1.) Miami Heat (25-7, LW #1) Somehow, saying the Heat “cruised” through another week, just sounds too mundane and repetitive. Fact remains, that’s exactly what they did. The Heat put a cherry on top of a 5-1 road trip by thrashing the Magic once they returned home (Sunday). As evidenced by the accompanying picture, Heat games have become ‘laughers’, again. It will be interesting to see if they experience any type of letdown against the visiting Kings, in anticipation of a Thursday night (home) showdown with the Knicks (w/Melo). Just as last year, it will all boil down to the playoffs with this team.
2.) Oklahoma City Thunder (24-7, LW #3) Outside of a sub-par shooting night (Sunday), James Harden is starting to roll, offensively. If the Thunder are going to take the next step (Finals), consistent contributions on offense from people not-named Durant/Westbrook are going to be vital. Sunday night, however, Durant and Westbrook nearly put 100 points on the Nuggets, themselves. 51 from KD35, 40 from RW, and a triple-double (14 points, 15 rebounds, 11 blocks) from Serge Ibaka were enough to power the Thunder past the Nuggets.
3.) San Antonio Spurs (22-9, LW #4) Apparently, you can teach ‘old dogs’ new tricks. For the past few years, we’ve been trying to kick dirt over the Spurs…evidently, they didn’t receive the memo. While we were all focused on the Heat, Bulls, and LinSanity, the Spurs were busy winning 10 consecutive games. What’s worst, for Western Conference opponents, is the fact that San Antonio actually improved (as a team) during Ginobili’s 5-week absence. I don’t expect the Spurs to skip a beat, now that he’s going to be out again (timeline undetermined) with a strained oblique. If the Spurs have a healthy(ish) Ginobili for the playoffs, they may be tough to keep out of the Western Conference Finals…if not further.
4.) Chicago Bulls (25-8, LW #2) This week’s drop in the rankings can be as equally attributed to other teams’ ascensions just as much as it can be pointed out that home losses to New Jersey (DRose or not) are simply unacceptable. Although Boozer’s offense has been steady over the last 5 games, he and Joakim Noah have no excuse for ‘watching’ Kris Humphries and Sheldon Williams out-rebound them 32-15 in that loss. Noah received the $60 million contract, he’s admitted the added pressure that came along has “gotten into my (his) head.” Admittedly, I know nothing of such pressures, so it is tough to rationalize. Know this, if the Bulls are going to stand a chance of defeating the Heat in the playoffs, they’ll not only need a healthy Derrick Rose, but they will absolutely need large (consistent) contributions from everyone…including Noah, and his ‘tormented soul’
5.) Los Angeles Clippers (19-10, LW #5) A 2-2 week is easily forgiven, when the two losses include a tough road loss to a surging Mavericks team and an overtime (home) loss to the Spurs. Even though Tony Parker shredded him (30 pts, 10 assists), Chris Paul remains an MVP candidate as long as the Clippers are winning. JR Smith spurned them, in favor of signing with the New York Knicks, but Lob-City still has plenty of weapons on offense. While interior defense and rebounding remain a concern, overall team maturity/experience may prove to be an issue down the stretch.
6.) Dallas Mavericks (20-12, LW #9) Dirk Nowitzki is finding his way back. Criticized, fairly, for not reporting to camp in shape, he should also be praised for ‘rallying the troops’ and having his Mavericks right back into the thick of the Western Conference contenders discussion. The Mavs have won 6 of 7, each against teams with a .500 or better record. They face the Celtics and Lakers before heading into the All-Star break, and will have to maintain this momentum if they have any hopes of keeping pace with San Antonio.
7.) Orlando Magic (20-12, LW NA) Chalk this position up to the combination of a soft patch in the schedule, and the meteoric drops of teams like Denver, Portland, and Utah. Miami placed a bit of perspective on things for the Magic, by ‘curbing their enthusiasm’ over a 4-game winning streak. Milwaukee gets a 3rd shot (in 10 days) at Orlando on Monday, but it doesn’t appear the results will be much different. The Magic head into the All-Star break with the ‘million dollar question’ on everyone’s collective minds: Where will Dwight Howard end up? Until that is established, expect the Magic to continue to ‘peak and valley’.
8.) Philadelphia 76ers (20-12, LW #6) Young teams are going to have cold-streaks throughout any given season. How they respond, is what separates a viable up-and-coming squad from simply a ‘cute story’. If they can respond with 2 strong (road) performances against Memphis and Houston, that would go a great deal towards the team’s overall confidence heading into the break.
9.) Indiana Pacers (19-12, LW #8) Don’t let that 2-game ‘streak’ fool you, this team has reached that proverbial crossroad where any young team must pass. To the left, you can turn things around and make a strong push in this year’s Eastern Conference (think Memphis last year). To the right, you can continue sputtering along (remain in the bottom 4 in playoff seeds) and end up being a 1st-round exit. Maybe, the All-Star break is precisely what the doctor ordered?
10.) Los Angeles Lakers (18-13, LW #10) Kobe almost messed around and dropped a triple-double in a loss to the Suns…unfortunately, with 10 turnovers, that would have been quite the dubious feat. Pau Gasol trade rumors continue to swirl, players are openly questioning the coaching strategy as well as management’s ‘plan’, and the Lakers still have a sinfully incomplete roster.
Reportedly, Derrick Rose has let the Chicago Bulls know he would like the opportunity to play with Pau Gasol. Kobe Bryant, has let the Los Angeles Lakers know (in case they had forgotten) that he still wants to play with Pau, as well. In fact, he openly spoke on the matter after a tough loss to the Suns on Sunday night:
It still looks as though teams are going to wait until Dwight Howard is finally moved, so it doesn’t look like the rumors are going to stop swirling any time soon. Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks are also a story that won’t be ending anytime soon. While it is entirely fair for critics to point out Lin’s high turnover totals, it should also be noted that Steve Nash consistently averaged between 3.5-4 turnovers per game during the height of his success in D’Antoni’s system. Once Melo returns into the fold, Lin will be able to probe and find open players much more freely. Thursday’s match-up with the Heat may determine if the Knicks make their first appearance in the rankings, just following the All-Star break
Jabari A. Davis
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