Miami lost two games to the Pacers, who are more and more looking like the first legitimate threat to dethrone the Heatles since…well, last year’s Pacers. Indiana is playing tremendous basketball, winning seven of their last nine. The Pacers are also tough where it counts, especially compared to the rest of the so-so Eastern Conference. Indiana is a top 10 rebounding team and the best defensive team in the entire NBA on points allowed. They’ve got a legitimate burgeoning superstar in Paul George, but they do the little things that could pay great dividends in the summer en route to a conference or NBA championship. As for Miami? It’s becoming apparent just how hard a three-peat is to accomplish. The end of 2013 and the start of the new year has been sort of underwhelming for the Heatles, mostly due to a dud three game losing streak on the road earlier in the month. The Heat started this week with an overtime loss in Atlanta, in a high scoring affair in which they fell 121-114. Atlanta sits third in the East, but they’re also without their most talented player, perennial All-Star Al Horford. The Heat’s loss to Atlanta wasn’t all that bad on the surface, the Hawks actually have one of the more underrated home court advantages in the league, their last three wins at home are against the Heat, Pacers and Rockets. Atlanta plays quality basketball at Phillips Arena, but they’re severely limited on both sides of the ball without Horford. This is why it’s not just the loss alone that should be concerning for Miami, but the way in which they lost. Giving up 121 points to a team headlined by Paul Millsap and led in the post by Pero Antic isn’t indicative of great team basketball, not in the least. Either way, Miami licked its wounds and headed back to South Beach and rebounded against weak competition in Boston and the LA Lakers. Still, Miami allowed 86 points against Boston and over 100 against the Lakers. What’s causing this defensive lapse? The Heat are 8th in the NBA in points allowed, but are getting obliterated on the boards, the team ranks 30th in rebounding.
Much of the argument behind the Heat’s road to the NBA Finals revolves around “turning on the switch” on their road to the playoffs. The East is bad enough that Miami could play their absolute worst basketball possible and still make the playoffs comfortably, but I’m not so convinced at this point that they can just coast into the Finals and suddenly become the Heat that have won back-to-back champions. Make no mistake, all things equal, I think Miami still takes a best-of-seven against Indiana, but the teams are a tale of two cities right now. Indiana is playing inspired, fierce basketball, while Miami is just going through the motions. Still, last year it was around the beginning of February that the Heat began their dominant 27 game win streak, so all hope is not lost. When LeBron James is on your team, when is hope lost, no matter the circumstance?
KEVIN DURANT IS LIKE A WRECKING BALL
For many NBA fans, Oklahoma City shares some territory with the Heat, they’re at least tentatively penciled in to the Western Conference Finals against an opponent to be determined. The Thunder have played great basketball, despite gaining, losing, gaining and losing Russell Westbrook throughout the season. In fact, as of this writing, the Thunder are taking the court for the first time in franchise history without both Durant (shoulder) and Westbrook on the floor at the same time. Kevin Durant has implanted himself as the NBA’s second best player for quite some time now and right now, he’s likely the NBA MVP. Durant has scored over 30 points his last eight games, including a dominant 54 point performance against a quality Golden State team. Durant could enter some rather historic territory, if he can reach 9 straight 30 point games, he’ll eclipse Kobe Bryant’s 30 point streak in 2006…Kobe also holds the record at 16 games. Is that impossible for the Durantula? Hardly, KD is playing the best basketball of his career right now, without Westbrook, who was the catalyst for their playoff collapse last season. If the NBA season ended today, Durant would easily be the league’s MVP.
TORONTO AND CHICAGO’S SURPRISING SURGE
Since parting ways with Rudy Gay, the Raptors have made a surprising push in securing the East’s fourth seed. Toronto has been one of the more surprising stories in the NBA all season. It’s easy to forget about the Raptors, they live in isolation since the departure of Vancouver as the NBA’s sole Canadian franchise. Without a superstar since Chris Bosh parted for Miami, the franchise has struggled to find its identity and acquiring Rudy Gay was the sort of big move that should have told the team’s fans ownership was serious about winning contending for a conference title. Rudy Gay is still a tremendous player and was a great addition for Sacramento, a franchise looking to rebuild and reshape its identity much like the Raptors. Since losing gay, however, the Raptors have been playing great basketball. Toronto is an astonishing 16-6 since Gay left in early December with wins against teams like Indiana, Oklahoma City and the resurgent Nets. If the Raptors keep this pace, Dwane Casey will undoubtedly be a coach of the year finalist.
Chicago has played equally as well since parting ways with Luol Deng. Deng was a key contributor for the Bulls, a gritty player who earned his money as the glue guy not afraid to do the little things needed to win. More importantly Deng was an elite defender, a prime commodity in the NBA. Deng’s heart and toughness represented the sort of culture that didn’t allow the Bulls to completely tank after losing Derrick Rose last season and continue to play hard in his absence this year. Deng, Rose, Joakim Noah all play 2, a stretch that included injuries to key players like Carlos Boozer. The Bulls are still second in the NBA points against (92.5), but have actually been playing better offensively without Deng. This isn’t a knock against Deng, but rather a testament to how great of a coach Thibodeau is and how strongly he’s implanted his system into Bulls basketball. Losing Derrick Rose all but destroyed title hopes, but Thibodeau, much like last year, has the Bulls playing tremendous defense, passing well and fields a roster that spreads the offensive workload evenly despite losing one the NBA’s five best players. Also, fans should be thrilled at the progression of DJ Augustin at PG, he’s averaging 13 points and 6 assists this year, but since losing Deng, he’s hovering at around 16 PPG, pretty solid considering the massive void he’s filling.
ALL-STAR LINEUPS SET
There’s not a whole lot surprising about this year’s All-Star starting lineups:
• Carmelo Anthony, New York
• Paul George, Indiana
• Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
• LeBron James, Miami
• Dwyane Wade, Miami
• Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
• Stephen Curry, Golden State
• Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
• Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers
• Kevin Love, Minnesota
Not a whole lot to argue with here. It’s nice that voters recognized the superb season Kevin Love is having for the Timberwolves, he’s definitely earned his starting spot over some more flashy names available that will likely fill the West’s bench for the ASG. Stephen Curry gets his first shot at starting for the West and fans left Dwight Howard off the starting lineup, maybe not all surprising given his souring with many fans after last season. The absence of true centers is noticeable, but not surprising. Traditional centers play less and less a role in the NBA each year and most of the game’s best big men are actually some sort of fusion of forward and center. Still, both Howard and Indiana’s Roy Hibbert not making the starting rosters speaks on what fans what to see from their All-Star teams. Fan voting, or maybe fan trolling, in this case is also the biggest reason why Kobe Bryant took a starting spot in favor of someone actually playing basketball right now.
NOTABLE GAMES NEXT WEEK:
Tuesday, Jan 28: Spurs @ Rockets, Memphis @ Portland
Wednesday, Jan 29: OKC @ Miami, nationally on ESPN
Thursday, Jan 30: LA Clippers @ Golden State, nationally on TNT
Friday, Jan 31: OKC @ Brooklyn
A decent week, one that the Thunder will have a chance to make some statements against stellar competition on national TV.
That’s all for this week’s PTBN NBA weekly round-up. Check back next week for another recap of anything and everything taking place in NBA basketball as part of Place to Be Nation’s continuing coverage of the 2013-2014 NBA season!