– Good players always have an extra skip in their step when matched up against other good players, but LeBron James has the word “dominate” on a continuous loop in his head whenever he faces Kobe Bryant. In another head-to-head battle between The Best Basketball Players on Earth, James again got the better hand, bulling his way to 41 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals against the Lake Show for a big 98-95 road win. LeBron’s Cavs have now taken five out of the last six from Kobe’s Lakers, with the only blemish a narrow one-point loss back on January 12, 2006, in The City of Angels.
On Sunday afternoon, Kobe was good–33 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists–but LeBron was great, turning it up in the fourth quarter like he so often does and basically willing his team to victory all by himself. It was like last year’s Eastern Conference Playoffs against the Detroit Pistons all over again, with the Lakers doing everything they could to stop James but failing in most every aspect. He nailed improbable jumpers with Kobe’s hand in his face, drove into the lane through, around, and over hapless defenders to make difficult layups look easy, and played superb man defense on Kobe at the other end, frustrating the Lakers’ star and–even if just for that afternoon, that fourth quarter–making his case to be crowned as the NBA’s very best.
And James has repeatedly made that statement when locking horns with Bryant: over these last six meetings, James has averaged 31 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 46% FG.
With Andrew Bynum sidelined for the Lakers, these two teams are near mirror imitations of each other: both enlist solid supporting casts, but both live and die by the game-to-game performance of a megastar. I’m still not convinced that, given their current roster, the Cavaliers can make it to the NBA Finals for a second straight season, but it does give me–and probably every other Eastern Conference team—considerable pause whenever James takes over like he did on Sunday. It’s a scary, scary thing when he’s rolling like that, when he has that look in his eye that says “we are going to win this game. I am going to win this game for us.”
– We’re not the only ones who’ve cried out for it to happen, and at long last it seems the Pistons’ Powers That Be finally agree (at least for now): Amir Johnson looks to have finally worked his way into the rotation. After three straight DNP’s, the lanky 20-year-old was dusted off and thrown into the fire during the team’s last two contests, averaging 11:30 minutes of action against the 76ers and Magic, minutes that included time in the first quarter, which has been an extreme rarity in the youngster’s early NBA career. Johnson’s offensive game is still very raw and unpolished, but in the few sets where he received the ball in a position to score, he did flash a potentially solid suite of silky go-to moves in the post to use later down the road.
A lack of offensive polish is okay though–Johnson will not be asked to score much during the 8 – 15 minutes we hope he’ll regularly see moving forward. It’s all about the hustle, rebounding, and legitimate shot-blocking abilities that he can bring to the table right now, and his teammates agree. “What he brings, we really need it,” Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said after the Philly game. “We need somebody that’ll keep that ball alive on the glass, put-backs…that’s what he does. He’s just a blessed enough athlete that he can do that.” Johnson reminds me a lot of New Jersey Nets rookie Sean Williams, who’s averaging just over 2 blocks/per in 21 minutes a night for the Nets. Given that kind of burn, I have no doubt that Johnson would at least equal Williams’ production if not exceed it–the Pistons’ third-year forward recorded 5 blocks in these past two games.
– He’s likely the front-runner at the season’s midway point to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award, but I don’t think Kevin Durant deserves it. With his SuperSonics mired in a franchise-worst 14-game losing streak and looking anything but super, Durant is getting by at the moment on his name and potential star power alone. Sure, the 19 points/per are impressive on the surface, but the 19-year-old should be scoring at least that much given he’s hucking 17.5 shots a night towards the rim, including almost 4 three-pointers. His 5-20 FG performance on Sunday against Sacramento is emblematic of the shooting struggles he’s experiencing most nights. Durant is currently shooting a scratch under 40% FG on the season to go with a cover-your-eyes bad 28% from three-ball land. Add per-game averages of just 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal to his rookie totals–as well as Seattle’s 9-35 record–and I’d have a hard time voting for him unless significant improvement is made over the next three months.
The kid has all kinds of freakish talent. And he seems like a good, well-adjusted lad who’s doing his best to deal with a world of expectation that’s been dropped like a ton of bricks on his still-somewhat-scrawny shoulders. I have no doubt that he’s a superstar in the making who’s going to accomplish good things in this league. I want him to do well. But all that doesn’t change his very poor shot selection, his just-average defense, and the fact that he’s just not ready to be “the guy.” I’m not sure who’d get my vote right now for the ROY award, but until further notice I don’t think it’d be Durant.
– Anthony Carter was feeling hot, hot, hot against the Mavericks, but unfortunately for the Nuggets so was the league’s reigning MVP. The nine-year vet has been a NBA vagabond since debuting with the Miami Heat as an undrafted free agent back in 1999, but has given the Nuggs some stability at the point and allowed Allen Iverson to focus more on scoring and less on distributing. Carter is playing more (30 minutes/per) than he has at any point in his career, and has responded by posting respectable averages of 8 points, 6.4 assists, 1.5 steals, and 46% FG. With Carmelo Anthony again sidelined with a sprained ankle, Carter became the team’s go-to guy for a spell on Sunday, nailing (I think) four baskets in a row–including a few threes–and finishing the afternoon with 20 points, 5 boards, 2 steals, and 4 three’s.
The only problem was that Dirk Nowitzki saw his move and raised him a few, answering every basket with a make of his own and playing a big part in extinguishing Denver’s comeback hopes. As he’s done twice this season already, Dirk scored 32 points but did so on a season-high 70% from the field. The crazy German has now scored at least 11 points in all but one game so far this year, and the 11 boards marked the twelfth time he’s rebounded in double digits.
– Golden State Warriors center Andris Biedrins won’t go down without a fight if Chris Webber comes to town searching for some of his minutes. Coach Nellie is saying all the right things about C-Webb, including a head-scratcher that broken-down Webber would actually make his team better on the boards. Many indications point to Webber signing a contract for the remainder of the season with Golden State, and Biedrins has responded with an impressive stretch of glass management.
With Isiah “Zeke” Thomas bending to Nellie’s game plan and going with a small lineup on Sunday (Eddy Curry saw the court for just 6:18, but scored 17 points. Go figure.), the Knicks were simply incapable of keeping Big Bird from establishing a NBA high for most rebounds in a game this season with 26 boards. He’s now averaged 14.5 of ’em over the past four games, and is a measly 0.2 from pulling his per-game averages on the year up to a double-double.
I kind of understand Nellie’s thinking behind a possible Webber move, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Still just 21-years-old, the Latvian keeps improving but has seen a slight downtick in minutes this season compared to last. That’s all Mad Scientist Nelson there, and though it’s hard to argue with his strategies given the results, it’ll be a shame if Big Bird’s minutes decline even further if/when Webber joins the fray.
– The Atlanta Hawks, who’ve now lost 10 of their last 14 games, suffered two heartbreakers in one week, both at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers. Late last Monday, they were beaten by a Travis Outlaw jumper in overtime with 1 second remaining, then succumbed to Brandon Roy heroics yesterday at the Rose Garden, blowing a huge 19-point lead in losing by just one, stupid point (the Hawks were just 2-11 as a team from behind the arc). At 18-22 and having already begun a gradual fall in the standings after a strong start to the season, I wonder how much these narrow defeats will weigh on this still-young team’s psyche.
Like the Minnesota Timberwolves, they just don’t know how to close out games that approach the final buzzer with a razor’s edge margin. Joe Johnson seems like the only true clutch performer at the moment, and opposing teams know this. He can’t do it all by himself. If this team hopes to entertain serious playoff aspirations come mid-March/late April, they need to find someone else to step up in crunch time.
– Speaking of the playoffs, don’t look now–after holding off the surging Washington Wizards yesterday at home, the Milwaukee Bucks are just one game off the pace for a playoff spot. I’m not sure that amounts to a pat on the back for a job well done, or is simply another telling indictment of an Eastern Conference that is stronger than advertised at the top, but very poor at the bottom.