– Tracy McGrady’s postseason resume aside — he’s yet to win a series over the first 10 years of his NBA career — I’m not sure any Western team relishes the idea of facing the Houston Rockets come playoff time. After sputtering out of the gate and resembling a team destined to take a step back, they’ve suddenly gone from pretender to contender in winning 12 games straight, the league’s longest current winning streak. This run includes a 100-80 thumping on the New Orleans Hornets’ home court last Friday, as well as two convincing wins over LeBron’s Cavaliers.
At 36-20, they’re still only seeded 7th in the No-Mercy Western Conference, but of course are only three games back of the top seed. Looking ahead, they could very well extend their impressive run to at least 16, with home contests against the Wizards, Grizzlies, Nuggets, and Pacers before heading to Dallas to face the Mavs on the second of a back-to-back set next Thursday.
Coach Rick Adelman is getting contributions from just about everyone in the rotation, and GM Daryl Morey was wise not to worry about making a major splash or completely retooling his roster at last week’s trade deadline, and instead to simply supplant what he already had. The acquisition of backup PG Bobby Jackson was a great one (he scored 14 in his debut last night), and though he won’t get much playing time this season, Gerald Green was had for next to nothing from the T’Wolves (Kirk Synder and a second-round pick). Houston will now get an extended workout with the free-agent-to-be, and if they like what they see, perhaps they’ll have a leg up on signing him this summer. Shedding the contract of Mike “Malcontent” James was key as well, and time had clearly expired on the Bonzi Wells Experiment.
Houston’s stars have been playing like stars: Yao is averaging 10.2 rebounds/per thus far, the second time in his career he’s hit double-digits in that category, but you assume that Yao will dominate on the blocks and that McGrady will score 20 – 40 points. You don’t necessarily expect two rookie power forwards, however, to consistently play and contribute at a high level, but that’s just what Luis Scola and Carl Landry are doing. In February, the 6-9 Scola is averaging 11.2 points, 6.4 boards, and 59% FG/per in about 25 minutes a night. And after racking up 33 “DNPs” to kick off his NBA career, Landry — the first pick of the second round in the 2007 draft — has played in every game since January 11. He went nuts against the Pacers on February 1, going for 22 points and 7 boards in just 20 minutes. Both are heady players that know they’re out there to rebound, defend, and shoot a high percentage, and both are coming through on all counts.
**UPDATE** I didn’t jinx them. I swear.
News and views of the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, Antonio McDyess, and more after the break…
– As it stands today, there are nine teams vying for eight playoff spots in the West (sorry, Blazers, it was fun while it lasted). The Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets are 8th and 9th, respectively, heading into tonight’s action, but things are so tight out there that only a few games separate the first from the eighth seed. Is there a chance that the Dallas Mavericks or Phoenix Suns become the team that slides out of the postseason picture? There’s a lot of talent on both those rosters, but crazier things have happened and I’m not so sure I like the makeup of either team right now. Also consider that it’s very likely a 50-win team will miss the playoffs out West.
To acquire 35-year-old PG Jason Kidd, the Mavs not only gave up the quicker Devin Harris and two first-round picks, but also defensive stoppers in Trenton Hassell and Desagna Diop, a move which has left them a bit thin in the frontcourt. Dirk is a solid defender, but he’ll never be mistaken as a good one. Erick Dampier, when healthy, is a more-than-capable center, but there’s going to be a lot of pressure on him to not only shake the injury bug, but to also stay out of foul trouble. There’s a few available big men floating around out there (Jamaal Magloire for one), and they could/should still sign one to bring aboard as a warm body. But they might not, and that would almost assuredly come back to haunt them.
As for the Suns, we saw on Sunday afternoon that their revamped roster is still very much a work in progress. They have one of the most difficult remaining schedules of any team in the league, and it looks like this O’Neal experiment — and that’s exactly what it should be characterized as until further notice — is going to take some time to fully bear (or not bear) any winning fruit. Any kind of extended losing streak from either of these teams could spell doom, though of course the same can be said of the other seven contenders. Call me crazy, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not going to work out quite as planned for either Phoenix or Dallas.
– You haven’t heard much about him this season, but Detroit Pistons starting power forward Antonio McDyess has really risen to the challenge of starting. Coming into this, his 13th NBA season, McDyess hadn’t averaged more than about 23 minutes/per over the course of an entire season since he was an All Star with the Denver Nuggets back in 2000. As the beaten-to-death story goes, the limited playing time happened because of the various knee injuries that plagued him for the better part of 3 or 4 years. He’s put all that behind him since joining the Pistons in ’04 (knock on wood), having played in all 82 games the past two seasons — the only times he’s ever accomplished that. He’s on pace to do it again this season.
Beyond staying healthy, McDyess was asked in the preseason to assume a starting role, a request he was initially uncomfortable with since he’d grown accustomed to coming off the bench and didn’t want to rock the boat with things going so swimmingly in his reserve role. He’s since embraced it and is having a damn fine season, one in which he’s averaging just over 30 minutes a night without looking overly fatigued by the extra burn. Through 53 games, the 33-year-old is averaging a team-best 8.9 rebounds/per (good for 13th overall in the East), along with 9.4 points and 50% FG.
Antonio McDyess Photo Credit: Icon SMI
– Rookie Joakim Noah has seen a boost in fantasy-hoops value in the wake of the Ben Wallace deal, starting the Bulls’ last two games at center, but enigmatic second-year forward Tyrus Thomas is the one who’s really taken off as of late. We’ve seen these tantalizing spurts of production before from Thomas, so check back in two weeks to see if he’s still doing it or back sulking on the bench. But whatever made the lightbulb in his head suddenly go from dim to shining (perhaps the arrival of Drew Gooden?), it’s working.
Over his last four games, Thomas has averaged 14 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 3 blocks, 1.2 steals, and 47% FG. That, friends, is pure fantasy gold, and he’s most certainly worth an add in 99% of the fantasy leagues out there, even if he fizzles out and you have to drop him in a week or so. This is that time of the year when young players on mediocre-to-bad teams start getting big minutes and putting up nice stats. Take advantage of that by keeping up on recent trends and adjusting your roster accordingly; it’ll pay off in April.
– We’ve also seen insane spurts of productivity from Denver’s J.R. Smith before, too, and like Thomas his past history says it won’t last and that he’ll soon find himself back in George Karl’s ample doghouse again for not playing defense, not hustling, or whatever. There’s always room in Karl’s doghouse.
Let’s give this kid some credit though: he’s been going absolutely bonkers from three-point land lately. Since February 10, the career 36% three-point shooter has averaged 10.5 attempts/per from beyond the arc (!!)… and is hitting them at a 45.7% clip. Obviously, that’s resulted in some mega-massive scoring, namely a career-high 43 point outburst against the Bulls. I don’t think Smith, who’s still just 22 years of age, has a future in Denver, but he most definitely has one in the NBA. Give him some consistent minutes, some hands-on coaching, and the right situation, and he could easily average 18+ PPG one day. Don’t forget that during last season’s first month and a half or so — before he was suspended and before Karl pulled back on his dog chain — Smith was averaging 7 three-point attempts and 16.2 points/per.
– With the injury to All-Star Caron Butler, the Washington Wizards have had no choice but to “go out on a Blatche” by starting 21-year-old F/C Andray Blatche, who showed great shot-blocking potential early in the season but not much else. Well, this kid is capable of a whole lot more than just sending weak shots: he can rebound, get up and down the floor, disrupt soft passes in the lane, score, even handle the ball. Did anyone else catch that sweet baseline drive from one side of the basket to the other, then the dish over his shoulder to a wide-open teammate for a monster dunk against the Suns on February 10? The kid has some moves. The Wizards’ 2005 second-round pick can play. Here’s the part where I back the assertion with stats: in 11 February games, the 6-11 Blatche is averaging 11 points, 8.1 boards, 1.5 blocks, 1 steal, and 52% FG.
– The Miami Heat are now 9-44 on the season. They’ve lost 30 of their last 33 games, and their three wins weren’t exactly convincing ones: a four-point win over Minnesota, a two-point win over Utah, and a two-point triumph over the Pacers. All of them were home games. I know the Heat are rebuilding and all that, but there’s simply no excuse for such a poor showing. It’s not like that roster is devoid of talent. And, yet, we’ve read very, very little harsh criticism of Pat Riley and his disappearing act behind the bench, though just about any other head coach leading a team that’s performing way below expectations usually has his name raked over the coals until being dismissed. Is Riley that infallible, that Teflon-proof, simply because of his reputation? Forget the “Fire Mike Woodson” calls increasingly gaining steam in Atlanta; Riley gets our vote for Worst Coach of the Year. Off with his head!