The Dime: Double Nickel Edition
Five sure-fire thrillers and five what-could’ve-been games.
by Doobie Okon
So the 2009-2010 NBA season is about a month old now, and while it seems like there’s been vast disappointments among a handful of high-hope teams, the top of the standings are pretty much as expected.
Boston is already pulling away after 13 games, while Cleveland hasn’t even played at a high level to this point yet lead the Central with an 8-4 mark. Orlando is indeed staring up at the Hawks albeit with a strong 9-3 record. So really, all the Eastern elites are where they need to be; no early losing streaks.
Over in the Wild, New Orleans, San Antonio and Utah are all struggling mightily at the gun, while Sacramento is playing very well without Kevin Martin and the Oklahoma City Thunder are vindicating those who predicted a bright future for the Sooner squad. More on Oklahoma City later.
But besides all that, the top of the West standings aren’t shocking. Denver and Portland sit tied for first, as the Northwest race might be the most fun with these two teams going at it all season and also having the scrappy Thunder close behind. Phoenix is just that good offensively, and while their pathetic defense will bite them in the ass in April, they’ll score their way to a very impressive regular season record. They sit ahead of the Lakers, who like Cleveland, holds a solid record at 8-3 even though it feels like L.A. just kind of plays when it wants to. And while Dallas is off to a great start in the Southwest, the Rockets have really held their own without their stars to go an impressive 7-5 so far.
Even though there lies no real shocker at the top, a handful of teams are still overachieving thus far while another bunch are off to unexpectedly poor starts. Thus I present the Double Nickel edition–five intriguing matchups between rising teams and five games that might have looked exciting in the preseason yet whose relevance is already fleeting…enjoy.
Heads Flip Nickel – The Goodies
1) Thunder at Lakers: Sun, 11/22, 9:30(ET)
Why? Because while the Thunder may only be 6-6, it took this young squad until January 10th last year to win their sixth game (6-32 at the time). Because on November 3rd, the Thunder shockingly forced overtime with the Lakers but fell short and is probably chomping at the bit to get some revenge upon the mighty L.A. Nicholsons. Because the Thunder have already played three teams twice, and L.A. will be the fourth. Oklahoma City has split with all three so far. Because Kevin Durant is ridiculous, and the Durant-Green-Westbrook core is looking stronger and stronger for the future. Because the Kobe-Durant hype will continue to grow as the Thunder work their way up the Western scales. And simply because both teams are just trying to keep pace with the first place clubs in their respective divisions.
Prediction: Wish this one was national. I really didn’t expect Oklahoma City to start off so well, as they have had some impressive wins (@DET, ORL, @SA,@MIA) while remaining competitive in most of their defeats. I’m liking Durant, but the Lakers at home are too strong. Lakers by 5 in another close one.
2) Bucks at Spurs: Mon, 11/23, 8:30 (ET)
Why? Because if I tried to hype this game before the season, you’d laugh. Milwaukee? Well, it turns out San Antonio is the team under scrutiny right now. And yes, they are the only good team whose appearance is questionable at 4-5, but I just don’t think the Spurs’ disappointing start needs to stir a ruckus. They’ve lost to five good teams and have dealt with a few injuries while Richard Jefferson is only starting to get comfortable offensively. The Spurs should be fine.
Meanwhile, over in Scondi, Lefty Jennings is tearing it up. Double Nickel – Damn. The ROY race isn’t even close right now, but most of all, Brandon’s stats aren’t merely numerical – he’s leading his team to victories. While the Bucks’ schedule has been fairly easy thus far, they’re still sitting a half-game behind the Cavs at an impressive 6-3 including a Jennings-led win over Denver. San Antonio is reeling a bit right now, but if the Spurs are at full strength for this one, this game should be a great measuring stick for both teams at this early point.
Prediction: I really want to pick the Bucks here, but something tells me they’re going to get a reality check. A big one. Look for SA’s ‘D’ to oust B.J. Spurs by 14.
3) Bulls at Blazers: Mon, 11/23, 10:00 (ET), National TV: NBA TV
Why? Because, after scoring 102.2 points a clip last year, the Bulls just eclipsed the century mark for the first time this season…and are still 6-4 and a game out of first. Chicago has had a much more difficult schedule than Milwaukee to begin this season, and visits Portland in the middle of a harrowing road trip (@LA,@DEN, @POR, @UTH, @MIL). I’ll admit, I thought Chicago was doomed after Ben Gordon left, but after yielding 102.5 points a game last year, they’ve given up 100 only once. Solid defense will bring W’s no matter what talent lies on the offensive side. Oh, and D-Rose hasn’t even been a huge factor so far.
After starting 2-3, Portland has taken advantage of a favorable November schedule and gotten themselves back to 9-4. In fact, the only two losses they’ve suffered in November so far were at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks. They too have only yielded 100+ once and currently are playing the best defense in the league, allowing a remarkable 87.5 points per game. Although Brandon Roy is off to another solid start (20-5-5), the Blazers have yet to reach their potential at all offensively, and that’s a fun concept to play with as the season wears on. So it’s defense a plenty in Portland–the question is which offense will step up?
Prediction: Chicago’s road trip is indeed very trying and long, so the Blazers have the advantage here. I don’t see any surprising fireworks though–it will remain a defensive battle the entire game. Portland by 6.
4) Magic at Hawks: Thurs, 11/26, 8:00 (ET), National TV: TNT
Why? Because the Hawks are desperately trying to transform themselves into an elite team in the East. Is it working? Yes. Orlando is 9-3, yet is staring up at Atlanta who, at 10-2, has beaten Denver, Boston and Portland twice. And apologies to the Heat, who play in Orlando on the 25th, but Atlanta proved last week that they are a step ahead of Miami by dismantling them, 105-90, at Philips Arena. Atlanta is built from top to bottom with each starter playing their role to a T and Joe Johnson is a serious offensive force who is still vastly underrated in this league. Atlanta is the surprise of the first month so far. I thought they’d be good–not this good. Not even close.
Meanwhile, Orlando is where they need to be, so I’ll pose one simple question: Will the Vince Carter trade end up haunting the Magic? It’s becoming clear that Jameer Nelson can not be counted on for a full season, and Rafer Alston did a respectable job filling in last year and was a big contributor to the Magic’s Finals run. Can Anthony Johnson and Jason Williams do the same? Are the Magic stacked enough that it won’t even matter? Stay tuned.
Prediction: I am riding this Hawk wagon. They might not continue on this torrid pace all year, but they have the pieces to keep up with any team this season. Atlanta by 7.
5) Mavericks at Cavaliers: Sat, 11/28, 7:30 (ET)
Why? Because this is a great cross-conference matchup. Mavs-Cavs. Cavs-Mavs. DalMav-CleCav. Sorry. Anyways, both teams started off poorly but have rebounded to go 8-2 in their last ten games. Dirk’s making an early case for MVP, averaging 27.5 points and 9.3 boards, while the Mavs continue to play their roles very well. Jason Kidd doesn’t even care about points anymore, as he has only attempted over 10 shots twice so far. But he’s near the league leaders with nine assists per game and continues to be an effective rebounder from his position. With Nowitzki, Howard, Terry, and dare I say Drew Gooden, that’s all they need their point guard to do.
Remember when LeBron put up 27-7-7 his second year and everyone was astonished? Is anyone even phased anymore? LBJ averages those numbers in his sleep now, and what’s most impressive is how he handled himself and his team after a very disappointing start to the season. However, the Cavs just got obliterated by a healthy Wizards team, where no Cav managed to reach double digits besides James. Injuries to Shaq and Varejao didn’t help, but the Cavs can’t expect to stand around watching their star take over because it just won’t happen every night. Cleveland’s in good position and this Dallas matchup should indicate which team is really at the top of its respective conference.
Prediction: Dirk ain’t slowing down, and when the Mavs are healthy, they are a Western force. I think they take it to Cleveland on the road. Dallas by 8.
Tails Flip Nickel – The What-Could’ve-Been Games
1) Hornets at Heat: Sun, 11/22, 6:00 (ET)
What Could Have Been: Next to the Mavs-Cavs, this could have been another great cross-conference battle. Two teams many preseason predictors had at the upper-middle echelon of the standings and it’s always fun to see a headline like Wade vs. Paul in the papers.
What’s Gone Wrong: To say it’s Chris Paul going down would be a undeservingly huge credit to the New Orleans Hornets. They’ve been downright awful this season and are by far the most disappointing team so far in ’09. CP3 going down is just another road-bump, because even when Paul was in there, New Orleans couldn’t do anything right. Now he’s out. Okafor is not as nearly involved in the offense as his Charlotte days, although he’s playing well on the boards, averaging 10 a night. David West’s numbers are way down so far, even including a nice 24-10-5 game against the Clippers on Tuesday. They’ve already fired their head coach Byron Scott–a guy who won the Auerbach trophy only 2 seasons ago. They’re 4-8 to start the year and are sitting behind three very powerful Texans. Can things get any worse? Well, if New Orleans wants to hang their heads on anything, it’s this: If you exclude losing to the sorry Knicks, the combined record of the teams who’ve defeated the Hornets: 55-26.
Prediction: Heat by 9. I’m done picking NOLA. They’re just playing uninspired basketball right now, and until new coach Jeff Bower figures out exactly what to tweak, they’re mired in chaos.
2) Wizards at Heat: Fri, 11/27, 7:00 (ET), National TV: ESPN
What Could Have Been: Here’s the good news. By the time tip off comes, this matchup could be worthy of its ESPN spotlight. The Wizards finally have Antawn Jamison back and although Gilbert Arenas is struggling mightily from the field, to expect him to return to form immediately after two years of injuries is unfair. Here’s a case of two teams again that many expected to be battling in the middle of the Eastern pack, but…
What’s Gone Wrong: The Wizards aren’t that good…Yeah, I said it. Listen, I know Jamison is a key part of that line up and I’ve followed him since UNC, but he’s not the type of a player whose injury should cause a team to crumble. They were 2-7 without Antawn before he returned against Cleveland. Yikes. Arenas is trying to figure out a way to get his shooting back on track while remaining a true point guard. He’s involved his teammates more the last three games averaging almost nine assists. And while the Wizards roll out an impressively balanced offense (seven players averaging double-digit scoring), their defense has been shaky. What can Washington hold its head on? Like the Hornets, the opening part of their schedule has been rough. The teams who’ve beaten the Wiz are a combined 45-23. And in Jamison’s first game back on Wednesday, he torched the Cavs for 31 points and 10 rebounds as Washington looked rejuvenated in its 17 point victory. However, like I said, if the team went 2-7 without him, I’m still not sold.
Prediction: Maybe the Wiz look like a different team from here on out. Maybe they don’t. I wouldn’t be surprised either way because even when they are fully healthy they are a step below all of the East’s best. I’ll go with the Heat at home by 4.
3) Hawks at Sixers: Fri, 11/27, 7:00 (ET)
What Could Have Been: Many thought the Sixers and Hawks could’ve been fighting for fourth place all season long in the East. Both offenses feature youth and speed, and even though the teams are heading in different directions, this could still spell fireworks.
What’s Gone Wrong: The Sixers. I mean, come on–Atlanta is 10-2. There was a time in the summer of 2008 where Philly was heavily courting Josh Smith. What could have been? I’m not going to lie–I wanted Smith. This guy has an unreal skill set and would have been a perfect power forward for the 76ers offense. However, Philadelphia went with the good old 80 million dollar contract to Elton Brand. After returning from injury, he hasn’t even looked like a shell of his former self in the early stages of ‘09-’10. Marreese Speights, one of Philly’s most efficient and bright young stars, is out with a six week knee injury. The defense is shoddy and there is a definite void that Andre Miller has left at point guard. Philly’s bright spot? They’ve also got the schedule excuse–their six losses have come to teams with a record of 44-25. However, this is offset by the fact that four of their five wins have come courtesy of the Bobcats, Knicks and the Nets twice. The Bucks are the only team the Sixers have beaten who sport an above .500 record, but that was the first game of the season. And maybe some hope lies ahead–Brand finally notched his first double-double of the season with 19 and 11 against Charlotte, and even threw in six blocks as well. He needs to string together some quality games to keep this Sixers team afloat, especially in the absence of Speights.
Prediction: Hawks run all over Philly. Atlanta by 12. The Sixers are having trouble finding an identity. They’ll probably make their usual second half push to get themselves in the playoffs and out of lottery contention (woo!), but for now they’ll stick to beating up on the bottom dwellers and losing to the risers.
4) Suns at T-wolves: Fri, 11/27, 9:30 (ET), National TV: ESPN
What Could Have Been: I know what you’re thinking, but I really thought Minnesota had a chance to have a decent year. Playoffs? Not a chance, but at least get into the 35 win range, a number they haven’t touched since 04-05. With Jefferson and Love anchoring a solid front-court, I thought the drafting of Johnny Flynn and Wayne Ellington would spring life into an offense that’s been fleeting the last few years. The T-wolves already played the Celtics well at home, so this could’ve had the makings for an early upset.
What’s Gone Wrong: Nothing’s really gone wrong per se, but Minnesota is 1-12. They have also lost to many good teams, but again: 1-12. I will say that T-wolves are mighty young and are playing under new coach Kurt Rambis. So it may take a while before this team becomes some semblance of a cohesive unit. The good news? Kevin Love is on his way back from the hand injury, and Al Jefferson is off to a slow start, so hopefully he’ll break out soon. Keep ya head up, Minny.
Prediction: This could get ugly. We’ll see just how bad the Phoenix defense really is, but it won’t matter, cause the Suns might drop 130. Phoenix in a blow out.
5) Blazers at Jazz: Sat, 11/28, 9:00 (ET)
What Could Have Been: Like the Wizards-Heat game, this one might be a dandy by the time Saturday actually rolls around. In the preseason, this looked like a supreme division matchup between two top Western teams, but opposing starts have made this game just a tad less exciting.
What’s Gone Wrong: While Portland has met expectations at this juncture, Utah is failing to compete with the other Western elites. Sure they have the ‘schedule excuse’ (teams who have beaten them are a combined 46-23), but its teams like Denver, Houston, Dallas, Boston and Cleveland that I expect the Jazz to play well against all the time. They’re only 5-6, and with the Nuggets, Blazers and Thunder all sitting in front of them in the Northwest, Utah needs to rectify this early slump and soon. What Utah can hang their head on: They have a lot of nagging injuries but nothing too serious. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer are certainly doing their part, and as I sit and look at Utah’s roster, I can’t help but get the feeling that the Jazz will find a way back into the division fight.
Prediction: This will be the closest of all the five games, as the Jazz have yet to really prove themselves with an impressive victory this year. They beat San Antonio handily on November 5th, but the Spurs are reeling themselves now. This would be the perfect opportunity for Sloan and company to turn this thing around. Will they do it though? I think so. Utah by 5.