So it’s been a while since we’ve done one of these: The All-Star Weekend got in the way, then last week DimeMag.com had been knocked out of commission pretty much all day Friday. With the All-Star break and the trade deadline in the past, how is the League looking going into the playoff stretch?
1. Los Angeles Lakers (48-10) – Leave it to the L.A. fans to start talking 72 wins … when their team already has 10 losses in February. Really, though, there’s not much to nit-pick with their squad. The defense has slipped since Andrew Bynum got hurt, but the offense has been good enough to compensate. We do need Phil Jackson to do one thing, though: Get Shannon Brown some more PT. That kid is an animal. Maybe one of the highest verticals in the League, and he looks like he’s on that Major League Baseball weight-training plan.
2. Boston Celtics (46-13) – Injuries to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were the big stories of the team’s recent six-game West Coast trip (that included the All-Star break), but the real story should have been Rajon Rondo. He went for 17.1 points, 7.5 boards and 8.8 assists while facing a lineup of Chris Paul, Jason Kidd, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups and Baron Davis.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (44-12) – As much as we’ve all talked about LeBron’s improved supporting cast, Ron Artest just reminded everyone of a hard truth in Thursday’s national TV contest: Neutralize LeBron, and you neutralize the Cavs.
4. San Antonio Spurs (39-17) – Tim Duncan is out, Manu Ginobili is out, and Tony Parker goes for back-to-back games of 37 points and 12 dimes, then 39 points and nine dimes. Coattail-rider?
5. Houston Rockets (37-21) – Six wins in a row, and 4-0 since Aaron Brooks took over the starting point guard job. Brooks’ numbers have been inconsistent, but if PG’s are judged on wins and losses, he’s led the team to wins over three playoff squads in Dallas, Portland and Cleveland.
6. Orlando Magic (42-15) – Now that the point guard situation has been fixed, there’s a new, huge red flag going into the playoffs: Defense. Since the break the Magic have given up 120 points to Chicago, 117 to New Orleans, and D-Wade gave them 50 by himself.
7. Utah Jazz (35-23) – Six wins in a row, 9-1 this month. And now that they’ve finally got the full squad back healthy, who’s been the best player on the floor? Ronnie Brewer. He’s averaged 19.5 points in the last two games while putting up AK-like numbers on the defensive end.
8. Denver Nuggets (38-20) – Joe Johnson’s crunch-time unselfishness and Flip Murray’s surprised reaction saved the Nuggets from a four-game losing streak. Before that, Denver was trying to give away a game they had no business losing.
9. New Orleans Hornets (34-22) – In two games back since the injury and the trade/non-trade, Tyson Chandler is averaging 12.5 points and 13.5 boards. He swatted five shots against Sacramento, and pulled down 17 rebounds against Detroit.
10. Portland Trail Blazers (35-22) – Did you see Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez hook up for another of their trademark highlight-reel alley-oops last week? The fact that Sergio wasn’t there to toss Rudy lobs in the Dunk Contest is only more fuel for the conspiracy theorists who think the NBA staged the Dwight Howard/Nate Robinson comic book dunk-off.
11. Phoenix Suns (32-25) – They’ve got the old system back, now can they get some help for their old point guard? They couldn’t even bring the ball up past midcourt against the Lakers on Thursday when Nash was hurt.
12. Dallas Mavericks (34-23) – Dirk Nowitzki’s last four games: 12.2 ppg on 37 percent shooting from the field. And he’s been to the free throw line a total of eight times. For one of the best foul shooters in the world, that’s unacceptable, especially during a slump when everyone knows the best way to get your stroke back is at the line.
13. Miami Heat (30-26) – How long was Charles Barkley waiting to bring back that “Michael Jackson and a bunch of Titos” line he used on Thursday for D-Wade and the Hear?
14. Atlanta Hawks (32-25) – Here’s a team that really should have made a move at the trade deadline. They’ve looked lost for the last month-plus, with teams like Miami creeping on that fourth-seed, and really needed a spark.
16. Philadelphia 76ers (28-28) – Since the break they’ve gone 1-5, with the only win coming against the Wizards.
17. Milwaukee Bucks (28-32) – Weren’t they supposed to fall apart without Mike Redd and Andrew Bogut? If the Bucks played anywhere but Milwaukee (a distinct possibility sooner than you think), Scott Skiles and Charlie Villanueva would be getting a lot more attention for keeping this team in the playoff picture.
18. Chicago Bulls (26-32) – Tim Thomas in Chicago, Part II, has started off much better than Part I ended. Thomas dropped 17 points and four threes in Tuesday’s win over the Magic, and he hasn’t been banished from the team yet.
19. Detroit Pistons (27-29) – The losing streak is at eight, with matchups against the Magic, Celtics (on the road) and the Nuggets coming up. This thing could hit double-digits. If it does, will Michael Curry survive with his job?
20. New York Knicks (24-33) – Nate Robinson is making a play for fellow Seattle native Jason Terry’s Sixth Man of the Year trophy that JT seemingly had locked up. Nate has been playing out of his mind since the All-Star break, averaging 29.8 points, six boards and five assists. For the season he’s at 17.4 points a night.
21. Indiana Pacers (25-35) – While the team is being ravaged by injuries to Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy Jr., Troy Murphy and the Jack Daniels PG Wonder-Twins (T.J. Ford and Jarrett Jack) are trying to hold it together.
22. Charlotte Bobcats (23-35) – It looks like Ray Felton’s job is safe, thanks to D.J. Augustin running into the rookie wall. Since the break Augustin has hit double-digit scoring in a game just once, and has shot 9-for-28 (32 percent) from the field.
23. Toronto Raptors (23-36) – So is Shawn Marion happier getting his 15-to-20 shots on a losing team, or playing the role he was playing on Miami’s playoff team?
24. Golden State Warriors (20-37) – Monta’s ankle is acting up, sidelining him for the next week or so. Shooting 39 percent from the field (he’s usually closer to Tony Parker numbers in that area) and 50 percent from three (he’s usually closer to Josh Smith numbers out there), this has been Bizarro Season for him.
25. Los Angeles Clippers (15-43) – Wednesday’s home win over Boston was the highlight of their season. Now they can resume stinking on the court and hating each other.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves (18-32) – Kevin Love is producing since Al Jefferson went down for the season; he put up 24 points and 15 boards against Utah earlier this week. But what happened to Shelden Williams being able to step in and offer some help? He hasn’t even played since coming over in the trade from Sacramento.
27. Washington Wizards (13-44) – Gilbert Arenas is practicing full-speed and says he feels like his old self. He also said the Wizards will be a championship contender when he does come back, but he’s not rushing it.
28. Oklahoma City Thunder (13-44) – Overshadowed in Kevin Durant’s barrage of buckets is the fact his team has lost six in a row. KD ranks fourth in the League in scoring, and his last four outings look like this: 47-35-32-32.
29. Sacramento Kings (12-47) – Is there any surprise that Andres Nocioni was on the team for about 10 minutes before everyone fell in love with his heart and hustle? Kevin Martin has probably paid for every meal Nocioni has eaten since arriving in town.
30. Memphis Grizzlies (15-42) – As the team has lost six straight, Rudy Gay looks like he’s fading while O.J. Mayo is taking on a bigger role. Against the Pacers this week, Rudy only scored eight points on 11 shots, just his fourth single-digit scoring game this season. Along the way, he had shoulda-been highlight plays at the rim snuffed out by Roy Hibbert and Marquis Daniels. Normally Rudy bangs on both of them easy.