With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.
Here’s an update on the latest NBA free agency news via Reup Sports, including analysis on Jeremy Lin becoming a Rocket, updated Dwight Howard trade rumors and recent signings in Los Angeles. Check out the article here.
For the latest news and analysis on all the action of NBA free agency over the last few days, check out my article via Reup Sports. Today’s post includes Jeremy Lin heading to Houston, Phoenix picking up Luis Scola, the ongoing battle for Nicolas Batum and more!
Another day, another hundred rumors and moves of NBA free agency. Here’s everything that went down today to keep you up to speed heading into Independence Day:
Deron Williams Staying With Nets:
Deron Williams came to his ultimate decision today, choosing to stay in Brooklyn over leaving for his hometown of Dallas to play for the Mavericks. Williams’ contract is a five-year, $98 million deal that will team him up with Joe Johnson for the time being. Williams coming back is great news for the Nets, but for now, he is just a piece of the puzzle that is still missing Dwight Howard.
Trade Could Still Bring Dwight Howard to Brooklyn:
According to league sources, the trade for Joe Johnson didn’t quite put the Nets out of contention for Orlando superstar Dwight Howard. A possible trade that would send Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, and first-round picks in 2013, 2015 and 2017 to Orlando in exchange for D-12 is being discussed although nothing is set in stone. The Nets are looking for a third party to facilitate the trade, but the Magic are also looking into possible trades with the Lakers, Hawks and Rockets. The Mavericks are also in the running to get Howard, but only if he waits to explore free agency next year. If the Nets were able to swing Howard down to Brooklyn, they would be giving up a lot, but they’d be looking at a potential nucleus of Howard, Deron Williams and Johnson as well as Gerald Wallace, who signed a four-year extension for $40 million, according to league sources.
Eric Gordon Wants to be a Sun:
The Suns have offered Eric Gordon a four-year deal for $58 million and after visiting Phoxenix, New Orleans’ star point guard feels that it is the place for him. The Hornets can easily match the offer as they have been saying they would if Gordon received any max offers, but Gordon’s comments about wanting to play in Phoenix might mean that New Orleans chooses to let him go. Gordon was supposed to form a solid nucleus with rookies Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, but it remains to be seen what the Hornets’ plan of action will be.
Jason Terry Agrees to Three-Year Deal with Celtics:
Jason Terry and the Celtics reached an agreement to a three-year deal worth $5 million annually. Although the deal certainly strengthened the bench with a wily veteran sixth man, Boston remains adamant about their desire to resign Ray Allen and Brandon Bass. The Mavericks can match Boston’s offer, but might not do so if they continue to look into point guards and the possibility of Dwight Howard next year.
Ray Allen to Visit Miami, LA Clippers:
Boston free agent Ray Allen will be visiting the Miami Heat this week as he continues to take his time with his options. The Celtics are committed to resigning their 3-point shooting veteran and can offer him a two-year, $12 million deal. However, the lure of winning another championship is certainly going Miami’s way after LeBron James and the Heat defeated Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals before winning the title. Allen will also visit Los Angeles this week to hear offers from the Clippers, who view him as a starter. A few other teams are also still pursuing Allen, including the Grizzlies, Mavericks, Timberwolves and Hawks.
Jeremy Lin to Visit Houston Rockets:
A few weeks ago, it was very likely that Jeremy Lin would be returning to the New York Knicks. Now, the breakout star point guard is heading to Houston for a visit. The Knicks are certainly looking to resign Lin, but were unsure they’d be able to match other teams’ high offers and said they planned on playing it by ear. Other teams interested in Lin include the Raptors, Nets and Mavericks, although he is seen as a backup for each of these teams.
More Point Guard Activity:
Now that the Mavericks failed to get their hands on Deron Williams, Dallas is looking for quality point guards, turning their sights on Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin. The Mavericks still haven’t made up their minds about Goran Dragic, who is reportedly having problems working out a contract with the Rockets and visited the Phoenix Suns Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers have also taken an interest in Nash, while free agent Jason Kidd has narrowed his decision down to either Dallas or the New York Knicks.
Raptors Offer Landry Fields Three-Year Deal:
The Toronto Raptors have verbally agreed with Knicks’ guard Landry Fields to a three-year deal for nearly $20 million. Fields cannot sign a new contract until July 11 (when all free agents can sign new contracts), but the Knicks can still hold on to him if they match Toronto’s offer. It remains to be seen whether or not New York would spend that kind of money on a role player with Carmelo Anthony, Jeremy Lin, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith all potentially coming back, however.
Pacers Agree to Five-Year Deal with George Hill:
Indiana point guard George Hill signed a five-year extension to stay with the Pacers, though details of the deal were not disclosed. The Pacers will also be looking to keep Roy Hibbert, who was offered $58 million in a four-year deal with the Blazers. Indiana will have to match that offer to retain their All-Star center. However, if they don’t match, league sources say the Pacers will pursue Denver’s JaVale McGee and New Orleans’ Chris Kaman.
Nets Add Bosnian Forward Teletovic and Reggie Evans:
The Nets have verbally agreed to a three-year deal with Mirza Teletovic worth just under $16 million. Teletovic, a Bosnian forward at 6’9″, averaged 22 ppg and six rpg in the Euroleague this season. Since the Nets gave away almost their entire bench to get Joe Johnson and would have to give up even more for Dwight Howard, this signing could prove to be a very helpful addition if his game can translate decently into the NBA. The Nets also acquired the Clippers’ Reggie Evans from the Clippers in exchange for a future second-round pick. Evans was signed to a three-year, $5 million deal.
It wasn’t Kevin Durant that beat the Dallas Mavericks yesterday with backbreaking buckets that sent the Oklahoma City Thunder on to the next round of the playoffs. It wasn’t Russell Westbrook that swept the defending champions in their own arena and broke down their defense with dribble penetration and facilitation. It was James Harden and his epic beard. Despite a monumental effort from Dirk Nowitzki (and a hip injury to Kendrick Perkins), the Thunder rallied from a 13-point deficit to start the fourth quarter as James Harden led the way to a 103-97 victory, ending the Mavericks’ title defense in a convincing sweep.
Harden finished with an all-around stellar stat line of 29 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals and one block coming off the bench, but his game management, his numerous drives to the rim and his ability to find the open man off penetration won Game 4 for OKC. The Mavericks couldn’t stay in front of him when he attacked the basket, including a two-handed monster dunk. They couldn’t defend him when he hit shots from the outside. And when they were able to keep Harden from getting to the rim, they couldn’t close out on the wide open shooters he freed up up by drawing in the defense. Kevin Durant had 24 points and 11 rebounds on the night, but the hero of the night was Harden (and his beard). When I wrote about how dangerous the Oklahoma City Thunder are, I stressed that James Harden was the centerpiece: Durant and Russell Westbrook are clearly the team’s superstars, but Harden is the glue that holds them together and makes the Thunder such an incredibly tough playoff team. His dominant Game 4 performance was the perfect illustration of that. When James Harden gets going offensively, the Thunder are a legitimate title contender.
When the Thunder struggled the most this season, James Harden was not as involved on offense. But last night, Harden was actually running OKC’s half court offense, even with Russell Westbrook and Derek Fisher on the floor. Harden became the team’s quarterback and he didn’t disappoint in that leadership role. The Thunder are most vulnerable when their offense is stagnant, which usually translates into Westbrook and Durant jacking up 3-pointers and tough jump shots. Harden is a highly intelligent basketball player that reminds his team they can attack the rim, which then frees up the jump shots OKC’s superstars love so much. After watching a normally explosive Thunder offense stall for a few games during the regular season when their outside shots weren’t falling, it was a relief to see James Harden continuously get the ball late in the fourth with the game on the line so he could either score or facilitate to the Durantula. And while getting the sweep was good for the Thunder to send a message to rest of the Western Conference, it was also extremely helpful for Kendrick Perkins, who will benefit from additional time to rest and recover from his hip injury. With Perkins out, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison also benefitted from the chance to build playoff experience by guarding a superstar in a close-game situation. If Perkins gets healthy in time for round 2 against either the Lakers or the Nuggets, watch out for this team. They’re nearly impossible to beat between Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
Jason Terry had a rough shooting night, but Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd kept the Mavs in the game and were on fire in the third quarter that gave the home team a 13-point advantage heading into the final quarter. Nowtizki finished with 34 while Kidd hit four 3-pointers and chipped in 16 points of his own. From Dallas’ perspective, this sweep was a pretty appropriate finish to an uninspiring year for the reigning NBA champions. Dirk Nowitzki and company were so elated and felt so accomplished after finally winning it all that they never really recovered from that championship hangover and by the time the realized they wanted to win another one, it was too late. Not resigning Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson definitely hurt them, but a lackluster year might be worth it if Mark Cuban can convince Deron Williams to come on down to Texas next year. Unfortunately for Dallas, if they don’t get Deron Williams while still managing to hang on to Jason Terry, they’ll be stuck with too much age and not enough weapons to help Dirk out.
After two close games in Oklahoma City that easily could have gone Dallas’ way, the Thunder made a big statement in their 95-79 blowout of the Mavericks on the road in Game 3. Kevin Durant and company left no doubt that this series is over, putting Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs behind early and never letting up for the rest of the night.
So far, the series has been a close, hard-fought battle that translated into two wins for the Thunder because they had home-court advantage and played better down the stretch. Despite finishing with respectable numbers in scoring, Kevin Durant struggled with his shot in the first two games and Dirk Nowitzki was slightly more effective despite stellar defense from Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. But in Game 3, everything went Oklahoma City’s way, as Durant had a proficient shooting night (11-for-15, 31 points) and the increasingly unforgiving defensive combo of Ibaka and Perkins absolutely shut Dirk down, holding him to 6-of-15 shooting and 17 points. Up until Game 3, Russell Westbrook had been carrying the Thunder offensively, James Harden’s contribution off the bench was essential and OKC’s backline needed to play good defense and contribute on the other end as well. But in Game 3, Durant finally found his shot and silenced the defending champs’ home crowd early, while Ibaka and Perkins roughed Dirk up and frustrated him by making him work for every touch.
Jason Terry’s lackluster performance didn’t help things for Dallas. Terry only put up 11 points, but what’s even worse is that mediocre performance still qualified him as one of only three Mavericks in double figures (Jason Kidd was the third with 12 points). The Mavs have Terry, Vince Carter and Ian Mahinmi coming off the bench along with Shawn Marion and Delonte West in the starting lineup. Because of how strong the Thunder’s staring lineup is, Dallas needs to somehow find an advantage in their depth (which is tough to ask considering that subpar lineup, but they still needed to find a way to do it). But even when OKC’s bench juggernaut James Harden struggled and only put up 10 points, they still had Daequan Cook coming in and hitting three 3’s while Derek Fisher tacked on 10 points of his own. You combine that with Kevin Durant finally shooting well, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka doing their thing and some great team defense on Dirk and it’s no wonder the Mavericks got blown out in a pivotal Game 3.
The Thunder are an extremely dangerous team when their jump shots are falling. I still have doubts about how effective they can be when those jump shots aren’t falling because they tend to keep shooting them anyway instead of driving to the basket, but for now, OKC looks primed for the first round sweep. Rick Carlisle might be able to rally his team to one home victory, but it’s too much to ask of these veterans who have been lackadaisical all year in their title defense to make this series competitive. Now that Kevin Durant seems to have found his shot again, it’s only a matter of time (I give it the 48 minutes it takes to play Game 4) until the Thunder advance and the reigning champs are done.
For the second straight game, the Dallas Mavericks went toe-to-toe with the Oklahoma City Thunder and for the second straight time, they went home empty-handed. OKC grabbed a 2-0 series lead last night in a 102-99 victory, while the Mavs fell into a hole that’s going to be hard to climb out of even with the series shifting back to Dallas. But even with two crushing defeats that left the defending champs thunderstruck after giving the Thunder everything they could handle, don’t count them out just yet.
There were a lot of similarities between Games 1 and 2: Kevin Durant had another poor shooting night, the Mavericks hung around for the entire game before missing some key shots down the stretch, Oklahoma City pulled out a win in the game’s final minute, and physical play drew reactions from some star players. This time around however, it was Kendrick Perkins, not Serge Ibaka, who stepped up offensively for the Thunder with 13 points, all while guarding Dirk Nowitzki on the other end. Kevin Durant ended up with 26 points, but only because he took 17 shots from the field and 16 shots from the line. James Harden and Derek Fisher combined for 26 points to constitute the majority of the Thunder’s bench scoring. But the biggest game-changer of Game 2 was free throw shooting for the Thunder: OKC hit 37 of their 39 attempts at the line.
On the Dallas side of things, Dirk had a much better shooting night and finished with 31 points, but missed two crunch-time shots he’s normally known for making. Jason Terry, who missed two 3-point attempts to send the game to overtime, had a quiet game overall, but the Mavs’ role players stepped up and kept Dallas close throughout the night. Jason Kidd, Delonte West and Shawn Marion all finished in double figures and Ian Mahinmi added nine points as well. The Thunder should be a little on edge with the series heading into Dallas; even with home-court advantage, OKC has barely edged out this dangerous seventh-seed both times and the Mavericks are giving them everything they can handle. With the series shifting south and an angry Dallas team that believes it should have won both games on the menu, the Thunder need to buckle up and prepare for a hostile home crowd. In Nowitzki and company’s minds, a few bounces here and there are all that separate them from having a 2-0 lead. And watching Rick Carlisle’s postgame interviews tells me one thing: the defending champs aren’t going down without a fight.
With that being said. OKC’s 2-0 lead in the series makes it nearly impossible for Dallas to advance. They’ve fallen short twice now and eventually, losing games like this will take a mental toll. And given the pure statistical odds of the Mavs winning four of the next five against this talented and young team, things aren’t looking good. But taking into account how angry the Mavericks are right now, and factoring in Dirk Nowitzki’s postseason mentality, don’t be surprised if Dallas comes out with a little competitive fire in Game 3.
Kevin Durant once again struggled with his shooting and couldn’t get many to fall Saturday night, but he made the one that counted. Oklahoma City Thunder escaped a Game 1 upset against the Dallas Mavericks in the final seconds thanks to KD’s impossible game-winning jumper. Shawn Marion guarded Durant as well as he possibly could and contested the shot, but it took a friendly hometown bounce and gave the Thunder a much-needed Game 1 win.
The Dallas Mavericks actually looked like the two seed for much of the night. Despite Dirk Nowitzki not really coming alive until the fourth quarter, Dallas was in control for the majority of this back-and-forth game. Jason Kidd was getting his hands on loose balls and disrupting OKC’s offense with steals, finishing the night with seven. Jason Terry and Vince Carter looked pretty good, providing energy and points off the bench (33 points combined). Shawn Marion played great defense on Durant and held him to a 10-of-27 shooting night. But even with all of this, the Thunder wouldn’t be denied, overcoming a seven-point deficit with two and a half minutes to go, right after Nowitzki looked like he had finished OKC off with a big three-point play. Dallas maintained their composure, Ian Mahinmi and Dirk hit big free throws to put their team back up, but the Thunder struck back both times and somehow ended up with the win. Durant’s shot definitely brought back flashbacks of the game-winner he hit against the Mavs earlier in the season, but what can should we take away from this game going forward?
The Thunder should feel good about the win, but not too great about the series. They almost dropped a big Game 1 at home to the team that ousted them from the playoffs last year. Even though OKC is the two seed, giving a veteran team with so much playoff experience invites the notion that they aren’t ready or mature enough to do what needs to be done and move on to the next round. Kevin Durant’s shot saved that idea from creeping into their heads, but if Durant’s shooting woes continue, it won’t be long before Dallas starts stealing a game or two. The Thunder’s lack of experience in comparison to Dirk and the reigning champions puts them at a slight disadvantage, so if seventh-seeded Mavs already making it close on the road, what’s going to happen when the games swing back to Dallas?
Fortunately for the Thunder, Durant’s supporting cast stepped up big and were a huge reason OKC was even in the game at the end. Of course there is Russell Westbrook, who finished with 28 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds, but it was a collective team effort that kept Oklahoma City close. James Harden, in his first game back after his concussion, dropped 19 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and was also involved in a few huge defensive plays that turned the tide in his team’s favor. Serge Ibaka had a stellar game, dominating down low with 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 blocks. Even Kendrick Perkins, who was held scoreless on the night, pulled in 8 rebounds and made the invaluable contribution of guarding Dirk Nowitzki and trying to slow him down.
Going back to the series, this game sends a few mixed signals. On the one hand, Dallas should feel pretty good even though they lost. They competed better than most anticipated and it took an insanely difficult shot from Kevin Durant to win it. Then you remember that Dirk didn’t even come alive until the final quarter. Jason Terry and Vince Carter both looked good, Jason Kidd was a defensive stud creating turnovers, and their advantage of having so much experience and chemistry together definitely was on display as a big advantage over this young Thunder squad. But on the other hand, the Mavs would probably feel much better if they had been able to keep that seven-point lead. And it also should be somewhat disconcerting that they couldn’t pull off the road upset with Durant shooting so poorly. James Harden and Russell Westbrook should definitely be concerns in their ability to attack the basket and get to the free throw line, but Serge Ibaka’s huge performance is also a little worrisome going forward. If he continues to eat up the Mavericks on the inside, they could be in for a long series. So although it’s true that Dallas only needs to get one road win to have a chance to win the series, if Kevin Durant’s shooting picks up again, getting a W in Game 2 might be close to impossible.
Dallas has the experience and veteran mentality capable of still pulling off this upset. But that loss hurts a little bit, especially if they can’t get a much-needed win in Game 2. Because the Thunder’s talent, speed and the revenge factor of losing to the Mavs last year gives them a pretty big advantage, which is why I still stand by my prediction that OKC will win in five games. So even though Kevin Durant hasn’t been shooting well recently, the Thunder are still the favorites to win this series thanks to a great supporting cast. If the Mavericks don’t get a win in this upcoming critical road game, the Thunder might just roll right on to the second round.
It’s finally that time of year: the 2012 NBA Playoffs! The matchups are set, so let the debating begin! With games starting tomorrow, here are my playoff predictions. Eastern Conference predictions are soon to follow, but for now, let’s take a look at the first round matchups in the Western Conference.
#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #8 Utah Jazz – Everyone is loving the Spurs right now. Maybe because the Thunder didn’t finish the season on a strong note, maybe because people were throwing Tony Parker in the MVP conversation as San Antonio took over the one spot in the West, and maybe a combination of all those things. But let me remind you: just like this year, the Spurs had one of the best records in the NBA and entered the playoffs as the top seed in the West last year. And they lost in six games to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Now it did take a particularly dangerous Memphis team to do it, but the point is, the Spurs are not safe just because they can rack up regular season wins. The Jazz aren’t as dangerous as that Grizzlies team was last year, but they’ve been playing well recently and their youth could either guide them to victory (like the Grizzlies) or it could be their downfall due to a lack of playoff experience. Although I still think San Antonio is overrated, the Spurs will advance, if only because Utah doesn’t quite have the firepower to dethrone them. But don’t be surprised if this series is actually competitive thanks to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap’s youth and athletic ability in the paint against Tim Duncan.
Prediction: San Antonio in 6 games
#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks – The Mavericks ousted the Thunder from the playoffs last year and you’re not going to tell me Oklahoma City has forgotten it. The fans are going to be fired up in OKC and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should be able to sort out their recent struggles against this unimpressive Mavericks squad. Jason Kidd is a good defender but I don’t think he can hang with Westbrook’s athleticism for a seven-game series. The same goes for Shawn Marion guarding Kevin Durant. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry might be able to sneak in a win or two at home, but the Thunder are just too good for the aging Mavs, even if James Harden doesn’t return at full speed. If OKC can get offensive production out of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, Dallas is in serious trouble. The Mavs have plenty of playoff experience, but have never looked like a quality contender this year, so the nod has to go to KD and Westbrook to clean their game up and move on to the next round.
Prediction: Oklahoma City in 5 games
#3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #6 Denver Nuggets – The first two series won’t be extremely competitive, but with Ron Artest (I’m still refusing to call him Metta World Peace) sitting out, the balanced Nuggets have a chance against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee will have to play extremely good defense against Andrew Bynum to have any chance. We all know Kobe will likely get his 20-30 points every night, but if Denver can limit Bynum and possibly frustrate him (we’ve all seen what happens when Bynum gets riled up), the Nuggets will make it competitive. Danilo Gallinari will be another factor in the series: if he shoots the ball well, Denver is dangerous. The final major factor in this series is Pau Gasol. If Gasol has big games, he might be able to make up for any poor performances from Bynum, especially if LA’s bench doesn’t mess things up. This should be a good series, but I’ve got to give the edge to the Lakers. Overcoming Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol is a little too much to ask of this balanced Nuggets team.
Prediction: Los Angeles in 6 games
#4 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #5 Los Angeles Clippers
On paper, it doesn’t take a genius to assert that the four/five matchup will be the most competitive, but in this case, the fourth and fifth seed actually do deserve to be where they’re at and should give the audience one hell of a first-round playoff series. On the one side, you’ve got playoff and crunch-time champion Chris Paul along with the athletic freak-of-nature Blake Griffin, and on the other you’ve got Rudy Gay, a resurgent Zach Randolph and the rest of Memphis’ role-playing lineup. This series will come down to how much Mo Williams and Randy Foye contribute, whether or not Mike Conley can put up big numbers on offense and whether or not the Grizzlies’ impressive defense can hold CP3 when it matters most. Earlier in the week, I had the Clippers winning in seven, but after seeing them stumble over the finish line and concede home-court advantage to Memphis, I’m taking the Grizzlies in seven. LAC’s supporting cast disappeared this week and Chris Paul missed a game with a mild groin injury. If that injury continues to bother him and if their supporting cast doesn’t pick their game up, this series is too easy for the Grizzlies.
Prediction: Memphis in 7 games
For Easter, we focused on the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, there’s no clever way of saying today is going to be about the West, so let’s just jump right in. The standings have shifted dramatically night in and night out over the past few weeks, and though I’m confident my Western Conference playoff predictions will be close, win streaks by the Rockets, Grizzlies and now even the Nuggets need to be factored in. So here we go:
Oklahoma City Thunder – Despite dropping a home game against the Clippers, the Thunder should stay confident and cruise to the number one seed. After taking the top seed in the West, the Spurs had lost two straight before ending the Grizzlies’ win streak last night. So as long as OKC continues to do what it has done all year, the Thunder will remain the dominant favorite of their conference, even if they are only a half game ahead of the Spurs right now. Durant and Westbrook have been trading good games back and forth; once they get back on the same page there should be no problems. Also, keep an eye on James Harden; this Sixth Man of the Year has been extremely mediocre lately and the Thunder will go far if he can pick his play up.
San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs were looking like they could be a huge surprise and take the top seed in the West….until Gregg Popovich pulled a Gregg Popovich, resting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, his three best players, and generating a huge discussion on whether or not resting starters down the stretch is “cheating the game.” While I didn’t exactly see it that way, it’s also true that this is the time of year for a team to be peaking and playing its best ball, so resting the starters kind of hurts that momentum (no wonder they came out flat against the Kobe-less Lakers). So even though they’re only a half game back, that’s why San Antonio lost those two games before beating Memphis last night. Knowing Popovich, he will probably rest his starters for the playoffs once it’s clearer what seed they’ll get. Which is why they won’t take the top seed and probably will fall flat in the postseason, Spurs-style.
Los Angeles Lakers – Inexplicably, the Lakers keep winning without Kobe Bryant on the floor. Los Angeles squeaked out one win (why didn’t God punish Metta World Peace for that ridiculously stupid last-second pass against the Hornets??) and then had an impressive win over the Spurs. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are playing lights out right now, even if Bynum is still a head case. The Lakers have a one and a half game lead over the Clippers at the moment, and I think they will maintain that margin unless Chris Paul puts up 30 points a night for the rest of the season.
Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers lost to the streaking Grizzlies, but responded well with a win on the road against the West-leading Thunder and then again against the Timberwolves. It’s tough to figure this team out; they’re good enough to compete with anybody, but without Chauncey Billups on the court, Chris Paul is going to have to do too much down the stretch every night for me to give the Clips a ringing endorsement. LAC will need someone else to step up, and with the Grizzlies only one and a half games back, the Clippers could fall to the fifth spot. Either way though, they should be preparing for a matchup with Memphis in the playoffs.
Memphis Grizzlies – Memphis has won seven of their last 10 games and has succeeded in putting some temporary distance between them and the rest of the pack in the lower half of the West. Rudy Gay’s phenomenal play and Zach Randolph starting to find his rhythm is the reason for the Grizzlies’ win streak, which has put them in the fifth spot and only a game and a half game behind Los Angeles. Whether or not they overtake the fourth seed is irrelevant, because at this point, it looks like we will be seeing a Clippers-Grizzlies first round matchup.
Dallas Mavericks – The defending NBA champs have seen some struggles in the past few weeks and are now only a half game ahead of Houston and Denver, who are at 10 games back. However, Dallas owns the tiebreaker and is currently sitting precariously in the six spot. I’ve gotta give the edge to the Mavs here; they have the experience in Jason Terry and Jason Kidd as well as the leadership in Dirk Nowitzki. Unless Denver continues to play on another level for the rest of the season, the Mavericks are favorable to take the sixth seed.
Houston Rockets – The Rockets put a nice little string of wins together thanks to incredible play from backups Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee before dropping a game to Utah on Wednesday. Lowry surprisingly returned to the court on Sunday, but he’s not quite up to speed and I think it’s safe to say his return threw off the team chemistry a little bit. The Rockets are currently sitting in the seventh spot, but don’t be surprised if Denver and possibly even Utah give them a run for their money.
Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets haven’t panned out exactly like I though they would this year, but with Gallinari back, Denver is a completely different team. Kenneth Faried has filled in since Nene left, Ty Lawson is an effective point guard, Arron Afflalo has been on a hot streak and the Nuggets have an abundance of role players who all consistently contribute. With Denver, Houston, Dallas, Utah and Phoenix all vying for the six, seven and eight seeds, I see Denver winning more games than everybody except Dallas the rest of the way.
Utah Jazz – It was easy to pick the Jazz as making the playoffs when they had a six-game win streak going, but I don’t think they can outwin Houston or Denver to make the postseason. They did just beat the Rockets and are only one and a half games back, but Devin Harris’ inconsistent play is going to prevent this team from reaching its potential. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are great, but only Gordon Hayward has been playing consistently well in the backcourt.
Phoenix Suns – The Suns are perfect at teetering between a playoff squad and a team that is going to come up just short. Unfortunately, Phoenix can’t win the big games when they need them the most and that fact alone will keep Steve Nash and company away from the postseason. It’s disappointing considering how dramatically improved this team has played in the second half of their season, but the Suns will probably come up short again, even with Grant Hill returning to action today.