With the calendar turned to 2014, Israel Gutierrez and J.A. Adande take stock of the NBA season so far and readjust their perspectives on some surprising storylines.
Israel: Maybe it's the Russell Westbrook injury, or Portland's sustained success or, more likely, the arrival of the new year, but it feels like as good a time as any to recalibrate. The league looks quite different now than how we anticipated it looking three months ago.
For starters, I think we've all been awakened to how real the Blazers are, with their perfectly balanced starting five and their MVP candidate in LaMarcus Aldridge. Anything else require definitive reassessment in your mind?
Yes, they're a jump-shooting team and jump-shooting teams usually find themselves making more putts than jumpers come June. But the way the Blazers perform in crunch time makes me think their way could work." -- J.A. Adande
J.A.: The Blazers made it clear they were going to remain among the Western Conference's top teams throughout the regular season long before my Thanksgiving dinner worked its way through my digestive system. What has changed of late is the prospect that Portland could be successful in the playoffs.
Yes, they're a jump-shooting team and jump-shooting teams usually find themselves making more putts than jumpers come June. But the way the Blazers perform in crunch time makes me think their way could work. They're 11-2 in games decided by three points or fewer. Yes, they're shooting jumpers. But they execute so well they're shooting open jumpers. According to NBA.com stats, the Blazers are tops in the league in clutch scoring and clutch true shooting percentage. And what are playoff games if not 48 minutes of clutch time?
Israel: Yes, that would seem to prove there's a level of clutch-ness to the Blazers that would benefit them come playoff time. But it also could just be odds working in Portland's favor at the moment. Without knowing every championship team's stats when it comes to regular-season "clutch" performances, I'd venture to say it's not a prerequisite for playoff success. The Heat didn't exactly come up big in crunch time in the first two seasons of the Big Three, and yet Finals appearances were in their future.
What Portland can ride to playoff success, more so than random shots late in games, is their trust in each other. Their starting five, plus Mo Williams, is moving the ball like the Spurs and Heat, seemingly finding wide-open shooters regardless of the time of game. When you've built up a season of those kinds of habits, it tends to translate in the playoffs. And what two teams were in the Finals last season? The teams that arguably moved the ball best all season. So I'm with you on the Blazers.
Oddly enough, assuming Westbrook does return healthy, I've never liked (the Thunder's) chances more." -- Israel Gutierrez
But how does Westbrook's latest knee issue make you feel about the Thunder now? Oddly enough, assuming Westbrook does return healthy, I've never liked their chances more.
J.A.: I like the concept of the Thunder. They were the most impressive team in the West before Russell went down. I'm just not as high on their chances anymore because we don't know how Westbrook's knee will hold up. He lasted 25 games before he needed to go back to the shop. He'll need to play almost twice as many games if he comes back right after the All-Star Game and the Thunder make a deep playoff run. Which makes me think: His projected return date is right on the line between precaution and prepared. You don't want him to rush back, but he also needs time to get his timing and game conditioning back and for his teammates to readjust to him. I wouldn't wait much later than February if I were him.
But the uncertainty is just one more thing that's breaking Blazer.
Israel: There's always uncertainty when it comes to going under the knife (or laser, or whatever device is used), particularly when it's the knee. But unlike last postseason, when people were only beginning to realize Reggie Jackson was actually a current pro athlete, Kevin Durant has a legitimate running mate to keep the Thunder rolling until Westbrook gets back. Jackson is averaging 18.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per 36 minutes. Just for comparison's sake, James Harden, in his last year in OKC, averaged 19.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per 36 minutes.
Obviously, Jackson will be asked to do more with Westbrook out, but it's becoming apparent he's quite capable. And if this group is whole come April, with Jackson and Jeremy Lamb having experienced extended exposure, OKC only gets stronger.
I'm sticking with my Finals pick, which is Thunder-Heat.
Bosh cares more about winning, and the 'sacrifice' Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra talk about is exactly that, sacrificing public perception of yourself for the betterment of the team. And I just think, once and for all, folks should recognize that of Bosh." -- Israel Gutierrez
Speaking of the Heat, it feels as if we regularly have to remind ourselves just how crucial Chris Bosh actually is to Miami's success. And this time, the reminder came right before the new year, with Bosh dropping 37 and 10, including a game-winning 3 at Portland. Given that his numbers tend to drop against the Eastern rival Pacers, we continue to overlook Bosh's importance. But is it possible we can put doubts about Bosh away for good?
J.A.: Somehow when Bosh plays well it raises as many questions as when he plays poorly. Good Bosh makes people wonder if he belongs in the Hall of Fame. (I say no.) Good Bosh has people wondering where he ranks on the list of "No. 3 guys" on championship teams. (Somewhere above Lamar Odom and Toni Kukoc but below Rajon Rondo and James Worthy.) Is his rebound-assist-blocked shot sequence at the end of Game 6 against the Spurs the greatest non-scoring finish by a player in NBA Finals history? (I can't think of one better.) Does it let him off the hook for going scoreless in Game 7? (Somehow, I think it does.)
I never bought into the "He is our most important player" angle that Erik Spoelstra tried to sell throughout last season. Please. Try winning a Game 7 with a scoreless LeBron. That doesn't mean Bosh is nothing more than an ad on the side of the Heat bus, either. Let's just agree that Bosh is useful. And let's hope for more Good Bosh ... just because it makes the pictures so good.
Israel: Well, you've got to be more than "useful" if you're an All-Star, right? And I think people remember Bosh more for his scoreless Game 7 and somewhat empty series against Indiana, and that translates into "he's not that good." When really, the guy who showed up in Portland is more the true Bosh -- at least, that's the guy you'd see if he were featured. But Bosh cares more about winning, and the "sacrifice" Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra talk about is exactly that, sacrificing public perception of yourself for the betterment of the team. And I just think, once and for all, folks should recognize that of Bosh.
I also think it's a good time to reassess the supposed predictability of the NBA. Yes, the playoffs rarely have stunning results. But I'd say what the Suns are doing in the regular season is pretty stunning. It's refreshing to see we can still be surprised, that young talent can mature quickly, that coaching actually matters and that tanking isn't for everybody. The fact that it's January and the Suns are squarely in the playoff picture in the ferocious Western Conference is the most surprising element to this season.
The only thing with Phoenix is they're winning so many games with superior effort, and that won't cut it in the playoffs when everybody tries hard every game." -- J.A. Adande
J.A.: I wouldn't call it more surprising than the Celtics having a better record than the Bulls, Nets and Knicks. But because the Suns actually have a winning record and their status doesn't involve injuries or implosions to other teams, let's call the Suns the most pleasantly surprising team. Then there are the pleasant surprises within the surprise, such as Jeff Hornacek's effectiveness as a coach and Eric Bledsoe's ability to be a full-time starter. The only thing with Phoenix is they're winning so many games with superior effort, and that won't cut it in the playoffs when everybody tries hard every game.
The Suns aren't better than the Clippers, but they sure outworked them when they blew them out in L.A. this week. The Suns were so dominant that the Clippers starters sat on the bench in the fourth quarter, which brought at least a temporary halt to another emerging story: the elevation of Blake Griffin.
In his previous six games he averaged 29 points and 12 rebounds, and most significant of all hit 81 percent from the free throw line. If he can shoot like that, if he can move his "good game" ceiling from 20-29 points up to 30-40 points, doesn't that alter the perception of what the Clippers can do in the playoffs? Dare I say he might even have a bigger impact than your guy Bosh, or would that be too hard for you to process?
Israel: Griffin's game is finally evolving, it appears, and it's probably no coincidence that it's coming in Doc Rivers' first year with the franchise. There's a level of responsibility that comes with being a franchise player that it seemed Griffin never quite took ownership of. But with Doc, there are real championship hopes, and that lies largely with Griffin being able to take some of the burden off Chris Paul. It looks like he has either responded to that challenge, or he's simply gotten better in his fourth season. Either way, it's necessary for the Clippers and kind of refreshing that a guy can make that leap when called upon.
And yeah, if he goes from consistently good to dominant, it certainly makes the Clippers legitimate contenders this year. And that's something I wouldn't have thought possible way back in 2013.