When Deron Williams returned to the court on January 20th to face the Knicks after a five-game absence, coach Jason Kidd decided to take an unexpected gamble. Instead of reinserting the three-time All Star into the starting lineup, Kidd told Williams he would ease back into the rotation by coming off the bench.
Now known as the Rising Stars Challenge, the league’s midseason showcase for young players didn’t always look this way. And it wasn’t always a good game, either.
When the game debuted in 1994, it featured only rookies playing against each other. The teams were called the Phenoms and the Sensations. The following year, the teams were simply called White and Green. Now there’s some smart jersey marketing, huh?
Back from Vegas, I took in the Lakers-Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday and listened to a dejected Pau Gasol lament a lack of effort and espouse his frustrations over a lost Lakers season.
You can be damn well sure he is looking forward to the trade deadline, waiting to find out if he’ll play a single meaningful basketball game before summer arrives.
But once summer does arrive, the big Spaniard is going to have a lot left in the tank (pun intended).
And it is never too soon to ask the question: Can Gasol and the Spanish National Team win the World Cup on their home soil? Can they defeat a United states team that will have Kevin Durant as its anchor?
“Well, let’s see who they end up bringing over this summer. That’s what I’m most concerned about right now,” Gasol said. “We are a group that has been together for a long time, so that’s an advantage. We’re hungry and we’re going to play at home, so we’ll be ready to go.
“Prediction? I wish I knew, my friend,” Gasol said in closing. “We’re going to try to do our best and hopefully win the gold for our country.”
It was a performance the entire league was talking about.
The prolific scoring forward was going off, just knocking down jump shot after jump shot, rarely subjecting the ball to even the slightest graze of the rim.
He had 20, then 30, then 40, and there was still plenty of time left in the fourth quarter.
He was at NBA Jam levels of On Fire, replete with the flaming basketball and the echoed enthusiasm of the announcers.
It was the type of game that could lift a struggling team to the top of the Atlantic Division and maybe even a playoff run. It might just be the signature moment of the season.
Yeah, no one can stop talking about Terrence Ross’ 51 points against the Clippers on Saturday night.
What, you thought I was talking about Melo?
Maybe, just maybe.
I hesitate to say it out loud, really, for fear it might all fall apart.
But here goes: Could there actually be a third team of relevance in the Eastern Conference?
The Brooklyn Nets aren’t yet over .500, even following Sunday’s emotional 85-79 win in Boston over the Celtics and a near-perfect 2014 in which they’ve won 10 of 11 games.
Given the state of the East, that type of success makes up ground in a hurry, and now the Nets find themselves not just on the playoff ladder but a mere 1.5 games out of the Atlantic Division lead, and only 2.5 behind Atlanta and the 3-seed.
Given how poorly the Nets played starting the season, a little skepticism about their rebound is bound to pop up. A healthier (though not healthy) roster has made life easier for coach Jason Kidd, but nobody thinks all the questions around him have been answered. Still, Brooklyn’s run has been a quality one, with wins in Oklahoma City, Atlanta, and Madison Square Garden (the latter two by an average of 20 points), and home victories over the Hawks, Golden State, Miami, and Dallas.
That leaves Brooklyn with an 11-10 record against winning teams. Might not sound like much, but Indiana is only 10-8, the Clippers 12-10, and Houston 13-12. At least two of those teams are consistently in the conversation of squads with a chance to make significant hay come playoff time.
Following the season-ending foot injury to Brook Lopez, the Nets have by necessity gone small, with solid results. The starting lineup Kidd has deployed for most of the month – Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston in the backcourt, with Alan Anderson and Paul Pierce on the wing, and Kevin Garnett at center – has been so successful that Deron Williams has willingly come off the bench since missing five games thanks to his recurring ankle problems. (He’s playing plenty of minutes, including the important ones, showing D-Will may understand one of basketball’s more underplayed truisms: Starting is completely overrated, and very often a question of ego management than actual basketball tactics.)
Offensively, the Nets have slowly improved over the last seven weeks, but the biggest transformation has been on their own end, where in January the Nets are allowing 100.4 points per 100 possessions, bested only by Indiana, Chicago, and Memphis, arguably the holy trinity of gritty, physical, muck-it-up squads (when the Grizzlies have Marc Gasol, at least). That’s 6.7 points better than Brooklyn’s mark in December, and 7.0 points beyond November.
The Nets were supposed to be a dark horse contender in the East coming into the season. Old and injury prone, but intriguing and capable of taking advantage should bad luck befall either Indy or Miami. There’s plenty of time left for Brooklyn to again show its age, and some important components of winning basketball (rebounding, for example) have not been a part of their success.
But assuming they’re now becoming something close to the team everyone expected, Brooklyn ought to be the E.C.’s third-best team by season’s end, meaning they have a chance to influence the postseason… even if it just means making Miami work a whole lot harder than the Pacers in the second round.
Onto the rankings.