said. "Once we gel together and get healthy, we'll be competitive."

The difference in the Wizards' recent surge, Pollin said, has been center Jahidi White's strong interior play. White has started the past five games in place of Ike Austin and has won the job. Shooting guard Mitch Richmond's all-star caliber play over the past month also has factored into the team's success, according to Pollin.

"Jahidi has added a lot," Pollin said. "Mitch is back where we thought he would be when we traded for him. . . . You win a couple of games and you gain confidence and they know they have great talent."

Pollin dispelled any notion that it has taken this long for first-year coach Gar Heard to get through to his players, citing injuries as a major reason for the Wizards' 6-17 start.

"Gar's influence has been there all along," Pollin said.

Despite the good feelings circulating through the Wizards organization, the team still has a long way to go. It has a 10-18 record and is a half-game behind the New Jersey Nets in last place in the Atlantic Division. Confidence among the players and coaches is high, but guarded.

A loss or two might send things back in the wrong direction, so Heard and the players are stressing a day-by-day approach. That is why defeating Cleveland (11-16) tonight is so crucial, they said.

"They have been struggling lately, but we can't take anyone lightly," small forward Juwan Howard said of the Cavaliers. "We need this ballgame as much as they do. We've got to control the game from the tip and finish on a good note. We can do that by playing hard, getting loose balls and controlling Shawn Kemp."

Heard knows all too well what position the Cavaliers are in. He knows how desperately they will play unless Washington strikes early. The Wizards have posted seven- and six-game losing streaks--the Cavaliers defeated them during the second skid--and during those spells, Washington usually played hard until its opponent broke its spirit.

Washington didn't start moving forward until making a strong effort in a victory over the slumbering NBA champion San Antonio Spurs this month. Heard does not want his team to be Cleveland's catalyst.

"We have to go right in and take their will away," Heard said. "You don't want them to get on a run and get their confidence back. If we can go in and play them close or jump on them early, that will make them press more. When you're losing and get down, you press more. That's when things escalate.

"If we can get on them and make them think about that losing streak, that will help us."

Heard added that a victory also would help Washington as it goes into its last game of the century Thursday night at MCI Center against the New York Knicks, who will be seeking to avenge a 95-83 loss to the Wizards on Dec. 18 in New York.

"The Cleveland game is a big game road game that we should have a chance to win," Heard said. "Coming off that game with New York the next night, we need to be coming off a high."

Wizards Notes: Austin rebroke his nose Monday, when Howard accidentally elbowed him during practice. However, Austin practiced yesterday, and will play tonight. His nose was still healing from being broken during a game Dec. 3 against the Toronto Raptors, when teammate Michael Smith inadvertently elbowed Austin while coming down with a rebound.