The Place To Be Nation weekly recap of all things NBA is back on course in this new year, starting last week with the Cowboy Roger Morrissette. You can check out his report right here in case you missed it. So, let’s hit the hardwood!
IS IT TOO EARLY TO PUT THE HEAT ON THE HEAT YET?
Okay, okay, fans and writers alike can freely admit that for the first time this season, just as we rang in the new year, the Miami Heat have officially hit their first snag. When 2013 closed out, LeBron and company were 24-7 and within a game of catching the Indiana Pacers, who have been first in the Eastern Conference since the beginning of the season when they were the last remaining undefeated team in the NBA.
When they lost at home by nine to a scorching Golden State Warriors team, many were quick to point out that Dwyane Wade (as he has been doing all season to rest his aching knees) did not play. They went on to rattle off three wins in a row against the Magic, Raptors, and Pelicans. Then came the struggles starting with a team that has struggled all year long but seems to have the Heat’s number: The New York Knicks. Carmelo Anthony went off for 29, shooting 12 for 24 as the Knicks beat the Heat (with Wade playing) by 10 at Madison Square Garden on TNT. The Heat scurried over to neighboring Barclays Center in Brooklyn and lost in double overtime where LeBron was irate after fouling out late, one of the rare times in his career. The Heat took five days off to cool off from a rough trip to the Big Apple, then came out rusty and unmotivated on the road again in a 114-97 loss to the Washington Wizards.
They are now near the end of this road trip with wins over the Sixers and Bobcats and finish it off Monday at Atlanta. There is never desperation in South Beach when you’re that good, but it was telling that this week they played Greg Oden for the first time and made a deal to get Toney Douglas from the Warriors. The message might be aimed at the reserves, who have really struggled lately, to play better or take a seat. If there is one weakness that is prevalent with Miami so far, it is the fact that they have struggled on road trips. It has been obvious since the very start of the season when they lost their first two road games in a row to Philadelphia and Brooklyn. LeBron’s numbers are almost at historic highs, but with Wade’s consistent absences on back-to-backs and some nagging injuries on the roster, it seemed like the perfect time for the Heat to have some trouble. At home, they are close to unbeatable, losing only three times so far this season, but the road woes against good teams have to be a worry.
It doesn’t get that much easier in February when they have by far their toughest stretch. The Heat will be playing 7 of 8 games on the road starting February 1 in a trip that overlaps the All-Star Break. They start off with the Knicks, who always beat them, then go West where they will play the likes of the Clippers, Warriors, Suns, Mavericks, and Thunder, all of whom are playoff teams so far. For those itching to see if Miami can pull themselves out of a rut, I answer that by saying they can because they did the exact same thing last year. In the month of January, they lost 6 out of 13 games, including two lopsided losses at Indiana, and the doubt surmounted just like it is this season. Then after February 1, they embarked on the epic 27-game winning streak that sealed the best record in the league, a much needed advantage when they won the NBA championship.
It seems impossible that the Heat will be able to duplicate that type of streak again, but the team has been well known to get really hot after the All-Star break, so history is still on Miami’s side to shake off this hiccup. But there is still that Pacers problem. After knocking on the door during Christmas time, the Heat are now 3.5 games away from Indiana for first place. It may take one road win to turn a playoff series your way, but if the Heat’s road problems pop up again in the postseason against a Pacers team that badly wants a rematch, then LeBron might wind up regretting this regular season lull that his team is suffering from.
KEVIN DURANT IS MAKING HIS CASE
We will discuss the MVP race later on this recap, but it has certainly been a season where it is not as much of slam dunk for LeBron James as it has been in the previous two seasons. Consensus over those two years has been that if LeBron is the best player in the NBA, then Kevin Durant is right behind him and will be the next one to take the mantle once LeBron eventually concedes it. There some other great candidates for the award that have played well all year long on good teams like Paul George with the Pacers, LaMarcus Aldridge with the Blazers, Stephen Curry with the Warriors, and maybe even John Wall with the Wizards.
But if this were a horse race right now, then Kevin Durant is the one that is slowly coming out of the pack and taking the lead before we get to the final leg. When the month of January began for the Oklahoma City Thunder, fans were dreading for the worst. Just days after destroying the Knicks in New York on Christmas Day, word came down that All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook needed another knee surgery, his third in a year’s time. He is expected to be out until February, and the past few stretches without Westbrook were not the most desirable of results for the Thunder. When Westbrook went down in the playoffs, the team struggled to eliminate the Rockets and lost badly in the second round to the Grizzlies.
We never really got to see what the Thunder would look like without Westbrook at the beginning of the season like many expected because he rushed himself back by the third game of the regular season, to the surprise of many. We have finally seen the Thunder have to move on in Westbrook’s absence for longer than three weeks, and many were quietly waiting to see how Kevin Durant would respond. He struggled mightily against the Grizzlies when he was triple-teamed constantly off the catch as they lost four games in a row, so what was to be for January without their star guard with only Durant to save them?
The answer has been mixed depending on what you are looking at. When it comes to win-loss record, the Thunder are certainly worse off, losing four out of six games from New Year’s Eve until January 9. That has gone slightly unnoticed due to the fact that despite the rash of losses, the Thunder remain within one game of first place in the Western Conference behind the Blazers and the Spurs. What has been highly noticeable, however, has been Durant’s individual production, which has shot off the friggin’ charts. The first game without Westbrook should have been the first sign of things to come, as Durant had 34 points, 12 boards, and 6 assists in a road win over the Bobcats. Even in the losses, Durant has been valiant. Only days after putting up 48 points in a win at Minnesota, he did it again in an 11-point loss to the Jazz.
His lowest scoring output since Westbrook’s injury so far is 21 points in a game where they beat the Celtics by 23. In that stretch, Durant has averaged 36.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. That is ungodly good. Even LeBron had to admit he is sometimes envious of how awesome Durant has been lately. As he should, because Durant might be the best contender to take a regular season MVP award away from King James since Derrick Rose did it in 2011. You knew trouble would be brewing for the defensively-challenged Warriors when they visited Oklahoma City after Durant had just finished a road trip where he scored 37 at Memphis and 36 at Houston. Boy, were we right? Durant went bananas on Golden State at home to the tune of 54 points on 19 made shots, including 15 in the fourth quarter.
With the two 48-point games he had earlier this month and his career-high on Friday, Durant currently holds the three highest single-game points totals so far this season. But what impressed me the most about his game against the Warriors was not only that he beat a good team nearly by himself, but he knew that he had to be frighteningly aggressive down the stretch in order to put Golden State away, and he did just that with some nasty step-back jumpers. This month might turn to out to be a turning point for Durant’s career if Westbrook’s knee problems prove to be continuous because the whispers that K.D. was reluctant to going into takeover mode when the time arrived can be silenced for now.
I always remember when Magic Johnson hopped on the Lakers team bus to Philadelphia for Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals after they found out that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t going to play after spraining his ankle in Game 5. Magic stood up in the bus and said with a smile, “Never fear, Magic is here.” For the Thunder fans who were bracing for something bad to happen when Russell Westbrook got hurt again, now they are saying to themselves, “Never fear, the Durantula is here.”
THE GRIFFIN IS STARTING TO SOAR
It might be a little deceiving to say that the star for L.A. Clippers, All-Star forward Blake Griffin, is on the rise for many fans. Since his rookie debut, Griffin has wowed audiences and media alike with his outrageous leaping ability and phenomenal dunks like these. His athletic displays earned Griffin tons of play as an ad pitchman for brands like Subway, Kia, and Sprite. His instant notoriety as a future star along with the arrival of Chris Paul helped turn Clippers games from the pits of NBA lore to must-watch highlight reels.
But along with that onrush of face time and raised expectations came the disgruntled criticisms from many that Blake was a whole lotta hype and dunks and not a whole lotta substance. For every 30-15 performance that Blake Griffin tends to put up in the regular season comes along a string of games like he had against the Grizzlies in the postseason last year when he averaged a measly 13.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in a six-game series loss. One of the talking points behind the firing of head coach Vinnie Del Negro was the fact that Blake and DeAndre Jordan never developed into great all-around players to the level at which Paul, the leader of the team, preferred.
When Doc Rivers was brought in as the new head coach for what was a ready-made playoff team, he promised that he would do everything in his power to motivate Griffin and Jordan to tap their maximum potential. The jury is still out when it comes to Jordan despite his fantastic rebounding numbers, but when it comes to Griffin, you can clearly see that Doc’s tactics are rubbing off on the young star. After his scoring and rebounding averages dipped from year to year since he came in, Griffin has stopped that sliding trend. Without missing a single game so far, he is averaging a career high in points per game (22.5) and is back to double-digits in his rebounding average (10.1). On top of that, his free throw percentage has climbed up to 72%, by far his best rate as pro.
One of the pet peeves for many when it comes to Blake has been his lack of toughness down low and reluctance to fight fire with fire. It enables veteran bigs to be more than glad to slap Griffin around with intimidation moves like David West did to him on Saturday at Indiana. It has become a chronic habit to either goad Griffin into a technical foul by pushing him around or to simply get physical until the refs decide to clean it up. But Doc Rivers, who coached one of the toughest hombres in the league in Kevin Garnett, has helped Griffin with not only coping with physicality but getting to the free throw line more often, at a career best 5.7 makes per game.
Blake’s improvement as a player has shown even more since Chris Paul suffered a shoulder injury on January 3 against the Mavericks that has taken him out for up to six weeks. The Clippers have surprised many by answering Paul’s absence with a five-game winning streak, bringing them to first place in their division. Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison playing better in place of Paul has certainly helped the Clippers, but for me, it is Griffin’s expanding talents that have led the way. In the month of January, he is averaging 25 points, 9 rebounds, and nearly 5 assists. He was especially impressive in the Garden against the Knicks, playing like a man among grown up boys with 32 points, 7 boards, 3 assists, and 2 steals to go along with the typical eye-popping fast break aerials. If the Clippers really begin to surge after the All-Star break when Chris Paul returns from injury thanks to Griffin’s on-court ascendance, don’t let it surprise you.
O BROTHER, THERE ART THOU!
When they were playing at the University of Kansas together alongside Cole Aldrich and Thomas Robinson, I have to admit that I was never that enamored with Marcus and Markieff Morris. I was more intrigued by the fact that they were twins than I was by their actual level of play on the court. They grew up in Philadelphia along with two other brothers (Donte and Blake), with Markieff being only seven minutes older than Marcus. They were nearly identical in terms of age and appearance. Outside of the one inch difference between the two (Marcus is 6’9″ and Markieff is 6’10”), it still difficult for even their coaches and teammates at times to tell which is which.
They both played together at Prep Charter in hometown Philadelphia. When Marcus went to APEX Academy in Pennsauken, NJ, Markieff went with him. In the three years that they played at Kansas, it wasn’t really until their junior years that the Morris twins took center stage at Lawrence. Both starting in the frontcourt for Bill Self, Marcus led the team in scoring and was second in rebounding, earning Big XII Player of the Year honors, while Markieff (nicknamed “Keef” by his friends) led the team in rebounding and was second in scoring. But what became the most notable characteristic for the Morris brothers’ three years together was Kansas’ tendency to lose to underdogs in the NCAA Tournament after being ranked #1 overall going into the dance. First came Northern Iowa in the second round in 2010 and then came another stunner against Virginia Commonwealth in the Elite Eight in 2011. One of the most indelible images from VCU’s unlikely Final Four run was this one of Marcus and Markieff in the locker room after the game, crying together.
When they declared for the NBA Draft after the 2011 season, they both signed with the same agent. Emotions were high when Markieff went 13th to the Phoenix Suns and with the very next pick, Marcus was picked by the Houston Rockets. Not only were they finally in the NBA, but they were going to play on separate teams for the first time in their livelihood. The separation was bittersweet for both guys even though Marcus had one of the funniest quotes in the history of the NBA Draft telecast when he was interviewed after Markieff was selected. While Markieff was slightly productive as a rookie for the Suns (7.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG), Marcus really struggled with the Rockets by the end of his rookie year, only averaging 2.4 PPG.
But happenstance came into play in February of 2013 when the Rockets, desperate to slash salaries in order to sign Dwight Howard later in the offseason, traded Marcus Morris to the Suns for a second-round pick. There have been plenty of twins in the NBA in recent years like Jason and Jarron Collins, Brook and Robin Lopez, and soon to be Andrew and Aaron Harrison, but never were they teammates. The Morris brothers in Phoenix would be only the second time in NBA history that two twins would play together (Ironically, the first time was aslo in Phoenix with Dick and Tom Van Arsdale in 1977). During the 2013 season, Marcus and Markieff became the only twins to ever start in an NBA game together.
Those milestones are all nice nuggets, but in order to remain a starter, you have to keep getting better, and both Morris brothers did just that this season. Living under the same roof once again in the desert, it seems like both brothers are more comfortable than ever both on and off the court. Marcus is taking less three-pointers as a hybrid forward with career bests in scoring in rebounding. Markieff was a little bit ahead of Marcus in production as a power forward and center, but his numbers have blossomed, too. He is fourth on the team in scoring and second in rebounding. Both of them come off the bench under head coach Jeff Hornacek for a team that has shocked many doubters with a 22-17 record and hanging onto the last playoff spot in the highly competitive Western Conference. When Kobe Bryant returned from injury earlier this season, it was Marcus who stole the show in L.A. when he went for 22 points making 10 of 13 shots in a win over the Lakers. This past Friday, Markieff had a game against Dallas where he put in 23 points and 12 rebounds.
What has helped the Morris twins in the NBA so far (consistent aggression) may also prove to be their downfall, however, as they both have short fuses, especially Markieff. Markieff has eight technical fouls, which is third in the league behind DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin, while Marcus has three. Those tempers certainly flared during last week’s fight between their teammate Alex Len and the Lakers’ Nick Young in Phoenix. The first two guys to come to Len’s defense as Young was forearming him in the neck after a hard foul were Marcus and Markieff. It is easy to push aside one reserve big man, but good luck fighting off two of them that are almost equally good. It almost seemed meant to be when the brothers found each other again in the NBA, and thanks to their elevated levels of play, Suns fans are simply glad that it happened there and not somewhere else.
1. Kevin Durant– I’ve already discussed his January accolades earlier on, but the season totals are pretty stupefying, too. He leads the league in scoring with a career-best 30.1 PPG, his rebounding is near his best, and his 5 APG is also his best. He also hasn’t missed a game yet.
2. LeBron James– This guy will never dip below second on this list no matter how well Durant or Paul George play. Despite the perception that he takes a few nights off at times for blowout wins, he is still third in the league in scoring. He averages more than 6 rebounds AND assists per game, and he is fourth in the league in field goal percentage at 58%. The only three guys ahead of him are all centers who never take long range shots. Still a beast.
3. Paul George– The PG Era is still ensuing in Indiana. Some would call it front-running to award the best player on the team with the best record, but George’s improvement cannot be ignored. He is a bona fide All-Star at age 23, his shooting percentage on 2s and 3s are way up, and he might be the team’s best defensive player on the #1 scoring defense in the NBA. The only scares for George are the fact that his rebounding and assist numbers are down from last year and he tends to fall in love with his jumper at times, like he did in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks when he went 3 for 10 from downtown. But he is still a tireless worker who always finds a way to make plays when things aren’t going great (Perfect example is the Pacers’ win over the Wizards, when he scored only 8 points, but notched in 14 boards and 6 dimes). He also just threw down what is probably the dunk of the year on Saturday night against the Clippers. PG says, “You’re welcome, Internet.”
4. LaMarcus Aldridge– Even though they suffered a string of losses in late December and early January, the Blazers still own the best record in the Western Conference thanks in large part to their mid-range-loving big man. Aldridge is sixth in the league in scoring, sixth in rebounding, and probably first in unguardable jump shots in the post. The Blazers have won five games in a row, and in those five games, Aldridge has averaged 29 points and 13 rebounds. His game on Tuesday against the Cavs (32 points and 18 boards) was pretty impressive. As long as the Blazers are winning games, Aldridge’s name will be popping up here.
5. John Wall– THAT’S THE WALL, BROTHER! I had to choose between the Wizards point guard and Steph Curry, who is having another fine season so far, but I had to show this guy some love. While Curry is near the top in points and assists and breaks fools down with his dribble and deadly shooting stroke, Wall has been just as impressive in the box score and on the YouTubes. He is a 20 PPG scorer at age 23, he is fourth in the league in assists, and is fourth in the league in steals. He was curtailed last season by knee surgery early on, but so far he has been the de facto leader of a team that got off to a pretty bad start but is merely one game under .500 (which, unbelievably, makes you the five seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs). He was the driving force in D.C. on Monday when the Wizards smacked down the Heat 114-97. I smell a late push by Wall and his running mate Bradley Beal to not only a winning record, but perhaps home court in the first round of the playoffs. If so, it will be mainly because of John Wall.
GAMES TO WATCH
Monday- Nets at Knicks– The Knicks are slowly climbing back into contention, but the Nets have really ramped up this month thanks to some inspired play from the often maligned Joe Johnson. After reports of Jason Kidd’s shaky power as a coach began to circulate, the Nets won 6 of their next 7 games, and 5 of those wins came against winning teams. Melo went off on the Heat a week or so ago, but the Knicks have lost three in a row. If the Nets win, we know who owns New York this season.
Monday- Heat at Hawks– The Heat’s struggles recently have been documented by many, and the Hawks are the next best team in the Southeast Division record-wise at 20-19. The last time these two met, they had a wild overtime game in Miami right before Christmas where the Heat came back from the dead. The Hawks have really slumped in the new year without Al Horford, who is out indefinitely with a torn pectoral muscle, losing 5 of 7 games this month. Can they get something good going at home against the champs before the Wizards catch up to them?
Monday- Pacers at Warriors– A surprisingly loaded Monday finishes out West with a real contrast of styles. The go-go-shoot mentality of the Warriors will test their mettle against the defensively stout Pacers. After watching Durant light it up on Golden State from three, don’t be shocked if Paul George launches quite a few triples of his own here. Look out for Lance Stephenson of the Pacers, as well. He has really come on strong the last month or so.
Tuesday- Blazers at Thunder– Given that they are only separated by one game in the Northwest Division, the division lead and perhaps the lead in the Western Conference will be on the line when the Thunder and Blazers square off. I doubt Russell Westbrook will be back in time for this game, but it will be a battle of MVP candidates between Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge. They have played twice already this season, and the Blazers won both times in both buildings. If the Thunder lose this one, they have some more ground to cover when it comes to catching Portland at the All-Star break. It also will be interesting to see Damian Lillard against Reggie Jackson, who has played extremely well in place of Westbrook lately.
Wednesday- Thunder at Spurs– To make matters even more dire for Oklahoma City this week, they follow up their game against a 31-9 team with a game against another 31-9 team, the unflappable San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are still pretty damn good, but it has been shown so far this season that they have struggled against certain playoff teams. Against the Pacers, Blazers, Thunder, and Rockets, the Spurs are 0-7. The Thunder have already beaten them twice so far this season, including a drubbing in San Antonio right before Christmas. Will it happen again?
Friday- Wizards at Suns– The Suns have a much better record than the Wiz right now, but they are hanging by a thread to get in the playoffs. The Wizards are firmly in right now, but a winning record is what they are eyeing right now. John Wall will not have to play his former Kentucky teammate Eric Bledsoe, who is out indefinitely with a knee injury, but Goran Dragic is still a feisty playmaking point guard. Another sneaky match-up: Young gun Bradley Beal against athletic swingman Gerald Green.
Friday- Clippers at Bulls– Even without the services of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng (whom they just traded to the Cavs in a cost-cutting move), the Bulls are still hanging in there thanks to solid defense and inspired performances from role players like Jimmy Butler, journeyman D.J. Augustin, and rookie Tony Snell. Their triple-overtime win over the Magic in Orlando took some hard work, and it showed. Since the New Year, the only team that has beaten the Bulls so far is the Wizards, who beat them twice in four days. The Clippers just had a winning streak snapped, but they are a pretty good challenge for the depleted Bulls at United Center.
Saturday- Hawks at Bucks– I don’t really mean that. I just mentioned this game as an excuse to mention that the Milwaukee Bucks are just straight-up awful, by far the worst team in the NBA. Since December 11, they have only won two games, both of which came against losing teams (The Sixers and the Lakers). They haven’t won a game so far this year, and the closest margin of victory was by 5 points on Wednesday against the Grizzlies. They are dead last in scoring, their leading scorer is Brandon Knight, and their most efficient scorer might be Khris Middleton. I see them at least getting 3 more wins so that they are not officially the worst team in NBA history (’73 Sixers, your crown is secure), but man, run from the television when you see a Bucks jersey this year. If they aren’t tanking this season, they are doing a good job of proving me otherwise.
Sunday- Heat at Spurs– A return to the scene of the championship for Miami and San Antonio. This is also the first game of the nationally televised schedule on ABC on Sunday afternoons (The other game is Lakers at Knicks, but who cares about that unless Kobe is suiting up?). The Spurs, like I mentioned, have struggled against the elite teams this year, and I am certain that unless the older guys aren’t feeling it, they will be primed to at least walk out of that arena with a win instead of the confetti for another team’s title victory blasting over their heads. I mean, seriously, HOW BRUTAL WAS THAT GAME 6 LOSS?! I cannot stop asking myself that question!
Sunday- Nets at Celtics– While the Spurs go back to Miami for some team healing of sorts, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett go back to Boston to get what is sure to be a heartwarming applause from Celtics fans who are forever thankful for getting that 2008 NBA Championship banner in the rafters of TD Garden. The matchup itself is pretty good, too, as the Celtics were hanging tough before hitting a snag in the new year and Rajon Rondo is back in action to face off with his former mentors. Brad Stevens is in over his head, but I bet he can outcoach Jason Kidd any day. And in the battle of long-armed, “Please go to the tanning salon!” rookie centers, we get Kelly Olynyk versus Mason Plumlee. The whiteness between the two might temporarily blind me.