The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Saturday's NBA GamesThe 2007-08 season is just five days old, so it is far too early to draw any sweeping conclusions, but even now it is becoming apparent that some teams are better than expected (most notably Indiana), some teams are worse than expected (Chicago jumps out here) and many teams are who we thought they were, for better or worse (San Antonio, Houston, Toronto on the good side, Sacramento, Memphis, Portland, Seattle, Miami, Washington on the not so good side).
It is worth mentioning again that Dallas started out 0-4 last year and finished with a 67-15 record. On the other hand, if your favorite team starts out 0-4 and does not have the reigning MVP, another All-Star and a deep bench then it is much more likely headed to the Draft Lottery than to the playoffs. Speaking of the Draft Lottery, at least one of last year's Eastern Conference playoff teams will make an unwanted trip to Secaucus assuming that Boston is a playoff team this year--and that provides a perfect segue to our first recap: say hello to the 0-3 Washington Wizards.
The Score: Orlando 94, Washington 82
The Key Stat: Gilbert Arenas scored just 10 points on 5-15 shooting, including 0-4 from three point range. He had six assists, three rebounds and two steals but did not attempt a free throw, committed six turnovers and had a -11 plus/minus rating (the other four Wizards starters actually had even worse ratings).
The Bottom Line: In recent years, the Wizards played lackluster defense and were soft inside. Now they have also turned into the gang that can't shoot straight. After setting an NBA record by missing all 16 of their three point shots on Friday, they went 6-23 from downtown versus Orlando. Perhaps Washington fans can take solace in watching last year's video of Arenas beating DeShawn Stevenson in a shooting contest--OK, maybe not. Of course, the more significant long term story here is the 2-1 Magic, who have Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu making enough perimeter shots to open up the middle for Dwight Howard. In a stunning development--well, not really--J.J. Redick has yet to start a game and did not even play versus the Wizards. The player who David Thorpe assured us "could become a starter for a playoff team" has shot 0-3 from the field so far in 13 minutes of action.
The Score: Indiana 121, Memphis 111
The Key Stat: Jim O'Brien loves the three point shot but his Pacers made just four of 18 attempts; the other thing that he stresses is playing good defense and Indiana came through in that regard, forcing 27 turnovers and converting them into 36 points.
The Bottom Line: The Pacers could be the surprise team in the East this year. Memphis has serious point guard issues and is very soft defensively.
The Score: Houston 89, Portland 80
The Key Stat: Call rookie power forward Luis Scola "Mr. Intangible": he had eight points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes but posted a team best +15 plus/minus rating. He is a smart, tough player and will do even better after he gets fully acclimated to the NBA game.
The Bottom Line: Yao Ming (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Tracy McGrady (20 points, six assists) still fuel Houston but the two main Rockets now have some reliable boosters. Portland looked strong on opening night versus San Antonio but, as I cautioned in my recap of that game, "it remains to be seen if the Trail Blazers will play at this level on a consistent basis." What we've seen since then are two more losses that give us a good indication that the young Blazers will be a very up and down team this year.
The Score: Utah 133, Golden State 110
The Key Stat: Golden State is sixth in the NBA in scoring (106.7 ppg) and 30th (i.e., dead last) in points allowed (123.3 ppg).
The Bottom Line: During last year's playoffs, I provided the recipe to beat Golden State: "While it makes sense to slow the game down against Phoenix and pound the Suns to death in the paint--a strategy that almost worked even for the woefully undermanned Lakers in the 2006 playoffs--Golden State plays much more tenacious and scrappy halfcourt defense; the way to beat the Warriors is to run with them, wear them out and rely on the fact that your team cannot possibly have worse shot selection or shoot a lower percentage than the Warriors do. If the Mavericks would have run with the Warriors for the whole series then Dirk Nowitzki could have averaged about 30 ppg and Dallas would have won the series. If you don't believe that, just go back and look at the scores of the games that Golden State won and lost in this year's playoffs. Utah's Game Five win is, by far, the lowest scoring game that Golden State lost and the Jazz won more by attrition than anything else; the Warriors did not make a field goal in the last 3:39 of the game, exhausted after five games of running up and down the court with the Jazz and battling them in the paint. Golden State does not play good transition defense and uses a short rotation, so it makes no sense to slow the game down and fight against their octopus-like halfcourt defense." I also made this observation in reference to game five of the Utah-Golden State series: "Midway through the game, I realized exactly who the Warriors resemble: a team composed of five Gilbert Arenas clones--not in physical appearance, of course, but in style of play. Arenas shoots from anywhere at any time and when he is hot everything is beautiful. Of course, sooner or later bad shot selection catches up with you."
The Score: Milwaukee 78, Chicago 72
The Key Stat: Ben Wallace is averaging 4.3 ppg and 3.7 rpg. If he's done then the Bulls may be, too. His scoring average is not important but if he cannot provide rebounding and defense then youngsters Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah will have to step up quickly or the Bulls will just be living and dying--mostly dying--with their jump-shooting offense.
The Bottom Line: Chicago's identity is based on playing hard and playing smart. So far, the Bulls are doing neither. Have all the Kobe Bryant trade rumors and the unsettled contract situations of key players worn this team down? At this point, one must say that those things have been a factor. There is enough good, young talent on the roster to turn things around, so I'm not writing the Bulls off just yet. Rookie Yi Jianian had 16 points and eight rebounds in by far the best performance of his young career. This was Milwaukee's first win in three games and the Bulls look worse than the Bears right now, so I'm not ready to jump on the Bucks' bandwagon, if one in fact exists. Michael Redd is averaging 24.3 ppg but shooting just .407 from the field and .231 from three point range. The Bucks have more talent than they did last year but so do several other teams in the East, so that might not translate into an improved record for Milwaukee.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 AM