The Super Bowl is in the history books but the NBA All-Star Game is already on the horizon and there are all kinds of interesting goings on around the league right now. This week, I’ll focus on a handful of teams with notes and quotes that can point us in the right direction for our NBA wagers.
Dallas Mavericks – When you look at the Dallas statistical profile this year, one thing stands out like a sore thumb. Dirk Nowitzki – the Mavs longtime superstar and the guy who guided them to their first ever NBA title last summer – has basically been a non-factor from Day 1. Last year, Dirk led the team in scoring at 23 points per game. He was the Mavs #2 rebounder, behind Tyson Chandler. He shot better than 51% from the floor for the entire season, and better than 39% from three point range. But, even after taking four games off to ‘improve his conditioning’, Dirk’s 2012 numbers can only be considered a major disappointment.
The numbers don’t lie. Dirk is scoring only 17.2 points per game this year. His shooting percentage is down to 45.5% and his percentage from three point range is downright miserable, just 21.6 % from beyond the arc. His rebounding numbers are down, as are his assists. Perhaps the most telling stat comes at the free throw line. Over the course of his career, Nowitzki has been an elite player in terms of getting to the charity stripe. Only once in the last dozen years has Dirk attempted less than six free throws per game. This year, he’s not being aggressive with the ball in his hands, averaging just 4.3 trips to the foul line.
Dirk did have a step up game against the Pacers last weekend, pouring in a season high 30 points with seven rebounds. Dallas still lost the game, at home, by double digits. Nowitzki, talking about analyst Charles Barkley’s comments that Dirk was “fading fast” as one of the league’s elite players: “I had some good looks and knocked them down. I finally got into a good rhythm. The strength in my legs is coming back. Hard work always pays off. I couldn’t prove him (Barkley) wrong the last couple of weeks.”
Head coach Rick Carlisle concurred: “Every day he’s moving better. At some point, this kind of game was going to be a reality. It was great to see because he was doing everything. He was shooting the ball, he was driving the ball, rebounding. Overall, he was very active. Very positive.” However, the Mavs followed that double digit home loss to the Pacers with a one point loss at Cleveland, despite another solid game from Dirk (24 points and eight boards), leaving this bettor with all kinds of questions about the Mavs realistic potential for another extended playoff run this spring.
Houston Rockets – The Rockets were one of the bigger surprise stories over the first six weeks of the NBA season. Projected as a lottery squad entering the campaign, without a marquee star on the roster, expectations were on the low side for Kevin McHale’s first year coaching Houston. But following a 3-7 SU start to the season, the Rockets suddenly reeled off nine wins over a ten game span, putting real pressure on Southwest Division leaders San Antonio and Dallas.
Over the past week, Houston has come back to earth, losing three of their last four games including an ugly second half meltdown at San Antonio when the Rockets blew a double digit lead while getting outscored 60-39 after the break. That loss came on the heels of a 12 point home loss to Minnesota. Following that loss to the T-wolves, there were all kinds of fingers being pointed in the Rockets locker room, with their coach looking like one of the primary targets.
Point guard Kyle Lowry: “We got to make adjustments in game. We just got to make adjustments. We got to do something different. A guy gets it going; we have to figure out something to stop him from going. Team. Scheme. You’re not going to stop anybody one-on-one in the NBA. You have to do something different.”
Shooting guard Courtney Lee: “We have to make adjustments. When we had guys going they made adjustments and kind of slowed us down. We got to do the same to them.”
Second year forward Patrick Patterson: “That second half, there was no team out there. Everyone was trying to do their own thing, on our own island. No one was helping each other.”
Houston is getting great play from their bench, a big edge when they face weaker foes with shorter rotations. In their only victory over the past week – a blowout at home against Phoenix – Kevin McHale’s bench combined for 50 points and 23 boards, successfully preserving a big second half lead right through the final buzzer. Forward Chase Budinger: “The bench is really getting that chemistry together. We’re getting used to playing with one another, we start finding where guys like the ball, and also we’re bringing energy out there. We’re trying to run more.”
Miami Heat – This past Friday Night, the Heat pulled off their biggest road win since beating Dallas back on Christmas Day. Miami turned a four point lead at the start of the fourth quarter in Philly into a 20 point blowout, completely dominating the Sixers during crunch time. It’s surely worth noting that the 76ers had been 12-2 SU on their home floor, with both previous losses coming in overtime.
Prior to the fourth quarter, the Sixers had been giving the Heat all kinds of problems, dating back to last year’s playoffs. Here’s what Miami head coach Eric Spoelstra said about Philly’s playoff showing from last April, prior to the game. “Our first-round series against them was arguably the toughest, outside the finals.” And Philly gave Miami everything the Heat could handle for three quarters in this matchup.
So how did Miami dominate both ends of the floor in the final stanza against what looked like a real competitor in the Eastern Conference playoff chase? Well, coach Spoelstra put LeBron James at point guard, running the offense. LeBron keyed a 15-0 Heat surge that put the game out of reach. Dwayne Wade, talking about his star teammate: “When he’s out there and we’re all on the same page on what we’re running offensively, it makes us a dynamic team.”
LeBron was more than willing to share the credit with his teammates, a clear sign of positive team chemistry. “Tonight was probably the best game from start to finish, as far as playing hard and communicating on both ends, that we had all season. So it was a good win.” James also talked about the benefits of a particularly tough practice, film room session and team meeting the day before the game. “It was no-holds barred, no tongues being held. If we’re going to be held to a championship standard, we need to go out and play like it. No one can take things personal if someone says something to him. We’ve got to take constructive criticism.”
Philly is a pretty good team, so this quote from head coach Doug Collins stands out – a quote that says Miami is the team to beat in the NBA right now. “They just overwhelmed us in the fourth quarter. They put a push on us and we didn’t have any resistance, so credit to them.”
New Orleans Hornets – At 4-20 SU, things have not gone well for the Hornets in the post Chris Paul/David West era. Their newest superstar, Eric Gordon, has been languishing on the sidelines in street clothes with a bum knee, and he just turned down a contract extension, opting to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. But Gordon’s injury is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to New Orleans’ inept on-court play.
Starting point guard Jarrett Jack has knee trouble of his own, forced to sit their last few games. Key low post presence Carl Landry has (drum roll, please) a knee injury expected to sideline him for the next 3-4 weeks. Starting power forward Jason Smith suffered a concussion in their loss at Detroit over the weekend. Gordon, Jack and Landry rank #1-2-3 on the team in scoring. Without them, New Orleans is in a world of hurt, even with center Chris Kaman expected to rejoin the team this week.
Quotes like this one stand out – coaches shouldn’t be talking this way during the first week of February, even with a bottom feeder team. Head coach Monty Williams following that loss at Detroit: ““This is the dog days of the NBA right now. A lot of players are kind of going through the motions right now, and we certainly played that way tonight. I thought we’d be fresher because I gave them yesterday off, but maybe that hurt us.”
Backup guard Greivis Vasquez: “I think that’s the biggest weakness of this team, breaking down when we are in tough times.” New Orleans is a very fragile team emotionally already, and we’re only 1/3 of the way through the season…