Full-Court Press: Young teams on spoiler alert
JAN 28, 2013 4:00a ET
Some holes are just too gaping to climb out of. Twenty games under .500 for the Wizards and 16 for the Hornets on New Year's Day likely qualify as two such holes, two paths to two lost seasons. There were other teams, at the time, that looked to be in similar situations – take Cleveland, Charlotte, Detroit, Phoenix, Sacramento – but what marks the Wizards and Hornets as different is what they've managed to do since.
Since Jan. 1, the Hornets have gone out to an 8-6 record, the Wizards 7-7. They've beaten good teams, too, everyone from Oklahoma City and Denver ( Washington got those Ws) to San Antonio and Memphis (those belong to New Orleans). And it's hardly a fluke, what these two bottom-dwellers are doing; it's built on the returns of Eric Gordon in New Orleans and John Wall in Washington, two guards with the potential to have transformative effects on their teams.
"I remember in the beginning, everybody say we stink," Wizards center Nene said to the Washington Post after Saturday's win over the Bulls. "Now we start to prove a point. Now we start playing our game, have back all of our players. Now it's our team. Now we're going to shut up people's mouth."
But really, the Wizards – and the Hornets, too – have a chance to do more than that. Both are young teams, building for the future, and both would be wise to view themselves as spoilers for the rest of the year. Realistically, there aren't postseason dreams at stake here, and each team has a chance to play the spoiler for teams on the playoff bubble. Steal a win here and there from a Thunder or a Heat, and that's great, but to build up consistent wins over bubble teams like Houston, Utah, Boston and Milwaukee – that's where these teams are going to gain the most.
Players like Wall and Bradley Beal, like Austin Rivers and Anthony Davis, have a chance to learn what winning on at least a somewhat regular basis is like at this level. They can find out what it is to expect victories, not to scrounge and scrape and pray for two or three a month.
Upsets are fun. But for these young teams, looking to stockpile the wins, to steal them, even when they don't matter – that's what's going to carry over and matter come next season and the one after, and it'll make the playoff race all the more interesting for those teams fighting to make the final cut.
The Kobe quandary
Kobe Bryant finished the Lakers' Friday win over the Jazz with just 14 points, far off his 28.7-point average this season. More interesting is the fact that he attempted just 10 field goals (making seven) and logged 14 assists that night. The next game, a 105-96 win over the Thunder Sunday, saw Bryant do it again: 14 assists, 12 field goal attempts and 21 points. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Bryant has logged just five career games (two this week) in which he's played 30+ minutes and had more assists than field goal attempts; in such games, his team is 4-1.
At Lakers practice Saturday, coach Mike D'Antoni discussed Bryant's performance in what was arguably the team's best win, at the time, since the new year. (Sunday's topped that one, of course.) The team's success when Bryant switches his approach is the perfect example of why the guard should adapt, why he should facilitate, maybe not rather than scoring, but at least in addition to it, and maybe a bit at its expense. That approach marks a change, and when you're the Lakers right now, any change that works, no matter the small sample size, is seized upon.
So what do we take from these games? That Bryant should model his play after Ricky Rubio's? Hardly. But there is a good point buried in there, one about adapting and adjusting one's game to personnel and circumstances, and on that, it seems Bryant has picked up. (After Friday's game, in response to a tweet suggesting he pass more, Bryant tweeted: "In this situation, I think u r 100% right.") Still, though, this whole "Kobe should facilitate" thing is hardly a revelation, and it's not going to solve the Lakers' problems. After all, he's been the most consistent player on the team all year, and it's frightening to think where it would be without him.
The Wizards, who have won seven of their last 10 games after winning just four of their first 22. Over this recent 10-game span, their point differential has been a whopping +6.2, which is better than that of many likely playoff-bound teams, including the Nets, Warriors and Bulls, over that period.
The Nets, who have lost two straight, both by double figures. Sure, it was a back-to-back, but after a 101-77 throttling at the hands of Memphis, they had to respond better than a 119-106 loss in Houston. This is hardly a death knell for Brooklyn – it's two games, after all – but perhaps the P.J. Carlesimo afterglow is wearing off.
Best of the week
Team: The Spurs, who have won eight straight, their longest winning streak of the season. The stretch has included wins over Memphis, Golden State, Atlanta and a much-improved New Orleans team, and over the eight games, San Antonio is shooting 49.9 percent while holding opponents to an average of just 93.0 points.
Terrible possession: The best terrible possession of the week goes to Charlotte's Gerald Henderson, who in the final seconds of the Bobcats' 102-101 comeback win over the Timberwolves Saturday made a game-winning shot as the shot clock expired; all that after Charlotte lost control of the ball three separate times during the possession.
Worst of the week
Team: The Celtics, who lost six straight before defeating Miami, 100-98, in double overtime on Sunday. It was the longest losing streak in Boston since Kevin Garnett joined the team in 2007, and even the team's improbable win over the Heat didn't fully redeem it. In fact, in the bigger picture it further solidified the downward trend; during the game, the team announced that Rajon Rondo had torn his ACL on Friday and that he will miss the rest of the season. It was a big win and a sign of the team's resilience, but I can't think the Celtics can do much in the shape they're currently in.
Injury: Chris Paul's bruised knee, which has caused him to miss seven of the Clippers' past nine games, sitting for three, returning for two and then missing another four since. The Clippers saw a four-game slide without him, which they ended Sunday, but the losses to Golden State and Oklahoma City (hardly surprises) and then to Phoenix and Portland tied the team's longest streak of consecutive losses this season.
Telling stats of the week
40 points: On Tuesday, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving became the first player to score 40 points in a regular-season win over the Celtics since Kobe Bryant scored 43 against them on Jan. 31, 2007.
1,059 points in 41 games: Houston's James Harden scored point no. 1044 of his 2012-13 season in the first quarter of the Rockets' Jan. 19 loss in Minneapolis, thereby tying the number of points he scored in all of last season. It took him fewer than 41 games to do what he did in 62 last season, and if he keeps up his current scoring pace, he'll have surpassed his total scoring, regular season and playoff, from last season by Feb. 12.
$15.7 million: The amount of money the Clippers' Blake Griffin earned through being voted to an All-Star starter, per the "5th Year 30% Max Criteria" that's included in contracts when players are given the five-year rookie max extension.
What we heard
"We have an All-Star team out there. Have you ever watched an All-Star game? It's God awful."
– Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni Wednesday to ESPNLA.com, describing his team, which, by the end of the night, had fallen to a 17-25 record.
"Yes, we're struggling. Yes, it's not the best time to be a Laker fan or a Laker player, but we will get out of it. There's a rainbow on the other end. We just got to make sure we get to it. I don't know if we got to eat some more Skittles or whatever it may be, but we got to find a way."
– Another Lakers quote, this one from their center, Dwight Howard, again to ESPNLA.com. Because you can't have a guy talk seriously about Skittles and then not include his quote in here.
"He's showing a lot of leadership. A lot of things people don't see; he's grown up a lot. The way he's grown, the way Kevin's grown, it's helped us adjust from the trade and be able to kind of keep going. They deserve a lot of credit for the way they've stepped up as leaders."
– Oklahoma City's Nick Collison on teammate Russell Westbrook to ESPN.com.
"We'll find someone that's already in our locker room who will step up. You can write the obituary but I'm not. We're going nowhere."
– Celtics coach Doc Rivers after his team defeated Miami on Sunday, a win that was overshadowed by the announcement of Rajon Rondo's ACL tear.
Hornets at Lakers, 10:30 p.m. ET Tuesday: This is something of an unconventional choice for this section, but I'm intrigued to see what comes of this game, which rehashes a 2011 playoffs matchup between two teams that have fallen quite a bit from where they stood then. At this point, though, the Hornets are on the uptick and the Lakers are the NBA's highest-profile implosion, and it'll be interesting to see if New Orleans has improved enough to win at Staples.
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