December 30, 2011
The Knicks were always going to be a strange team, regardless of when or where their season ended, so I'm a little hesitant when it comes to taking bold swipes at this crew just five days and three games into 2011-12. Sometimes a loss or win early in a season is as telling as a loss or win in the middle of a forgotten mid-season stretch, and it's possible that the Knicks are just working through one of those stretches right now.
Or, this could last. There's a good chance that this could last, especially if this team keeps playing the martyr.
Endless kvetching about calls from the Knicks in this game, and Amar'e Stoudemire missed 13 of 17 shots because the sort of shots he was taking should have been missed 13 out of 17 times. Even by an offensive giant like Amar'e. The Knicks showed no continuity offensively, they were their usual selves defensively, and the Lakers took advantage. Even with that limited depth, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant's combined two working arms, and Andrew Bynum's absence.
World Metta Peace's old man game continues to make a difference. His ability to get within the teeth of a defense and force a collapse opens up all manner of passing and/or scoring angles, and the Lakers would be wise to continue to use him as a point power forward of sorts. Judiciously, of course, because World World (can we call him that? Because we loved "Ron Ron") can get out of hand at times. Matt Barnes was finally moved ahead in the rotation, Gasol worked well despite some dodgy finishes, and Kobe Bryant is fantastic at playing basketball.
The Knicks? They're top-heavy, and this is to be expected if Stoudemire misses 13 of 17 shots. The team's top was never going to be as good as Miami's, the rotation that backs up that heavy top is nearly as bad as Miami's was last season, and this is what the team is going to have to live through as a result. Pity, because Mike D'Antoni is a good coach, and this team is capable of some great things.
In what was clearly the game of the young season, the Mavs and Thunder exchanged basket after basket down the stretch of this bad boy until Kevin Durant put the thing away with his game-winner. We can rip the Mavericks to no end for allowing Durant to grab the ball in those final seconds, but it also took a tri-staggered screen (with potentially illegal moving parts), a 6-11 guy working towards the ball, and a fadeaway 26-footer to win the damn thing. Tip your cap, NBA.
Defending champions shouldn't be warmed at the prospect of near or moral victories, but for Dallas to work up 48 minutes of consistently sound basketball on both ends of the court in this loss was a huge relief for those of us that want to see this team play to its potential. Though I completely agree with the team's decision to let these players go (considering the context of the league, as it stands, and the shifting fortunes of the team), Dallas has massive holes in its rotation where Tyson Chandler, Jose Juan Barea, and Caron Butler used to be. For the Mavs to hang tight with Oklahoma City on the road without those holes filled says quite a bit about what the team has left.
And the Mavs will be helped, eventually, by what has been asked to fill those holes. Lamar Odom will round into shape, Jason Terry will get back to a 2004-05 style of pushing the ball off of long rebounds, and Vince Carter will become more comfortable with this team's offense. For now, the trick is not to become too despondent, and not to let the pressure get to the squad in the wake of a 0-3 start.
The Thunder, coming off the brouhaha-that-wasn't in the form of Russell Westbrook's understandable hissy-fit on Wednesday, seemed averse to the silly soap opera. RW even got off to another terrible start, and yet the team hung in there behind the play of Kevin Durant and James Harden. Westbrook didn't chafe when his team made a mini-comeback with Eric Maynor running things, and the fourth-year guard may have been the deciding factor down the stretch with a series of fourth quarter finishes and jumpers. He was brilliant, when his team needed him the most.
It's early. That's all I can add, for either team.
It may not have looked that way, because the Magic aren't all that great, and it probably doesn't warm you to hear an opinion that leans this way -- but you kind of got the sense that Orlando's supporting cast was really going all out to prove their worth to Dwight Howard on Thursday. Transition play and cuts away from the ball and overall interest in the game on a level often unseen in professional hoops leads me to believe this. I'd watch the game again to double-check, but then I'd be watching a replay of a Nets/Magic game, and nobody should have to deal with that.
Orlando's secondary players were on it, though. And the Nets? There's nothing there, and it was a borderline shocker to see New Jersey even within single digits as the game rolled into the second half. New Jersey's Deron Williams had a frustrating game, notching as many missed field goals (10) as he did points while offering six turnovers to his seven assists, and his supporting cast just couldn't cut it. At one point in the first quarter, Williams was surrounded by four other ex-Utah Jazz players on the Magic's home court, and you get the feeling that this is the last thing Dwight Howard wanted to see, to say nothing of what Williams anticipated upon hearing the news about his trade from Utah 10 months ago.
In completely expected news, Orlando's Ryan Anderson's per-minute stats have ticked up a bit since he was afforded more minutes per game, and his per-minute stats (18 and six boards in just 31 minutes a contest, with Dwight Howard hogging all the caroms) have obviously shot up considerably now that Stan Van Gundy has handed him the minutes he deserved two years ago.
I was a little disappointed that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich refused to give Tim Duncan a better chance in the second half of this game, especially when it became apparent that San Antonio was ready to compete despite entering halftime down 18 points. I completely understand shutting Tim (1-8 shooting) down for the whole second half, the crazy schedule plus Duncan's age are more than enough reason to sit the legend, but as a fan I was a little bummed. Smart decisions usually leave me saddened. Stupid pragmatism.
And that's about it. Because as an NBA fan it was fantastic to see the Rockets moving the ball and hitting the shots they've been capable of making since their season started on Monday. Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry combined for 41 points in 51 minutes of play, Luis Scola took advantage of all sorts of turned San Antonio heads, and the Rockets picked up a needed win as they stare down a tough back-to-back-to-back that winds until the end of 2011.
That's only two more days, but I like to go dramatic on Fridays.
This could be way off, but I don't think it's my fandom talking when I watch the Bulls and come away thinking that this team is capable of so much more. I didn't get that feeling last year, as the team squeezed its way to a league-best record. But early in this season? All I'm seeing are chippies that should go in, passes that they should feel comfortable in letting go, and defensive rotations that will improve. Save for the ones involving Carlos Boozer.
That's a glass half-full take, mind you. Chicago has looked fantastic at times both during the short preseason and their 2-1 start, and if coach Tom Thibodeau continues to evolve offensively (utilizing his bigs as screeners and passers more often, as Kevin Arnovitz thankfully joined in my year-long chorus in adding to the other day), this is a group that could even improve upon last season's win percentage even if the defense dips a little bit.
Sacramento made its usual dodgy decisions, failing to talk in transition and leaving the right people to chase the wrong people (or, not leaving at all) while protecting the hoop, but the team's competitive drive was there. Chicago just took advantage when the obvious showed up, and the Kings have a way of making the obvious seem routine in the absolute worst way.
Holy cow, did the Blazers dodge a bullet in this win. This isn't to say Portland deserved to win, but Denver created a litany of wide open perimeter looks throughout this game, only to clang away a shot at a 3-0 start to the season.
This was a close game following Denver's second quarter comeback that knotted the score at 53 entering halftime, the ball was moving and both teams were attempting to get out on the break with varying degrees of success. The undefeated Trail Blazers really have opened up the taps this season, they may not stay third in the NBA in possessions per game (where Nate McMillan's crew is currently at), but the team is apparently hip to running after years of taking the air out of the ball. As always, missed shots and sound defensive rebounding acumen helps.
Those long Denver misses also helped in this win. Kurt Thomas was fantastic for Chicago last season, but by choice he wasn't much of a rebounder (Chicago needed him closing out on shooters), and yet he managed one board per every two minutes in this win. Nic Batum had six off the pine as well, and even Jamal Crawford (perhaps the worst rebounding guard in the Western Conference; or East of Washington D.C.) managed five caroms in 30 minutes. The guy topped five rebounds just five times in all of 2010-11.
Both of these squads have a chance to work their way into the top half of the Western playoff bracket, assuming they take advantage of the sorts of teams that aren't ready for this compressed schedule.