Five burning questions as Christmas games draw near
The holidays are here, and we all know what that means: It's time to start paying attention to the NBA. Here are five questions to keep in mind if the TV happens to be on in your household for any of the five nationally televised games -- Celtics-Nets, Knicks-Lakers, Thunder-Heat, Rockets-Bulls and Nuggets-Clippers -- on Christmas Day:
Miami's first three wins in the NBA Finals were all by six points or fewer, and yet there was an overwhelming feeling that the Heat controlled the series physically. They imposed their pace of play while establishing LeBron James as the best player on the floor -- a title that is usually earned by Kevin Durant.
There are many more questions than answers at this time of the year, and this is a big one for the Thunder: Can they win even if LeBron is having a greater overall influence on the game than Durant? Or does Durant need to be the best player to give them a chance? When I raised this with an NBA advance scout, he responded with a question of his own. (You can see what I mean about the lack of answers.)
"Is Oklahoma City better this year than last year?'' the scout asked. "Their two guys [Durant and Russell Westbrook] are a little bit older. James Harden is an incredible scorer. He brought a punch off the bench, but he was a little more ball-in-hand, and when the ball is in his hands that means it's not in Kevin Durant's. Does Harden not being there help Durant be more involved, as opposed to him picking his spots when he had to share the ball with Harden?''
They may be better this time, despite the loss of Harden's talents. Serge Ibaka, at 24, is on the verge of stardom as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who has improved to average 14.2 points while shooting 57.1 percent (ranking him sixth in the NBA). The Thunder have been moving the ball from side to side and enabling Westbrook to play off the ball. Durant's assists are up to a career-best 4.2 per game (ranking him second to LeBron among NBA forwards), and as a team they're 10th in assists with 22.3 per game -- a huge improvement after finishing last in the NBA with 18.5 assists last season.
While OKC entered Thursday with a 12-game winning streak, the Heat had lost three of their last seven, including a dreadful 112-92 blowout to the visiting Knicks without Carmelo Anthony. But don't read too much into their early-season problems. While the Thunder have much yet to prove, the Heat are displaying a quiet confidence: They're working to peak for the playoffs four months from now with certainty that they'll be playing their best when necessary.
"It's a big game for Oklahoma City to prove they can win in Miami, and it's a big game for Miami to keep Oklahoma City down,'' said another NBA advance scout. "It should be good because both teams have something to play for in the backs of their minds if they were to meet again.''
The Lakers, Celtics and Nets have been playing so poorly and have so many issues to resolve that none of them can expect to reverse the trend with one game. It would help, however, if their players would put up a fight. The Lakers and Celtics, in particular, have been oddly blasé -- neither team has seen the need to get back on defense every possession.
"It's a big game for the Lakers because they just need to win a game,'' a rival scout said in anticipation of their Christmas meeting with the Knicks in Los Angeles. "It doesn't matter if they're playing the Cavaliers, the Kings or the Knicks -- they just need to win a game and feel good about themselves.''
The Lakers have had every excuse. The possible return of Steve Nash could make a difference, but he must be given time to work himself back into form. He and his teammates also are going to need time to learn to play together.
The absences of Nash and Pau Gasol have heaped more responsibility on Dwight Howard, who has been too out of sorts to take up the challenge. Part of the problem is that he's still regaining his form after undergoing back surgery last season, but another part of the problem may be revealed when the Knicks visit.
"I don't know if Dwight Howard can do it against Tyson Chandler,'' said another scout. "Tyson Chandler competes, he has a defensive presence and he has the length to match Howard's. I just don't know if Howard can dominate the game against a player like that. When he's playing against teams with smaller lineups up front, he puts up 20 [points] and 20 [rebounds] and pounds his chest. But when he's going against quality big men that compete, he doesn't lead his team at all.
"I can't say that he's a disappointment. That's what he is. That's what he's been.''
The Celtics-Nets meeting at noon on Christmas has the makings of an ugly game among two underachieving teams. Jason Terry, who scored 20 or more points every 3.4 games for Dallas over the last four years, has managed to score 20 one time in 25 games with Boston. The Celtics rank near the bottom of the league in rebounding and turnover differentials, and their defense (which has yielded 45 percent shooting) is the worst of the Kevin Garnett era. They're neither attacking the offensive glass nor getting back in transition. Playing short and slow isn't going to get them back to the NBA Finals.
Brooklyn has been worse than the Celtics defensively, and Nets team leader Deron Williams is shooting a horrid 39.6 percent from the floor while complaining about coach Avery Johnson's isolation schemes.
"Now he's saying that Jerry Sloan was the best thing for him,'' a scout said. "That's a couple of years late coming from him.''
It's difficult for fans to know when to pay attention to the NBA's regular season. In order to maximize the attention of fans on the holiday, the league has scheduled the five teams from the three largest markets (New York, Los Angeles and Chicago), as well as the two reigning NBA finalists (Miami and Oklahoma City) and two franchises from top-10 markets with large international followings (Boston and Houston, the latter thanks to Yao Ming).
But what will the games mean? They may be highly entertaining, but it will be hard to draw long-term conclusions from the outcomes.
"Being on the road for Christmas is different,'' a scout said. "It might work to your advantage because the home-team players are with their family on Christmas Day and they're saying, 'Oh, shoot, we've got to go into the gym.' Meanwhile, the team on the road has already said goodbye. They were gone the night before, they've already taken care of their Christmas and now they're focusing on the game. You can rationalize anything.''
"They are terrific,'' a scout said. "They're so deep, they're big, they've got shooters, they've got athletes. They've even got two guys [Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups] with valuable experience who aren't even playing yet.''
The four best teams in the West are reflected by the current standings -- the Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies and Spurs, 1-4 respectively. The most dangerous outsider remains the Lakers, though they're already 6½ games behind No. 4 San Antonio.
"The Clippers need Chauncey because they need one more consistent outside shooter,'' said another scout. "Blake Griffin has improved his jump shot and he's shooting comfortably. Each of their young players has gotten better, and they have a pretty good feel for one another right now. Last year they won games when they were feeling good and getting out and dunking; this year they've shown they're able to win ugly games too.''
By all accounts Rose will be back this season and in better shape than ever, thanks to the success of his ongoing rehab. Apart from No. 1 New York and No. 2 Miami, the East has been bereft of impressive teams with the Pacers, Nets and Celtics foundering.
The Bulls have gone 14-10 without their best player, and Rose's playmaking and scoring can only strengthen them when he comes back. The visiting Rockets and a national audience will see first hand that -- despite the weakening of their bench -- the Bulls remain superior defensively with a strong front line that complements the scoring from Luol Deng and Marco Belinelli.
Get To Know: DeMar DeRozan
The explosive 6-foot-7 small forward, who signed a four-year, $38 million extension with Toronto in October, is leading the Raptors with 18.1 points in his fourth NBA season. DeRozan, 23, grew up in Compton, southeast of Los Angeles.
? He was raised in a dangerous environment dominated by gangs. "I grew up in a tough part of the community from elementary school to middle school to high school -- that's all I knew while I was growing up and playing basketball," he said. "It was tough, and I think it gave me the mental toughness that I'm able to apply to everyday life. It helped me to grow up fast.''
By the time DeRozan was 4, two of his uncles had been killed by gunfire. His father, Frank, was a videographer who played football and basketball in Louisiana. His mother, Diane, used to watch over DeMar from the car while he shot hoops on the playground.
"With me being the only child on my mother's side and not having siblings in the house, and my dad was always at work, I had to be the man of the house," DeRozan said. "I had to think about protecting my mom and even my dad at the same time. I also had a lot of cousins who were older than me, and I looked up to them.''
As DeRozan matured, his talent for basketball made him famous. Gang members would avoid drawing him into their world in order to protect his talent.
"I would say that I had a lot of respect from a lot of people," he said. "I had a big family from all over Compton. A lot of people to come out and watch me play, and it used to bring the city together. When I was in high school people all over would come to watch me play, and it was always a cool thing that I had mutual respect. They knew what I was about and they let me do what I could do.''
? He was naturally aggressive on the court. "It was always my style of play, it was my whole mindset," he said. "I think growing up in a tough environment made me aggressive.
"I think it was in middle school that I got my first dunk, and I started realizing what I could do. You just try to do crazy stuff from dunking to seeing what you can do [in] streetball. You try to copy everything; you see NBA plays and you try to do it.''
DeRozan is one of the most athletic youngsters in a league of explosive athletes. An excellent 80.2 percent career free-throw shooter, he has been working to extend his range out to the three-point line.
"My two favorite players were [Michael] Jordan and Kobe," DeRozan said. "Being in L.A., I was always a Lakers fan and I watched Kobe since I was 7 years old. When I first met him, I was a sophomore in high school.''
By then, Bryant had heard of DeRozan. "He definitely knew the top guys coming up," DeRozan said, "and every summer that came after that I would play against him in games he had in his camp at Loyola Marymount.''
? He related to underdogs. DeRozan was recruited by the national-championship program at Dominguez High School in Compton, where Tayshaun Prince and Brandon Jennings had played. Instead, he chose to enroll at less-regarded Compton High School.
"I wanted to go to a school where I could leave my mark and be able to be known," he said. "I wanted to help put the school on the map. Anybody can go to the school that's already established. I wanted to help the school in my city, a city were people were always fighting to get ahead. I wanted to change the way people looked at the school and I did that in my four years at Compton High.''
The same approach led him to go to USC. "That's one reason I went there," DeRozan said. "Everybody was going to UCLA, all of the great players were going there. I was happy that we won the Pac-10 title when I was with them.''
He was 19 when the Raptors chose him with the No. 9 pick in 2009, and since then he has been applying the same ambition in Toronto. The Raptors have won a single playoff series in 17 seasons and their three biggest stars -- Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh -- were traded or left as free agents in their peak years.
"On other teams, everybody has their part of a state or a city that they represent," DeRozan said. "For us to have all of Canada behind us is a different thing, because we're definitely Canada's team. I'm focused on doing as much as I can for this team and this organization. This is definitely where I wanted to be and I'm happy to be here for the long run.''
Quote Of The Week
"It was a funny, comical thing, but we're in a situation right now where it's not funny. You can't joke around with things like that. Too many people are dying because of guns.''
The Bulls' 27-year-old center used to celebrate successful jump shots by pretending to shoot guns out of holsters while running back upcourt.
"It's not a joking matter,'' he said in explaining his decision to cease. "I mean, this summer, the movie theater, it's happening all the time. This is unheard of. Every story is horrific. The gun thing in this country is no joke.''
(Pre-Christmas) Game Of The Week
"The Cavaliers have Tristan Thompson, who is OK and getting better. But if they're thinking of getting rid of Anderson Varejao, they'd better get some value. Because after Varejao and Kyrie Irving, I don't think they have a bunch of NBA starters on their team. Dion Waiters will always be a good sixth man because he wants to score so much and that's what his game is predicated on right now -- he's a driver and slasher and you'll live with him shooting threes even though he's streaky.
"With Kyrie, it's a pretty short sample. In college he was hurt and then last year he was hurt again. He doesn't get hurt the way Dwyane Wade used to get hurt -- D-Wade was always attacking and exploding at full speed to the rim like Gerald Wallace. Kyrie gets in the middle of stuff and gets hurt.
"If he were to stay healthy, then you could put him in the top-10 mix of point guards. I like him, but I don't think about him a whole lot yet because the sample size is so small. He still hasn't played 82 games [over his two NBA seasons]. He does everything -- he passes, drives, shoots, he can defend, he gets in the pick-and-roll, he can get by his man. He has all the tools, no question.
"The Pacers had a rough start, but they definitely are coming out of it. The biggest thing has been the absence of Danny Granger and what that's done to Paul George. Last year teams focused on Granger first, David West second and then they had to stop Roy Hibbert, which meant that George was able to just play. Now they've had Granger out and Hibbert has had a bad year, and so teams are focusing on George. He played the 2 a lot last year, and now he's playing the 3, so he's had to make a lot of adjustments. Early this season he wasn't shooting it great, because it's a whole different deal to go from being the fourth guy on the scouting report to being the first or second guy they worry about stopping.
"But he's been shooting it better recently. So now you've got George and West both starting to get on a roll. Next they need more production out of Hibbert. Last year Hibbert was a problem [for defenses], and so in the scouting report you had to think about double-teaming him on the catch because he's bigger than most guys, and he was aggressive in finishing plays. But this year he hasn't done anything to make you say that you can't play him straight up. And because Hibbert isn't drawing the double teams, that makes it harder on everyone else.
"George Hill is a good point guard for them. But what they really need is Granger because of the way they're built: They need Lance Stephenson coming off the bench rather than starting at the 2 alongside Hill. When they have Granger and George and West and Hibbert, that's a pretty good group with length and athleticism on the wings. When Granger isn't there, they aren't stretching the floor as much and their bench is weaker. A guy like Gerald Green is a streaky player. He's such a bottle rocket -- he burns bright and he burns quick too. He's not the one you want to count on to bring your team around; you want to bring him off the bench and see if he's got it going, and you go with him when he's hot, and you take him out when he's not.
"D.J. Augustin has been a disappointment, no doubt. Last year they had four point guards with a change of pace between Hill and Darren Collison and A.J. Price and Stephenson -- a variety of guys they could put out there and they never had to worry about any issues. This year they've got two and a half point guards, maybe. That dynamic has changed.
"It all depends on Granger and when he comes back and how he comes back. Will it all fit back together and will their roles readjust?
"This is the kind of game the Pacers need to win. If you're with Indiana, based on where you were last year in the playoffs, you'd better not have any problems with Cleveland. But here's the thing about the Cavs: They had the Heat beat in Miami [before losing 110-108] and the Grizzlies beat at Memphis [before losing 84-78] without Irving, and then they won at Atlanta without him. Byron Scott gets his guys to play hard and they stay in striking distance, Varejao gets every rebound and his guards -- Waiters and Jeremy Pargo and Irving -- get buckets. They give themselves chances to win games like this."
All Kris Kringle Team
This is the season for giving, and these are the best givers in the NBA. The players on this team rank among the best passers at their positions.