We’ve reached NBA All-Star Weekend, with the festivities going down in New Orleans and building to Sunday night’s All-Star Game (8 PM ET, TNT). Regular season play resumes again on Tuesday, and TheSportsNotebook has spent this week running a series of articles looking at the big picture and the strengths and weaknesses of the contenders. This post has all those articles consolidated into a single place for your convenience.
With the Olympics going right now, and the sports world having just come off the Super Bowl and looking ahead to March Madness, a lot of fans don’t have time for the NBA. If you’re one of those, the Cliff’s Notes Version of the 2014 season reads thusly—
*The champion is highly likely to be one of the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers or Oklahoma City Thunder and there’s not huge separation among the three.
*There are five other teams with at least a puncher’s chance at June glory, and they are all in the Western Conference—the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors.
*Kevin Durant has put himself in command to be the MVP
If you don’t feel the need to go any further, knowing these three points will get you to the playoffs in late April. But if you’re a little curious about some of the hows and whys, here are the posts that we’ve run here at TheSportsNotebook on the Road To New Orleans and All-Star Weekend over the past several days…
The Toronto Raptors have gotten on a nice run, winning 10 of their last 13 games and moving up to third place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. We’ll take a closer look at the Raptors and ask a question with a double meaning—can this team reach the second round of the playoffs, and what’s more can they be a legitimate second round team?—i.e., not just one tat cashes in because the rules require that two teams join the Miami Heatand Indiana Pacers in the semi-finals of the awful Eastern Conference.
Toronto is a deep team, with eight players making substantive contributions, and they have good floor balance. DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay each score 20-plus points per game, and give the Raptors offensive explosiveness on the wing. Kyle Lowry not only provides scoring at point guard, but is the team’s best three-point shooter. Terrence Ross is another guard who can come off the bench and hit the trey.
The Raptors, with all this perimeter strength, have the ability to go small and spread the floor. But they can also produce on the interior. Amir Johnson is a respectable scorer at power forward and a pretty good rebounder. Jonas Valanciunas, the 21-year-old Lithuanian center is also scoring in double figures and grabbing eight boards per game. Patrick Patterson provides rebounding help off the bench.
It’s also worth noting that all of these players are young, with no one older than 27 years old. Come playoff time, that will be a hindrance, as we’ve all learned that the NBA postseasonis a time for veterans. But for a team trying to work its way up the standings against mediocre competition, the value of young, fresh legs is going to be an asset for Toronto.
The areas fresh legs matter most is defense, and it’s on this end of the floor that the Raptors are making it happen. They rank sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Toronto is also just above average in rebounding, although they are better at going to the offensive glass (8th in offensive rebounding versus 15th in defense). If the Raptors can start cleaning up the defensive boards with the same proficiency, their numbers on D will look even sharper.
Toronto’s recent 10-3 run has been even more impressive than it looks on the surface. The only losses were road defeats at Miami, Indiana and San Antonio. The Raptor also won on the road at Oklahoma City and beat Indiana at home. What’s more, they tacked on five wins against teams that are either currently in the Eastern Conference’s top eight or came against Brooklyn and New York, the talented teams on the outside looking in, but starting to play better.
Those five victories—twice against the Knicks, along with Brooklyn, Detroit and Washington—show both the strength and weaknesses of the Raptors. They do a consistent job rebounding the ball, and have the right combination of offensive balance, while still having a clear go-to player, as DeRozan carried the load in three of the games.
The schedule for the rest of January is not all that imposing, so now is the time for Toronto to keep playing well and consolidate its position at the #3 spot in the Eastern Conference.
To answer our question at the top, I don’t have any problem with saying Toronto can be a top four team in the Eastern Conference all year and win a first-round series, even if the youth is a bit of a concern in the playoffs. The second part of that question—can such success be about more than just having the luck of the draw on the bad side of the NBA—is tougher.
Toronto would still be in ninth in the Western Conference, and that’s even allowing for the Western teams beating up on each other. If the league was more equally distributed, the Raptors still have the horses to be a legitimate playoff team, but probably not much more.
But for a franchise that hasn’t been in the postseason since 2008, and not seen the second round since the days of Vince Carter back in 2001, this constitutes really good progress. And given the youth of the team, the best is still to come.
The NBA Western Conference has been the stronger of the league’s two sides for several years. This year, it’s stepped up to a new level. We documented last week how the East was headed for a historically awful season. The only possible corollary to that is just how good the West is, as even a cursory glance at the standings demonstrates.
Three teams are playing .800 basketball or better. That includes the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, the West’s last two champions and it also includes the surprising Portland Trail Blazers who are 22-5.
Two men who made their reputations with the Boston Celtics are coaching the teams in the 4-5 spots. Doc Rivers seems to have the Los Angeles Clippers rolling with an 18-9 record, while Kevin McHale and the Houston Rockets are just a half-game behind.
The top five teams in the West look, at least for now, to be separate from the rest of the conference. Golden State is a mild disappointment, just outside the playoff picture at 14-12, although that’s close enough to change by the end of the week. Memphis is really struggling with center Marc Gasol out with a sprained MCL until at least mid-January.
The Grizzlies, who made the conference finals in 2013, are 10-15. In the East, that might be enough to get homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. In the West it leaves you temporarily irrelevant and with some serious work ahead.
Dallas, Phoenix and Denver currently hold the 6 thru 8 spots. Both the Mavericks and Suns can be considered pleasant surprises. The Nuggets were probably hoping for a little better, with Javale McGee and Danilio Gallianari both out indefinitely, things aren’t going to get easier for Denver’s first-year coach Brian Shaw.
Only two teams are really hopeless in the West, and that’s Sacramento and Utah, neither qualifying as a huge shock. Minnesota and New Orleans are both hanging in, lurking around the .500 mark and in the playoff conversation. The Los Angeles Lakers are in the same spot ,but got hit with bad news on today’s report that Kobe Bryant will miss six weeks with a knee injury.
The Lakers have hung in mostly without Kobe, but what is the psychology of the team right now? Before, players were battling knowing that help was on the way in the form of the Black Mamba. Now they might be wondering if that help will ever come.
We’re at about the quarter-pole in the long haul that is the NBA regular season, which paves the way for what can seem like an even longer playoff run. All of which is to say we can’t get too excited about an early results, but the first returns do suggest the NBA Eastern Conference is headed for a historically bad season.
The East has two greats teams, with the two-time defending champion Miami Heat off to a 16-6 start, and the prime challenger, the Indiana Pacers out at 19-3, including a head-to-head win last night over the Heat in the first meeting of the season. Problem is, the Heat and Pacers are the only two teams in the East with a winning record.
Atlanta is at .500 and holding the 3-spot. The Charlotte Bobcats are 10-12, with the Washington Wizards at 9-11. Everyone else is at least four games under the break-even point.
At the start of the season, the question about the Boston Celtics was whether they would tank and go in the lottery. They still might–heck, at 10-14, maybe they’re even trying to, but right now that’s good enough to be leading the Atlantic Division. The final two spots in the Eastern Conference’s top eight are held down by the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls.
The Eastern Conference has been well behind the West for several years now, but this is really out of hand and threatens to jeopardize the credibility of the postseason. We’re going to have teams that miss the playoffs by four rungs in the West able to make reasonable arguments that they’re the #3 team in the East, and perhaps–in spite of an unbalanced schedule–even have a better record.
If the playoff bracket lacks credibility, that ultimately casts aspersions on any championship won out of the East. While the top contenders in the West have to slug it out right from the opening round–after a longer, more grueling regular season–the Pacers and Heat can relax and coast into a conference finals battle with each other.
That’s the current status of the East. Here’s hoping the conference teams, especially disappointments like the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, who have the talent to be much better, can turn it around and start winning some games.
There’s eight days left in the regular season and I’m giving in and talking about the Los Angeles Lakers. I’ve resisted using this space’s NBA commentary to talk about the Lakers, because they managed to eclipse Tim Tebow as the most overrated topic in sports. But with five games left, they’re locked in a final battle for the #8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, and let’s face it—they’d make a formidable challenger to anyone in a playoff series, regardless of how ugly they’ve looked this season. So let’s diagnose why this team underachieved, and what its chances are at playoff redemption.
The problems with this Lakers team could have been foreseen in October. In fact, at least to a certain extent it was foreseen here at TheSportsNotebook. That problem is defense. Three of this team’s core four—Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash—are defensive liabilities. It was asking a lot of the fourth member of the quartet, Dwight Howard, to bail them out all the time. I’m not going to say I thought Los Angeles would be in this much trouble as we come down the stretch, or even that they wouldn’t be in the title discussion. But the preseason commentary makes it clear I was never enamored of the Lakers and the reason was defense.
Los Angeles is tied for 17th in defensive efficiency, a stat that ties them with Brooklyn, a team I just panned last week as not being strong enough on this end to make a serious playoff run. But to shift the conversation a bit, we’ll paraphrase 1988 vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen and say simply that the Lakers are no Brooklyn.
The four future Hall of Famers the Lakers put on the court know what they’re doing on the offensive end, and Los Angeles is 8th in offensive efficiency. Kobe Bryant is averaging 27 ppg, and between Bryant and Nash, they combine to hand out 13 assists each night. For all the heat Dwight Howard has taken—most of it self-inflicted—he’s averaging 17 points/13 rebounds and has been on the floor in all but six games. If that’s what he does in a bad, injury-ravaged year, I’d hate to see what happens if he’s good and healthy.
Gasol kicks in a 14/8 nightly average and Nash is a good shooter, who hits 50 percent from the floor and 44 percent behind the arc, meaning you can’t back off to defend his incomparable passing skill, and he can alternate with Kobe as the shooting guard, something the team has done to good effect this season.
One problem has been efficiency in three-point shooting. Los Angeles takes the third-most attempts of any team in the NBA, but they’re only 16th in percentage. A certain gap here is inevitable—high volume in anything means a lower percentage. But being below the league average in percentage suggests you’re not doing something right. That “something” is that the wrong players are shooting from behind the arc. Kobe and Metta World Peace combine for 11 trey attempts per game and neither hit at the minimum 33 percent to make this shot mathematically worthwhile. Meanwhile, role players like Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake come off the bench and shoot well behind the arc, as does Nash.
I don’t want to reduce everything to stats, because I know there’s certain freedom Kobe has to be given to take his shots, particularly at the end of his games when he really is—percentages or no —the guy I would want. But the numbers suggest that during the flow of the game for three quarters, the Black Mamba would be better off working more inside the arc and kicking out to his mates for the long-range game. As for Metta World Peace, just give him a simple message—if you’re aren’t going to make the shot, quit shooting. The Lakers need him more focused on defense anyway.
Laker fans will point to injuries as a big part of the problem, and that’s fair enough. Nash has only played in 50 games, while Gasol’s only gotten on the court for 44. Although when most of your core is aging, that can’t be unexpected. A more legitimate injury excuse would be to wonder how good Howard might have been had he not had the chronic back problems throughout the year.
Now, we look forward to the final five games of the regular season and potentially into the playoffs. The Lakers host New Orleans tonight (10:30 PM ET, NBA-TV), make a tough trip to Portland tomorrow night, then come home for three straight games against playoff-bound Golden State, San Antonio and Houston. The good news is this—Golden State and Houston are likely to have little to play for, especially the Rockets in the season finale next Wednesday. The Spurs are more likely to value rest than pushing to hold on to the #1 seed, a race they led by a game over Oklahoma City. Combine all that with homecourt advantage and it’s not unreasonable for the Lakers to win all three, something that would certainly get them in the playoffs. At the very least, they can win two of the three, and then if they get the win in Portland, would likely be enough.
As many problems as this team has had, as real as the defensive issues are, if I’m San Antonio, I don’t want to see the Lakers in the first round. The last lingering health issue is Nash’s hamstring—he’s listed as doubtful for tonight—but if he’s healthy, that gives Los Angeles the chance to go into the playoffs with four future Hall of Famers ready to roll and on the floor. If the matchup was Oklahoma City, I frankly don’t think it would matter—the Thunder are too young and dynamic to be stopped by a team that’s old and defensively-challenged. But the Spurs? I think San Antonio would win such a series, because they have played well defensively, but their own age issues hardly make it a slam dunk.
If nothing else, Los Angeles’ season-long soap opera has made this final week of the NBA regular season very interesting. Their failure to make the playoffs would be about as big a disaster there can be in sports, given the talent assembled and the number of teams that qualify for the postseason. But if they survive and get a clean slate, that becomes a whole new story unto itself and would make the Lakers finally worth talking about—something they have not been, despite an ESPN obsession to the contrary.
The NBA’s Western Conference has had some clear structure and definition throughout the season. San Antonio and Oklahoma City were the co-favorites, the Denver-Memphis-LA Clippers troika was next, and the Los Angeles Lakers were the soap opera that sucked up all the media oxygen in the room with whether they could make the playoffs or not. The teams that mostly slid under the radar were Golden State and Houston. Each has solidified their playoff position. Now’s the time to ask if they’re a live dog that can challenge a favorite in the first round. Answering that question will the focal point of today’s NBA commentary.
Both teams play at a rapid pace—in fact, no one in the NBA pushes a faster pace than the Rockets, with Jeremy Lin at the controls and James Harden as his running mate. Harden has taken advantage of the opportunity to escape the shadow of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and is averaging 26 ppg, to go with six assists per game. With 44 percent shooting from the floor, Harden is doing it with a fair amount of efficiency for the number of shots he takes. More importantly, he gives Houston the superstar presence that NBA teams need if they’re going to win a big playoff series.
What Houston does not do very well is play defense, ranking a little bit below the league average in efficiency. Please note that the efficiency ranking factors in the pace of the game, so the Rockets’ up-and-down approach can’t be used as an excuse. They do rebound the ball well, led by 26-year-old center Omer Asik, who averages 12 rebounds a game. And they’re certainly not shy about gunning the three-ball. This team leads the league in three-point shot attempts—something we certainly don’t need to remind Golden State of. The Rockets buried a record-tying 23 treys in an early February game against the Warriors and Golden State was reduced to intentionally fouling to prevent a new record from being set.
My problem with the Rockets—in addition to the biggie of their defense—is the lack of quality depth. Chandler Parsons is a good secondary scorer, getting 15 ppg, but there’s not a lot coming off the bench. I love the trade this team made at the deadline to get 22-year-old power forward Thomas Robinson from Sacramento. I think Robinson, under the tutelage of head coach Kevin McHale can become an outstanding power forward in this league. But that’s for future years. Right now, Robinson is nowhere near ready to contribute significantly in a playoff series.
If you pick the Rockets to win a playoff series you’re essentially asking James Harden to almost personally carry you past a good team four times in two weeks, to stay hot from three-point range and to continue an up-tempo pace at a time when most games become more of a grind. I’m rooting for the Rockets, because as a Boston fan I feel a certain loyalty to McHale—and he’s one of my all-time favorite NBA players to boot—but it’s tough to see Houston winning a playoff series in 2013.
Now let’s go to the great sports city of San Francisco—they have the World Series champ, they have a team that came within one play of winning the Super Bowl, and the Rose Bowl winner is nearby. The Warriors’ turnaround to make the playoffs under Jackson has already marked them part of the city’s success. Is there more success in the offing?
Golden State is similar to Houston in that they play up-tempo and are better offensively, than they are defensively, but the gap isn’t quite as pronounced as it is with the Rockets. Jackson has turned the Warriors in a team that competes on the defensive end. To continue the comparison, Golden State isn’t as dependent on the three-ball, but also lags a little bit behind Houston in rebounding.
The Warriors do have legitimate stars, in power forward David Lee and point guard Stephen Curry, The inside-out combo produces 52 points a game, and you can mix in two-guard Klay Thompson and his 16 ppg. Golden State has their own talented young forward under development in 20-year-old Harrison Barnes. The North Carolina product only averages 9 ppg, but like Robinson in Houston, he has the talent to become a playoff series-altering star.
If center Andrew Bogut really gets physical down low, I could see Golden State pulling off an upset, obviously pending what matchup they draw. Bogut gets seven rebounds a game, which isn’t a disgrace, but it’s not enough for a non-offensive center who goes 7’0”. If Bogut was grabbing a dozen boards or so during the playoffs, something that would also open up opportunities in transition, this could be a scary team.
Golden State is 43-32, with Houston a game back at 42-33. The race between the two is significant, because the lower finisher will draw the #2 seed, which means either San Antonio or Oklahoma City. Which means elimination. But to play the 3-seed means that, as the bracket stands right now you get Denver. The Nuggets are noted for their lack of stars, and any one of Lee, Curry or Harden would be the best player on the floor in a series with Denver. A potential matchup with Memphis would have a similar dynamic. The Clippers have the star power, but also lack the discipline of OkC or San Antonio and would be vulnerable.
We should also note that the Warriors and Rockets have a record that would position either in the 4-spot in the Eastern Conference bracket—and likely higher if they actually played an Eastern Conference-heavy schedule. It’s one more example of the disparity between the conferences and how it hurts up-and-coming teams like these.
THE WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
The Lakers are currently holding the 8-spot, though they are three games back of Houston with just seven to play. The talk of a couple weeks ago about how Los Angeles might get to that 6-spot has gone away. Although LA’s win over Dallas on Tuesday night realistically pushed the Mavericks out of the picture and effectively turned the race for the final berth into a two-team affair with Utah, currently a game out.
Oklahoma City beat San Antonio last night and the teams are tied in the loss column for the top spot. Denver is a half-game up on Memphis for the 3-seed, though the teams are tied in the loss column, with the Clippers two games behind. Note that as a likely division champ, the Clips can’t technically be seeded lower than 4th, although if their record is worse than the 5-seed, homecourt would be given to the team in the 5-hole (currently Memphis).
If you find that confusing and bizarre, you’re not the only one. I agree with the notion of guaranteeing a division champ a certain seed. I understand if you disagree and just want to seed by record. The NBA approach of trying to split the difference is stupid and needs to go. Just pick an approach and be consistent.
The Brooklyn Nets are on a collision course with the Miami Heat if the current standings in the Eastern Conference hold up. The Nets’ 42-31 record is good for #4 in the East, which would make them the favorite to play the Heat in the second round. Furthermore, in a world where we’re looking for anyone at all who can make Miami sweat out a playoff series prior to the Finals, Brooklyn is getting some attention.
Today’s NBA commentary will focus on the Nets’ strengths and weaknesses, and evaluate whether they are the kind of playoff-tough team that can first, win a series, and second, put pressure on the favorite.
Brooklyn has legitimate star talent and in the NBA that’s always the first thing you look for. The backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, combined with the inside work of center Brook Lopez, give the Nets a foundation on which to build a championship-caliber team. They already play at a high level on the offensive end. Johnson and Williams combine for 34 points per game, they shoot a respectable 37% from three-point range, while Lopez gets 19 ppg in the low post. There’s not much in the way of scoring balance, but this core trio is enough to make Brooklyn a top ten team in offensive efficiency.
What the Nets lack is scoring depth—or really, any kind of depth at all. Gerald Wallace is a disappointment at the small forward spot, Kris Humphries hasn’t provided much of anything off the bench, and Keith Bogans is a mediocre backup guard. The most you can say for the bench or the role players offensively is that C.J. Watson hits 40 percent of his three-point shots.
Furthermore, this team does not play efficient defense. Brooklyn ranks just 19th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Opposing teams don’t bother messing around with the three-ball—the Nets face fewer attempts than all but two teams, which suggest the opposition is very comfortable working the offense inside the arc. The numbers suggest the strategy is working, and that shouldn’t happen when you have a shotblocker like Lopez as the anchor. Brooklyn likely needs some new complementary players, who understand the defensive side of the floor much better.
What Brooklyn does do very well is pound the boards though. Reggie Evans starts at power forward and has pulled in 10 rebounds a game. Andray Blatche comes off the bench and does the same thing. Put these two together with Lopez and you have a team that’s tied for second in the league in rebounding. It’s admirable, and it also underscores the need for better defense—when you can clean up misses like this team can, you’ve got to start forcing more of them.
Brooklyn’s star power, combined with their inconsistency on defense, would seem to make them a team that could both beat or lose to anyone. At least in the month of March, that was not the case. This team was in fact, quite predictable. They lost most of their road games to playoff teams—Denver, Utah, LA Clippers, Chicago, and took care of the games they were supposed to win. Brooklyn split a pair with Atlanta, although in this case it was the road team winning each time. Even though the Nets only went 8-7 for the month, they held steady in the #4 spot, a seed that would get them homecourt advantage in the first round.
The three games played against the Bulls and Hawks were instructive, and not just because these are the two teams directly on their heels in the standings (both are two back of Brooklyn in the loss column coming into Wednesday’s games). Brooklyn lost to Atlanta on March 17 in spite of a huge rebounding night from the team as a whole, and Evans in particular, because they allowed the Hawks to shoot 52 percent from the floor. The Bulls did the same in their victory early in the month. When Brooklyn got a win in Atlanta, they didn’t dominate the glass, but they did hold the Hawks to 42 percent shooting. There’s a lesson in there somewhere and it has something to do with defense.
Until the Nets get either more talented on defense, or take it with a greater seriousness, I can’t give them any reasonable chance against Miami—we’ll define “reasonable chance” as saying they could be expected to take a series to a sixth game, which would give them a chance to win at home and force a Game 7. I’m not there with Brooklyn yet. You won’t compete with Miami being soft on the defensive end. It’s more pertinent to ask how they’d match up with the Hawks or Bulls, and while I’m not yet sure who I’d pick in such a series, the lack of defensive skill bothers me here too.
What doesn’t bother me is Brooklyn’s long-term potential. The hardest thing to do in the NBA is to get a core group that can win a championship together and the Nets have that. It’s up to the front office and coaching staff to get the right complementary pieces in place, but the future is bright for the season-ticket holders at the Barclays Center.
THE EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Miami has the #1 seed officially clinched and is closing in on the best overall record. New York and Indiana are in a tough fight for the 2-3 spots in the bracket, but both are assured of going opposite Miami. The next three would be the Brooklyn/Chicago/Atlanta group. Probably the worst spot to finish in that race is second and the #5 seed—you don’t get homecourt and you don’t get to go opposite Miami. At the bottom, the Celtics are struggling and barely holding on to #7, a game ahead of Milwaukee in the loss column, as both teams look to avoid the Heat in the first round.
The NBA is going to slide well under the media radar now that March Madness is underway, but the pros are taking full advantage of their Monday night with the TV spotlight. ESPN will be in Boston, as the Miami Heat put their 22-game win streak and run at history on the line against the still-surging Celtics in an 8 PM ET tipoff. That game will be followed by New York-Utah, another matchup of significance in the playoff picture.
TheSportsNotebook’s focus will be on the NCAA Tournament—regional previews will start going online early this evening in anticipation of the play-in games that start Tuesday—with our MLB coverage continuing with team previews, as we build to the April 1 opener. But we can’t completely lose sight of the NBA. By the time the sports world comes up for air when the NCAAs conclude on April 8, the NBA season will have just nine days left and all the races that are compelling right now might be mostly settled. As such, today’s daily sports look will double as NBA commentary, and we’ll summarize the key races within each conference and look ahead at the entire week of pro basketball.
We can pencil in Miami-Milwaukee as a first-round matchup in the Eastern Conference, with the Heat having pulled away with the 1-seed and Milwaukee three games out of seventh, yet well in command of the playoff push. But after that, it’s a crapshoot in the East.
Indiana is 40-26 and in second, but Danny Granger is again dealing with knee problems. New York is tied with the Pacers in the loss column, but have their own injury issues with Carmelo Anthony’s nagging knee troubles, so much so that even Knicks’ head coach Mike Woodson admitted concern in public. Brooklyn is only a game back in the loss column, while Atlanta, Chicago and Boston all have 29 losses, well within striking distance.
Everything is up for grabs and almost every seed level has its own importance. #2 gives you the homecourt path to a shot at Miami in the conference finals. #3 at least gets you opposite Miami in the bracket. #4 will give you a good homecourt to win a playoff series. The only area of strangeness might be the of the 5-6-7 spots, is probably the worst. You’re on the road in the first round, the opponent is not demonstrably easier and even if you win, you can’t get opposite Miami in the draw.
The Western Conference breaks down much more clearly, with three distinct races…
*San Antonio and Oklahoma City look locked into the 1-2 spots and are fighting for homecourt.
*Memphis, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver are in a tight battle for the next three spots, with the odd team out having to on the road for the first round. The winner of this mini-race avoids having to play the other two and gets a first-round opponent one rung down. The Nuggets by the way, are having about the quietest 11-game win streak ever, thanks to Miami’s bold charge at the ’72 Lakers record of 33 straight wins.
*Golden State is in the six-spot and leads up a group of six teams fighting for the last three spots. Houston and the LA Lakers are currently the other two teams, but Utah is tied with Los Angeles in the loss column. Portland and Dallas are still lurking. The Lakers and Jazz have 32 losses, while Portland has 34 and Dallas is at 35. The Blazers and Mavs aren’t finished yet.
Finally, let’s not overlook the race for the overall #1 seed. Miami’s big win streak has put them at 51-14 and in the lead. But the Heat’s slower start to the season (at least relatively speaking) means this is still a race. San Antonio is 51-16 and Oklahoma City is at 50-17. Miami was able to win the Finals last year without the benefit of homecourt, but as anyone who’s watched the NBA playoffs for any length of time can tell you, this isn’t the NCA A Tournament—seed position matters, because homecourt is huge, especially if a series gets to a decisive seventh game.
That’s the context of the NBA race. Now here’s what’s ahead this week…
*Besides the ESPN doubleheader tonight, you’ve got Denver-Chicago and Dallas-Atlanta in a key interconference games.
*Tuesday it’s a good game out West on NBA-TV, when Denver-Oklahoma City tip at 8 PM ET.
*Brooklyn-Dallas get ESPN coverage on Wednesday at 8 PM ET. It’s the headliner of a good night of pro hoops. Utah-Houston is a big game in the Western playoff fight, along with Golden State’s visit into San Antonio. The higher-ups have a key battle with Oklahoma City-Memphis, a tough road assignment for the Thunder coming off the Nuggets game the night before. Out East, Atlanta hosts Milwaukee. And there’s even some soap opera fun—LeBron and Miami go into Cleveland. Now it’s not a question of a hatefest, but whether LeBron will keep laying the groundwork for a return home when he can opt out of his contract the end of next season.
*The NBA then goes dark, like a Catholic church on Good Friday, at least when it comes to TV coverage. They don’t even try and contest college basketball now that the NCAA Tournament hits full gear and nothing is on national TV the rest of the week. Thursday only has one even notable game and that’s Portland-Chicago.
Friday has three noteworthy games of Milwaukee-Indiana, Boston-Dallas and Utah-San Antonio. The same goes for Saturday, with Indiana-Chicago, Boston-Memphis and Brooklyn-LA Clippers. This is an interesting southern road swing for the Celtics. They also have New Orleans mixed in earlier in the week and this comes off what’s likely going to be an emotionally exhausting game with the Heat tonight.
ABC eschews its Sunday doubleheader to give way to the colleges, but League Pass subscribers can still enjoy an Atlanta-Milwaukee rematch in the Midwest, or three games at the bubble of the Western Conference playoff race—Houston hosts the Spurs, Portland goes to OkC and Utah-Dallas go head-to-head.
It’s going to be tough for even passionate sports fans to find time for the NBA over the next few weeks. But don’t let them go completely off the radar, because who plays well know will go a long way to deciding who wins when everyone’s tuned back at the end of April.
The New York Knicks enter into the biggest week of the regular season starting tonight. The Knicks are 38-22, and a half-game up on the Indiana Pacers for the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. New York also starts a tough five-game road swing out west, most of which will be on national television. So for today’s NBA commentary, let’s break down the Knicks and see if this is a team that can fulfill the promise of its fast start to the regular season and at least reach the conference finals and a showdown with Miami.
New York has a reputation as a team that likes to gun it from three-point range and the numbers bear that out. They lead the league in three-point shot attempts. The Knicks are eighth in percentage, which for a volume of shots this high is very good. Carmelo Anthony, unsurprisingly, takes the most treys per game, somewhere between six and seven, and connects to the tune of 38 percent. Steve Novak comes off the bench and does little besides shoot the three-ball. He takes over four per game and hits 43 percent. Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd all get their looks and all shoot well enough to justify letting it fly.
The three-point game has made the Knicks the third-best team in the NBA in offensive efficiency, with Melo leading the way at 28 ppg. Felton is the floor leader and averages six assists per game. Smith is the X-factor. Officially, he comes off the bench, though in reality he plays starters’ minutes. A 36-point night against Oklahoma City earlier this week is the kind of game he’s capable of, and he averages 17 ppg. Then you mix in the veteran Kidd and the long-range shooting of Novak and it adds up to a nice combination on the perimeter.
It’s the post game that’s been the concern for New York all year. There’s nothing wrong with 30-year-old center Tyson Chandler, who averages 11 points/11 rebounds per game, but he doesn’t get enough help. The Knicks rank a poor 25th in rebounding and they’re only a little bit above the league average on defense. By comparison, Indiana is the best defensive team in the NBA and Miami is in the top ten, with further allowances that the Heat might find another level of intensity come playoff time. In short, if a playoff series comes down to defense—and since when does it not—New York is not playing at a level suitable to beating Indiana or giving Miami a real run for its money.
Amare Stoudamire will be out for at least the next six weeks, making it right around the playoffs the veteran forward could come back. Stoudamire could help on the offensive end and give New York another inside option, but it’s unlikely—to be kind—that he would make a big impact on the defensive end. In either case, New York played its best basketball of the year when he was injured early. In fairness to Stoudamire, the Knicks were too hot not to cool down back then. But in fairness to those of us who think he’s fool gold, nothing happened in the ensuing months to suggest he really makes the team better.
New York hit the low point of its season back on February 22. They had lost four straight games, two of them to Toronto, another one at home to the Clippers. Even a road loss at Indiana, understandable in of itself, came in the form of a less-than-understandable 125-91 blowout. The Pacers moved past the Knicks and its still Indiana that’s the first team on everyone’s mind when one asks if anyone in the East can make Miami sweat.
Since that low point, the Knicks have won four of six. It’s still tough to know how much to read into it because the wins came against Washington, Cleveland and Detroit and a Utah team that was playing without Paul Millsap. And the losses were to Miami and Oklahoma City, so it’s really a six-game stretch where the chalk held and we don’t learn a lot about New York’s playoff potential.
But if you want to read into the last six games, I think an optimistic lean would carry the day. New York was extremely competitive against the Heat and Thunder—it looked like they had Miami beat until a rally at the end. The loss to the Thunder came by a point. While both games were in MSG, if New York could replicate its play in those games in the postseason, they would certainly win two playoff rounds. And while the win at Cleveland was nothing special, it was twenty-four hours after the Miami game. Give credit to the Knicks for keeping their focus on the road.
Now is when it gets serious though. New York goes to Golden State tonight, the first of five in a row out West. On Wednesday they’re in Denver (10:30 PM ET, ESPN). On Thursday’s it’s Portland (10:30 PM ET, TNT) with the Trail Blazers within three games of the playoffs and catching the Knicks in a fatigue spot. After a couple days to rest, the Knicks visit the Clippers for a Sunday afternoon telecast on ABC at 3:30 PM ET. Then it’s on to Utah for a Monday night battle (10:30 PM ET, ESPN). New York is going to be the betting line underdog in at least three of these games.
I haven’t been sold on the Knicks all year. Look, I love Mike Woodson—he was one of the favorite players of Bob Knight back in 1980 at Indiana, and Knight is my favorite sports figure in my entire life as a fan. I have no doubt that Woodson tries to inculcate the value of defense, and at the very least, this Knicks’ team shows more toughness than it did under Mike D’Antoni. But at the end of the day they just do not have championship-level defensive talent. If the Knicks aren’t hitting the threes, they’re very ordinary. What are the odds of a team staying hot throughout a seven-game series against a good team?
Looking ahead, that’s why I think New York is going to be a beatable favorite in the first round, a decided underdog to presumably Indiana in the second and no match for Miami if it gets this far. But homecourt goes a long way in the NBA playoffs and if New York can win the race for the #2 seed, then they’ve at least earned respect for their chances. And the biggest stretch in the race for that seed position goes down over the next week out west.
The playoff race in the NBA’s Eastern Conference is nothing if not fluid, and once you concede the obvious top spot to the Miami Heat, it seems almost everything else is up for grabs. In that light, escaping the #8 playoff seed would be of paramount importance. It surely has to be considered a surprise that the Milwaukee Bucks have gotten on a four-game win streak against a good schedule and given themselves a puncher’s chance to do just that. The Bucks are still currently in eighth, but moving into striking distance of the seven-spot. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will focus on whether Milwaukee can actually get to #7—or higher—and if so, if they can pull off the supreme shocker and win their first playoff series since 2001.
Milwaukee currently sits on a 30-28 record. The current win streak has enabled them to pull away from the also-rans in the Eastern Conference field, and are a solid 6 ½ games up on a Toronto team that just started too late, and the Philadelphia 76ers, who have been a massive disappointment. On other side of the equation, the Bucks have nudged within 2 ½ games of Boston for the 7-spot. If that surprises you, given the Celtics have won 12 of their last 16, it actually fits into an overall context of the East tightening up from the 4-seed all the way down.
The Bucks are built around the backcourt. It started with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings and then continued when the team added J.J. Redick at the trade deadline. Ellis and Jennings are prolific scorers, at 19 ppg each. Both players can create for others as well as themselves, and they combine for 13 assists a game. The acquisition of Redick was the perfect complement to the offense. Neither Ellis nor Jennings is a great three-point shooter, while Redick has a noted reputation as a long-range bomber. We should note that at 37 percent from behind the arc, it’s not as though Redick is the next coming of Reggie Miller, but he does give the Bucks a consistent outside shooter ,someone that Ellis or Jennings can kick it out to off dribble-penetration.
When the Bucks acquired Redick I’ll admit my first reaction was a snide comment on a podcast at Prime Sports Network that said he would fit right into a lineup of guards that were undersized and didn’t play defense. On an individual basis, I don’t necessarily back away from that, but I also have to concede that the overall statistical data doesn’t back up the notion that Milwaukee is a poor defensive team. In fact, they’re ninth in the NBA in defensive efficiency—a stat that adjusts raw point totals for pace. The Bucks rank ahead of Miami when it comes to their work on the defensive end.
The man who deserves the most credit for that is Larry Sanders. The 6’11” center is averaging nine rebounds and three blocks per game, including one for the highlight reels in the most recent game against Utah when he blocked a dunk. Sanders is only 24 years old, and while his offensive game still needs work, the defensive skills he brings to the table are exactly what this team needs right now. Flanking him on the frontcourt are Ersan Ilyasova, a modestly effective power forward (12 points/7 rebounds an ability to step out and hit a trey) and Mike Dunleavy, a veteran and good perimeter shooter. Depth is a problem, with Luc Richard Mbah Moute being inconsistent and rookie John Henson still having to beef up his lanky frame.
On February 23rd, Milwaukee concluded a stretch of three consecutive heartbreaking losses. They dropped consecutive games to Brooklyn, one of which saw Joe Johnson hit two big shots in the closing seconds for the Nets. Both times the Bucks wasted 30-plus point efforts from Jennings. Then they dropped a one-point home decision to Atlanta. It was a game the Bucks played pretty well overall, but the Hawks got insanely hot from three-point range. Ironically the unexpected barrage of treys was led by Devin Harris, who hit four of five—the irony is that Harris used to be a local hero when he played at Wisconsin.
With a record of 26-28, I won’t say the Bucks were in trouble as far as making the playoffs went, but it was a race to keep an eye. Toronto was starting to play better since the Rudy Gay trade, and the Bucks would have to play the Raptors after consecutive road games in the state of Texas. Everything was ripe for the best Toronto-Milwaukee race since the 1992 AL East battle.
It was Milwaukee who came up big at the crucial point in the schedule though. They forced twenty turnovers against Dallas and beat the Mavericks. Ellis hit a walk-off three-pointer to upset Houston. Then the game with Toronto went to overtime and the Bucks prevailed. Ilyasova delivered some of his best basketball, with 20 points/10 rebounds at Houston, and a 29/11 showing against Toronto. Then came a solid defensive effort in Monday’s one-point overtime win over Utah.
This has been a tumultuous year for the franchise. There was a coaching change mid-stream, as Jim Boylan replaced Scott Skiles. In fairness to Skiles, the team was 16-16 at his departure, so it’s not as though there’s been a dramatic turnaround since. Jennings was in trade rumors right up to the deadline. There’s even now a rumor that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would be interested in being the next coach. That would be an unlikely return for the Hall of Famer who began his NBA career in Milwaukee, won a title here in 1971 and then forced a trade to Los Angeles prior to the 1976 season.
Milwaukee’s now virtually certain playoff berth represents a modest victory for the franchise amidst all this. If they got themselves off the 8-spot and gave the fans a playoff series that would be truly competitive it would be a big victory. And actually winning a playoff round would be akin to winning a championship, at least at this point in the organization’s history. I still see a team that lacks depth on the frontcourt and can be exploited by bigger guards, and conclude that the likely end to the season is a four-game sweep against Miami. But with 24 games left, the Bucks have given the fans some legitimate hope that more could be in the works.
Whether it’s the bubble of the NCAA Tournament or that in the playoff races of the NBA and NHL, the marginal teams are in the spotlight tonight. TheSportsNotebook’s daily sports talk will run through all three, starting with action in the NBA.
*Milwaukee is currently the #8 seed in the East and has a safe lead on the field in the East. With a big overtime win over Utah last night, the Bucks are threatening the Celtics to escape the last playoff spot and the first-round matchup with Miami. I’ll refer you over to Stat Intelligence and my friend Jeff Fogle for a game recap—and preview of the Horizon League tournament in college hoops—if you scroll down.
Suffice it to say that Milwaukee’s recent winning—they’ve also knocked off Dallas, Houston and Toronto over the past several days—is turning up the heat on Boston, who leads up a TNT doubleheader tonight when they visit Philadelphia at 7 PM ET. And Utah’s loss creates some opportunity for the Los Angeles Lakers, who finish the TNT twinbill with a 9:30 PM ET tip in Oklahoma City. The Lakers are 2 ½ games back of the Jazz for the last playoff spot in the West coming into tonight.
*The NHL is just about to halfway point and in the Western Conference there are six teams tied for the final four playoff berths, with 24 points apiece—not to mention the teams immediately one spot above and below are only separated by a point. Four of the six deadlocked teams are in action. Los Angeles, who got a needed win over Nashville (the team sitting on 23) last night behind a hat trick from Jeff Carter, is hosting St. Louis, who also has 24 points. San Jose takes its 24 points to Vancouver. And the most interesting one is going to be the Minnesota Wild—because they’re in the Windy City, where the amazing Chicago Blackhawks still haven’t lost a regulation game yet this year.
Over in the Eastern Conference it’s not quite as wild, but the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers are only separated by a point for the #8 position in the standings and these two blood rivals go head-to-head tonight. This is the game the country will get the opportunity to see, with a 7:30 PM ET faceoff on NBC Sports Network.
*Let’s conclude with the bubble race that’s hottest and it’s that for the NCAA Tournament. Cincinnati missed a chance last night to solidify its position, losing 67-51 at Louisville. The Cardinals were in lockdown mode defensively, holding Cincy to 35 percent shooting and forcing 21 turnovers. The Bearcats can still play their way in, but we can’t say the same for Baylor. A disastrous Big 12 season for the Bears hit its nadir last night when they played shaky perimeter defense, let Texas guard Myck Kabongo have a nice night and a bad Longhorns team get a 79-70 win. Baylor is 17-13 and even beating Kansas this weekend won’t be enough to save them. It’s win the conference tournament or go home, and I have to think the average Baylor fan is more than ready to just go home at this point.
Looking ahead to tonight, it’s the SEC that will be on the spotlight. TheSportsNotebook took a closer look at a crazy bubble situation that hasfive teams with their fate up in the air. Arkansas goes to Missouri (7 PM ET, ESPN) with a chance to show they can win a big road game. Alabama-Ole Miss (9 PM ET, ESPNU) features two teams that are likely on the outside looking in and need to win just to keep at-large hopes alive for next week’s conference tournament.
St. John’s is an NCAA longshot, but winning at Notre Dame (7 PM ET, ESPN2) would give them a puncher’s chance. The same goes for Iowa, who hosts Illinois in a Big Ten Network telecast at 7 PM ET. And perhaps no bubble game is more significant than Boise State-UNLV. The Broncos are playing good basketball and in position to nail down a bid if they can win this game, or win this weekend against San Diego State. The Mountain West is, believe it or not, the highest-rated conference in the RPI. I went off about that in my podcast yesterday with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network as we broke down the field, but the numbers are what they are. By the way, if you’re monitoring the NFL offseason, Greg will have a good show today at 2 PM ET with Neil Hornsby, the editor of Pro Football Focus.
Finally, let’s move off the bubble and talk about a team in position to win a conference championship. Indiana has already secured a tie for the Big Ten crown and they can win the league outright if they beat Ohio State (9 PM ET, ESPN). The last time Indiana won the league outright? It was when Bob Knight was on the sidelines, Calbert Cheaney was national Player of the Year and I was still in college, back in 1993. Yeah, that’s been a long time.
BEST GAME(S) TO WATCH: For me it’s easy, because I’m a Celtics fan who lives in Big Ten Country, so I’ll watch the Celts-Sixers and then shift over to Indiana-Ohio State (okay, I may also cheat and sneak in some CBS drama action with NCIS Los Angeles and Vegas too). For someone who was purely objective and wanted to watch the most meaningful games, I would suggest making it an SEC night and watch Arkansas-Missouri and Alabama-Ole Miss in succession. If nothing else, it will remind you that this league does something besides play football.
BEST BET: I lost yesterday on my belief in the New Jersey Devils over Toronto, as the Maple Leafs won 4-2. I’ll try my hand at college basketball tonight and take Alabama (+5) over Ole Miss. The Rebs just lost to Mississippi State and are reeling. I think this line hasn’t factored in how bad Ole Miss has played for the past few weeks and is overstating homecourt advantage. Famous last words.
When it comes to disappointments, the Dallas Mavericks have gotten off the hook when it comes to media pressure this season. All of the oxygen in the room has been sucked up by the Los Angeles Lakers. Then you can add in that Dallas has been further submerged by the success of the other two teams in the Lone Star State. San Antonio just keeps churning out wins, while Houston is the only NBA team to have already exceeded its preseason Las Vegas win projection.
Trade deadline talk took up more airtime, though the 3 PM ET deadline passed today without major incident. Finally let’s add in the fact that Dirk Nowitzki missed games in the early part of the season, so the Mavericks were tacitly off a lot of radars to begin with. Nonetheless, Dirk’s been back since Christmas, and the Mavs are still on the outside looking in the Western Conference playoff picture, with a 24-29 record. Therefore, TheSportsNotebook’s NBA coverage today hones on what the problem is in Big D and whether there’s still time to turn it around and at least squeak out the #8 seed.
When you look at Dallas’ complete body of work the first thing that has to jump out is how bad the rebounding is. The Mavericks rank 27th in the league in rebound rate. The defense has also declined, ranking 20th in efficiency. This isn’t a franchise with a defensive reputation, but they were 8th a year ago, and 7th in their championship year of 2011. In fact the last time Dallas was in the bottom of half of the NBA on defense was 2009 when they were 17th. So this is a very shaky defensive team that doesn’t close out possessions when they do force a miss.
There are some reasonable excuses that can be put forth. The season-long data obviously includes the games Nowitzki misses. Another big man, 7-foot center Chris Kaman has been out with a concussion since January 30. He’s started to do non-contact drills in practice the last couple days and the Mavs really need him back. The front line is rounded out with Shawn Marion and Elton Brand, ages 34 and 33 respectively. Combined with Dirk, this makes for a frontcourt that’s long in the tooth.
Dallas invested in the backcourt during the offseason, bringing in Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo. It’s turned out to be a pretty good tandem. Mayo is averaging 18 points a game and does it with efficient shooting both from the floor and from three-point range. Collison shoots 48 percent from the floor himself and both players are decent distributors. There’s veteran depth in the backcourt with 38-year-old Derek Fisher who knows something about winning, even if he’s not productive on the stat sheet. And there’s 36-year-old Vince Carter who knows something about being productive on the stat sheet even if he’s not winning.
Even allowing for the competitiveness of the Western Conference, the personnel is here to at least make the playoffs. Dallas has played modestly better since Nowitzki’s return on December 23. The overall before and after records don’t show it, at 12-15 without and 12-14 since the return. But that includes losing the first four games Dirk was back, when he was presumably still playing his way into shape. Dallas stabilized in January, at 7-8 and has gotten on a nice little run in February, winning five of seven this month.
Thus, the question is whether the improved play of February is a sign of an impending stretch drive. Here’s a run through each game of the 5-2 stretch with a special focus on the question of rebounding…
Feb 1: at Phoenix (109-99)–Brand and Marion each have double-digit rebounds, keying an overall 51-46 edge on the glass. Dirk misses this game.
Feb 4: at Oklahoma City (91-112)–I’ll cut the Mavs slack here since there’s no denying they lack the talent to compete with the West’s upper crust. Dirk was back and ineffective and Dallas lost rebounding, and the Thunder were also hot from three-point range.
Feb 6: vs. Portland (105-99)–A good night on the glass, with a 46-42 advantage, again keyed by Marion and aided by Nowitzki. Mayo knocks down 28 points to be the offensive difference-maker.
Feb 9: vs. Golden State (116-91)–The best defensive performance of this stretch, holding the Warriors to 38 percent shooting. It makes up for a tough night rebounding, with Collison and Mayo playing a dominant game in the backcourt.
Feb 11: vs Atlanta (101-105)–A tough home loss is caused by Josh Smith and Al Horford owning the boards for the Hawks. Dirk scores 24, but Smith and Horford can eat up a weak rebounding team and that’s what happens here.
Feb 13: vs Sacramento (123-100)—It’s 51-44 for Dallas on rebounds and that advantage is thanks to a complete team-wide effort. It’s the best game in this sequence, although it’s also easily the worst opponent.
Feb 20: vs. Orlando (111-96)–Close to a wash on the glass, at 44-43 Dallas. But when you’re 27th in the league in a category and you play dead-even, that counts as a win. And it’s translated into a W on the court.
Dallas has held its own on the glass—if you go strictly by rebounding, that’s four wins and three losses, with the final win being close enough to call a push. It’s a demonstration of the fact that if the Mavs can continue to at least break even, they can keep winning games. The next question would be how much credibility do you give the competition?
It’s not a bad schedule stretch by any means, with three games against playoff teams and Portland at least being respectable. But it does have to be concerning that the three playoff teams—Oklahoma City, Golden State and Atlanta also are the three teams that beat the Mavs on the boards and two of them won the game.
If Dallas had some cushion that could be overcome by just taking care of the games against inferior teams. But they’re 4 ½ games behind Houston for the last playoff spot. It’s only three games in the loss column, but don’t forget the Lakers are a factor in this race as well. Portland might also be if they can turn around their recent slump. In the Western Conference, you have to assume it will take 42 or 43 wins to get in, and that means the Mavs have to win 18 or 19 times in their final 29 games.
Somewhere along the line that means beating quality teams and that starts Sunday. After a Friday night trip to New Orleans, the Mavs host the Lakers in a 1 PM ET tip on ABC. That’s followed by a home date with Milwaukee, followed by games with Memphis, Brooklyn and Houston. So it’s a Sunday preliminary bout, followed by four straight against teams currently in the playoffs. There’s no room for error and that means Marion, Brand and Nowitzki have to get tough on the glass.