With the NBA’s All-Star weekend now in the rearview, we now have the time of year that many analysts, GMs, and others with a high basketball IQ like to call the “NBA stretch-run”.
This is when the fooling around is put to a halt, the charades and antics are all diminished, and when the stars get right to the point, which is proving to the rest of the league that their team belongs in the playoffs. Or even better, deserves to play in the NBA Finals.
Yes people, this time of year may not yet have the magnitude of the playoffs, but it certainly has a higher level of action than we’ve seen prior to the All-Star break.
With that said, here are 5 things to look for during the NBA’s 2010 regular season stretch-run:
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1. Can the Celtics recover from their bumpy first-half start?
The Celtics have struggled. Everyone knows it. Not struggled, as to say they are below .500, but they have have lost more games than expected. Others might say this is due to injuries, or age, or what have you. But the main thing is, the Celtics have not lived up to their expectations, which were to take on LA in June. If you ask most folks now, they’ll pretty much agree to the Kobe & LeBron collision course.
Well first off, stay healthy! I know, I know. All that is in God’s hands, so the best KG and Pierce can do is pray.
Also, we have to see if Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins have the game to bring it at a high level every night. Rondo has been simply superb since last year’s first round series against Chicago, and has continued it this year. But for Perkins, he needs to realize he’s no longer a young gun. He is a proven NBA champion, and needs to play like it.
To be honest, KG can no longer carry load in the paint, so we need to see more out of Rondo and Perkins. If those two can perform at a high level game after game, the Celtics should be fine.
They do have a few tough games, as they face Cleveland twice, and Dallas, Denver, Utah and San Antonio once in their remaining 22 games.
2. Can Kevin Durant continue performing at such a high level?
The Thunder have been absolutely on a tear. Really, raise your hand if you thought that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have a better record that the San Antonio Spurs at the beginning of the year…And for those of you raising your hand, you’re either dumb, or are just trying to be a smartass.
Anyways, the Thunder have strung together a list of really good wins against teams like Atlanta, Dallas, Miami and even Denver, all thanks to the core that this organization has put together. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and James Harden are a great bunch of young guys to build a team around, and the Thunder have shown why. When you watch these guys play, you can only marvel at the chemistry between these kids, it’s very veteran-esque.
But if there is a finger to be pointing, it should be pointing at one man. The 22 -year old All-Star, Kevin Durant.
Who also would’ve guessed that Durant would already be in the circle for MVP talks with LeBron and Kobe. In my opinion, Kevin Durant is actually in front of Kobe in the race. (But it doesn’t matter, LeBron is the runaway favorite.)
But back to the point, Durant has been simply phenomenal. So far, Durant has been averaging 29.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg, and 2.8 apg. Those numbers are MVP numbers, and for just a 22-year old kid, it is superb. But can Durant keep it up?
That is the question. KD is heading into unmarked lands. No, KD and the Thunder are heading into unmarked lands: the Playoffs. With all this pressure, and no experience in how to react at this time of year, can Durant handle the pressure of the entire organization? Even head coach Scott Brooks has never been here, so the pressure (unfortunately) will fall on Durant’s shoulders.
Will KD begin to show his age and inexperience, or will Kevin show us why he picked up the nickname, “Durantula”. Must see TV folks.
3. Will the Cavs be able to hold their own with the Big Diesel out?
LeBron James. Right? That’s all I should need to say. But I can’t, because we all thought the answer would only need to be LeBron James for the past 6 years, but that hasn’t been going so well.
Cavs GM Danny Ferry has equipped LeBron with an arsenal of snipers, big men, and finally the versatile shooting-forward the Cavs have been desperately needing since Boozer left. With that said, the Cavs are the favorite to come out of the East, and meet up with LA in the Finals.
But wait! They’ve ran into a Shaqtus sized problem, no?
When Shaq went down last week against Boston, many began to hold their breath in terror as championship hopes seem to have been destroyed. But here’s why that implication is wrong. The Cavaliers should soon be acquiring Zydrunas Ilgauskas (on March 22nd to be exact), as Z’s agent has stated that Ilgauskas wants to play for Cleveland. So with Z arriving, we are looking at the team that won 66 games last season. Actually, even better, as they now have Moon, Parker, Jamison and Powe.
To be honest, Shaq is only, and let me repeat, ONLY needed for Orlando and Los Angeles. Other than that, the Cavs should have no problem playing Varejao and Hickson as their starting center until Ilgauskas arrives.
But I could be wrong, as chemistry has proven to be key heading into the playoffs. All I know is that the Cavaliers are currently riding a 6-game win streak, and have the best record in the NBA. But a word of caution to Cleveland: hope that Shaquille will be the same Shaquille we’ve been witnessing for the past few months when he returns in 6 weeks, because if he is not, there could be trouble if a possible Eastern Conference Finals rematch with Orlando goes down.
4. Will Vince Carter prove to us that he and the Magic are contenders?
Let’s be honest. This Orlando Magic team is not the same as last season’s. I’m not saying they are noticeably worse, but they are not noticeably better either.
When the Magic let go of Hedo Turkoglu, I’m sure Cleveland must’ve been jumping for joy. I mean come on, Hedo and Lewis were that devastating combo that gave LeBron and Co. so many struggles. So what’d the Magic do to replace Hedo? They brought in Vince Carter.
How’s that working for them? Not bad at all, as they have a record of 43-20 so far. They are actually in a better spot standings-wise than last season, ahead of the Celtics (but that has more to do with the Celtics’ struggles).
So how has Carter done so far? Well you tell me. He’s averaging 16 points, 4 rebounds and nearly 3 assists a game. Not bad at all. So why would I be criticizing Vincanity? Well, it’s because he could be averaging 25 ppg if he wanted to.
The one problem I have with Carter, is that he takes WAY WAY WAY too many contested, difficult, and far out shots. Seriously, the guy is one of the most freakishly athletic guys in the world. He’s arguably the best dunker of all-time. He even jumped over a 7-foot guys before!!! So tell me why he won’t drive to the rim?
The reason this ticks me off so much is because the Magic have loads of shooters, yet Carter believes he should just dribble, dribble, dribble, FAKE PASS, and pull up for the J. If Carter were to attack the rim as much as he used to, the Magic would be that much more deadly. Carter and Pietrus are the Magic’s two best slashers; maybe we need to see more of that.
What do you think folks? Would the Magic be that much better if Carter were more of a slasher? Let me know: Comment box below.
5. Can the Lakers snap out of their recent struggles?
The Lakers just lost two games in a row, both to teams in the Eastern Conference who are currently trying to make the back end off the playoffs. First, Kobe and Co. went down to South Beach for an encounter with D-Wade and friends. How did that turn out? Not bad actually. It was a pretty good show, as Kobe and Wade went right down to the wire in an OT battle. But Wade came out on top, and stole one from LA.
Then, they headed out to visit the Charlotte Bobcats who, might I add, have swept Cleveland this season, 3-0. The game never really seemed to be leaning towards the Lakers much. The game really broke open in the 3rd, as the Bobcats began to take a double digit lead. The end result for LA was an L, and to put a nice cherry on top, 20 turnovers.
The Lakers are 4-4 in their past 8 games, not very appealing for defending NBA champs. So the question is, can LA snap out of this funk?
Well here’s something LA has to face dead on. They have 19 games remaining on the schedule, and 12 of those 19 are on the road. That is not easy for any team to hear at all, but luckily for LA, they have that number 24 guy.
Kobe has been solid for them since returning from injury, but if LA is going to attempt to reclaim the best overall record in the league, it’s going to have to start and end with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
To have two All-Star caliber big men, both of whom are over 7 feet tall and are in the paint together, is simply devastating. But everyone has a weakness. So what’s LA’s interior weakness? It’s that they’re soft. Pau does not play tough basketball in my opinion. It’s almost like the guy is a ballerina when he scores, always swerving, dancing, and jostling to put the ball in the rim. On the other hand, Bynum has a nice frame. So maybe he should learn to use it?
If LA is going to continue their dominance, Pau and Bynum need to get straight up strong for the playoffs. Maybe they’ve just been drinking too much of that Kobe Kool-Aid? Who knows. But what I do know, is LA needs to stop losing to the Miamis and Charlottes of the NBA.
* – LeBron photo credit: David Liam via Yahoo! Sports
* – Pau and Kobe photo credit: Isaac Baldizon via Yahoo! Sports
* – Rajon Rondo photo credit: David Liam via Yahoo! Sports