Other than the Celtics being the best team in the East, and the Lakers being the best team in the West, there are no sacred teams in the NBA. Every potential playoff team continues to reveal some sort of major flaw that gets picked apart and picked apart like a scab. It doesn’t always mean that team will lose, but it spells disaster down the road.
Take the Suns, for example. Up by 11 points entering the fourth quarter, Phoenix proceeded to allow the Nets to put a 43 spot on the scoreboard on their way to a 117-109 home loss. And while the entire team was at fault, the Suns two best offensive players were the primary culprits.
Amare Stoudemire was unguardable by any Nets defender. He hit a handful of midrange jumpers, but was at his best when he was finding holes in the defense after dribble penetration or when turning and facing. But while his offensive game was brilliant (8-14 FG, 25 PTS), he repeatedly turned his head on defense, offered no help on off-ball screen/rolls, was late or absent on a number of rotations, and did an awful job of defending the hoop against dribble penetration.
Meanwhile, Steve Nash was able to slither into the lane at will, made nothing but correct decisions when using screens, and punished the Nets by hitting jumper after jumper whenever they went under a screen, while finishing at the rim whenever the Nets went over. But again, while Nash did whatever he pleased offensively (26 PTS, 9 AST), he was torched again and again by Devin Harris who had a career-high 47 points to go along with seven boards and eight assists.
As long as a team’s two best players are also its two worst defenders, that team has no shot at winning in the playoffs. And if Devin Harris can go off for 47 points, how will the Suns defend Tony Parker, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams? They face two of the three when they play New Orleans and Utah later this week.
Meanwhile, how good a coaching job as Lawrence Frank done this young season in getting his neophytic ball club to play with energy, intelligence, and discipline? The Nets were left for dead after dealing away Richard Jefferson, but Frank’s simplified the offense with a lot of isolations, and a lot of driving and kicking to make it easy for his young squad.
In turn, Devin Harris is turning into Tony Parker-lite, Vince Carter may be playing the best ball of his career (when focusing on his defense, his leadership, and the fact that unlike in year’s past, he isn’t taking games off), Brook Lopez is defending like a veteran, Ryan Anderson is constantly making plays with his hustle, and Keyon Dooling and Jarvis Hayes are filling their roles perfectly as ball handlers, shooters, and defenders.
If Yi Jianlian ever gets tougher and smarter, the Nets might have themselves a team that can win a playoff series in the East.
While beating the Lakers in Los Angeles is no easy task, it speaks volumes that the Raptors were outrebounded by almost 20 boards in their 112-99 loss. Part of that has to do with Jermaine O’Neal being injured, but how many people expected O’Neal would make it through the year unscathed? The Raptors’ still have no toughness—The Lakers scored 58 points in the paint opposed to 32 for Toronto—and no defense.
Meanwhile, while the Lakers are by no means a great defensive team, they know how to shut down an opponent’s best player. They befuddled Chris Bosh into a 4-13 shooting night for 12 points with four turnovers. Good teams know how to shut down an opponent’s best player when it matters most and the Lakers have done that all year. It’s one of the many reasons they’ve only lost a single game.
The Rockets really need to get Tracy McGrady and Shane Battier healthy because they don’t look like contenders with each of them injured. Both missed Houston’s 104-94 loss in Denver where the Rockets shot only 40 percent, and Ron Artest went 5-18. Artest hasn’t looked comfortable in Houston all season long. Meanwhile, Chauncey Billups and the rejuvenated Nene each had double-doubles to spark the impressive Nuggets.
The Sixers may be the most disappointing team in the NBA. They were many people’s Eastern Conference dark horse, but they still suffer from the same traits that plagued them last year. Their halfcourt offense is still brutal, Andre Iguodala’s jumper is still inconsistent, Elton Brand hasn’t flashed the explosion he showed before last season’s achilles injury, and Andre Miller’s being asked to be too much of a scorer. It’s still early, and the Sixers have been a second half team, but in the improved Eastern Conference, they can find themselves buried if they don’t turn things around quickly.
Derrick Rose has been every bit as good as advertised, as he put up 18 points, ten boards, and five assists against Philly. Without Rose, the Bulls would be just another middling ball club toiling in the East, but with him, they have a dynamic player that may be the difference in a high lottery pick or a low playoff seed.
The Blazers knocked off the Pistons in Detroit 96-85 to complete a 4-0 week. Portland's played almost no home games this year, but they've managed to win all seven of their games in Portland. While they've struggled against upper-echelon teams on the road, it's expected of such a young ball club still coming together.
In the win over Detroit, Portland managed to shoot over 50 percent over a very stingy Pistons defense, with LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way with 27 points on 11-19 shooting. Their own defense also played very well, holding Detroit under 44 percent, while recording eight blocked shots.
As the rest of the Western powers slog around through injuries and underwhelming play, the Blazers are putting themselves in a position where a nice run could carry them up to number two in the standings.
For the Pistons, they've really been stuck in neutral since acquiring Allen Iverson. Their defense has regressed, and Iverson looks out of sorts. He finished with nine points, three assists, and a turnover while shooting 2-9. It wasn't just him though. The entire starting five played poorly and every Pistons run was made against the Blazers bench. If the Pistons can't get in synch by the end of the year, forget Boston, they'll have trouble staking claim over Cleveland and Orlando in the East's pecking order.