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Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Wild, Wild West

Recently a lot of attention has been focused on the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers--and understandably so: Shaquille O'Neal and Pat Riley have returned to active duty in Miami, while Indiana has deactivated disgruntled All-Star forward Ron Artest for three games as a prelude to trading him. I will have plenty to say about both teams soon--I will see both the Heat and the Pacers in person within the next week--but what caught my eye on Wednesday night were three games involving six Western Conference teams.

The ESPN doubleheader began with the Mavericks beating the Suns in Dallas, 102-96. Dirk Nowitzki had 29 points and 13 rebounds for Dallas, while his ex-teammate Steve Nash had 20 points and five assists for the Suns. Other notable performances included 23 points and 19 rebounds by Phoenix' Shawn Marion and 15 points and 18 rebounds by Dallas' Josh Howard. It is obvious that the San Antonio Spurs are the class of the West and that the Suns miss Amare Stoudemire, but I don't understand why people are surprised that Phoenix has a good record. During ESPN's pregame show, Steven A. Smith said that anyone who says that he knew that the Suns would be doing as well as they are now is "lying through his stinking teeth." Quite frankly, if he had read my season preview (http://20secondtimeout.blogspot.com/2005/11/will-shaqs-injury-tip-easts-balance-of.html) then he would know that I picked Phoenix to finish fifth in the West even with Stoudemire missing significant playing time; after Wednesday's loss, the Suns are tied for the fifth/sixth spots with Memphis. Dallas has already beaten each of last year's conference finalists and Phoenix played the Mavericks very competitively. No, I don't think that Dallas or Phoenix will beat San Antonio in the playoffs, but either team is certainly capable of giving San Antonio a tough series.

TNT commentators Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith regularly assail the Mavericks' defense, but three decades ago Hubie Brown stressed the importance of point differential and this still holds true today; there is a strong correlation between having a large point differential (+5 ppg or more) and being a legitimate contender.
The top six teams in this category are the San Antonio Spurs (+7.76), the Detroit Pistons (+6.66), the Phoenix Suns (+6.40), the Indiana Pacers (+4.79), the Dallas Mavericks (+4.76) and the Memphis Grizzlies (+4.70). At the end of the season, the conference finalists will likely rank among the top ten teams in the league in this category.

Speaking of Memphis, the Grizzlies have been one of the most surprising teams early in the season. On Wednesday, Memphis entertained the Los Angeles Lakers, who started the season slowly but won four of their first five games on their current road trip, including a victory in Dallas during which Kobe Bryant scored 43 points and made an incredible three point shot in the waning seconds. The Lakers led Memphis 22-16 after the first quarter and never trailed en route to a convincing 94-79 win. Kobe Bryant scored 27 points, shooting an efficient 10-17 from the field and tying for the team lead with eight rebounds. The Lakers are 8-5 on the road, one of the better road records in the league. They are only 4-5 at home after dropping a few home games early in the season while learning the triangle offense, but their recent road success suggests that they will vastly improve on their home winning percentage by the end of the year. The Lakers have climbed into the eighth and final playoff spot in the West and figure to continue to move up in the standings.

While the Lakers trounced the Grizzlies, ESPN's second game featured Houston versus Golden State. The Rockets outlasted the Warriors in overtime, 111-105. Houston improved to 8-12, while Golden State dropped to 12-9. I am one of many prognosticators who expected the Rockets to battle San Antonio for the Western Conference championship this season; I might be the only one left who still thinks that the Rockets can do well in the playoffs. One commentator consulted his abacus and decided that the Rockets have dug themselves too big of a hole: he figured out that in order to win 50 games and get homecourt advantage in the first round that the Rockets will have to win about two thirds of their remaining games. My response to that is that three fourths of the season still remains to be played--if the Rockets cannot win 40 or so of the next 60 games, then they were not a serious contender in the first place. It's not like they have to go 58-2 or something. Some of the teams that are ahead of Houston in the standings figure to slide backward as they deal with long road trips, injuries and other challenges.

Tracy McGrady had an off shooting night, but contributed 23 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and two blocked shots, including one on Jason Richardson's attempted game winning shot as time ran out in regulation. Yao Ming completely dominated the Warriors inside, scoring 30 points on 12-18 field goal shooting and grabbing 16 rebounds; Golden State's entire team only had 32 rebounds and 15 of those were provided by starting guards Baron Davis (6) and Jason Richardson (9). Yes, despite Yao's inside dominance the game was still close, but that's because Golden State made 15 three pointers and forced 20 Houston turnovers. It is more likely that Yao will continue to make inside shots against overmatched defenders than that Baron Davis and Jason Richardson will combine to hit 9 of 19 three pointers. When your starting guards are providing most of your rebounding, two things are clear: your guards are very good and your team is not. Don't be surprised if by the All-Star break both the Lakers and the Rockets have better records than Golden State.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:04 AM

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