Welcome to Best of Se7en! With 82 games in the season and 30 teams, the NBA has a lot to sort through for what you should be keeping your eyes on. In this weekly Monday feature, I will be going over seven games to tune into for the week; as well as seven of the most interesting story lines in the league.
Jan. 27 – Feb. 2 Games (All times EST)
Monday, January 27: Toronto at Brooklyn, 7:30 PM
Has Brooklyn finally turned the corner? As winners of ten out of their last eleven games, the Nets have made a strong push towards higher seeding in the Eastern Conference playoffs. This game will be their attempt to exact revenge on the team that gave them their one loss in their recent string of wins on 1/11. Since trading away Rudy Gay, the Raptors have done a lot more with less. They are 8-6 in January and currently 4th in the East right now, a seed that no one had projected them to be at in the beginning of the season. With a chance to get a statement win against another one of the East’s best (the Nets have recently won against Miami and Atlanta), look for the Nets, Deron Williams & company to bring their A-game.
Tuesday, January 28: San Antonio at Houston, 8:00 PM
In their two games this season, Houston has beaten San Antonio both times with an average margin of victory of ten. In spite of that, do any of us really think that Houston has a chance to upset the four time champion Spurs in the playoffs? Yes, the Rockets have those two, possibly three after this game, regular season wins to hang their hats on, and the Harden-Dwight combination has not combusted yet, but it would be foolish to place your money on a last-year-first-round-exit to upend the continued excellence of the Spurs. With the way that the Western Conference is going, these two teams might actually meet in a first round matchup.
Wednesday, January 29: Oklahoma City at Miami, 7:00 PM
The battle of the two MVP frontrunners. The overall consensus in the media and general public is that Kevin Durant has made a legitimate case to be the MVP this season and has usurped LeBron’s quest for his fourth straight MVP, and fifth overall. Even without Westbrook, Durant has more than stepped up to the plate for OKC, and led the team to a 10-4 record in January to put them at the top of the West, which was topped off by a 46 point game against the Trailblazers in a ridiculously efficient 18-25 shooting night and a ten game streak of 30+ points scored. On the flip side, Miami has struggled a lot as of late, with Wade in and out of the lineup. In their last nine games, the Heat have only gone 5-4. Whether or not this is the team pulling back in anticipation of the playoffs (especially since the East isn’t providing much in the way of threatening to leapfrog them as the number two seed) or this is an actual indication of the team’s struggles, this game will provide a good barometer of that. Might this be a rematch of their 2012 Finals where LeBron got his first ring and Durant his first heartbreak?
Thursday, January 30: LA Clippers at Golden State, 10:30 PM
The last time these two teams met on Christmas day, the game was a lot more naughty than nice. The highlights of that game were Blake Griffin being tossed out for incurring two (arguably, questionable) technical fouls, and Draymond Green being tossed for a Flagrant 2, and the Warriors ultimately holding on for a two point win. Without Chris Paul as the catalyst for a lot of trash talking, this game may be a bit more tame than last time, but here’s to hoping for a bit more chippiness and the start to a real rivalry. The Warriors have been struggling of late, having lost four of their last six games, and will be looking at this game to course correct before the All Star Game (go Steph!) against a team they may very well meet in the playoffs.
Friday, January 31: Memphis at Minnesota, 8:00 PM
With Eric Bledsoe missing a significant chunk of time for Phoenix (his timetable has him back around the end of February) with his meniscus surgery, there may very will be an open playoff spot in the Western conference. This could be the opening that Memphis or Minnesota need to make a second half push after a very underwhelming start in what was supposed to be a season with playoff aspirations. Memphis had been struggling in the two months since they lost Marc Gasol to an MCL injury; but have rebounded since his return, winning five of their last six games. Minnesota’s 121-120 win against the Warriors on 1/24 was their first win of the season in a game decided by four points or less (previously 0-11), and could serve as a catalyst to closing out more close games to make a late playoff push. While being in direct competition for that possible last playoff seed, games like these will be incredibly important for these two teams’ aspirations.
Saturday, February 1: Brooklyn at Indiana, 7:00 PM
At this point, it looks like Indiana will retain the number one seed fairly easily in the East. They have demonstrated continued excellence both offensively (George, Stephenson, etc.) and defensively (Hibbert, George), Miami continues to have bouts of inconsistency, and the rest of the East is a ways away. That said, it will be interesting to see how Indiana will respond to Brooklyn in this game, as I fully expect Brooklyn try and carry their recent momentum to take this game as a chance to make a announce to the world that the Russian billionaire’s ridiculous monetary investment was worthwhile for this season. Will Indiana, having won all three of their prior matchups this year against the Nets, just make quick waste of them once again?
Saturday, February 1: Miami at New York, 8:30 PM
For whatever reason, the Heat have always struggled against the Knicks, going 1-4 in their last five regular season matchups in spite of the Knicks’ continual mediocrity. With the Heat outputting inconsistent production lately, this may chalk up to another L for the Heat. One thing that I would keep an eye on is if LeBron takes a personal challenge of defending Carmelo to keep him in check, as Melo has averaged a ridiculous 35.4 points (highlighted by his Madison Square record setting 62 point outburst against the Bobcats), 10.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 3.6 threes a game on 48.6% shooting from behind the arc. As one of the most complicated individuals in the game today, it remains to be seen if LeBron is willing to concede regular season production and accolades at this point in preparation for the postseason, or if he still finds motivation in matchups like these.
All Star Game Starters Announced
Well, the results are in! Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Love will represent the West’s starters in this year’s All Star Game. Kyrie Irving, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony will be on the opposing side for the East. There are a couple of “d’uhs” in here–LeBron, Durant, George who more than deserve the starting nod. On the flip side, a huge congratulations goes to Curry who was snubbed from last year’s game and whose support pushed him this year past even fan favorite Chris Paul in voting to give him his first All Star berth. The other major surprise was Kevin Love, whose TWolves are 21-22 on the outside looking into the playoffs, over Dwight Howard, as this is the first game in years that Dwight has not been voted in as a starter. With the selection of the reserves coming fairly soon and a TBD replacement for Kobe’s starting spot, there should be a couple of other players worth debating over once those are finalized. Check out my buddies’ Brian and Thai’s podcast on who should fill out the rest of the team here.
Carmelo Anthony’s 62 Points
This isn’t much of a storyline that has any implications moving forward, but I just wanted to make sure that basketball fans were aware of this remarkable achievement in case they’ve been hiding out under a rock. This past Friday on 1/24, newly annointed All Star starter Carmelo Anthony scored a franchise record 62 points on 23-35 shooting (including six 3s and ten free throws) against the Bobcats. With the game already over at 109-72 in favor of the Knicks, Melo finally sat down for the rest of the game with about seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter, much to the dismay of some fans. If the game had remained fairly competitive, there was not much doubt that Melo could’ve easily gone for 70 points, or dare we say even eclipse Kobe’s 81 against the Raptors. Now if only Melo could turn his scoring prowess into meaningful wins…
In case you haven’t noticed, the Nets have finally woken up this season! Winners of ten of their last eleven games, the Nets are now finally in the playoff hunt and sit in the seventh seed in the East. Something that the Nets will have to figure out moving forward is the exact rotation that they would like to settle on. Since returning from injury, Deron Williams has come off the bench in four games that have all resulted in wins. Obviously, with as much money as the Nets are paying Deron, they will not continue bringing him off the bench (he’s averaged 34+ minutes already in his last two games), but there are definitely a lot of moving parts to consider with this team for the eventual rotation.
I guess no Kevin Martin, no Russell Westbrook is no problem for the Thunder as long as Kevin Durant is there. Going into this season, many did not have very high expectations for the Thunder, as they had lost Kevin Martin in free agency which essentially meant that they had James Harden for…Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. That trade is still heavily criticized to this day, but Reggie Jackson has stepped up a bit this season, and Kevin Durant is putting up MVP numbers (31.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 5.2 apg, 31 PER) to absolutely carry this team to great wins against elite teams like the Spurs, Blazers, and Warriors lately. Chemistry will always be an issue for when Westbrook comes back, but there is absolutely no reason at this point that one should be pessimistic for the return of an All Star to this team, and they should definitely be a lock for the Western Conference Finals.
Tom Thibodeau, #SorryNotSorry
So, it seems like the Bulls forgot about one little thing when they traded away Luol Deng in a cost-cutting, tanking effort. Their coach has a never-say-die attitude. As one of the most hard nosed and disciplined coaches, Thibodeau recently came out and suggested to the media (without explicitly saying it) that he had a fairly big disagreement with Bulls brass about trading away Deng and the team going into tank mode. In response to that, Thibs has been playing his players to the ground, notably Jimmy Butler who has already had games of 60, 50, 42, 42, 41, and 41 minutes played. It seems that this relentlessness from Thibs has lived up to his expectations, as the Bulls are a tidy 8-3 since the Deng trade. It remains what more Thibs can salvage if Bulls brass continues to trade more players, which could be a very real possibility especially with Carlos Boozer.
Dwyane Wade’s Health & The Heat
After a full offseason with practically zero basketball and a strange shockwave treatment, there were high hopes that Dwyane Wade would be going into this season much healthier than the last, where it looked like he had used up all viability in both his knees by the end of the Heat’s championship run. Those hopes have definitely not materialized, as Wade has only played in 30 of the Heat’s 44 games this season due to various injuries and rest. This has been a bit troubling to the Heat, as they are trying to preserve some of LeBron’s minutes (as his odometer is racking up with all of the postseason and Olympic play), and the offseason pickups of Beasley and Oden have not been very substantial. Ultimately, the Heat’s season will ride on the health during the postseason, not the regular season, so if Wade can heal up by then, and then go all out from May to June, then the Heat should be fine. If not, well, Decision Pt. 2 here we come…
The Hawks’ Treading Water
Since losing Al Horford for the whole season to a torn pectoral muscle, the Atlanta Hawks have put up a respectable 6-7 record (while maintaining the third seed in the conference) and those six wins include games against the Heat, Pacers, and Rockets. On top of Horford’s injury, the Hawks have also had to deal with miscellaneous injuries to Carroll, Teague, and Antic. Much of this can be attributed to the play of Paul Millsap, who has averaged a shade over 19 points and eight boards a game since Horford was announced to be out for the season. Although the Hawks still don’t have a chance of making legitimate playoff noise, their play without their All-Star center has been promising, especially in a weak Eastern Conference, and if they can retain a top four seed, they have a good chance of advancing to the second round while continuing to build their core for next season when Horford is back.