NBA Weekly Recap
By: Alex Dittmar
With about a month remaining before the all-star break, the NBA season is in full swing. At this point the playoff contenders are beginning to separate themselves from the teams at the bottom, making the playoff picture a little clearer, yet surprises continue to arise. The biggest one at this point in the season is the emergence of the Detroit Pistons out of the East. Since waiving their “star” Josh Smith, they have gone on a 9-1 run, with their only loss coming to the East leading Atlanta Hawks (another team that dumped Josh Smith and came out a lot better). The past week saw road wins over the Mavericks and Spurs out East, two solid wins that prove that the Pistons are for real. They also sit just two games behind Brooklyn for the 8th seed in the East (at 14-24… Yeah, the East is that good).
Speaking of the Atlanta Hawks, they are on a roll. They have the best record in the East, riding an 8-game winning streak that includes three big wins this past week over playoff contenders, the Wizards, Pistons, and Grizzlies. They have gone 22-2 since a 7-6 start, mostly behind a strong defense that ranks 5th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. It has been a total team effort for the Hawks. Jeff Teague leads the team with just 17.4 points per game, but all five starters are averaging double-digit points per game, including Kyle Korver who is shooting 52% from beyond the arc. The Hawks have established themselves as a force in the Eastern Conference.
The Chicago Bulls have been following an opposite path. After winning 10 of 11 games from late December into early January, the last week has been tough on the Bulls, losing 3 of 4, including losses over bottom dwellers in the Utah Jazz and Orlando Magic. The lone bright spot came in their win on Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks, when PF Pau Gasol registered a career high 46 points and 18 rebounds in what was the best game of his career. His strong performances have masked the struggles of Derrick Rose, whose player efficiency rating (PER) has fallen below 15, which is always considered average. For comparison, Rose is tied with Robert Covington of the 76ers and just behind J.J. Redick in that stat, which is not where he wants to be. Coach Tom Thibodeau ripped into the team for a lack of effort against the Magic on Monday, just another sign that the team is in a rough funk. Regardless, they have a 6 game lead in the Central division and hold the #4 seed in the East.
One of the teams behind the Bulls in the Central is the Cavs. They are falling apart, losing 5 straight games, including a loss to the lowly 76ers. Granted, LeBron has been out due to back and knee injuries. Regardless, this team brought in Kevin Love so that they were talented enough to win an NBA title, now they seem to be struggling to win a game. They sit at exactly .500, 19-19, and if they were in the West they would be nowhere near a playoff spot. Luckily for them, they are in the East ad hold the 6 seed, but they are certainly falling fast.
Before moving to the West, a shout out to Kemba Walker, who was named Eastern Conference player of the week last week. He put up stellar stats, leading the league by averaging 30+ points per game as well as 5.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.3 steals over four victories for the Hornets which positions them just 1.5 games out of playoff position.
In the stacked West, there are two very talented teams trying to find their way into the playoff field. The New Orleans Pelicans sit at 18-18 but had a very tough week, losing to the lowly Boston Celtics and the Charlotte Hornets. In between those two losses, however, was a huge win over a big time West contender the Memphis Grizzlies. Anthony Davis continues to impress, still averaging a double-double on the season and posting a PER of 31.12. Only seven players have ever finished a season with a PER over 30, making his performance all the more impressive. The Oklahoma City Thunder sit in a similar position at 18-19. They have been paced by the outstanding play of Russell Westbrook, who averages 26.2 points per game and 7.1 assists and is second in the NBA with a 29.56 PER. Both teams have legitimate MVP candidates but are on the outside looking into the West playoff picture.
Transitioning towards the top of the West, Houston went on a tear over the last week, winning all four of their games. Sure, they were against almost entirely non-playoff teams and the LeBron-less Cavs, but it was still an impressive week. James Harden went over 20 points in each of the four games and has proved himself to be a true star for the team. He is a 27-6-6 guy, something only four other players have ever done. That plus the solid play of Donatas Motiejunas and the always dangerous Dwight Howard has catapulted Houston above their rival Memphis Grizzlies in the Southwest division.
Another team on the rise is the Portland Trail Blazers. The knock on Portland is their “weak” schedule with 21 of their 30 wins coming against sub-.500 teams, but they have still been a strong, dominant team. They got a good win over a solid Miami Heat team this week as Lamarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard continue to play very good basketball. Both are averaging around 22 points per game, while Aldridge is also pulling in over 10 boards a game, a big contribution to the team’s standing as the top rebounding team in the NBA. This next week will really reveal how good this Blazers team is, with big games against the Clippers at home and the Spurs and Grizzlies on the road.
Finally the team atop the mountain, The Golden State Warriors, continue to take the league by storm at 29-5. They are on a 6-game win streak including victories over the Raptors, Thunder, and Cavs. Stephen Curry has been the talk of this team, averaging 23 points and 8 assists per game. Klay Thompson was the one who carried the team over the last week, winning Western Conference player of the week, scoring 28 points per game while shooting 50% from 3 on the week. This included a 40-point blow up over the Pacers on January 7th that carried the Warriors to a victory. That back court duo, in combination with the return of center Andrew Bogut puts this team in a great position to keep the top spot in the West and make a run at the NBA title.