GAME OF THE WEEK: Atlanta at Miami, Dec. 10. The East’s under-the-radar team is the Hawks, who would have a 10-game winning streak if they hadn’t allowed a buzzer putback by Alonzo Gee. A road win over the defending champions would definitely increase the size of their blip – and hurdle them over Miami into first place in the Southeast Division.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Washington at New Orleans, Dec. 11. It seems as good a time as any to evaluate that humongous Rashard Lewis-Emeka Okafor-Trevor Ariza offseason deal that potentially positioned both teams for an eternity in rebuilding.
TWO MINUTES: Dwight Howard is getting a taste of – hmm, what shall we say? – the nuances between having his own team in a one-sport town that hopes and prays he will bring a championship, and riding shotgun to an icon in a star-stuffed city that considers NBA titles a birthright. Howard’s free-throw shooting is so bad, opponents are intentionally fouling him as a comeback strategy on almost a nightly basis. Both the Magic and the Rockets – both of whom have nowhere near the talent to play with the Lakers – leveled the endgame by sending Howard to the line, which short-circuits Mike D’Antoni’s offense and eliminates Kobe Bryant’s ability to bail out a possession. Five times this season, Howard has missed more free throws than LA’s losing margin. And when he is asked about it, he gets a little testy. “People are going to say whatever they want to say, but at the end of the day, go back and look at the game,” he said. “The reason we lost was not my free throws. That didn’t lose us the game.” D’Antoni also felt the need to come to Howard’s defense. “We’ve got other problems to worry about,” the coach said. “We shouldn’t be talking about him.” Howard also sounds an awful lot like he is trying to convince himself that the Lakers are the right team for the next phase of his career. The Lakers are 9-12 – we can pretty much throw 70 wins out the window now, right? – and have had more drama in the season’s first six weeks than the Spurs have had in six years. After Friday’s loss at Oklahoma City, Howard was whistling in the dark again. “It’s not like we’re going to get together and start winning right away,” he said. “We’re learning how to play together. We’re getting better. This is not on anybody’s timetable but ours.” The Lakers were 1-4 under Mike Brown, 4-1 under Bernie Bickerstaff and 4-7 under D’Antoni, whose offensive genius has marginalized the most skilled 7-footer in the game while making a 3-point shooting savant indispensable. And their supposed savior is a 38-year-old point guard who doesn’t defend. The Lakers are in trouble. … When Boston’s Rajon Rondo notched his 14th career triple-double Friday in Philadelphia, it marked the first time the Celtics had lost one of those games. … Pacers forward Paul George had a recent stretch of games that went this way: six points, followed by a career-high 37, followed by 31 points over the next four games capped by an 0-for-7 donut, followed by a 34-point breakout. “You just watch him and some of the shots that he’s making and you think, `Boy, if he could ever stabilize and do this on a consistent basis,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. George stabilized a bit with back-to-back 22-point games. … Speaking of Vogel, he is the leading candidate to accumulate the most gray hair of any coach this season. Indiana has played 21 games this season and 12 of them have been decided by five points or less or in overtime. The Pacers are 7-5 in those games. By contrast, Brooklyn has played just two such games. … The most recent player to receive a warning for flopping was Clippers guard Chauncey Billups, who did it Monday in Salt Lake City, drawing a foul while shooting a 3-pointer with 1:14 to play. He made 2-of-3 free throws in a game LA won, 105-104. Even if it was his fifth offense and Billups had accumulated $60,000 in flopping fines, it will be well worth it if it gives the Clippers just one extra win that leads to a higher playoff seed, an additional postseason game and the accompanying seven-figure gate – to say nothing of a Game Seven on their home floor. … Wolves GM David Kahn admitted he was interested in Lakers forward Pau Gasol over the summer. So when a recent report said he was assembling a package of Nikola Pekovic and Derrick Williams for the Spaniard, he held an impromptu huddle with the media to shoot it down. While that may be true, Kahn has to be considering cutting bait with Williams, who has four DNPs in his last 10 games. Since he became GM in 2009, Kahn has used first-round picks on Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Wesley Johnson, Luke Babbitt, Trevor Booker, Williams and Donatas Motiejunas. Only Rubio and Williams are still with the Wolves. … In Washington’s previous 21 games dating to last season, they are 3-0 vs. Miami and 3-15 against everyone else. … Monty Williams and Byron Scott are paddling the same boat right now. Both have teams trying to rebuild with young top overall picks who have joined teammates on the sidelines with injuries, leaving the coaches with rosters dotted with questionable NBA talent that doesn’t know how to win. That’s usually a recipe for an unfavorable tilt of the whistle that contributes to long losing streaks; Williams’ Hornets have lost 12 of 14 and Scott’s Cavaliers have dropped nine of 10. And both coaches took a stroll on David Stern’s tightrope for fines after losses this week. “When they’re grabbing you like they grab you, without a foul, it’s hard to control the ball,” Williams said after Saturday’s loss in Miami. “Our guys are getting fouled on jump shots and it’s hard to not get frustrated. … It’s hard to be able to go to the basket when somebody has both hands on you.” Scott was less subtle. “It was that bad. It really was. It was that bad,” he said after Friday’s loss to the Wolves. “I mean I understand we’re playing in Minnesota, but 35-9, we went to the basket just as much as they did. I think we had 38 attempts in the paint to their 34, we get nine free throws, I think that speaks for itself.” Perhaps Williams and Scott – who was hit with a $25,000 fine – should take some advice from Suns coach Alvin Gentry, whose own team is in the throes of a seven-game slide. “If we’re going to get out of this, we’ve got to work our own way out and do it collectively as a group,” he said. “In this league, no one’s going to help us and no one feels sorry for you. It’s not a pity league.” In other words, stop whining.
Trivia Answer: The Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers made 22 straight playoff appearances from 1950-71. … Happy 53rd Birthday, Mark Aguirre. … Any league with three teams named after the weather shouldn’t be passing judgment on nicknames.
Chris Bernucca is the deputy editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.