Emperor Stern has risen, yet again. The end of last week was dominated by news and reaction to San Antonio Spurs‘ coach Gregg Popovich‘s decision to send Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green home rather than having them face the Heat for a nationally televised game in Miami. Regardless of what side you take, it is tough to argue against the results Coach Pop has been able to produce. Is it possible that even with all the off-season movement and upgrades the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics simply aren’t that good? I realize there have been coaching changes and issues/injuries to overcome, but sooner or later you have to start questioning whether the “mix” is going to be good enough to get your team over the top. In both cases, I’m still not willing to write them off as potential contenders until we at least get the opportunity to see the finished products. That said, neither can be considered among the elites until they can display some sort of consistent play on the court. On another note, hats off to the Washington Wizards for not falling to 0-20 as many (hand raised) predicted. The bad news…while John Wall’s knee is showing signs of progress, the doctors still cannot offer a timetable on his return.
#1 Miami Heat 12-3 (Last week- 1): After simply out-lasting a depleted Spurs unit, the Heat were able to overcome a double-digit home deficit to soundly beat the visiting Nets on Saturday night. Dwayne Wade finally looks healthy. Certainly, one of the benefits of having a favorable 4-game home stand stretched over 12 days. The schedule picks up for the Heat with five games over the next nine days, including an opportunity (at home) for revenge after the Knicks beat them by 20 under the mesmerizing lights at MSG back in November.
#2 Oklahoma City Thunder 14-4 (2): Coming off five impressive victories, the Thunder and back and rolling. They may have taken a week to adjust following the Harden deal, but the Thunder (once again) have the look of a team destined to represent the Western Conference in the Finals again. Kevin Martin, while not the play maker that Harden is, is absolutely shooting the lights out -46% FG, 48% 3PT, 93%FT (all above career averages). Nets, Lakers, and Pacers should provide a few tests this week.
#3 San Antonio Spurs 14-4 (3): Outside of the L.A. teams (and possibly Memphis), the Spurs may be the only team out West with a realistic shot at dethroning OKC. If fully healthy, the Spurs can and will compete with anyone. Criticize Coach Pop all you’d like, but after resting his core group for what became a tough (close) loss in Miami, Duncan (27PTS/15REBS/4AST) and Parker (30PTS/6AST/4REB) responded with exactly the types of games needed to defeat a tough Memphis team on Saturday. $250k or not, Coach Pop knows what he’s doing.
#4 Memphis Grizzlies 12-3 (4): The Grizzlies only lost two games by a total of 10 points over a 30-day period. Even following a tough OT loss at the hands of the Spurs, I’m pretty sure they’ll be okay. Mix of Gasol/ZBo/Gay/Conley still continuing to put up impressive numbers, resulting in Lionel Hollins receiving some well-deserved recognition from the league as the Western Conference Coach of the month. I’m intrigued by their Saturday night match-up with Atlanta, but mainly to gauge whether the Hawks are “real” or not.
#5 Brooklyn Nets 11-5 (5): I can’t fault a team for dropping a tough one at the hands of the Heat, especially when it comes on the heels of what had been an impressive 5-game winning streak. Brook Lopez already being out with foot issues, however, should be a concern for any fan of the Nets. Having missed all-but 5 games last season, another foot issue is not the way Lopez wanted to enter the first of a 4-year max contract. Match-ups with OKC and GS should be fun, before they close out the week by hosting Milwaukee.
#6 New York Knicks 12-4 (6): The Knicks rebounded from a tough road loss at Brooklyn by thumping the Bucks, Wizards, and Suns. Carmelo Anthony, just percentage points behind Kobe Bryant for the league’s leading scorer, continues to impress. They have a 3-team roadie @ Charlotte, Miami, and Chicago before coming home to face the Nuggets. A rematch with the Nets and a showdown with the Lakers are on the horizon.
#7 Los Angeles Clippers 11-6 (7): While the schedule may come into play, it probably isn’t a coincidence that Lob City’s winning ways returned with the arrival of veteran guard Chauncey Billups. On a team stacked with interchangeable talent, the presence and big-moment ability shouldn’t ever be overlooked. As the team gets healthy, it will be interesting to see how Coach Del Negro balances the minutes and egos.
#8 Philadelphia 76ers 10-7 (10): Even without the services of a starting center, the Sixers remain within a couple games of the Atlantic Division lead. Evan Turner continues to improve as a player, while Jrue Holiday continues to impress as a leader. Both are playing at career-high levels as the Sixers wait for C Andrew Bynum to return. The match-up between Holiday and Rondo should be intriguing, as the Sixers and Celtics end the week with a home-and-home series.
#9 Atlanta Hawks 9-5 (N/A): Admittedly, I’ve been hesitant to place the Hawks in the rankings due to a great deal of their wins coming over the likes of Charlotte, Orlando, and Washington. Upon taking a second look, I have to give credit where it is due. They’ve managed to sprinkle in quality wins over teams like OKC and LAC, and re 7-3 over their last 10 games. Tough tests with Denver coming to town before they head out to Memphis and Miami over the next 6 days.
#10 Golden State Warriors 10-7 (N/A): Last year, Coach Mark Jackson boldly predicted a playoff run for an organization that has only seen the postseason twice over the past 18 seasons. This year, if health permits, Jackson may be able to fulfill that prediction. Steph Curry has avoided major injury and has put up three consecutive 20+ point, 10+ assist games, and is shooting 57% from behind the arc over his last five. Seven road games over the next 10 days should separate the men from the boys.