We now close the book on the month of January and step into February, which serves as a highly significant month in the NBA for many reasons. The major happenings in February for NBA fans include the All-Star break, after which most teams start to either sink or swim to the playoffs in April, and the trade deadline, where even the smallest of moves may be the ones that get teams over the hump. As we prepare for the All-Star Game in New Orleans in two weeks, let’s take a quick glance at some noteworthy stories.
THERE IS A NEW FLIGHT CREW IN TORONTO
Okay, so the Toronto Raptors this season are not exactly the Indiana Pacers, but you have to like what you’re seeing. They are barely over .500 at 26-22, but like the Pacers in the Central Division, the Raptors stand alone at first place in the Atlantic. It seems very similar to the 2006-07 season when the Raptors (led then by Chris Bosh and head coach Sam Mitchell) won the division and home court in the playoffs after all the other teams in their group either tanked, traded away their stars, or simply weren’t that good. Toronto lost to the Nets in the first round that year.
We are likely to see the a similar result for Toronto in this postseason, being ousted in either the first round or the second round. But if they win a playoff series in the first round, that will be the first time since Vinsanity temporarily took over the NBA in the second round as Carter dueled with Allen Iverson in 2001. There is no surefire All-Star like Carter back then for the Raptors this year, but they have some high flyers of their own. DeMar DeRozan, a fifth-year player out of USC, has steadily improved on his jump shot as the team’s leading scorer and was selected as an All-Star reserve by the coaches. Terrence Ross was best known last year for winning the Slam Dunk Contest, but he has opened eyes in the replacing Rudy Gay’s spot. He is averaging double-digit scoring now and is a spark plug off the bench many times. He stunned everyone on 1/25 when he went for 51 points and made 10 three-pointers in a home loss to the Clippers.
The Raptors looked crazy in 2011 for waiting a year on Jonas Valanciunas, but after a solid rookie year and killing the summer league this past offseason, the Lithuanian forward is really starting to shine. He is shockingly explosive for a de facto center and leads his team in rebounding. The Raptors have also benefited from having Kyle Lowry, a small but dynamic scoring point guard, leading the break for them. In his second year with Toronto, Lowry is averaging a career high in minutes, points, and assists. Many insiders felt like he got snubbed from the East All-Star team, and the numbers may support that theory. With Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Valanciunas, and Amir Johnson on the block, the Raptors starters have playing every game so far and had their best month in franchise history this past January, winning 11 games, including 6 of their last 8.
Even the Rudy Gay trade that looked on paper like a salary dump (Okay, it kinda was) has been a blessing in disguise for Toronto. Gay’s shot-hogging being sent away has brought more balance to the Raptors scoring attack, and the pieces that looked like throwaways in the trade have been quite serviceable for the team, especially the multi-skilled forward Patrick Patterson. Head coach Dwayne Casey has been just as instrumental in potentially the Raptor’s first winning season in seven years. He was a defensive coordinator of sorts when he coached with the Dallas Mavericks as they won an NBA title, famously throwing a complex zone defense at the befuddled Miami Heat in the 2011 Finals. The Raptors’ defense had improved vastly this season, going from 17th in the league last year to 4th this year.
It is tough to beat a young, hungry team when they are doing an excellent job of preventing easy baskets, and that is what the Raptors are doing right now. The Knicks and Nets are slowly making their climbs back into relevancy, but if the Raptors have another month or so like they did in January, the Air Canada Centre will have a lot to cheer about come playoff time.
JANUARY WAS BEAST MODE MONTH
I title this segment in honor of “Beast Mode” himself Marshawn Lynch, the Skittles-eating, defender-beating running back for the dominant Super Bowl XLVIII Champion Seattle Seahawks, who won the city its first world championship since the SuperSonics did it in 1979. We all know sadly what happened to that team and city in the end, but it is at the city where the relocation landed where we have seen the red-letter definition of “beast mode” in the NBA. Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder was already scorching when I wrote about it in the recap a couple weeks ago, and he capped it off this month with some more monstrous performances. His 30-point game streak ended in Brooklyn at 11 games, but not before outdueling LeBron James in a much-hyped 112-95 win at Miami.
Maybe they were inspired by Durant’s nightly greatness or it was just dumb luck, but K.D. was definitely not the only one to fill up the stat sheets in January. But as consistently great as Durant has been this season, the best single game performance has to go to Carmelo Anthony. Melo scorched the Charlotte Bobcats at home on 1/24 with 62 points and 13 rebounds. After a buzzer-beating half-court shot and nearly 40 at the half, you knew it was Anthony’s night as he went on to set not only the Knicks team record but also the record for most points by any player in Madison Square Garden. I already mentioned Terrence Ross’ 51-point game, which might rank with Tony Delk’s back in 2001 as one of the most random fifty-burgers in NBA history, and his All-Star teammate DeMar DeRozan scored his career-high this month with 40 points against the Mavericks. There was Gordon Hayward’s 37 and 11 while Durant scored 48 in Utah. Dirk Nowitzki showed he’s still got it against the Pelicans with 40, then got 38 points and 17 boards against the Rockets a week ago. Magic rookie Victor Oladipo was awesome in a three-OT game against the Bulls with 35 points, 4 rebounds, and 8 assists.
The Blazers All-Stars are still a-blazin’ after Damian Lillard notched a career-high 41 in Sacramento and LaMarcus Aldridge’s 44 and 13 against Denver. Hell, even The Kings have had some forgotten but outstanding individual play as Isaiah Thomas got 38 in a loss to the Thunder, Rudy Gay put up 41 on the Pelicans, and Marcus Thornton got 42 in a loss to the Pacers. Terrence Jones of the Rockets got 36 and 11 a couple weeks ago! The month finished out strong as Al Jefferson put up 40 points and 18 rebounds in L.A., followed that night in Utah where Stephen Cury shot his way to 44 points off of 8 made three-pointers. That goes without mentioning the stat-stuffing ways of LeBron, Blake Griffin, Paul George, and even Joe Johnson, who played so well this month that he earned an All-Star Game spot when that seemed impossible come Christmas time.
Maybe it is the urgency for a lot of these teams to make headway in the divisional standings, players irked by All-Star snubs, or superstar players motivated to remind fans of their greatness after vaunted criticisms, but it all came together to give NBA fans a month full of gaudy performances that will fill up YouTube playlists for months to come.
THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS ARE LICKING THEIR WOUNDS
The Spurs have been holding the fort on the surface with a 35-13 record, good for second in the Western Conference right now, but the situation that they have fallen into is certainly not ideal. I have never seen a Spurs team in which Gregg Popovich has had to coordinate so many different lineup changes due to injury or rest for his veterans in quite a long time. They were already desperately trying to keep up with the red-hot Thunder in the West when the Spurs were bit by what can be accurately described as not an injury bug as much as an injury boogeyman. Although he has recently come back, center Thiago Splitter suffered a shoulder sprain and was out for nearly a month. Then came sharpshooter Danny Green and small forward Kawhi Leonard, who both suffered fractures in their finger and hand, respectively, forcing them to also miss a month.
By the time they had their much-hyped return to Miami to play the Heat in an NBA Finals rematch, three of the team’s five starters on that team that barely lost the title were wearing suits on the bench as the Heat breezed by the depleted Spurs. It was almost depressing when word came down last week that Manu Ginobili, with time not being on his side in the first place, also may miss a month of action due to a hamstring injury. As you see faces like Marco Belinelli, Jeff Ayres, Nando De Colo, and Patty Mills try to fill in the holes temporarily for Popovich, the results have been unsatisfactory. The team lost five out of seven games as they lost badly to the two other teams at the top of the West standings, the Thunder and the Blazers. They lost three in a row for the first time all season and needed late rallies to win against two mediocre teams, one at Sacramento on Saturday and at New Orleans last night.
There is a glimmer of hope yet for the Spurs as they tipped off February. Splitter returned at Sacramento and Green returned at New Orleans to stop the losing skid and Tony Parker, who was selected as an All-Star last week, is still playing at an elite level and carrying his team late in games. All is not lost for the Spurs merely because of a bad break or two in the past few weeks, but the fact that the string of losses has clearly put them behind the Thunder for the top seed in the West has to be a tad concerning. And don’t forget the fact that the Clippers and division rival Rockets are within striking distance of San Antonio going into the break. It will be pivotal for the Spurs to overcome injuries to their young guns and rest for their elders while continuing to stay ahead in the standings, but unlike the past three years, it might prove too much this season. Because of that, they may wind up on the road to start a Western Conference playoff series for the first time in 4 years.
GAMES TO WATCH
Tuesday- Bulls at Suns– Through the Derrick Rose injury that deflated expectations, Tom Thibideau’s team has played like hell to stay in the hunt, and they have so far with the 6 seed in the East. They go to Phoenix where Eric Bledsoe is out indefinitely but Goran Dragic has played at nearly an All-Star level in Bledsoe’s place as the team’s star guard. Believe it or not, the Suns currently have a better record than the Mavericks and Warriors, and barring a late collapse, they are sure to make the playoffs in a very competitive conference, by far the biggest surprise in the NBA this year. Can the sudden resurgence of D.J. Augustin for the Bulls slow down the red-hot Dragic?
Wednesday- Heat at Clippers– This is an ESPN night game, and it’s a good one. Chris Paul will not be ready to play yet for this game, as far as most know, but Darren Collison has played admirably to give the Clippers a runaway lead in the Pacific Division. The Heat have gotten back in their groove the past few games, but they have really struggled on the road, and this is the beginning of a six-game stretch away from home for them. Can Spoelstra manage Dwyane Wade’s minutes if they continue to drop games? Doc Rivers has also been one of the best game planners in the league when it comes to facing LeBron in years past.
Wednesday- Spurs at Wizards– San Antonio has gotten out of their tail spin lately, but they play a Wizards team that might be playing their best basketball all season long. John Wall is a first-time All-Star, and he deserves it. He vs. Tony Parker will be one giant human blur. He led Washington to an easy home win over a Thunder team that had won 10 games in a row. And what can the Spurs do if De Colo and Belinelli start getting torched by Bradley Beal and the resurrected Trevor Ariza?
Friday- Blazers at Pacers– Portland is the best offense in the NBA and have one of the best records in the West. Indiana is the best defense in the NBA and have the best record in the East. Five All-Stars on the court starting, including a possible snub in the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson. This is going to be unstoppable force vs. immovable object type of basketball. But if we go by the Super Bowl’s offense vs. defense match up, Indiana is gonna win by 35, right? I hope not.
Friday- Raptors at Clippers– Their last meeting a couple weeks ago was afun 126-118 win for L.A. as Jamal Crawford and Terrence Ross both went off and did not stop until the final buzzer. Let’s see if the new Flight Crew can continue the Raptors’ winning ways at Staples right after the Clips are done with the champion Heat. It will be the battle of bouncy forwards as Valanciunas faces off with All-Star Blake Griffin. Rumors abound also that Chris Paul may return to play in this game, so we will be keeping a close eye on this one.
Saturday- Rockets at Bucks– Just kidding, no.
Sunday- Knicks at Thunder– Not the most scintillating weekend for NBA basketball on paper, but we will see what Carmelo can do on national television at OKC. The last time they was on Christmas Day at the Garden, and the Thunder embarrassed the Knicks 123-94. It also turned out to be Russell Westbrook’s last game before he went back on the shelf with another knee operation. Could Russell possibly be back for this home game before we hit the All-Star break? And who wins the epic one-on-one matchup between the league’s two hottest scorers?