I see you working over there, Orlando. Winners of 3 consecutive, the Magic are just on the cusp of the Top-10 and just short of making it back into the rankings. Problem is, when you lose 6 of the previous 8, you deserve to have some ground to make up. Had the Lakers been able to hold on to the small semblance of momentum they were riding into Utah, they might have made an appearance as well. For the time-being, they’re each on the outside looking in.
1.) Miami Heat (18-6, LW#2) Aside from running into a momentarily-hot Bucks squad on the road, the Heat continued to pace themselves through what will eventually be a (near) 60-win season. I was most impressed by the way they thrashed an up-and-coming 76ers team on Philly’s home court. Chalmers has been the steady and consistent contributor (outside of the Big-3), while others have found their spots along the way. Road meetings with Orlando and Atlanta should be tough.
2.) Chicago Bulls (20-6, LW#3) The Bulls capped off a 3-1 week with a 23-point road thumping of the Baby Bucks. Their one blip was a pretty decisive road loss at the hands of the Sixers. Chicago fans may be pleased with all the winning, but anyone looking beyond the box scores will still be concerned with eventual meetings with teams like Miami or even Philly (in the playoffs) that can play lock-down on-ball defense as well as the type of team defense that will severely limit a player like Rose in a series. Without consistent contributions from Boozer and Hamilton, and with an injured Deng (torn wrist ligaments), the Bulls may be on the market for one more contributor before all is said and done.
3.) Oklahoma City Thunder (18-5, LW#1) The Thunder won both of the games (@Dallas, vs. Memphis) they were supposed to win, but failed to come up victorious in the other two (@LA Clippers, @San Antonio) games they needed to win in order to establish themselves as the clear-cut leader of the pack. As a result, they’ve dropped slightly, but remain within striking distance of the top spot. This week provides the perfect opportunity for them to prove themselves as they are @Portland, @Golden State, @Sacramento, and @Utah.
4.) Philadelphia 76ers (17-7, LW#6) Prior to the aforementioned home loss to the Heat, the Sixers were rolling teams and taking names. The true mark of an improving and hungry team, is how they responded to the disappointing performance against Miami with convincing double-digit road win over the Hawks. Coach Doug Collins has turned that young roster into some ball players, and has converted me into a believer. Now that you’re in here with the big boys, it’s time to sink or swim. The Sixers will be swimming among the sharks all week as they host the Lakers, Spurs, and Clippers and complete the week traveling to the “House LeBron Built”…only, now they’ll have to chase around and contend with an improving/surging Kyrie Irving.
5.) Indiana Pacers (16-7, LW#5) Road victories in Minnesota and Dallas were both impressive, and Indiana fans are hoping the close home loss at the hands of the (still)Dwight-led Magic was merely a fluke. Looks like Danny Granger is looking to establish himself as their go-to guy. Granger’s scoring has increased by 5ppg over the last 5 games, and the Pacers are 4-1 over that stretch. I’m not advocating for a lockout each year, but this compressed schedule seems to make for great match-ups every week. Jazz, Hawks, Grizzlies, and Nuggets each have a date with the Pacers this week.
6.) Los Angeles Clippers (14-7, LW#9) In any other year, if I were to tell you the Clippers went 3-1 in a week where they hosted the Thunder and Nuggets, while visiting Utah and DC… that would have undoubtedly been the highlight week of the season.
Trouble is, now that Lob-City has proven they can not only run with the better teams (home/road) but beat them with some consistency, the expectations have shifted. If Blake wants the credit and accolades he deserves for posterizing Kendrick Perkins , then I’m going to need him to bring the same effort and energy a few nights later when hosting the Nuggets. That said, the Clippers are still steadily improving. They will have plenty of opportunities to continue their ascension up the list @Orlando, @Cleveland, @Philadelphia, and @Charlotte this week.
7.) San Antonio Spurs (15-9, NA) In their yearly installment of the ‘Tortoise and the Hare’ the Spurs just keep plodding along, stringing together 4 and 5-game win streaks here and there, and then you look up at the end of the year and there they are. Duncan’s slight decline, has only opened the door for Tony Parker to fully establish himself as the face of the franchise. While his shooting percentages have slightly decreased with the added scoring responsibilities, his points and assists are both significantly improved over his career averages (18>16, 8>6). This week, the Spurs embark on their annual “Rodeo” road trip. They will spend the duration of February (9 games) on the road. Up first: Memphis, Philly, and New Jersey.
8.) Atlanta Hawks (16-8, LW#7) Week started on a positive note, with a 23-point ‘laugher’ at Toronto, but ended with the Hawks feeling very hospitable in home losses to the Grizzlies and Sixers. With, seemingly, everyone else on extended road trips, Atlanta can do themselves a favor and take advantage of home court (this week) against the Suns and Pacers. Atlanta finishes the week @Orlando, and home for Miami. If they don’t get out to a good start, this could be rough stretch.
9.) Denver Nuggets (15-9, LW#4) I don’t know that things could have been uglier for the Nuggets. They started the week with a heart-breaker in OT @Memphis, then rebounded to catch a listless Clippers team asleep at the wheel in LA…only to turn around the next night and get beaten by a healthy diet of Bynum/Mamba (in Denver) the next night. They finished their roller-coaster week by giving up nine 3-ptrs to Nicholas Batum in a 20-point drubbing at the hands of the Blazers. If Denver isn’t careful against Houston, Dallas, Golden State, and @Indiana (this week), then a team like Portland (14-10) may knock them out of the rankings entirely.
10.) Boston Celtics (13-10, NA) Yes, that’s right. You didn’t read a typo, no errors, and your eyes are not deceiving you. Fans of the Lakers/Jazz/Blazers/Mavericks, save your collective breath. Each of you had a small argument, but each, ultimately, fell short of doing what the Celtics have been up to. After a horrendous start, that included losing streaks of 3 and 6 games (already), Boston has clawed, scrapped, and scratched their way back into the picture by winning 8 of 10. While any extended winning stretch will be padded by victories over teams like the Raptors and Wizards, the Celtics have also put together impressive wins over Indiana, Memphis, and Orlando (twice). I’d be remiss if I failed to also mention they’ve been doing this with Rondo and Mr. Shuttlesworth in and out of the lineup. Of course, the ‘Basketball Gods’ and these rankings (in particular) can be a bit fickle. Struggle, this week, against the Bobcats/Lakers/Raptors/Bulls, and all bets are off.
Jabari A. Davis
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