It’s early. Hell, some teams just finished playing their first games of the year. But cities like Dallas and LA are worrying if they have championship-caliber teams. Boston lost squeakers to the Knicks and Heat minus Paul Pierce. Miami looks like the team-to-beat and while we’re on the subject, here is a fun fact for you courtesy of CNBC’s Darren Rovell: Heat rookie Norris Cole, who scored 20 last night, makes $861,220 this season. The Big 3 (combined) made $635,537 LAST NIGHT.
Let’s look at some other teams that should be in full panic mode and which teams just need to chill out.
Dallas Mavericks (0-2)
Okay, you raised the banners. It’s Christmas. The Heat were highly motivated. It’s game one. Whatever. I’ll give you a pass. The year after the Heat won it all, they promptly lost by 41. It’s cool. But being down 30 to the Denver Nuggets at home once again, the very next night? Okay, Dallas is in trouble. Champions don’t let that happen twice. Ever. Despite being 32 years old, Lamar Odom looks homesick, shooting 2 of 16 in two games. Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion are playing lifeless basketball right now. Brandon Haywood is ill-fitted to replace Tyson Chandler, unable to hide Dirk Nowitzki’s defensive shortcomings. As Charles Barkley pointed out on the TNT pregame show, the Mavs lost not only Tyson Chandler, but also DeShawn Stevenson, who may not yield many points a game, but he brought defensive toughness to a team that desperately needed it.
Phoenix Suns (0-1)
Seven seconds or less tallied only 19 fourth quarter points against a new-look Hornets team that still needs nametags. Steve Nash, 37, showed the most life on the team and their leading scorer was Robin Lopez. Free agent pickup Shannon Brown relied on jumpshots rather than taking the ball to the hoop, finishing 1-8. Brown has shot 42% his last two seasons and won’t see quality minutes unless that number rises. Ronnie Price and Bassy Telfair are battling for the backup pg spot, but once again the team only goes as far as Nash.
Oklahoma City Thunder (2-0)
On paper, this makes no sense. The Thunder are 2-0 and Durant is playing lights out (31pts, 4rbs. and 5asts on 54% shooting). They have the same team (the team that went to the WCF) as last year. What’s the problem? I have admittedly been hard on Russell Westbrook in the past. I still feel he is more of an Allen Iverson, non-traditional two guard-type at heart. There is no doubt he is a top-5 point guard in the NBA (which makes my issues with the guy all the more nonsensical), but I see the same issues that plagued the Thunder at the end of their playoff run last season, this season. In a back and forth game against Minnesota Monday night, Westbrook once again dominated the basketball in the late stages, easily driving past his man (which is great) only to settle for off-balance leaners or drives to the basket against three Minny bigs drawing an offensive foul (which is not). He did make an and-1 to go up two with three minutes left to secure the victory and finished the game with 28 pts, 6rbs. 6 asts. So maybe I am nitpicking. But he took 21 shots, including seven in the fourth. Durant took only three in the fourth despite shooting 6 of 7 in the third. It’s early. I get that. But I need Durant to demand the basketball in these “hero” moments because if he’s not getting the ball down the stretch now, he certainly won’t in June.
Boston Celtics (0-2)/Los Angeles Lakers (1-2)
The Celtics and Lakers were missing key late-game contributors (Pierce and Bynum, respectively) who would have likely changed the outcome of their first two games. The Lakers rolled over the Jazz last night, while the Celtics showed their patented heart and toughness nearly fighting all the way back from a 17 point, second-half deficit against a superior, younger and more athletic Miami Heat team. The Celtics found their first big off the bench with the addition of Brandon Bass. The Lakers meanwhile filled Bynum’s role with the combo of Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy. They aren’t sexy names, but these players give both teams versatility on the offensive end. When Paul Pierce and Andrew Bynum come back, all should be well in Celtic and Lakerland.
Minnesota Timberwolves (0-2)
The Minnesota Timberwolves are 0-2 in a season which GM David Kahn demanded more progress from the young group. Head coach Rick Adelman brings much-needed stability to a core of talented players. J.J. Barea will be their fourth quarter finisher in tight games, likely playing alongside rookie pg Ricky Rubio who is learning the NBA game on the fly. Rubio has shown flashes, but I am not convinced he will match the hype, at least not this season. Derrick Williams looks like he’s been in the league five years already and Kevin Love is the emotional leader. The wildcard is Michael Beasley, who may possess the most talent on the team but can still take the Wolves out of its offense with ill-advised 20-foot jumpers. Basically what I am saying is this: Beasley’s clutch time shooting: 2-10. Everyone else: 3-7. He is at his best when he drives to the basket using his strength against weaker small forwards or speed against bigger power forwards. He needed 27 shots to put up 24 points Monday night in a loss to the Thunder. The Wolves sold out their home opener for the first time since 2007, so things are looking up. They just need to get a win under their belts.
Chicago Bulls (1-1)
The Bulls could easily (and probably should be) 0-2 right now, if it weren’t for some Christmas miracles in LA. So why not panic? Well, Derrick Rose simply had an off night in Golden State and the Bulls are still bringing Richard Hamilton into the fold. This isn’t the same the same guy as 2004, but like his UConn counterpart Ray Allen, Rip has maintained his body enabling him to run around off-ball screens all game long. Like Rose, Boozer was ineffective against Golden State, but we’ll chalk it up to the back-to-back. The Bulls should just be happy Boozer was on the floor, not the injured list. This is still the second-best team in the East, behind the Heat.