The Spurs, Jazz, Mavs and Suns all have a tough week ahead.
by Doobie Okon
1 ) Suns at Lakers: Sun, 11/14, 9:30 (ET)
Despite L.A.’s first loss (8-1) in Denver on Thursday, the Lakers are still scoring the ball at an alarming rate and can still win games despite ‘irresponsible, reckless and disrespectful’ play, according to the Lakers’ own Derek Fisher. I’m sorry, but if that doesn’t show you how focused this team is on championships, and nothing else, then check the last two Playoff trees. The Lakers are so beastly this year that the one and only thing that can hold them down, at least throughout the regular season, is complacency.
If Phoenix wants to prove that it’s still a playoff team without Amar’e, this would be the week to start. The Suns’ next four: @Lakers, Denver, @Miami, @Orlando. Fun. At least to watch. Cause that’s hella stretch for any team so the Suns, currently sitting at 4-4, need to seize this early opportunity against some of the NBA greats to avoid an early hole. Somebody needs to go wake up Channing Frye though because he’s nonexistent so far this season. Signed to a 5 yr/$30 mil extension by the Suns this summer after a very productive 09-10, Frye is only shooting 26.2 percent so far from the field and 24.1 percent from beyond. That’s a remarkable drop-off for the 6-11 center who ‘mastered’ the arc last year, posting an amazing three-ball clip of 43.9 percent. The Suns’ sixth man is getting 25 minutes a game, and needs to start earning them if the Suns are going to be successful this year.
Prediction: In a rematch of the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers handled the Suns, 114-106, in Phoenix earlier in the season. No reason to think that’s going to change at Staples, especially after the Lakers losing a tough one in Denver. Expect losing streaks for L.A. to be a rarity. Lakers by 9.
2 ) Hornets at Mavericks: Mon, 11/15, 8:30 (ET) and 3 ) Mavericks at Hornets: Wed, 11/17, 8:00 (ET)
Oh, the Southwest’s ablaze. New Orleans, Dallas, and San Antonio have scorched out of the gate for a combined 19-3 record, so you can bet that any games between two of these three squads are going to be intense. We get an early treat as the Mavs and Hornets draw a home-and-home series this week, one where we can see what New Orleans is made of. The Hornets have accounted for zero of those three losses, and is the surprise team in the League so far as they are the last unbeaten in 2010. It’s no shock that Dallas has begun at a solid 6-2, with Dirk, Kidd and Terry leading the way as usual, so this is a huge early test for the 7-0 Hornets.
These back-to-back division games feature a matchup of two of the best ball-handlers to ever step foot in the NBA. Chris Paul and Jason Kidd are 1 and 2, respectively, in assist-turnover ratio this year and are leading their teams to early victories. Clearly, Paul is healthy, happy, and focused while Jason Kidd is continually proving that he’s one of the greatest point guards of all time, averaging 10.9 assists at 37 years old. Amazing. Paul and Kidd are also spearheading their squads’ defensive efforts, which have both been phenomenal so far as the Hornets are only allowing 90.1 ppg, slightly edging Dallas’ 91.5 points against.
Prediction: I really like Chris Paul and co. and I am glad to see them back to their 2009 ways, but I think the Mavs take both these games. Kinda hoping New Orleans proves me wrong though, as they can make for an exciting script in the West.
4 ) Bulls at Spurs: Wed, 11/17, 9:30 (ET), National TV: ESPN
The other team in the packed Southwest, the San Antonio Spurs, are also proving that ‘someday’ is still at least a year away. As in “some day, the Spurs’ age will catch up with them”. The most consistent franchise in sports is off to a 6-1 start, despite ‘age’ and injury problems, especially to Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. But all three, and Richard Jefferson (also now in his 30s), have been more than efficient as they lead their Spurs, who are uncharacteristically fourth in the league in scoring at 106.7 points a contest. That also means they are giving up more than 100 points a game (101.9), a stat that’s even more unlike San Antonio. Seemingly off to more of a running game at the start, it’s not slowing the Spurs down at all, but expect both of those numbers to level off as the season progresses.
Chicago’s last three games include a tough overtime loss in Boston, followed by a two home victories over the Nuggets and Warriors. The Bulls housed Golden State, 120-90, behind a solid 26/11 effort from Luol Deng who also posted 40 earlier in the season against Portland. When your fourth best player can put up that kind of production, you know you have a winning core. And once Carlos Boozer finally joins Deng, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, expect the Bulls to be a force in the East, and for years to come.
Prediction: It’ll be fun to see Noah go up against Tim Duncan on the boards, and if Derrick Rose gets off in the running game, the Bulls have a shot to take this big road matchup. However, the Spurs probably bear down on defense and limit the players around Rose, taking this one rather easily. Spurs by 8.
5 ) Suns at Heat: Wed, 11/17, 7:00 (ET), National TV: ESPN and 6 ) Suns at Magic: Thurs, 11/18, 8:00 (ET), National TV: TNT
Like many East teams who are subjected to the terrible Texas two-step, playing in Dallas and San Antonio back-to-back, many West teams are going to have some difficult trips in Florida when they face the Heat and Magic one after another. Not only will they go up against two of the best teams in the League, but they will face completely different styles of play when traveling between Miami and Orlando.
In Phoenix’ tough four-game stretch, they probably have more of a chance at beating Miami and Denver since they can get into more of a running game with those teams of which is a huge advantage to the Suns. When they face Los Angeles and Orlando, they will have to deal with some tough big men in the half court offense, where Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard will have their way.
The Heat are struggling. Yes, we all might have different definitions of struggling when it comes to Miami, but let’s not all forget the arrogance that surrounded these Heat players when they joined forces. With talk that there was going to be a ‘party every night’, now the Heat’s early troubles are merely ‘growing pains’. Give me a break. I’ve watched plenty of Heat games this season. Sure, they will get better as the season goes on. But at 5-4 already, they are certainly not a 70-win team as some predicted and I doubt they can even reach 60 victories. Individually, Wade and LeBron look great. But the Miami Heat TEAM is just not as impressive. Chris Bosh is relegated to mop up duty behind the two superstars, and it’s going to be difficult to get the former Raptor any more involved then the offense. I think it’s clear right now that Boston is pushing aside any talk that Miami is the best team in the East, especially with the Heat already succumbing to the Celtics twice this season.
Orlando has dropped two straight at home to the resilient Jazz and Raptors, where their defense failed to hold both the opponents under 100 points for the first time this season. An early hiccup for sure, but the Magic will be fine as long as Dwight Howard is manning the middle. Howard is shooting the ball more this season than ever before, and it’s important that this offense go through Superman on most possessions as he’s one of the NBA’s most dangerous weapons since he draws so much attention. The Magic just need to continue to play their roles around Howard and they will be fine.
Prediction: Heat by 4. Magic by 10. It’s going to be a tough stretch for the Suns.
7 ) Nuggets at Blazers: Thurs, 11/18. 10:30 (ET), National TV: TNT
Following that Suns-Magic game on TNT will be this great Northwest matchup between two Playoff-bound squads still trying to find an early rhythm.
On Tuesday, the 5-4 Nuggets surrendered a pathetic 144 points to the Pacers in a 31-point pounding. On Thursday, Denver comes back home and upends the undefeated defending champs. Aside from the Indiana anomaly, Denver really is having a good season so far and their other three losses have been close ones to New Orleans, OKC, and Chicago. The win over L.A. should boost their confidence even more especially knowing that Chris Andersen is back at the end of the month and Kenyon Martin back in January. Melo is starting to find his stroke (again, discount whatever the hell happened in Indiana) and he should have the Nuggs in the mix in that packed division once Denver either trades him or keeps him at the deadline.
Since Portland won their first three games, they have failed to string together two in a row. Two of their four losses have come at the hands of the Thunder by a total of three points, so clearly all of these Northwest teams are pretty evenly matched. Brandon Roy has struggled a bit out of the gate, only shooting 42.0 percent so far, but as he continues to improve throughout the season, the Blazers should win these closer games. They probably have the deepest team in the division, but that doesn’t guarantee them anything.
Prediction: Blazers by 3. Only because it’s in Portland. This one could definitely go either way.
8 ) Thunder at Celtics: Fri, 11/19, 7:00 (ET), National TV: ESPN
It’s always fun to watch a game like this, where Kevin Durant, maybe the most skilled offensive player in the League, goes up against a strong, veteran defensive team like the Celtics who can also wear you down at any position on the other end as well. Rajon Rondo is putting up a hundred assists a game it seems like as the 7-2 Celtics have, again, quieted many who said the Heat are better. A two point loss in Dallas didn’t deter Boston from beating up on Miami three days later. That 112-107 score is not indicative of that game either, as Boston handled Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat from beginning to end. Unless the long haul of the season really wears down on the Celtics, they should be representing the East again in the Finals.
KD’s got himself back to the top of the scoring list, and he’ll probably be there to stay. Boston did exactly what it needed to do against Oklahoma City last Sunday in a 92-83 victory, where they shut down everyone around Kevin Durant who scored 34 points. Russell Westbrook had 16 points and 10 assists, but besides the two Thunder stars, nobody else really contributed. Hopefully Jeff Green will be back by this contest, and OKC is going to have to figure out a way to take the pressure off of Durant if they have any chance against Beantown.
Prediction: Boston — too strong. On both ends. Cs by 8.
9) Spurs at Jazz: Fri, 11/19, 9:00 (ET)
Do the Spurs want to play the Jazz? Does anybody want to play the Jazz right now?
With their four straight incredible comeback wins, Utah is gaining an important mental edge over teams in the early part of the season. Not only can Utah go down by any margin with the belief that they can win, now every other team knows they can. And what’s even more amazing is that three come-from-behinds were IN Miami, then IN Orlando, then IN Atlanta. Unreal. Paul Millsap is apparently a beast, and nobody knew it, while Andre Kirilenko has been a key player in every one of these comebacks. Oh yeah, and they have best point guard in the league, Deron Williams, who is posting 21.8 point a game to go along with his usual 10.2 assists. Williams has never averaged more than 20, so even with the emergence of Millsap, Deron is definitely trying to score a little more in the absence of Carlos Boozer.
Prediction: Should be a good one and a great non-divisional test for both teams. Tons of great match-ups in this game like Parker/Williams and Duncan/Millsap…I wish this one was on national TV. Spurs by 2.
10 ) Jazz at Blazers: Sat, 11/20, 10:00 (ET)
The only question I have is, if Utah manages another comeback against the Thunder or Spurs, do the Blazers try to avoid getting a double-digit lead?
Think about it.
OK, I guess you can’t do that if you’re Portland, but you know no team is excited to play Utah in the second half right now.
Prediction: Jazz by 5. In a comeback. Why not?