NBA@2: Top Five Rising NBA Teams
The NBA season is always about peaks and valleys, and the 2011-12 lockout-shortened marathon has been no different. In fact, it seems teams are trying to work in the same number of ups and downs as would normally exist in an 82-game schedule, despite having just 66 games to work them in. It seems like the lockout was just lifted, and yet here we sit with just five weeks remaining before the playoffs. Here’s a look at the top five teams who are trending upwards as we head into the season’s final month.
The Utah Jazz
After stumbling out of the gate in December, the Utah Jazz went 11-4 in January and looked like a team ready to push for home court advantage in the playoffs. Unfortunately, a 3-11 record in February all but buried them in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Granted, they played some of the league’s top teams in February, but that doesn’t excuse losses to Sacramento, New Orleans and Golden State. The Jazz were simply in a funk, the kind of funk that often costs people their jobs. But then the pendulum swung the other way to start March, as the Jazz took out the Miami HEAT, Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder, and now stand at 8-4 for the month and are a half-game out of the playoff picture. As of this writing the Jazz have 20 games left on the schedule, 11 of those against likely playoff teams. They future is theirs to grasp, but there’s no time to lose.
The Houston Rockets
Rick Adelman may be gone, but his spirit of overachieving still lingers in the rafters of Toyota Center. The Rockets continue to face injury after injury, this time playing a stretch of games without Kyle Lowry (illness) and Kevin Martin (shoulder), yet they still find ways to win games. Just when it looked like they might slip out of the playoff picture behind the hard-charging Jazz, they upset a Lakers team that was cruising early on Tuesday night, winning the game behind a clutch Goran Dragic three. The Rockets continue to be defined by heart and hustle, with Dragic, Courtney Lee and Chase Budinger, in particular leading the charge. The Rockets have 19 games remaining, 11 of those against teams with winning records, so they are not exactly a playoff team just yet. But give them their props – they remain one of the hardest wins in the NBA, injuries and all.
The New York Knicks
The New York Knicks roller coaster ride this season easily rivals anything any amusement park could dream up, as fans have gone from thinking they were contenders before the season started, to ready to revolt after a 6-11 January, to ecstatic over the Jeremy Lin story, to dying as a horrid stretch led to Carmelo Anthony trade rumors and a head coaching change. The thrill ride is back on now, with the team now 3-0 under Mike Woodson and Carmelo apparently on the same page with his coach and team, but how long will it be before the next big drop? The Knicks have 21 games left on the schedule, 11 of those away from home and 11 against teams with winning records. They would seem to be ready to lock in a playoff spot, but they can’t likely sustain another hit with the resurgent Milwaukee Bucks closing fast.
The Milwaukee Bucks
For the longest time it looked like there were only eight playoff teams in the East, as the bottom of the conference is largely filled with rebuilding teams. When the Milwaukee Bucks traded away Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson it looked like they were calling it a day, leaving the Eastern Conference playoff field in tact. Instead, the Bucks seem to be gaining momentum after the trade deadline, having won six in a row . . .they are the hottest team in the NBA. There is an asterisk with that run, of course, as they have been feasting on non-playoff teams like New Jersey, Toronto and Cleveland, but they have also beaten New York and Philadelphia this month, and Drew Gooden has played so well that he was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week last week. The Bucks have 22 games left on the schedule, nine of those on the road, and only nine against teams with winning records. If the Knicks slip up at all, the Bucks could shock the NBA world by grabbing a playoff spot.
The Phoenix Suns
Give Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry credit. His team is often overlooked and was the subject of much trade speculation leading up to the deadline, but Steve Nash and Grant Hill are still in uniform and their faith in the Suns appears to be well-placed. After struggling early, the Suns have caught fire in March, taking out the Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves (pre-Rubio injury), Clippers (twice), Jazz, and almost took out the Miami HEAT last night. The Suns are definitely on the bubble, sitting at 23-23 and 1.5 games out of the eighth seed in the West. They also have the toughest schedule to finish the season, facing 14 teams with records above .500 over their last 19 games. It may turn out that the Suns dug themselves too deep a hole to dig out of late in the season, but the Suns are definitely playing their best ball of the season.
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Collison, Pacers Still Looking For Their Swagger
Sometimes the word swagger carries a negative connotation. When someone swaggers they might be doing it as a way to brag or show off. There is, however, another way of defining the word, a way that conveys confidence and self-assuredness. It’s something the best NBA teams have, and it’s the factor that often makes the difference between a win or a loss when the game gets tight. Point guard Darren Collison says that, at times, his team has had the right kind of swagger.
“I think it’s a little bit swagger but when I saw swagger I mean confidence knowing that we can play with any team in this league and that confidence came from simply playing the best team last year in the playoffs the Chicago Bulls,” Collison tells HOOPSWORLD. “We kind of let that carry over into this season. Everybody had a goal this offseason to get better individually. We all came together collectively and we never have any problems with each other; everybody is unselfish and we just want to win.”
For most of the season, the Pacers have had their way with the NBA’s non-elite teams, teams they often struggled to beat in recent seasons. It’s the “taking care of business” games that the Pacers are mastering this season, and Collison attributes it to everyone being on the same page.
“I think everybody’s focused and hungry. We understood what it took to get to the playoffs last year and I think guys are just mentally committed to each other and physically, committed as far as taking care of their bodies and making sure they do what they have to do off the court and try to perform on the court, as well.”
Darren Collison had the challenge of guarding NBA MVP Derrick Rose in the Pacers’ return to the playoffs last season, and he believes that experience has helped him to continue to grow as a player.
“It helped me out a lot. Going up against the MVP last year, you can only improve your game. You’ve got to make sure you compete every possession because it’s only going to get you better and then going into the offseason that’s something that I took with me. I thought a lot about the mistakes that I did throughout that whole series and things that I could have done better. It’s a lot going against the best players in this league, so I cherish it and it’s only going to get me better and I’m going to continue to improve in that way.”
It has also helped the entire team to have former San Antonio Spurs guard George Hill in the mix this season, especially when he’s been healthy. After missing the bulk of February with an injury, Hill has returned to average 12.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game off the bench.
“He’s helped not just me, the whole team in general,” says Collison. “I think he gave this organization a little bit of that swagger as far as being more in tune to the game. San Antonio is a very focused team that was in it every single game. Even in shootarounds, whether we are doing pregame film, he’s constantly talking, trying to figure out what’s the best way to guard this play. He has a big part to do with our record right now.”
There’s just a little over a month left now as the Pacers prepare for their second consecutive season back in the playoffs, and while they have taken some important steps forward, there are still questions to be answered over the next five weeks. Consistency has been an issue across the board, as over the last two weeks we’ve seen the team lose six of their eight games against playoff teams. They’re hanging in with the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed, but they have the same number of losses as the third-seeded Orlando Magic. They also sit just a game ahead of the sixth-seeded Atlanta Hawks.
The Pacers have little breathing room, and have to start showing they can hang with the big boys as Miami and San Antonio are looming on the schedule as we look towards the end of March.
The Boris Diaw Saga Comes To An End
The Charlotte Bobcats have been looking for an end to the Boris Diaw chapter of their history for quite some time, and this morning, having exhausted all other possibilities, they finally brought it to a close. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer reports that the Bobcats will have a buyout deal in place before the end of the day, which will allow Diaw to potentially sign with a playoff team before the March 23rd cutoff.
Diaw was acquired at what turned out to be quite a price for the franchise, as they sent Jared Dudley and Jason Richardson to Phoenix to acquire the power forward. He played a significant role under then-coach Larry Brown, but over the last season or so he has played his way out of favor under new head coach Paul Silas. Silas has repeatedly questioned Diaw’s work ethic and energy level on the court.
“I like a player who is really committed to not only the team but to himself and then doing the best he can as a player,’’ Silas told Bonnell recently. “Some of the things that would go on, like not shooting the ball, passing all of the time’’ were unacceptable. … “I needed hoops and he could put the ball in the hoop. When that wouldn’t happen it was very disturbing. I think if he had played all out, the way he should have, it would have been a much, much better club.”
It’s interesting, given that feedback, that the San Antonio Spurs are said to be the frontrunners among potential playoff-bound suitors, as Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich isn’t one to tolerate players who don’t give their all. Then again, if he were fighting for a shot at the NBA Finals, perhaps Diaw would rediscover his drive and motivation. The San Antonio Express-News reports that Spurs point guard Tony Parker is pushing hard for his friend and fellow countryman to join the team.
If Diaw were to arrive in San Antonio ready to push for a championship, he could further ease the burden on Tim Duncan and the fairly think San Antonio front court.
Stay tuned as we continue to follow this emerging story.
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