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.
In today’s star-studded NBA Injury Update, a lot of playoff-bound teams are dealing with injuries to their key players. Here are the top injury headlines of the past week:
Dwight Howard – Howard left for Los Angeles to get a second opinion on his back injury and was told he has a herniated disk in his lower back. He will most likely miss the Magic’s games Sunday and Monday, which would be eight in a row. Word on the street is that people within the Orlando organization wanted Superman to return to the court, but Howard wasn’t taking any chances and wanted to be completely healthy for the playoffs, which is why he sought a second opinion. There is no timetable for Howard’s return at this point.
Kevin Love – Kevin Love suffered a mild concussion and neck strain against the Nuggets on Wednesday and missed yesterday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers. There is a chance that Minnesota will shut him down for the rest of the season to avoid any potential risks that concussions bring. With so few games left in the season and the Timberwolves not contending for anything, don’t be surprised if Love is done for this year.
Kobe Bryant – Kobe sat out for the Lakers’ game last night against the Denver Nuggets. Bryant has missed the last four games with an inflamed left shin, but the injury is apparently not too serious; although he’s missed a few games, the only reason is because of the nature of the injury. Once he’s been inactive long enough, the shin shouldn’t bother him for the rest of the season. The only problem is waiting it out until Kobe reaches that point.
LaMarcus Aldridge – Aldridge will miss the rest of the season with a hip injury as the Trail Blazers’ injury woes continue. Although Portland isn’t contending for anything, Blazer fans won’t be happy to hear that an MRI found an abnormality in his hip that will warrant further evaluation. He may undergo surgery, but hopefully this isn’t the kind of injury that will affect him for next season.
James Harden – James Harden, the best bench player in the league and OKC’s most important piece in winning a title this year, missed last night’s game with a sore left knee. It was only the second game Harden has missed all season. Knee injuries are never a good sign, but hopefully it does not amount to anything more than just a sore knee.
Ray Allen – Allen remained behind on the Celtics’ road trip last night to receive treatment on his ankle injury. It’s not certain whether or not he will rejoin the team for the remainder of their four-game road trip but Danny Ainge said he expects him back on the court soon.
Kyrie Irving – Irving is still about a week away from being able to return, but by that point, the Cavs may just shut him down for the rest of the season to avoid any risk to their rookie sensation. It’s much more important for Cleveland to make sure he’s healthy for next season since the Cavaliers aren’t contending for anything.
Jarrett Jack – Jack will miss the remainder of the season recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot. The Hornets haven’t been able to catch a break this season, as injuries to Jack, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Carl Landry have crippled them at times.
Amare Stoudemire – Amare is still going to be out for awhile thanks to a bulging disk in his back, but his return seems a lot closer than it did a few weeks ago. Stoudemire could be back on the court in just a few weeks, perhaps making an appearance in the Knicks first-round playoff matchup if all goes according to plan. However, no specific timetable has been given.
Jeremy Lin – After having knee surgery, Lin said he feels better but probably won’t be available for New York’s first round playoff matchup. This means Lin would probably only be available for the Knicks this season if they somehow got past either the Bulls or the Heat in the first round.
Andrea Bargnani – Bargnani has struggled with injury problems all season long, so it’s unfortunate that he will miss the remainder of the season with a calf injury. The Raptors have no reason to rush him back to the court and given his injury history, it’s no surprise they’ll allow him to sit for the rest of the year.
Hedo Turkoglu – Turkoglu will miss another two weeks after having surgery to repair facial fractures he sustained about a week ago. The Magic could have him back in time for their first round playoff series.
Nene – Nene, no stranger to this injury list, has missed six straight games due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot. However, he is expected to return sometime next week for the Wizards.
Gerald Wallace – After hurting his hamstring in Sunday’s game against the Cavs, Wallace has missed his last two games. No timetable on his return has been given yet.
Jose Calderon – Calderon missed Toronto’s game against the Celtics last night with an eye injury he sustained after taking an elbow to the eye Wednesday against the Nets. He had to get three stitches above his right eye for the injury.
Luke Ridnour – Ridnour has missed the Timberwolves’ last five games due to a sprained ankle and looks doubtful for tonight’s game against the Thunder.
Darren Collison – Collison missed last night’s game against the Cavs with a groin injury, which has sidelined him for the past three games.
Tony Allen – Allen missed the Grizzlies’ game against San Antonio on Thursday, but is set to return tonight against the Jazz after missing five games with a facial laceration.
Kevin Martin – Martin, who has not played since March 11 with a torn right shoulder, is going through rehab but is not expected to return anytime soon.
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.
Oklahoma City Thunder 103, Miami Heat 87 – Kevin Durant made his case for the MVP award known loud and clear Sunday night, outplaying fellow MVP-frontrunner LeBron James in the Thunder’s dominant victory over the visiting Heat. Durant finished with 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in a matchup many predict to have been a preview of this year’s NBA Finals. James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins had key contributions as well, especially during the Thunder’s second quarter run that established a lead OKC never relinquished. Despite 7 turnovers, Harden finished with 6 assists, and 19 points, 14 of which came in Oklahom City’s second quarter spurt. Perkins had a season-high 16 points while Ibaka had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 22 points and LeBron James pitched in 17, but the Heat never came close in the second half in a thorough win for the Thunder.
Atlanta Hawks 139, Utah Jazz 133 (4OT) – Utah’s impressive six-game win streak came to an end in a hard fought quadruple overtime game in Atlanta, the first quadruple overtime in the NBA since 1997. The Jazz fell short and were outlasted in the fourth overtime, wasting opportunities to close out the Hawks after having possession on the last play of regulation and each of the first three overtimes. Paul Millsap missed a floater in the lane in regulation. Devin Harris missed a fall-away 3-pointer in overtime. Then Harris’s shot barely rimmed out in double overtime. Finally, Millsap missed a tough 18-footer to close triple overtime. Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 37 points and 8 rebounds and hit a big three to tie the game at 113 with 7 seconds left in double overtime. Josh Smith fouled out with 22 points and 10 rebounds while Zaza Pachulia had 15 points and 20 rebounds. Al Jefferson led the Jazz with 28 points and 17 rebounds while Millsap finished with 25 points and 13 boards. Both fouled out in the final overtime. Utah still holds on to the seventh spot in the West thanks to their prior win streak, holding a tiebreaker over Houston and Denver, who also have a 26-23 record. The Hawks moved ahead of the Pacers into the fifth spot in the East and have won four straight.
Minnesota Timberwolves 117, Denver Nuggets 100 – Kevin Love followed up his 51-point game against the Thunder with a 30-point, 21-rebound effort in the Timberwolves’ blowout victory of the visiting Denver Nuggets. Minnesota, despite losing Ricky Rubio for the season and playing once again without Nikola Pekovic, is only 2 and a half games out of the eight spot in the West thanks to the recent colossal play from Love. Luke Ridnour added 25 points in the rout of a Nuggets team that is currently in the 9th spot 10 and a half games back and has lost two straight. The Nuggets played without Danilo Gallinari once again, as well as Arron Afflalo who was suspended by the league for one game for throwing an elbow at Gordon Hayward in Friday’s blowout loss to the Jazz. Denver needs to regroup if it wants to make the postseason and doesn’t look anything like the impressive squad we saw at the beginning of the year.
San Antonio Spurs 93, Philadelphia 76ers 76- Philadelphia’s lead in the Atlantic division seems to be slipping away after being routed in San Antonio. Because of Boston’s big win over the Wizards, the Sixers are only a half game ahead of the Celtics and 3 games ahead of the Knicks. The Spurs played without Tim Duncan (rest) and Gary Neal (foot sprain), while the Sixers went without Andre Iguodala (left patella tendinitis). Tony Parker led the Spurs with 21 points and 7 assists. No one from the Sixers had more than 14 points and Philadelphia only scored 27 points in the second half. The Sixers have only hit triple digits 14 times in 49 games this season.
Los Angeles Lakers 96, Memphis Grizzlies 102 – The Grizzlies got a much-needed road win in LA against the newly revamped Lakers thanks to Rudy Gay’s 18 and OJ Mayo’s 16, including a one-man 7-0 run in the fourth quarter to stretch the lead to 13. Andrew Bynum led the Lakers with 30 points and Ramon Sessions added 18, but Kobe Bryant’s slow start prevented LA from building momentum or shortening Memphis’ lead. In fact, Lakers coach Mike Brown benched Kobe for four minutes while being down 10 in the fourth quarter, drawing boos and “Ko-be!” chants from the crowd. Brown finally obliged, but not before the game was out of reach.
Cleveland Cavaliers 83, Phoenix Suns 108 – The Suns are only one game out of the eight spot in the West after throttling the Cavs on the road. Marcin Gortat finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds while Markieff Morris had 22 points of his own off the bench. Phoenix jumped out to a 59-38 lead at the half and never looked back. Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison was injured with a bruised left leg and ankle in the first quarter and left the game. He returned later in the game but was completely ineffective and finished with only 2 points. The Suns have now won six of their last eight.
Boston Celtics 88, Washington Wizards 76 – Avery Bradley’s offensive outburst of 23 points led the Celtics to a needed win over the Wizards, bringing them within a half game of the Sixers in the Atlantic division. Boston played without Michael Pietrus, who sustained a head injury against the Sixers. Ray Allen also sat out with a sore right ankle, while the Wizards went without Nene (back spasms).
Portland Trail Blazers 90, Golden State Warriors 87 – A close contest with the lowly Warriors proved to be a challenge for the Blazers until LaMarcus Aldridge stepped up in the game’s final minute. Raymond Felton lead Portland with 24 points and Aldridge finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds, including a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and a pair of free throws to get his team a 3-point victory. Golden State rookie Charles Jenkins led the warriors with 27 points and David Lee added 16 points and 16 rebounds.
The Nuggets sent Nene to Washington, the Wizards sent JaVale McGee and Ronny Turiaf to Denver and the Clippers got Nick Young after sending Brian Cook and a future second-round pick to the Wizards. This three-way trade largely benefits the Wizards, but the Clippers also got a solid acquisition in Young.
This move is a little questionable for Denver. After recently committing to Nene with a $67 million deal for the next five years, trading him does free up cap space but the Nuggets could have gotten more for a quality big man like Nene than JaVale McGee. McGee is averaging a respectable 11.9 ppg and 8.8 rpg, but is not quite the same caliber as Nene. The only explanation is that the Nuggets will rotate McGee and the improving Kenneth Faried as a 1-2 punch in the post. Faried should get that start now and will be given the opportunity to develop into quite the player.
The Wizards had to give up Young, who’s averaging 16.6 ppg, as well as McGee but got a much-needed improvement down in the post. At this point, change is necessary for the Wizards, so although they gave up two pieces of their offense to get Nene, anything might be better for Washington.
The Clippers might be the big winners in the deal, giving up virtually nothing for a solid scorer at shooting guard. After Billups went down, Lob City has struggled, and although Young is no Billups, he should be able to pick up their game a little bit.
Overtime seemed to be a theme of last night’s NBA action. Let’s take a look at which teams are going in the right direction and which squads need to start regrouping.
Contrary to my prediction that the Orlando Magic would slow down and start losing because of all the Dwight Howard trade speculation, they have done anything but that. They have not only maintained their position at the third spot in the East, but have distanced themselves from Philadelphia in the fourth spot. The Magic responded from an awful loss to the Bobcats with impressive, Howard-dominated wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (in overtime). This team will continue to go as Superman goes, but for the time being, Dwight Howard is unstoppable.
But nobody looks as underachieving as the New York Knicks right now. The Knicks are suffering a six-game losing streak, have lost eight of their last 10, and are not shaping up to be anything more than a dysfunctional team with too many scorers (although they looked a lot better in their competitive contest with the Bulls). And no, the main problem is NOT Carmelo Anthony. Jeremy Lin’s offensive production has declined, but the biggest problem in NY has been Mike D’Antoni. I’ve never thought much of D’Antoni’s coaching, and this stretch of losing with so much talent isn’t helping. Another giant problem is Amare Stoudemire, underachieving on both ends of the floor while taking up the majority of the Knicks cap space ($83 million through 2015 to be exact). When Amare, Lin and Melo play well at the same time, they give you competitive performances against teams like the league-leading Bulls. But then you’ve got distractions like JR Smith’s semi-nude pictures on Twitter and all of the media-frenzied “Is Melo the Knicks’ Problem?” controversy. I still think the Knicks will turn things around, but they have fallen out of the number 8 spot in the East, giving it up to…
The Milwaukee Bucks! The Bucks are currently in playoff contention in the East thanks to the Knicks’ losing streak, but also because of their winning streak. The Bucks have won three in a row because of Ersan Ilyasova’s emergence as a superstar. Illyasova is averaging 21 ppg in March so far and has established himself as a great offensive threat. However, Drew Gooden’s revitalization should not be undervalued either. This has all been done without the help of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who were traded yesterday to Golden State in exchange for dynamic scorer Monta Ellis. Things are looking up for the Bucks in the East, especially if the Knicks continue to struggle. But they should keep watch out for the two teams right behind them.
Which includes the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are led by Antawn Jamison’s scoring presence and rookie star Kyrie Irving’s ability to close games (which he does with intelligence by taking the ball to the rim instead of settling for isolation plays that lead to low percentage jumpshots). Despite their losing record (like the Bucks), Cleveland is still in the playoff hunt.
Speaking of the Indiana Pacers, this team has not lived up to expectations. While I stand behind them as my sleeper pick in the East, they haven’t been getting the quality wins they’ve needed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, losing four straight before a rebound win over the hapless Blazers. Admittedly, those four loses were against the Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic, but this young team needs these type of wins, not only to send a message to the rest of the East, but to gain confidence for when the postseason rolls around. The Pacers have gone 0-for-2 on that front.
The Dallas Mavericks were on a downward spiral lately, losing eight of their last ten before defeating the Wizards last night. Their losing streak dropped them to the seventh spot in the West and was made even worse considering the majority of those losses came to teams under .500 (New Jersey, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State). I still believe the Mavs can be competitive in the postseason, but the same could be said of the Lakers last year, who claimed they would be dangerous in the playoffs despite dropping games during the regular season. And we all know how that turned out.
Remember when the Denver Nuggets were losing games and not even in the top eight in the West? Those days are over. The Nuggets have won six of their last 10 and are currently the six seed in the West. But what’s most encouraging is that Danilo Gallinari and Nene’s return wasn’t even the primary reason for Denver’s surge; now that these two stars are almost back in rhythm, watch out.
I’ve already written about the Memphis Grizzlies climbing in the West, but what’s up with the Phoenix Suns? Despite the fact that they were far back in the standings in the West, they have won seven of their last 10 and seem to be turning things around. Steve Nash continues to set up Marcin Gortat for success while Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have steadily increased their production on both ends of the floor. Suns fans should hold their breath for a playoff appearance (both because Phoenix still has a long way to go and because tanking would secure a better draft pick), but this might be a team worth watching if this success continues.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets suffered season-altering blows in the form of injuries to their star point guards. Ricky Rubio is out for the season with a torn ACL while Kyle Lowry’s bacterial infection will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks, during a critical stretch of Houston’s schedule with the Rockets teetering at the number eight seed in the West. These teams still have playoff hopes and the Rockets did get a great win against the Thunder last night, but these critical injuries will make it difficult on them.
Finally, the battle for L.A. and the Pacific division seems to have swung to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers continue to struggle without Chauncey Billups while the Lakers have won seven of their last 10. During that stretch, LA has beaten the Heat and got an huge double-overtime win in Memphis last night, looking like the much more playoff-competent team right now, especially with Bynum and Gasol getting more touches. Vinny del Negro is coaching his quality team into the ground, and even with Billups’ absence, the Clippers problems are inexcusable.
Danilo Gallinari and Nene saw limited action in the Nuggets’ overtime win against Sacramento last night. Fantasy owners should be patient; although they are not putting up big minutes yet, it is to be expected that Karl eases his two stars back into playing, especially with the Nuggets playing so well right now. Look for Denver to make a surge in the West in the next few weeks.
Brook Lopez is expected to miss 3 weeks with an ankle injury. Fantasy owners’ disappointment should be paramount, as Lopez was finally back in the lineup and playing extremely well for a few games before yet another injury. The Nets will be hurting by his absence, as Deron Williams can’t be expected to drop 50+ every night.
Chris Bosh is set to return to action tonight after missing the last three games because of his grandmother’s death. The Heat probably wouldn’t have needed him back too badly for tonight’s game against the lowly Nets, especially with Brook Lopez out, but the Heat have lost two of their last three without him and will certainly be looking to reestablish their rhythm.
Tyson Chandler is still nursing a wrist injury and although he hasn’t missed any games because of it, Mike D’Antoni said he might sit him if it gets any worse. Losing him for even a few games would be a big loss considering his averages of 11.6 ppg and 9.8 rpg, along with the defensive presence he brings in the paint.
Here are the scores from around the league and the major headlines:
Boston Celtics 115, New York Knicks 111 – The Celtics beat the Knicks at home in overtime after Paul Pierce hit a tough contested three to tie the game in regulation. Pierce ended up with 34, which was overshadowed by Rajon Rondo’s historic triple double of 18 points, 17 rebounds and 20 assists. Only two other players have recorded a 15-15-15 triple double in the last 25 years (Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson). Talks of trading Rondo will likely die down now, even though the Celtics probably need to make some changes to stay competitive in the East. Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 25 points and had a few key buckets to give the Knicks the lead before Pierce forced overtime. Jeremy Lin struggled, finishing with 14 points and 6 turnovers. He’ll need to work on keeping his turnovers down while increasing his scoring and distributing for the Knicks to be contenders this year.
Los Angeles Lakers 93, Miami Heat 83 – Kobe Bryant and the Lakers made a statement with their ten-point victory over the visiting Miami Heat. Kobe started out the night with 18 points in the first quarter and singlehandedly set the tone for his team early on. Kobe finished with 33 and has scored 30+ in each of his last three games while wearing the mask to protect his nose. LeBron James led the Heat with 25 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks, but it still wasn’t enough for a Miami side that was down the whole game. The Masked Mamba showed his competitive fire from the start while LeBron, who had a good game, couldn’t carry the load with Chris Bosh out and Dwyane Wade fouling out in the 4th. The Heat probably win this game with Bosh on the floor, but watch out for the Lakers in the West. They are looking like a completely different team from the beginning of the season behind Kobe’s hot hand.
Denver Nuggets 99, San Antonio Spurs 94 – Ty Lawson flirted with a triple double as the Nuggets edged the Spurs in Manu Ginobili’s return to the court. Lawson finished with 22 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds, and also hit a critical jumper that put Denver up by three and sealed the deal. Gary Neal tried to tie it up on the Spurs’ final possession but his 3-pointer rimmed out, resulting in San Antonio’s third loss of the season at home. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 25. The Nuggets have now won three in a row without Danilo Gallinari or Nene. This game also showed off Kenneth Faried’s incredible athletic ability. Look for him to continue to evolve his game, he could develop into quite the role player for Denver.
Chicago Bulls 96, Philadelphia 76ers 91 – Derrick Rose tied his season high of 35 points and added 7 assists in a spectacular performance as the Bulls got a road victory over the 76ers. Chicago avenged a loss earlier in the season and led for most of the second half but couldn’t quite close the deal, missing free throws down the stretch. Joakim Noah has 11 points and 18 rebounds for the Bulls, who now own the best record in the NBA at 31-8. Andre Iguodala had two good looks for threes in the fourth that would have kept the Sixers alive, but air-balled them both. The Sixers have now lost seven of their last nine games.
Los Angeles Clippers 105, Houston Rockets 103 – Chris Paul was clutch again for the Clippers down the stretch, giving Los Angeles a solid win on the road in overtime. Paul led the way with 28 points and 10 assists, including 3 crucial points in the final minute of overtime. The Rockets have now lost three games in a row. The Clippers still hold on to a slim lead over the Lakers in the Pacific.
New Jersey Nets 104, Charlotte Bobcats 101 – Deron Williams has a historic night of his own, putting up 57 points to set a Nets’ franchise record. Williams’ 57 is the highest scoring total in the NBA so far this season. Williams was a perfect 21-for-21 from the free throw line. The Bobcats still only have four wins on the season.
Phoenix Suns 96, Sacramento Kings 88 – The Suns won their third in a row behind Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat, erasing a double-digit deficit in the second half, also for the third game in a row. Nash had 19 points while Gortat had 14 points and 17 rebounds. This is the longest winning streak for the Suns this season, and has helped put Phoenix only a few games behind the 8th spot in the Western Conference.
Toronto Raptors 83, Golden State Warriors 75 – DeMar DeRozan scored 25 for Toronto, leading the Raptors to a victory over Mark Jackson’s Warriors. Golden State was up by nine at halftime but only scored 11 points in the third quarter. David Lee led the way with 22 points and 12 rebounds for the Warriors, who have now lost six of their last nine.
We’re a little bit past the midway point of the regular season already, so now is a good time to take a look at which teams are contenders and which are just pretenders. We already know that Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami are all definite contenders, but the rest of the league is a little more difficult to make out so far. It’s still early, but here are the picks.
Indiana Pacers – Contender. The Pacers were my sleeper pick at the beginning of the season and they haven’t disappointed so far. They’re currently 3rd in the East and have won their last four games, rebounding from a disappointing five-game losing streak. Indiana has a young core, gained valuable playoff experience last year against the Bulls (in a series that was much closer than its quick 5 game span), and are being led by All-Star seasons from Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert. Nobody really pays much attention to them, but they could surprise a few people if they continue to play at a high level.
Orlando Magic – Pretender. The Magic are having a lot of problems right now, even with Dwight Howard putting up superhuman numbers. Considering that the Magic will try and get all they can for the unhappy Superman as the trade deadline approaches (draft picks might be key here), the Magic aren’t going to be making very much noise this year if he leaves. And what may be even worse for Orlando is if Howard doesn’t leave, as the Magic’s chemistry will continue to suffer with the awkward position that Howard, the team and the entire city of Orlando is in right now.
New York Knicks – Contender. The Knicks showed they’re not contenders just yet in a disappointing loss to the Heat, but it’s hard to believe this team won’t develop into a highly competitive playoff team. While I don’t think they have the chemistry to reach the Finals this year, I do believe they can make a decent playoff run and give more competitive teams a run for their money. If Jeremy Lin can keep his turnovers down while making sure Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and JR Smith all get more involved on offense, the Knicks could become a big contender for the next few years.
Boston Celtics – Pretender. I’ve already written about what’s happened to the Celtics, so there are no surprises labeling them as pretenders here. With the Heat, Bulls, Pacers and Hawks in the East, I think Boston’s window of opportunity for winning championships is over. The Boston Threeparty is getting too old and Rajon Rondo can’t pick up the scoring load for them. Defense is their best weapon, but it won’t be enough for a substantial playoff run.
Philadelphia 76ers – Pretender. This pick is definitely the riskiest of the bunch, but I don’t think the 76ers have what it takes this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were wrong about this one, but there’s just something about this 76ers team I don’t like. Maybe it’s their current five-game skid. Maybe it’s how different this Philly team is with big man Spencer Hawes sidelined. Or maybe it’s unnecessary and idiotic trick shots like this that suggest the team’s lack of focus. But whatever it is, I don’t believe in the Philadelphia 76ers just yet.
Atlanta Hawks – Contender. I honestly don’t think the Hawks have great chances in the East, but I believe in them more than the Magic, 76ers or Celtics, so I’ve got to put them down as contenders. The absence of Al Horford has really hurt them, but they still have a good record and Josh Smith is putting up great numbers in multiple categories. The Hawks have disappointed fans in the playoffs in the last few years, but I think they have the edge over some of the other teams in the East who are in the playoff running right now.
Cleveland Cavaliers – Pretender. The fact that the Cavs are a part of this discussion at 13-18 shows how set-in-stone the East is already shaping up to be. The Cavs are only 1.5 games behind the Celtics for the 8th spot in the East right now, but even though Boston is not shaping up to be a contender, the Cavs are unlikely candidates to oust them for that final spot this season. Next year looks more promising for the impressive rookie Kyrie Irving, Antawn Jamison and the currently injured Anderson Varejao.
Los Angeles Lakers – Contender. As the season started, the Lakers looked terrible, old and defunct. But then Kobe completely took over the Lakers’ offensive game plan, put the team on his back, and set the wheels in motion for Los Angeles to be tough to beat every time they take the floor. Mike Brown’s defensive coaching fits perfectly with the Lakers because their bench leaves so much to be desired. And now that the Lakers are feeding the ball to their talented big men, they look like a much more complete team. Pau Gasol is having an All-Star season and Andrew Bynum has been putting up fantastic numbers while staying healthy. Derek Fisher needs to contribute more consistently on offense and the Lakers bench is a huge weakness, but Kobe Bryant alone makes the Lakers competitive. Especially in the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets – Contender. The Nugets wouldn’t even be in the playoffs if the season ended today, but don’t forget that Denver is a completely different team with Danilo Gallinari and Nene on the floor. Despite the apparent Nuggets’ nosedive recently, they are only a half game back in the standings and will be getting Gallinari back soon. If all goes according to plan, the Nuggets will be peaking when it matters.
Dallas Mavericks – Contender. I was a little torn on this one, but the Mavs should still be seen as contenders for now. Last year, nobody picked Dallas to be a contender at the start of the playoffs, but elevated play from Dirk, Jason Terry and the entire bench showed the world how tough they are to beat when they hit their stride. Even with Tyson Chandler and JJ Barea gone this year, Dirk is starting to pick up his game again and the Mavs are competitive almost every night. If they get hot in the playoffs and get favorable matchups, it’s possible for them to at least reach the Western Conference Finals.
Houston Rockets – Pretender. The Rockets have been surprisingly good this season and are currently in the 6th spot in the West. However, I don’t think the Rockets stack up against any of the other contenders with only Luis Scola in the paint. They have fantastic guard play from Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, but other than that, the Rockets lack the necessary depth to make a real playoff run.
Los Angeles Clippers – Contender. The loss of Chauncey Billups is a definite blow and will most likely prevent them from going as far as they might have, but the Clippers are still a force to be reckoned with in the West. Chris Paul has shown the ability to take over late in the game and Blake Griffin’s electrifying play not only produces good numbers, but it also has the ability to ignite the crowd, which could be a definite advantage in the playoffs if they can secure a good seed. The Clippers will need consistent offensive production from Caron Butler and Mo Williams, but they will also need increased production from DeAndre Jordan and Randy Foye in the playoffs to be a truly tough team to beat.
Portland Trail Blazers – Pretender. The Blazers are deadly at home, but I don’t think they’ll get enough wins by the end of the season to secure enough home-court advantage for the playoffs when it would matter the most. Portland has an awful road record (5-11), and they’re even starting to drop games at home too (they’ve lost four of their last six at the Rose Garden). And given the age of Portland’s big men behind Aldridge (Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas), if the Trail Blazers have the same unfortunate injury luck they’ve had in the past few years, the bench’s lack of depth may hurt them.
Minnesota Timberwolves – Pretender. It’s hard to call a team a pretender when they are only in playoff contention right now, but since I don’t think the T-Wolves will be contenders this year, I have to label them as pretenders. Rubio and Love are the promising future of Minnesota basketball, but it’s a little too much for fans to ask that their team makes a deep playoff run in their first year together. The future looks promising, but I think the T-Wolves will come up a little short this season, even though I do believe they’ll make the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs – Contender. The Spurs have racked up a big number of wins in the past two regular seasons, and although they were a huge disappointment in the playoffs last year, I think they learned their lesson. Don’t forget this team was the number one seed in the West a year ago, and this year they’ve been streaking without Manu Ginobili on the floor. The Spurs aren’t the most entertaining team in the league, but they know how to win and will start grabbing people’s attention soon.
Memphis Grizzlies – Pretender. Without Zach Randolph on the court, the Grizzlies have to remain pretenders for now. They should be getting Z-Bo back soon and Rudy Gay should have been an All-Star this year, but the Grizzlies should be so much better than they are right now. This is not the same team that stunned the number one-seed San Antonio Spurs and gave the Oklahoma City Thunder a run for their money last year. Part of that can be attributed to Randolph’s absence, but the rest lies in the fact that the Grizzlies don’t always beat the teams they should (Phoenix and Utah twice).
So there you have it. Do you agree with my picks? Or have I unfairly ruled someone out? Sound off in the comments section.
Brook Lopez – Lopez returned to the Nets’ starting lineup last night against Orlando and had 15 points in 28 minutes. Despite missing nearly every game of the season so far, Lopez had a solid outing in his first game with extended minutes, and should get better as the rust wears off.
Iman Shumpert – Shumpert, who has missed the Knicks’ last two games with patella tendinitis in his left knee, was forced to withdraw from the All-Star Slam Dunk contest. He will be replaced by Jeremy Evans of the Utah Jazz. The Knicks are missing one of their better perimeter defenders, but can survive without his presence for awhile.
Joe Johnson – Johnson was ruled out of the All-Star game because of left knee tendinitis. He missed last night’s game against the Knicks, who got an easy win over the Hawks without him on the floor. He is expected to return by February 29th for Atlanta’s game against the Warriors. Rajon Rondo will replace Johnson in the All-Star game.
Greg Oden – Oden had his fifth knee surgery in five years on Monday. He has not played in a game since the end of 2007 and no estimate for his return has been given. This is another tough break for Trail Blazers fans. Between Oden and Brandon Roy’s early retirement due to his deteriorating knees, “injury” has become a cursed word in Portland.
Al Horford – Horford tweeted on Tuesday that he has not even begun rehab for his pectoral surgery. He is still in the recovery phase, so his return will likely be mid-April after rehab. This news is unfortunate for Hawks fans, who are now missing him and Joe Johnson.
Ty Lawson – Lawson missed last night’s game against the Clippers with a sprained ankle. He may play tonight, but the Nuggets may decide to bench him until after the All-Star break and give him a little more time to rest.
Rip Hamilton – Coach Thibodeau said Hamilton will return a little before or soon after the All-Star break. He has been out since the end of January with groin and thigh issues, but his return is not necessary as D-Rose and the rest of the Bulls are rolling again.
Manu Ginobili – Ginobili is set to miss a few weeks after straining his left oblique on Saturday. The Spurs have been fine without him this season, streaking to the second spot in the West, but would obviously like to have him back and healthy.
Spencer Hawes – The 76ers are starting to miss this big man’s presence, especially in rebounding and scoring. Unfortunately, there is still nothing new to report. Hawes is still in the walking boot and slated for a return sometime in March.
Tiago Splitter – Splitter is expected to miss two weeks after sustaining a calf injury in the Spurs’ game against the Clippers on Saturday. He had been a solid contributor off the bench for San Antonio, but they should be okay for two weeks without him.
Zach Randolph – Z-Bo will stay in Memphis during All-Star weekend and work with the team’s athletic trainer. He is expected to start contract drills on Monday and is expected to return on March 7 for the Grizzlies’ game against Golden State. He has played in only four games this season due to an MCL tear.
Jason Richardson – J-Rich missed his third straight game with a chest inflammation. He will be getting a second opinion to make sure the situation isn’t serious, but he should be back after the All-Star break.
Stephen Jackson – Jackson has missed the Bucks’ last two games with a hamstring injury. His playing time has been very inconsistent this season due to Coach Scott Skiles’ problem with Jackson’s attitude. This injury certainly won’t help the situation.
Danilo Gallinari – Gallinari is still on schedule to return from the ankle injury after the All-Star break. He has limited to the exercise bike in practice, but he said he’s feeling better. If all goes according to plan, the Nuggets should welcome him back into the lineup for Wednesday’s game against the Trailblazers.
Andrea Bargnani – Bargnani is still set to return sometime in March after the All-Star break. No immediate timetable for his return has been given, however.
Brandon Bass – Bass is also set to return from his knee injury after All-Star weekend. The Celtics really could use the offensive boost off the bench.
Carl Landry – Landry, who has missed the last two weeks with an MCL sprain, is still expected to be out for another few weeks. His return will do little to help the Hornets improve their standing this season, but he should be set to return sometime in March.
Byron Mullens – Mullens sat out last night against the Pacers with an illness. He is listed as day-to-day right now.
Nene – Nene is still expected to sit out until after the All-Star break. Coach Karl said he will likely not average a lot of minutes again until next season given his conditioning.
Elton Brand – Brand’s sprained right thumb will keep him out until after the All-Star break. Hopefully this injury doesn’t become a recurring issue, as he missed two games earlier this month for the same reason.
Gerald Henderson – Henderson missed his 9th consecutive game for the Bobcats last night, but is expected to return after the All-Star break.
Eric Gordon – Gordon will be out until early April at the earliest as he revealed he has cartilage damage in his knee injury. This is another blow to the Hornets’ already catastrophic season.
Andray Blatche – Blatche is set to test his calf sometime this week. He has sat out for the Wizards since the end of January.
Drew Gooden – Gooden has a torn ligament in his right wrist and is set to get a second opinion on the injury. He said he hopes to be back after the All-Star break.
Emeka Okafor – Okafor has missed the last four games with a sore left knee, but should return for the Hornets right after the All-Star break.