Time for the annual get-away games this week where teams around the league take the floor one last time before embarking on NBA All- Star weekend -- this time in Orlando -- or to take advantage of some much needed time away from the game to rest up both physically and mentally. And in this condensed scheduled season with back-to-back games more common than a Jeremy Lin name pun, a number of teams couldn’t be more ready for a break.
Here’s a closer look at five teams anxious for their hoops hiatus to start:
Charlotte – You can’t start the season 4-27 with the worst record in the NBA and not be thankful for the chance to get away from the craziness for a little bit. Charlotte’s recent loss came Sunday against the Indiana Pacers, just days after they stopped a 16-game skid against Toronto, which was their first win since January 14 versus Golden State. The Bobcats are averaging a league-low 86.9 points per game, are 2-16 on the road this season, and rank 27th in the NBA in field-goal percentage. Painful. The bright spot…who are we kidding? The silver-lining is nowhere to be found unless you look toward the NBA Draft and rookie Bismack Biyombo, who went for 8 points, 13 rebounds and 7 blocks in the win over the Raptors last week.
The moment you have all been waiting for is here. Monday the NBA announced the competitors for the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. How many of you remember who won it last year? Give it a minute.
Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry is back to defend his title and he has got some the NBA's best point guards looking to unseat him. Here is the full list of competitors:
-Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
-Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
-Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
-John Wall, Washington Wizards
-Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
-Deron Williams, New Jersey Nets
I haven't seen Vegas' odds on this yet, but if I had to guess I would say Curry as the reigning champion is the favorite, along with Deron Williams who won in 2008.
Guys seem to always get tripped up making the chest pass through the ring. I could absolutely see John Wall and Russell Westbrook messing up on the passes by trying to rush through everything. That wouldd be so Russell Westbrook and John Wall. Kyrie Irving is the wild card.
I'm not sure how serious some of the veterans take this, so we could see the combination of Irving's skills and his giving a crap about the Skills Challenge giving him an edge.
Lastly, how in the world does the Skills Challenge get away with having more rounds and competitors than the Slam Dunk contest? Can we get two less point guards running around some cones and a couple more dunkers? Can we trade Russell Westbrook to the Slam Dunk Contest? Are any of these things possible.
The Skills Challenge is part of NBA All-Star Saturday Night, which kicks off from Orlando at 7 p.m. EST.
Our nightly look ahead to the schedule with a couple of notes and story lines so you can plan out your NBA viewing. All Times Eastern.
Fire up the League Pass
7:30 New Jersey Nets @ New York Knicks
Pardon me for getting caught up in the hype, but these Knicks games are just fun to watch. If any of you are Lin haters, then I can't help you. You're probably pissed at the hype machine surrounding it, which I can understand. But the fact is that Lin is producing, and tonight we will see if he can produce against Deron Williams. Lin's breakout game came against the Nets, but now D-Will is waiting. Now we will see a true test.
Couple of notes:
Only John Stockton (82) has had more assists than Jeremy Lin (76) through his first eight NBA starts
Deron Williams is the only player in the NBA averaging 20+ points and 8+ assists.
10:30 LA Clippers @ Golden State Warriors
The way these two teams play, I am just excited at the possibility of a high-scoring, dunk-filled, 3-point barrage of an offensive explosion. This game is like ice cream. Sometimes you just want something that tastes good and makes you happy. Sometimes you just want a basketball game that is an up-and-down cavalcade of offensive prowess.
That is not to say there is not defense being played in these games. But that defense leads to fast, explosive offense. I don't want to see an 89-85. I want a 109-105.
Couple of notes:
The Clippers (19-10) are off to their best start since moving to Los Angeles, and their best as a franchise since they were the Buffalo Braves in 1974-75
The Warriors are 5-2 this season when holding an opponent under 42.0 percen
Other story lines for tonight
4:00 Atlanta-Chicago (ESPN): The Bulls look to avoid consecutive losses for the first time this season. Derrick Rose (back) still a game-time decision.
8:00 Boston-Dallas (TNT): The Celtics, likely playing without Kevin Garnett (personal matter), try to avoid dropping below .500 again.
8:00 Memphis-Houston: The Grizzlies have lost 10 straight games in Houston, but have won four straight games overall. Which streak ends tonight?
8:00 Orlando-Milwaukee: Milwaukee tries to avoid its first six-game home losing streak in 12 years.
8:00 New Orleans-Oklahoma City: Will there be a let down from the Thunder after last night's historic performance and overtime win?
9:00 Minnesota-Denver: A T'Wolves win would give them a four-game winning streak, bring them back to .500 and bring them into a tie with Denver in the division.
9:00 Washington-Phoenix: It's Wall vs. Nash as the Wizards try to avoid their 10th straight loss to the Suns in Phoenix.
9:00 San Antonio-Utah: Manu Ginobili is hurt again. Can Tony Parker maintain his MVP pace to extend the Spurs' 10 game winning streak?
10:30 Portland-LA Lakers (TNT): Can Kobe Bryant rebound from playing 40 minutes in a loss last night, and lead the Lakers to a win over the under-manned Blazers?
New Jersey Nets center Brook Lopez returned to the court last night after missing nearly two months with a broken foot. Lopez played 22 minutes, scoring nine points and pulling down two boards.
Go ahead, make your Brook Lopez rebound jokes now. The Nets ended up losing the game 92-85, mostly because Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova had 29 points and an incredible 25 rebounds for Milwaukee.
After the game, Lopez told reporters he had a little bit of soreness in his foot, but wasn't overly concerned about it.
''It felt good,'' Lopez said. ''My arch was a little sore, but I think that was just the orthotic. It was just exciting to be out there playing with the guys.''
The result of this game is inconsequential. The Nets are terrible and the Bucks are a fringe playoff team in the East (though they would do well to get a top 10 pick in this year's draft).
What Lopez's return is really all about is Brooklyn and Dwight Howard.
It has long been assumed that Lopez would be the center piece going to Orlando in any Dwight Howard trade. Nine points, two rebounds and two assists won't blow anyone away, but the fact that Lopez is able to come back so quickly after breaking a foot is encouraging. Also encouraging is the fact that he shot eleven free throws in his first game back.
Lopez does have some time to get his legs back under him before any trade might take place. It has been widely reported that Magic GM Otis Smith has little interest in trading Howard before the All-Star game in Orlando this weekend and we still have just under a month to go before the trade deadline.
While there have also been several reports that the Nets are Howard's first choice, Orlando Magic owner Richard DeVos said he would rather not trade Dwight Howard.
Is Lopez, maybe MarShon Brooks and a couple of draft picks enough to pry Howard away from Orlando? We will find out soon enough.
Coming back and playing well is also important for Lopez because he is a restricted free agent this summer. How he plays the rest of the season will surely dictate if he receives $10 million a year or something like $13 million a year in the market. He is still young, he is still seven-feet tall and can still score 20 points a game pretty easily. Don't sleep on Brook Lopez.
It is starting to look like the wheels may be coming off in Boston.
The Celtics got blown out by the lowly Detroit Pistons yesterday, their second loss to the 11-22 team in less than a week. The Celtics are sitting at 15-15 right now, and with two tough games coming up against the Dallas Mavericks and the Oklahoma City Thunder, they could be falling even further down the standings if they do not get things together soon.
Not only are they losing, but the frustrations seem to be boiling over as well. During yesterday's game, point guard Rajon Rondo did not agree with the referees not calling a foul on one of his drives to the basket. He has a legitimate case, but his reaction is definitely uncalled for. UPDATE: The league has suspended Rondo for two games because of the incident leading to his ejection Sunday.
Rondo gets up and clearly complains to the ref that it should have been a foul, and then flips the ball in the ref's direction. Since we don't know what his intention was, we cannot say he threw the ball AT the ref, but to me it looked like that is what he was trying to do.
Plus, we know how good and accurate of a passer Rondo is. I mean, look at how much velocity he gets on the ball with a little flick of the wrist.
So Rondo got a double technical which means an ejection from the game. He will most likely be facing a fine and possibly a suspension as well. The Celtics cannot afford to lose Rondo right now.
"Nobody likes to lose, but at the same time nobody likes to lose when you don't feel like you're competing," said Pierce. "I mean, if you can go out there and say you gave your best effort and we lose to a better team, then hats off to them. But I think we're a better team than Detroit. They just played harder than us tonight. And we should never come into the locker room being able to say that."
Can the Celtics right the ship and get back on course? That remains to be seen but they clearly have an attitude problem that needs fixing. Their schedule over the next month is far from a cake walk, if they do not get it together soon, they may be missing the postseason.
I guess maybe lumping Tracy McGrady into the same disgruntled headline with Stephen Jackson isn't totally fair. At the same time however, the guy did get paid about $50 million in recent years to be injured, and the least he could do is appear grateful about all that now that he is relatively healthy. He is on another team these days though, and maybe he doesn't feel the Atlanta Hawks owe him anything. He's also mad at them too. Captain Jack, as he's often been throughout his NBA career, is mad as well. Or maybe he just likes Dwight Howard way more than he does Scott Skiles and his Milwaukee Bucks.
Hawks forward Tracy McGrady’s private frustrations over his playing time finally boiled over after he played just 4:39 during the 97-77 loss to the Blazers late Saturday.
"I'm tired of this [bleep]," McGrady said. "You can put that in the paper, I don't give a [bleep]."
McGrady didn't play after halftime against the Blazers. He didn't dress for Atlanta's 101-99 victory at Phoenix Wednesday but said it was his decision to rest for the second game of a back-to-back. Against the Blazers, McGrady never returned after Marvin Williams replaced him with 7:21 left in the first half.
McGrady has played in 26 of 32 games this season for an average of 18 minutes before Saturday’s game. Last season with Detroit McGrady averaged 23 minutes in 72 games.
McGrady said Hawks coach Larry Drew hasn't offered him an explanation when he doesn't play him many minutes.
"If you don't feel I can help, come tell me that," McGrady said. "He ain't told me nothing. I just want to help these guys win, man, which I know I can. But, damn, four minutes?"
I don't know, I'm not trying to stick up for Larry Drew or anything, but didn't he already tell you that by not playing you, Tracy? I mean, if he agreed with you, and did think you could help these guys win, he probably would've given you more than four minutes. Or maybe he just doesn't like you personally, knows you would be really awesome if you played a lot, and is trying to sabotage your career even if it takes losing games on purpose to do so.
John Wall is not used to finishing in anything but first -- whether it be the NBA Draft, a footrace or any number of things. Wall has had a tough time adjusting to the constant losing with the young Wizards and his improvement has been stunted, frustrating many observers and Wall himself.
One more thing might be grating Wall: his apparent snub in the Rising Stars Game draft for All-Star Weekend.
No, Wall is very much in the game. He will be displaying all his passing and speed in this glorified pick-up game. Rather, Wall is more upset with where he was picked by team general managers Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal. This year's game added this potential wrinkle to the proceedings because it is no longer rookies versus sophomores.
Wall was selected 12th in the fantasy draft by Charles Barkley, going behind Minnesota's Derrick Williams, Detroit's Greg Monroe, New Jersey's MarShon Brooks. Wall is not having a great year, but he certainly is not that bad for an exhibition game. After all, Wall was the game's MVP last year in racking up 22 assists in playing with college teammate -- and now Team Chuck teammate -- DeMarcus Cousins (who scored 33 points in the game).
"It's a joke to me," Wall told Michael Lee of The Washington Post. "If they think there are 11 guys better than me, then that's their decision. But I know what I think in my mind and all I can do is go out there and play basketball the way I know how to play.
"I wanted to be an all-star this year, but I didn't play good in the beginning, then not having a winning record, that makes you not be an all-star. There's a lot more I can do. So yeah, that's motivation for that game. Picked 12th out of all those guys? If that's how they feel, that's how they feel. But I guess I still have to prove people wrong I see."
No one doubts Wall knows how to play. Wall is averaging 16.9 points per game and 7.5 assists per game. But his shooting is still an extremely low 42.5 percent and his turnovers are up to 4.1 per game. It has been a disastrous season for the Wizards and Wall, as the point guard, has taken a lot of the heat for the team's struggles. Not that the roster is anything to be excited about -- an over-the-hill Rashard Lewis and inconsistent and immature JaVale McGee running with him.
Really, Wall's ire comes from his disappointment at not playing at an All-Star level and achieving that goal. Everyone sees an All Star within Wall and is waiting for that All Star to come out.
Wall's struggles have been slowing that progress down. And it has been frustrating.
It seems getting picked in the sixth round and being termed a late-round "sleeper" in this fantasy draft really got to Wall.
Wall certainly should have been picked higher as O'Neal and Barkley had some strange drafting strategies. He has a right to be upset.
So what will he do about it? Friday is going to be a big lesson for Wall. We will see how he reacts to this perceived slight.
Every morning, we'll give you five things from the night before in the NBA to start your day.
1: Gods of Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder pulled one off for the ages last night. Their 124-118 overtime win was a pretty good hard-fought game. The Nuggets got to 118 by having seven players hit double figures. But the Thunder only needed four people in double digits to get to 124. Well, two in particular.
Kevin Durant hit the 50-point plateau for the first time ever, dropping 51 on the Nuggs. He was followed closely by Russell Westbrook, who hit for 40... making them the first teammates to go for 40+ since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1996, and the first teammates to go for 50 and 40 since 1983. Kiki Vandeweghe and Alex English pulled it off in a triple OT game.
But what made this the most epic of the epic wins was Serge Ibaka's 14 point, 15 rebound, 11 block triple-double, making this the only game in NBA history in which one player went for 50, a teammate went for 40, and another teammate dropped a triple double.
I'm a writer. I'm paid to come up with words to properly express things I've seen that you might not have. Or to enhance and add perspective to those things you have seen. But I've got nothing here. This is one of those situations where you sit back and marvel at the numbers. Oh, and marvel at these numbers too: Kevin Durant is 23 years-old. So is Russell Westbrook. And Ibaka is 22. These are a bunch of kids out there doing this. What happens when they hit their physical peaks in a few years?
2: Lin-[name pun deleted] is Linfectious!
Argh, we're still working on our Jeremy Lin name-pun censor here at CC. Some of theme still make their way through.
Strip away the puns and the hype and the media madness (Lin has had to publicly ask the Taiwanese media to back off from following his family around) and you have a very special story that somehow continues to build momentum. Lin is on a personal campaign to win over the doubters at every stop.
"I think it's a lot of hype right now," said Terry, who joined the Mavs in New York on Saturday and will play today. "Is he going to be a good player in the future? If he continues to work he will, but again, given the opportunity he's taken advantage of it, but everybody's making a lot out of the seven games he's played. I've been in the league 13 years, so seven games doesn't necessarily make a career, but he does have great buzz. We'll see when he faces the champs tonight."
"I think they found something in Lin, and they're starting to piece together a team that can beat anyone."
Lin's not only converting doubters into believers, he's bringing his teammates up on the pedestal with him. New York rode Steve Novak... STEVE NOVAK!!!... in a huge second half comeback after it looked like the defending champs would start to impose their will. Novak hit 4 of 5 from three in the comeback and was so en fuego, he did this Aaron Rogers championship belt move.
Novak looks like the team accountant. When you can get him to be so unstoppable that that move actually means something... you're good.
Terry is right. If the Knicks can insert Carmelo Anthony and keep this kind of offensive flow, they'll be really scary. If Melo can keep the ball moving, and if he can be something better than a defensive liability, then the Knicks might have something special.
Kevin Durant with the slam to send the game into OT
Last year Blake Griffin brought some spice back in to the Slam Dunk contest by jumping over a car while catching a pass from Baron Davis, who tossed it up threw the sun roof. Pretty cool stuff.
Last year also gave us JaVale McGee dunking three balls on one rim and two balls on two different rims. My personal favorite was Serge Ibaka doing a windmill dunk while grabbing a teddy bear off the rim.
Last year seemed like a great dunk contest. This year is either going to be really awesome or it is going to be really bad, and it is not because of this year's contestants.
Indiana Pacers guard Paul George, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Derrick Williams, New York Knicks guard Iman Shumpert and Houston Rockets forward Chase Budinger will compete in this year's dunk contest. The NBA has a slight problem here in that there is a certain lack of star power in this year's contest. Only George is a regular starter, so to counteract that the league tore down the old format and came up with a new one.
Gone are the judges and in their place the interwebs will decide this year's winner. To quicken the pace, there will also only be one round, with each player getting three dunks in that round. Voting will open after George, Williams, Shumpert and Budinger all dunk once. That is when fans can vote on NBA.com, tweet in their vote or text in their vote. They can also vote as many times as they like.
I applaud the NBA for trying something new and involving social media but this is like a kid never drinking in high school and getting hammered his first weekend in college.
The Basketball Jones' Trey Kirby made a great point in this past Friday's Overdose podcast when he asked why their can't be four judges and let the fans be the fifth judge. I also thought having guys like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb be judges was a great way to keep some of the dunk contest legends involved in the contest without using them as props.
If the NBA had kept the judges, I would say Paul George or Derrick Williams would be the favorites. However, having a New York Knick in a contest where fans vote changes everything. And what happens now that Jeremy Lin is all but guranteed to throw alley-oops to Shump Shump? Paul George is trying to recruit Larry Bird to throw lobs to him, so that might help the vote in his favor. And Ricky Rubio throwing alley-oops to Derrick Williams helps too. Your move Chase Budinger.
Check out all four of Saturday's competitors in action:
Every Sunday, the CC staff will get together to present our plays and players of the week.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
4 Games (4-0)
27.3 ppg 8.8 rpg 5.2 apg 1.8 spg
Kyle Boenitz: We’ve been down this road before. It seems like LeBron is winning Player of the Week all the time, and it’s for good reason. The Heat are on a tear and LeBron is playing like a man possessed. LeBron led his team in scoring in all their wins last week, which is even more impressive when you consider the team he’s playing on. In the win against the Pacers on Tuesday, LeBron led the game in points, rebounds and assists. He’s the clear leader on the team with the best record in the NBA and deserves Player of the Week, even if it is getting a little redundant to keep giving it to him.
Also receiving votes:
Rajon Rondo: 3 games (1-2). 28.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 9.7 apg
Rondo misses out on POTW honors because his Celtics went 1-2. But Rondo set consecutive career highs with 32 and 35 points, the first of those games being part of a 15 assist, 10 rebound triple double. He flirted with a triple double in his last game with 17 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds. The Celtics may be struggling, but Rondo is starting to turn it up on the offensive end.
PLAY OF THE WEEK
Kyle: The Clippers were 9.5 seconds away from making a huge statement. All they needed to do was inbound the ball and sink a free throw and their game against the Spurs was over. They were about to show the league they aren’t just a circus show and they’re going to contend.
Then this happened. A botched inbounds play and Chris Paul tosses the ball right into the hands of Gary Neal. Neal squares up and nails it, sending the game into overtime, where the Spurs eventually took over and won.
It was a heartbreaking loss for the Clippers who battled back furiously to put themselves in a position to win. It was also a huge win for the Spurs who have now won 10 in a row and are showing everyone there’s plenty left in their tank.