Friday, December 27, 2013

J-Speaks: Lessons Learned on Christmas Day, NBA Style

Christmas Day is a time where we give and receive gifts as well as spend time with family and friends, reflecting about the past, appreciating the present and looking forward to the future. This is also the day where the NBA fans get a stocking full of games. We learn a lot about the teams that played and on this Christmas Day.

The day began in Brooklyn, NY between the Chicago Bulls (11-16) and the Brooklyn Nets (9-19), two teams who meet in the playoffs a season ago and have gotten off to rough starts this season.

Just like in the playoffs, where the Bulls as the No. 5 Seed defeated the No. 4 seeded Nets 4-3, took them apart and came away with a 95-78 victory at Barclays Center.

The Bulls were led by Taj Gibson with 20 points off the bench to go along with eight rebounds. Jimmy Butler had 15 points and five boards. Carlos Boozer had 14 points, Mike Dunleavy had 13 points and seven boards. D.J. Augustin, who was signed by the Bulls earlier this month had 13 points and five assists. Joakim Noah, a New York native had 10 points and eight boards for the Bulls, who won their second straight.

The Nets, who lost their fourth straight contest and five out of six were led by Deron Williams with 18 points. Mirza Teletovic had 17 points. Joe Johnson had 12 points for the Nets, who committed 17 turnovers, had just 11 assists and their bench managed just 23 points on just 4 for 30 shooting.

The combination of Andray Blatche, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce managed just 19 points on 4 for 26 shooting.

Coming into their Christmas Day contest with the Bulls, the Nets ranked in the bottom of the league in opponents three-point percentage (39.7-29th NBA), rebounds per game (40.4-29th NBA) and opponents points per game (102.6-25th).

The Bulls, one of the league's worst offensive teams, shot 48.6 percent from the field against the Nets. They out-rebounded the Nets 45-39.

On top of that, the Nets who have been at the bottom of the league in terms of third quarter output so far this season, were outscored 36-20 after intermission, which included a 21-5 spurt that broke the game open.

Earlier in the week, Nets rookie head coach Jason Kidd said about his team's play, "Were kind of getting comfortable with losing and we've got to make a stand with that because when things get tough, do we just give in? And most of the time we do."

It has been a tough season for the Nets, but despite their struggles, they are just three games back of the Toronto Raptors (11-15) in the Atlantic Division, which states how bad the Eastern Conference has been so far in 2013-14.

With that being said though, the Nets, whose road back to being in playoff contention got harder because center Brook Lopez was lost to for the rest of the season due to a broken foot suffered in a 121-120 overtime loss at the Philadelphia 76ers (8-20).

What is going to make this climb even harder for the Nets is the fact that they do not have an identity to lean on.

While the Bulls are struggling to win games right now, they at least know that they have a identity of playing defense and bringing effort and energy game in and game out. That is why their chances of competing for a playoff spot are much better than the Nets.

The second game featured the Oklahoma City Thunder and the New York Knicks. Two teams headed in opposite directions.

On this date back in 1984 versus the Nets, Hall of Fame Knicks' forward Bernard King scored 60 points on 19 for 30 from the field and 22 for 26 from the free throw line. The Knicks unfortunately lost 120-114.

The Knicks (9-19) latest Christmas Day contest was never close as the Thunder (23-5) won 123-94.

All-Star forward Kevin Durant paced five double-figure scorers for the Thunder with 29 points to go along with seven boards and six assists. Serge Ibaka had 24 points on 10 for 14 shooting. Reggie Jackson had 18 points off the bench. Russell Westbrook recorded his first triple-double and seventh of his career with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.

The Thunder, who have won 18 of their last 20 games, shot 53.6 percent from the field. They hit 13 for 24 from three-point range and registered 32 assists on 45 made field goals.

Their victory at the Knicks also snapped 10-game road losing streak on Christmas Day and it was the team's first victory on Christmas Day in franchise history going back to the team's days when they were the Seattle Supersonics.

At this time a season ago, the Knicks were 20-8, on route to winning their first Atlantic Division title as well as a home record of 31-10.

Their 29-point setback on Wednesday was their 11th loss in 15 tries at Madison Square Garden this season. It was also the worst home loss on Christmas Day for a home team in NBA history.

To make matters worse, the Knicks who started wearing orange color jerseys at certain times at home this season are now 0-7 this season. Three of those losses have been by 20-plus point. A 31-point setback versus the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 10 (120-89); 20-point loss versus the Atlanta Hawks (16-13) 110-90 and 41-defeat versus the Boston Celtics (12-17) 114-73 on Dec. 8.

Playing without the second leading scorer in the league in forward Carmelo Anthony (26.3 ppg) because of sprained left ankle he sustained in the 103-98 victory at the Orlando Magic (8-20) this past Monday night did not help the Knicks cause coming into Wednesday's contest. The Knicks were also without starting lead guard Raymond Felton who injured his groin in the aforementioned contest last Monday night.

The Knicks were lead in scoring by Amar'e Stoudemire who had 22 points on 10 for 16 from the field off the bench. Rookie guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. had 21 points off the pine. J.R. Smith was the only starter in double figures with 20 points, but shot just 8 for 22 from the field, including going just 3 for 9 from three-point territory.

The rest of the starting quintet of the Knicks of Andrea Bargnani, Tyson Chandler, Beno Udrih and Iman Shumpert had just 24 points on just 10 for 27 shooting.

Coming into the contest, the Knicks ranked 30th in fastbreak points (7.6); 29th in rebounds per contest at 38.9 and 25th in points per contest at 95.

The Thunder out-rebounded the Knicks 46-42. Out fastbreaked the Knicks 18-8 and held them to 94 points on 42.2 percent from the floor and connecting on just 6 for 23 from three-point territory.

As mentioned earlier, both of these teams who came into this season with championship aspirations have gone in opposite directions.

To bring this point to its appex, the Thunder have post more wins on the road at 10 than the Knicks have total victories with just nine.

The saving grace for the Knicks though, they are like the Nets just 3 games back of the Nets for the top spot in the Atlanic Division.

If they have any chance of making that a reality, they must get back on the winning track at home. Anthony and Felton must get back soon and they have to play with much more effort and energy. You can have all of the talent in the world, but when you play with no joy, concentration and confidence, winning consistently is that much harder.

The third game of the holiday featured familiar foes who have played on this day before in the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles.

This game though did not feature one of the main characters in perennial All-Star guard in Kobe Bryant who is on the shelf because of a fractured lateral tibial plateau in his left knee.

The Lakers (13-16) without their lead man held their own against the Heat for much of the game thanks to their ability to connect from three-point range as they went 14 for 36 from three-point range.

The team was paced by Nick Young, who scored 20 points off the bench. Jodie Meeks had 17 points. Xavier Henry had 14 points and Pau Gasol had 13 points and 13 rebounds. Wesley Johnson had 12 points.

Despite their efforts, the Lakers fell for the sixth time in as many tries on Christmas Day to the Heat (22-6) 101-95.

Guard Dwyane Wade, last week's Eastern Conferene Player of the Week, led the way with 23 points, six boards and seven assists. Chris Bosh also had 23 points to go along with 11 rebounds. Reigning back-to-back Most Valuable Player LeBron James had 19 points and eight boards. Ray Allen contributed 12 points going 4 for 5 from three-point land.

The Heat, who won their sixth game in a row, their seventh victory in as many chances against the Western Conference and their 19th consecutive overall against the West.

If there is anything that this game showed is the value of having stars on the court. When this contest was in the balance, the Heat were able to get seven layups that allowed them to get separation from the Lakers.

That is because the Heat had the "Big 3" of James, Wade and Bosh on the court in clutch time. That resulted in the likes of Allen, Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers to get easy shot attempts throughout the game and especially at crunch time.

The Lakers without Bryant on the court did not have the focal point that we draw the attention of the Heat defense.

What also helped the Heat in this contest is they had the kind of focus necessary to take care of business against an opponent without their star player. When you are a back-to-back champion which the Heat are, you have seen virtually every single system situation possible.

They also understand that a game like this can bite them in the rear if they were to fall, especially since the only other true contender in the East the Indiana Pacers are ahead of them for the best record in the Conference at 23-5.

"We knew were going to play against a team that was going to come out and going to give us everything. Obviously their main guy down with Kobe, but they got guys that is highly capable," Wade said to ESPN's Heather Cox after the game.

The next to last contest featured Texas rivals in the Houston Rockets and the Spurs.

The Rockets (19-11) lead wire to wire as they defeated the (22-7) for the second time this season 111-98.

James Harden paced the Rockets with 28 points to go along with 6 rebounds and six assists. Terrence Jones had 21 points to go along with 14 rebounds and three blocks. Chandler Parsons also had 21 points on 8 for 14 from the field, including 5 for 9 from three-point range. He also had six rebounds and six assists. Dwight Howard registered his 20th double-double of the season with 15 points and 20 boards to go along with two blocks. Jeremy Lin had 13 points and eight assists for the Rockets, who had lost seven straight to the Spurs prior to their two victories in as many chances versus the Spurs this season.

The Rockets were able to prevail against the Spurs again because of their ability to take care of business on both ends of the court.

At the offensive end, the Rockets, who scored 40 points in the first quarter, shot 52.3 percent from the field, went 12 for 24 from three-point range, outscored the Spurs in the paint 50-44, outscored them on the fastbreak 17-12 and registered 28 assists on 45 made baskets. The Rockets starters outscored the Spurs quintet 98-45.

Defensively, the Rockets held the Spurs to 40.7 percent shooting, including going 5 for 20 from the field. They out-rebounded the Spurs 50-46.

Despite recording his ninth to the double-double of the season of 11 points and 14 rebounds to go along with five assists and six block shots, Tim Duncan shot just 4 for 12 from the field.

Manu Ginobili led the Spurs with 22 points on 8 for 17 from the floor. Kawhi Leonard was the only other player in double-figures with 13 points with seven boards.

The combination of Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Tony Parker and Duncan went just 15 for 44 from the floor.

After leading after the first period 40-25, the Spurs outscored the Rockets 50-43 over the next two quarters, the Rockets outscored the Spurs 28-23 in the fourth. Harden scored 16 of those 28 points in the fourth quarter going 6 for 7 from the field.

"My teammates needed me. The first three quarters, I was just trying to be a facilitator. Making sure the ball moved well and in the fourth quarter, I just tried to be a creator and make some shots," Harden, who is seccond in the league with a 7.2 point per game average in the fourth quarter, said to ESPN's Israel Gutierrez after the game on Wednesday.

Despite leading the Rockets by three and a half games in the Southwest Division, there is cause for concern in Spurs camp.

They have gone 0 for 6 against the Portland Trail Blazers (24-5), Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers (20-11) and Rockets. Dating back to last season, the Rockets have beaten the Spurs three straight times after losing the previous seven in a row.

Overall the Spurs have lost two of their last three contest and have gone 3-3 in their last six games. On top of that they are just 3-6 in recent contest against teams over .500.

While their is cause for concern, we got to remember, these are the defending Western Conference champs. They are going through a rough stretch, but they will bounce back that is a promise.

The last game, the most entertaining one of the day featured a budding rivarly between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors.

It was just a few years ago that these two teams could only dream of playing on Christmas Day. Two days ago that dream became a reality and for the Clippers (20-11), it was the second year in succession they have played on Christmas Day. They won versus the Denver Nuggets a year ago 112-100.

They did not get the same result this time around at the Warriors (17-13) who defeated them 105-103, taking revenge against the Clippers, who defeated them 126-115 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA back on Halloween night.

David Lee and Klay Thompson each had 23 points to lead the Warriors. Lee registered his 18 double-double of the season as he had 13 boards to go along with his point total. Stehpen Curry also recorded a double-double, his 13th of the season with 15 points and 11 assists. Harrison Barnes had 14 off the bench and Andrew Bogut had a double-double of his own with 10 points and 14 boards.

The Clippers were paced by Chris Paul who had his 24th double-double of the season with 26 points and 11 assists. Blake Griffin registered his 23rd double-double of the season with 20 points and 14 rebounds. Jamal Crawford had 19 points, while DeAndre Jordan had 13 points, 13 rebounds and six block shots. Darren Collison had 11 points off the bench.

The Warriors came through with the victory despite shooting just 42.1 percent from the field because they managed to hit 10 three-pointers in 24 tries. They out-rebounded the Clippers 49-38 and outscored them 52-38 in the paint.

The Clippers lost for just the third time this season in 22 chances when taking a lead into the fourth quarter, which they did at 77-74 late Wednesday night. It was also just their third setback of such kind in 11 tries on the road.

These two teams over the last couple of years have grown a serious dislike for one another. That went to another level in this past contest.

At the end of the third quarter Warriors forward Draymond Green got into a scuffle that resulted in Green getting ejected for a flagarant two foul from throwing an elbow. Griffin drew just a technical foul.

In the early stages of the fourth quarter, Griffin got into it with Bogut drawing his second technical foul resulting in his ejection. Bogut drew just a flagrant one foul as well as a technical foul.

Without their inside presenec on the court, the Clippers were unable to close as they missed many shot from in close in the closing stages of the final period.

When the game ended, players from both teams got tangled near the tunnel that lead to the Clippers' locker room, which resulted in security personnel stepped in. In the middle of all this was former Warrior swingman Stephen Jackson.

While both of these teams have had risen from the ashes of the basement in the NBA standings, both head coaches of Clippers Glenn "Doc" Rivers and Mark Jackson of the Warriors, both former players in the league say this is a long way from being a rivalry, especially since both teams are far from being perennial championship contenders.

One thing is for sure, they are very entertaining high scoring teams, who will meet for the third of four meetings back at Oracle Arena on Jan. 30 on TNT.

There are a number of things that can be taken away from the games that took place on Christmas Day. For starters four of the five teams that won today were the away teams, the Bulls, Thunder, Heat and Rockets. The Nets and Knicks who have the No. 1 and No. 2 highest payrolls in the league respectably prove that you cannot buy victories in the league. The Rockets if they can play at the level they did on Wednesday night, they can be in the conversation as a title contender. The Warriors, who had a breakthough season a year ago, have learned that going from pretender to contender is not easy. However, if they play with the kind of effort and energy they did on Wednesday night on both ends, they have a chance of making the playoffs again. The biggest lesson on this day was demonstrated by the Bulls. A team that has not been the same since losing the 2011 MVP in Derrick Rose to a season ending knee injury, is that when you have a identity and you stick with it, competing to win games is easy and proving you are more than just one player is even easier. That is especially the case when you have a coach in Tom Thibodeau that demands it from the practice court to gameday.
Information, quotations and statistics is courtesy of; 12/26/13 1 a.m. edition of "NBA Tonight" on ESPN 2 with Alfredo Lomeli and Tim Legler; 12/26/13 6 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" with Matt Winer and Steve Smith;

Monday, December 23, 2013

J-Speaks: Lakers' All-Star Guard is Down Again

On Apr 12, the Los Angeles Lakers won versus the Golden State Warriors 118-116. They unfortunately lost their perennial All-Star guard Kobe Bryant to a torn left Achilles and was lost for the playoffs. Like any accomplished player, he went right to work rehabing the Achilles and was able to return to the court on Dec. 8 versus the Toronto Raptors. While it was a struggle for Bryant for much of this, was showing signs that he was returning to his Hall of Fame form. At the Memphis Grizzlies six days ago, he was regaining his form as he had his best outing since his return. Unfortunately that great performance will be the last for his comeback.

In the 96-92 win at the Grizzlies (11-15) six days ago, the five-time champion sustained an injury to his knee, which he thought at first was just a tweak and that he hyperextended it. He was able to finish the game and scored 21 points, including hitting a key three-pointer late to helps the Lakers (13-14) close out the Grizzlies.

The next day however, it was revealed in an MRI that the 15-time All-Star sustained a fracture in the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. He is expected to be out six weeks.

In the six games that Bryant played, he averaged 13.8 points on 43 percent shooting in 29.6 minutes. It is a far cry from his 27.3 average a season ago, which was third in the league.

The Lakers went 2-4 scoring scoring just 97.2 points per game and giving up 105.5 points per contest in the games Bryant played.

In the first 19 games the team played without Bryant, the Lakers averaged 101.3 points per contest and surrendered 102.8 points per night.

"He was making great steps and you defintely see him making progress since he has gotten back," Lakers' forward/center Pau Gasol, who also had 21 points and nine boards at the Grizzlies, said this past Thursday to the media.

"He's been working extremely hard, playing extremely hard, so I'll miss him a lot."

To put the short term prospects of what Bryant's injury means to the Lakers into perspective, the Lakers face the prospect of not having Bryant for the next 22 games.

In that period of time, 10 of those opponents have an above .500 record. The Lakers will also embark on a seven-game road trip, where they will face the likes of the Phoenix Suns (16-10), Boston Celtics (12-17), Chicago Bulls (10-16), New York Knicks (8-18) and Miami Heat (20-6).

On top of that, the team is not just missing Bryant, they are currently without all three of their point guards. Starting lead guard Steve Blake (9.8 ppg, 7.7 apg-leads team) is currently on the shelf and will be gone for up to five weeks because of a serious elbow injury. Back-up guard Jordan Farmar (9.2 ppg, 4.4 apg) has been sidelined in recent games because of a hamstring injury. He is expected to return soon. Last season's Steve Nash (6.7 ppg, 4.8 apg), who has played in just six games this season has been out because of back problems and there is no timetable for his return.

The more larger cloud that is hanging over the Lakers with this setback by Bryant is that back on Nov. 25, he signed a two-year $48.5 million contract extension back on.

If you count all of the minutes that the 2008 Most Valuable Player (MVP) and two-time NBA Finals MVP has garnered in the regular season and postseason in his 18-year Hall of Fame career, Bryant has played the fifth most minutes in NBA history with 54,208. The 220 playoff games that Bryant has played in is the eqiuvalent of 2.7 seasons. The four other players who have played more minutes are the late Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlin (55,418), Nets current head coach Jason Kidd (56,199), Hall of Famers Karl Malone (62,759) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (66,297).

It is hard to imagine that Bryant is at the end of his career and that he may not be able to finish it out on his own terms.

Coming into last season, Bryant had dreams of one more run at another title. Those dreams became difficult when the additions of center Dwight Howard and Nash did not work. They won just 45 games and they just snuck into the playoffs. Their reward, a date with the San Antonio Spurs and it ended in a four-game sweep.

This past summer, Howard bolted to the Houston Rockets in free agency and the injuries have made Nash a shell of himself in his short time as a Laker.

Currently, the Lakers are on the outside of the playoffs looking in and the prospects of them even making the playoffs do not look good.

Even if Bryant, the NBA's 4th all-time leading scorer at 31,700 points does come back in the exact time of six weeks, will he comeback in time to prevent the Lakers missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and for just the third time in the last 21 seasons.

"He'll do what he needs to be ready," Lakers head coach Mike, D'Antoni said this past Thursday.

"I think he'll be back in six weeks and he'll be hunting for some bear."
Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 12/19/13 6 p.m. edition of ESPN's "Sportscenter" with Karl Ravech and John Anderson; 12/19/13 TNT NBA Tip-Off presented by with Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley;;

Friday, December 20, 2013

J-Speaks: The Hot Starts by the Pacers, Spurs and Trail Blazers

When you fall one game short of reaching the NBA Finals like the Indiana Pacers did, one game short of winning another title like the San Antonio Spurs did or when a 13-game losing streak to close the season that ended the smallest chance of just making the postseason like the Portland Trail Blazers did a season ago, the question is how will you bounce back the next season. In the case of these three small market teams, they have comeback in a big way.

After losing in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games to the back-to-back champion Miami Heat (19-6) a season ago, the Pacers (20-5) came into this season with a chip on their shoulder.

They have used that to fuel them to the best record in the East so far this season. Their nine straight wins out the gate is their best in franchise history, which dates back to their days in the American Basketball Association.

Their success has been predicated on three things. First their amazing ability to play great defense night in and night out.

The Central Division leading Pacers lead the league in points allowed per game at 90.2 and field goal percentage allowed at 41.5 percent. Opponents have shot just 33.6 percent from three-point range against the Pacers, ranked 6th in the league. The Pacers have the 6th best rebound differential in the NBA at a plus 2.8 and they are 10th in the league in total boards per contest grabbing 43.7. They are 4th in block shots per conetest at average 6.2 block shots per contest and starting center Roy Hibbert (12.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg) is second in the league averaging 2.9 blocks.

The second reason the Pacers have gotten off to their amazing start this first month of the season is the continued emergence of their star player swingman Paul George.

The first-time All-Star and the Most Improved Player a season ago has taken his game to an even higher level this season averaging 23.8 points per game, which is ranked 7th in The Association, to go along with 5.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.0 steals per contest.

To put George's start to the season into context, in the Pacers aforementioned first nine games of the season, all wins, George scored 20 points or more in all of them. That is the best start individually for a Pacers in franchise history, surpassing Hall of Famer and NBA on TNT color analyst Reggie Miller, who did it the first six games of the 1990-91 season and former Pacer and CBS College Basketball analyst Clark Kellogg who did it the first seven games of the 1985-86 season.

It is not just the fact that George has established himself as the Pacers best offensive player, he has become their go-to scorer when the game is on the line.

He demonstrated that poise ability to come through in the clutch on national television at the New York Knicks (8-17), when he scored 21 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter and overtime in the Pacers 103-96 win on Nov. 20 at Madison Square Garden.

What makes the performance even more incredible is that he was the complete opposite in the Pacers first loss of the season four days prior. He registered just 12 points on 3 for 14 shooting in the 110-94 loss at the Chicago Bulls (9-16), more on them later.

He had a tough performance last Saturday 99-94 win versus the Charlotte Bobcats (12-14). George had just 10 points on 2 for 12 shooting.

While George has been the pillar on offense for the Pacers, the team is not where they are today if not for a couple new editions and the improvement of a couple of key cogs.

One of the weaknesses of the Pacers a season ago was their inability to get consistent production from their bench as well as the inconsistency of the starting backcourt of Lance Stephenson and George Hill.

The Pacers addressed their bench this off-season by acquiring veteran forward Luis Scola (8.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and guard C.J. Watson (6.3 ppg) who have been a solid edition and has added depth to the frontcout of the Pacers.

Stephenson and Hill have gone from players who showed up here and there to ones that have come through game in and game out. In the case of Stephenson, he is averaging career-highs of 12.9 points, 6.6 boards and 4.9 assists per contest.

In fact he is the only player to have multiple triple-doubles this season. His first came in a 95-79 win versus the Memphis Grizzlies (10-15) on Nov. 11 where he had 13 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Stephenson's second triple came in a 97-82 win at the Celtics (12-15) 11 days later, where he registered 10 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists to go along with four steals.

In the aforementioned win the Pacers had last Saturday versus the Bobcats, Stephenson came close to his third triple-double of the season with 20 points, 11 boards and seven assists. Hibbert registered 18 points and 11 rebounds. Forward David West had 14 points and eight rebounds. Hill had 13 points.

With the emergence of George, an improved bench, consistent play from Hill and Stephenson and a identity around playing strong defense, the Pacers have shown going 15-1 in November, that if they do meet the Heat, who have been great themselves to start this season, the games they play during the regular season, will have major implications in the standing and will serve as notice of what could happen if they meet in the postseason this spring.

They won the first of their four meetings this season 90-84 five days ago, to improve their mark to 5-2 to start the month of December. One of those losses though was at the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-4) where they lost 118-94, their largest margin of defeat of the season.

In their 24-point setback, the Thunder, who scored the most points in a game against the Pacers this season, shot 61 percent from the floor, where out-rebounded 46-29 and the dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were remarkable. Durant had 36 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and Westbrook had 26 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds.

They have had lost their last two games however. The first was their first setback at home to the Detroit Pistons 101-96 this past Monday. That was followed by a 97-94 loss at the Miami Heat, where they blew a 15-point lead in the second half.

While the Heat are the "Top Dogs" of the East as well as the entire league, the Pacers have shown that they are for real. With that being said, the season is still young and head coach Frank Vogel and his squad have to continue to improve so that if they do meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, they can have that Game 7 if it comes to that on their home court.

While the East has one contending team trying to get to where they Heat finished a season ago, another team trying to recapture that glory is the Southwest leading Spurs (21-5).

After last season's disappointing finish in the Finals where the Spurs blew a 3-2 series lead to fall to the Heat in seven games, main thought that the Spurs chances of contending for a fifth title were down the Alamo River.

They have proven once again that underestimating themis a big mistake. They once again are in the thick of the Western Conference.

They went 14-3 in the first month of the season, which included an 11-game winning streak from Nov. 5, to Nov. 25, which unfortunately came to an end two days later when they were defeated by the Thunder 94-88.

With that being said, the team has played great led by the amazing "Big 3" of forward Tim Duncan (14.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg-lead team, 1.7 bpg-leads team), guards Tony Parker (17.5 ppg-leads team, 6.0 apg-leads team, 51.7 FG%-lead team) and Manu Ginobili (11.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.7 apg).

The word that describes the Spurs as a team is consistency on both ends of the court. They are 8th in the league in scoring at 103.1 points per game and their second in assists per game at 24.8. They rank fourth in points allowed at 94.7 and tied for sixth in field goal percentage allowed at 43.4 percent.

This consistency on both ends is not just a product of the great coaching from Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and the remarkable greatness of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, but the stellar play from the likes of starting small forward Kawhi Leonard (12.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.8 spg-leads team), who is getting better and better by the day.

Guards Danny Green (7.4 ppg, 40.6 3-Pt.%), Patty Mills (8.4 ppg, 43.4 3-Pt.%) and Marco Bellinelli (10.2 ppg, 53.2 3-Pt.%) are big reasons why the Spurs rank third in the league in three-point percentage at 40.2 percent.

Starting center Tiago Splitter (8.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) has been very steady for the Spurs in the paint and on the glass and forward Boris Diaw (9.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg) whether starting or coming off the bench provides steadiness on the perimeter or inside.

While they understand that they need to be peaking in the months of March and April as playoff time approaches, they understand that getting off to a solid start is just as important and their strong beginning in the first month of the season. As mentioned they went 14-3 in November and have 7-2 mark so far in December proving once again that they are a title contender and they are still a force for the likes of the Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers (18-9) to deal with.

With their stellar mark through the first 23 games of the season, that would be enough to put them a top of the West. That is not the case because the aformentioned Thunder are a top the West and right behind them is the real surprise of the Conference and the league so far this season, the Portland Trail Blazers (22-5).

Last season, the Trail Blazers had a surprising start to the season going 20-15 in the first 35 games. The team unfortunately finished 13-34 to finish this season, which includes a 13-game losing streak to close the season.

A big reason for the slide is the fact that Trail Blazers' had a stellar starting five, their bench averaged just 18.5 points per contest, ranked dead last a season ago.

This offseason, the Blazers front office went to work to take care of the team's main weakness and added a huge missing piece that solidified the starting five.

This summer, the Trail Blazers signed guard Mo Williams (9.3 ppg, 4.5 apg, 37.0 3-Pt.%) and forward Dorell Wright (5.1 ppg, 39.2 3-Pt.%) and acquired forward Thomas Robinson (5.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg). In the draft, the team selected at the No. 10 spot C.J. McCollum out of Lehigh, who is yet to play this season because of a broken foot and they drafted in the second round (No. 31 overall) swingman Allen Crabbe out of University of California, who has shown flashes of what he can do when he has been given the chance to play.

When last season's starting center J.J. Hickson (12.7 ppg, 10.4 rpg last) turned his stellar season into a three-year, $15 milllion contract with the Denver Nuggets, their was a major void in the starting center spot.

In a three-team deal with the Sacramento Kings and the New Orleans Pelicans, the Blazers acquired center Robin Lopez. While the numbers have been solid, 9.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, they have been worth their weight in gold, in particular to his starting front court mate LaMarcus Aldridge.

With a true center alongside him, the eight-year veteran out of the University of Texas Aldridge is having a break out season leading the Blazers with career-highs in scoring at 23.3 points and 11.1 rebounds on 47.9 percent from the field. He has had 16 double-doubles (points and rebounds) so far this season, tied for 5th in the league with Houston Rockets' center Dwight Howard. Lopez has recorded 11 double-doubles so far this season.

When the Trail Blazers drafted their starting lead guard Damian Lillard at the No. 6 spot a season ago out of Weber State, not many did not know what to expect out of him. Well all he did was win Rookie of the Month every month last season and his amazing season where he averaged 19.0 points per outing and 6.5 assists earned him Rookie of the Year.

He has continued that amazing play in his second season as the Trail Blazers second leading scorer at 21.3 points per contest, 5.9 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game on 42.8 percent from three-point range.

He especially this season has shown a boldness to make shots in the closing moments that break the heart of the opponent.

At the start of the week, Lillard hit a fade away jumper in the closing seconds of overtime that gave the Blazers a 111-109 win at the Pistons. The Blazers' lead guard had 23 points and seven assists to go along with three steals.

Lillard followed that up by hitting the game-winning three-pointer in the closing moments two nights later giving the Blazers a 119-116 win at the Cleveland Cavaliers (9-15). Lillard nearly had a triple-double with 36 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists going 11 for 23 from the field, including going 8 for 12 from three-point range. He out played the other emerging lead guard in the Cavs Kyrie Irving, who had 25 points and 10 assists.

The stellar play of Aldridege and Lillard and the presence of Lopez has allowed the wing players of the Trail Blazers starting quintet in small forward Nicolas Batum and Lillard's backcourt mate in Wesley Matthews to have break out seasons themselves.

Each year that Batum has been in the league, he has grown by leaps and bounds and this season is no different. He is averaging the second highest point production of his young career at 14.1 points to go along with career-high averages of 6.3 boards and 5.2 assists, which is second on the team. He is shooting 47 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from behind the three-point line.

After a one season with the Utah Jazz where he played very well averaging 9.4 points, Matthews, who was not drafted back in 2009 when he came out of Marquette University, signed a very front loaded five-year $34 million offer sheet with the Blazers on July 10, 2010. Being a restricted free agent, the Jazz had seven days to match the offer. Four days later, they decided not to offer a matching contract and Matthews became a Trail Blazer.

In his first three season in the Pacific Northwest, Matthews averaged 15.9, 13.7 and 14.8 points per contest on 40.7, 38.3 and 39.8 percent from behind the three-point arc respectably. This season, he has shattered those numbers averaging a career-bests 16.2 points per contest on 50 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from three-point range.

The balanced attack from the starting five to the reserves is why the Trail Blazers are leading league in scoring at 108.3 points per contest; 5th in assists per contest at 23.5; 10th in field goal percentage at 45.7 percent and No. 1 in three-point field goal percentage at 41.1 percent.

In their game this past Saturday nigit, a 139-105 win at the Philadelphia 76ers (7-19), the Trail Blazers went 21 for 37 from three-point range. The 21 three-pointers made, set a new franchise record and were two shy of the NBA record set by the Orlando Magic in the 2008-09 when they hit 23 three-pointers in a game at the Sacramento Kings.

The 139 points the Blazers put up are the most in a road game since 1992. The Blazers got 60 points from their bench with Wright leading the way with 15 points on 5 for 5 from three-point territory. Williams had 14 points and Robinson had 10.

The Trail Blazers took over this game in the third quarter where they turned a seven-point lead at intermission, 71-64 into a 111-79 lead after three. They outscored the Sixers 40-15 in the third period, going 7 for 12 from the three-point line, garnering 13 boards to the Sixers eight and accumilating 14 assists to the Sixers 2. The Blazers had 41 assists for the game, falling eight shy of the team record that was set in a game versus the Denver Nuggets back in the 1990-91.

The victory was the team's ninth versus the East and so far they have had 11 wins in 11 tries against the rival Conference.

A season ago, the Trail Blazers were one of the worst defensive teams in the league ranking 21st in points allowed at 100.7; next to last (29th overall) in field goal percentage allowed at 47.4 percent and 24th in the league in rebounding at 40.8 boards per game.

While they still rank at the bottom in points allowed at 101.9 per game, they are ranked 16th in field goal pecentage allowed giving up 45.3 percent shooting and they are 4th in the league in rebounding per game at 46 boards per contest and are 3rd in rebounding differential at a plus 3.3 per game.

To put the Trail Blazers supreme start into perspective, their 20-4 start through the first 24 games is the second best in team history. They went 22-2 in their first 24 games to start the 1990-91 season. Of their first four losses, two came at the hands of the Phoenix Suns (14-10), who have defeated the Trail Blazers two of the three meetings this season. Their third loss came at home on Dec. 7 versus the Dallas Mavericks (15-10), when guard Monta Ellis hit the game-winner at the buzzer to give the Mavs a 108-106 win.

Their most recent set back was a 120-109 defeat at the Minnesota Timberwolves (13-13) on Wednesday night. It was the back end of a back-to-back and the fourth game in five days for the team.

In the early part of this season, especially during their 11-game winning from Nov. 8 to Nov. 25, the Trail Blazers were able to rise to the moment when called on to do so.

Their overcame a 21-point deficit to defeat the Bulls 98-95 on Nov. 22 in a game that will be remembered as the one that Bulls' guard Derrick Rose tore the meniscus in his right knee that will keep him out the rest of the season.

Despite a poor performance by Aldridge who went just 4 for 20 from the field scoring just 12 points, Matthews had 28 points on 12 for 19 from the field, including going 4 for 8 from three-point range. Lillard had 20 points and six assists. Batum added 17 points, eight boards and five steals and Lopez had 13 points and a career-high 16 rebounds.

The next night at the Golden State Warriors (14-13), they used a 42-22 run that turned a 12 point deficit into a 113-101 win. The run also came on the heels of a scuffle between Warriors starting center Andrew Bogut and Trail Blazers' center Joel Freeland. Matthews and Williams also got involved in the scuffle and were ejected as a result.

Following a 120-106 loss at the Suns on Nov. 27, which ended their 11-game winning streak, the Blazers finished the month at 13-3. The questioned coming into December is how would they fair against tougher competition.

After a 114-108 win at the Los Angeles Lakers (11-12) to start the month, they pulled a 106-102 victory over the East leading Pacers on the back end of a back-to-back. Aldridge lead the way with 26 points and 10 boards. Lillard also had 26 points.

After scoring just 20 points in the first period, the Trail Blazers put up 25, 27 and 34 points the next three quarters and overcame a 43-point performance by George, who hit 7 for 15 from three-point range.

Two nights later, the Blazers registered another comeback as they trailed by as many as 12 versus the Thunder and an 11-point deficit at intermission to a 111-104 win.

Aldridge was spectacular again scoring 38 points on 17 for 28 from the field to go along with 13 boards, five assists and two steals. Batum had 14 points and six rebounds. Lillard also had 14 points. Matthews had 13 and Lopez had another double-double of 12 points, 10 boards and four block shots.

They followed that big win, with a their largest margin of victory, a 130-98 one versus the Utah Jazz (6-20), where they went 17 for 23 from three-point range, setting a new NBA record for three-point percentage at 73.9 percent, according to and at the time set a new franchise record for triples made.

Following the aforementioned loss at the buzzer versus the Mavs, they won at the Jazz two nights later 105-94. Three days later, they defeated the Houston Rockets (16-9) 111-104.

Aldridge had a game to remember with 31 points, 25 rebounds, two steals and two blocks to lead the Blazers. He registered his fourth 30-plus point and 20-plus rebound game of his career, which is also a new franchise record. He also registered his fourth 20-point, 20-rebound game of his career, tying the father of Warriors' guard Klay Thompson, Mychal Thompson for the most in franchise history. Sidney Wicks has the second most 20/20 games in franchise history with six and Hall of Famer Bill Walton has the most with eight.

Matthews had 18 points. Lopez had another double-double of 16 points and 10 rebounds to go along with two blocks. Batum had 15 points, six boards and six assists. Williams had 13 points off the bench for the Blazers, who scored 100-plus points for the 10 straight contest, which is the most since the 1993-94 season, where they scored 100-plus points for 13 consecutive contests. Earlier in the week, they have surpassed that streak and have scored over the century mark for 14 consecutive contest. They have gone 11-3 in this stretch.

The Trail Blazers have gone from the bottom of the West to the very top so far. When this month concludes, head coach Terry Stotts team will have a clear idea of where they are at as they will face the Clippers the day after Christmas on TNT. Two days later, they will face the back-to-back champion Heat and on New Year's Eve will be at the Thunder.

A year ago, the Pacers were at the door of making the Finals, but fell in Game 7 at the Heat. The Spurs seconds away from winning their fifth title in franchise history, but could not close the deal in Game 6 and ultimately fell in Game 7. The Trail Blazers missed out on the playoffs all together because of their unproductive bench. The Spurs and Pacers have comeback this season on a mission to get back to where they were a season ago and finish the deal. The Blazers are trying to just get back into the postseason, where they have not been since 2011 and see what they can do.

While these three small market NBA teams are at different stages in terms of their expectations, they have three things in common. First they have identities that have helped them win a high level of games. Second, headline players that have made their teammates better and third they have made smart decisions in terms of personnel. They have the right coaches who have put their respective players in a position to perform at high levels. The headline players are all about winning and the role players on each team know their roles and play them to perfection.

The Heat are back-to-back champions and look every bit the part of a team trying to win a third consecutive NBA championship. The two opponents who they defeated on their way to the title in the Pacers and Spurs are priming to meet them again and trying to take them down. The Trail Blazers have shown to this point that they are among the best in the West. The season is still very young and they have a lot to prove.
Information and statistics are courtesy of the NBA statistics, standings and team section of;;; 11/21/13 1 a.m. edition of "NBA Tonight" on ESPN 2 with Cassidy Hubbarth and Avery Johnson; 11/23/13 1:30 a.m. edition of "NBA Tonight" on ESPN 2 with Cassidy Hubbarth and P.J. Carlesimo; 11/24/13 2:30 a.m. edition of "NBA Tonight" with Alfredo Lomeli and P.J. Carlesimo; 11.24/13 9 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" with Jared Greenberg, Dennis Scott and Mike Fratello; 12/7/13 2 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" presented by State Farm with Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Mike Fratello; 12/13/13 1 a.m. edition of TNT's "Inside the NBA" presented by KIA with Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley; 12/14/13 8 p.m. contest between the Portland Trail Blazers versus Philadelphia 76ers; 12/14/13 7 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" presented by State Farm with Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Isiah Thomas; 12/15/13 7 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" presented by State Farm with Matt Winer, Dennis Scott and Isiah Thomas.

Monday, December 9, 2013

J-Speaks: Sharpshooting Swingman Breaks NBA Record

Nearly two decades ago, 15-year NBA veteran guard of the then Seattle Supersonics (now Oklahoma City Thunder), Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics Dana Barros had a streak of 89 straight games of hitting a three-point field goal. The streak lasted from Dec. 23, 1994 to Jan. 10, 1996. This past Friday night, one of the best shooters in the league today surpassed his record.

With his first connection from three-point range at the 5:30 mark of the first quarter in s 108-89 versus the Cleveland Cavaliers (6-13), Atlanta Hawks (11-10) swingman Kyle Korver, who had 10 points on 4 for 6 from the field, including going 2 for 3 from behind the three-point line, hit a three-pointer for the 90th consecutive game, surpassing Barros' record.

He also surpassed during this streak former NBA guard Michael Adams, who made a three-pointer in 79 straight games; Former Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns' swingman and current NBATV analyst Dennis Scottt, who made a three-pointer 78 straight games and Indiana Pacers Hall of Fame guard and current NBA on TNT color analyst Reggie Miller, who had 68 consecutive games with a three-point connection.

To put this amazing streak of Korver's in persepctive, which started on Nov. 4, 2012 to this past Friday, Korver shattered the Hawks' team record for a three-pointer made in consecutive games, which was 42.

During this streak, the 11-year veteran of Creighton, has gone 235 out of 502 from three-point range, a percentage of 46.8 percent. The former 2nd round pick, 51st overall has averaged 11.3 points per contest during this streak. Maybe the most important statistics during this streak that Korver mentioned after the game on Friday night is the Hawks' 51-39 during this stretch.

"I really view this as a team streak," Korver said after the game.

"I'm not out there creating these shots. I got teammates setting screens and passing me the ball. They were all pulling for me in this. This streak meant a lot of people in different ways."

Korver's accomplishment is a great example of what it means to have developed an amazing skill, shooting the ball and using that skill to build a long career that has him continue to play.

A career that took him from Sixers for five seasons, three seasons with the Utah Jazz, two seasons with the Chicago Bulls and the last two seasons with the Hawks. This off-season, he signed a new four-year $24 million contract and his shooting has allowed the likes of starting center Al Horford and starting power forward Paul Milsap the ability to operate inside as well as starting guard Jeff Teague to operate the Hawks offense on the perimeter.

On top of that, Korver's streak is an example of what hard work and committment to get better at one's craft can lead to.

When you are a late second round pick like Korver was, you may have only one shot to prove that you belong. His dedication to become one of the best three-point shooters in the game has allowed him the chance to not only play, but be a major part of the teams he has played on.

"The NBA is the best of the best. The NBA has been going on for a long time, so anytime you have the opportunity to be part of a record is a really special thing. I don't take it for granted," Korver, who has been part of the playoffs teams the last eight seasons, said after the game last Friday.

Korver's amazing streak has been truly amazing. It is one thing to have a great night of shooting the ball. Any player, especially in the pros has one of those amazing nights. It is the players, who put in the time and committment to become great at their craft that give themselves a chance to make history that Korver did this past Friday. What it also takes is having teammates that believe in you and appreciate and respect the great skill that Korver has and will do the little things like setting great screens to get you open so that amazing skill can be put on display.

How long this streak will last, nobody knows. What is very clear is that Korver has shown how great of a shooter he has made himself into. How much respect his teammates have for the great skill he puts on display night in and night out. More than anything, Korver's ability to shoot the ball, especially for long range makes the other player's ability to perform on the floor easier and the chances of winning that much higher.

Information, statistics and quotes are courtesy of 12/6/13 7:30 p.m. contest between the Cleveland Cavaliers versus Atlanta Hawks on Sports South with Bob Rathbun and Dominique Wilkins; 12/7/13 2 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" presented by State Farm with Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Mike Fratello;

Monday, November 25, 2013

J-Speaks: Early Season Candidates For Most Improved Players in NBA

When a new season begins, one of the main questions that is asked is what players are going to put all of their amazing talent together and start to tap the potential that many so-called experts and analysts believe certain players have. Last season, it was Indiana Pacers' swingman Paul George who put it all together and not only won the Most Improved Player Award a season ago, but he helped lead the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell one game short of the NBA Finals to the eventual back-to-back champion Miami Heat. This season, there are five players who have done what George did a seasons ago and not only have played well themselves, but they have made their teams better.

Those five players who have improved their games as well as their teams are New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis, Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes, Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson, Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague and Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe have done exactly that.

A season ago, Davis put up solid numbers as a rookie with 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest.

In his second season, he numbers have been off the charts with averages of 20.7 points, 11.0 rebounds (5th NBA), 1.9 steals and 4.0 blocks, which ranks second in the league behind, Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who averages 4.3 blocks per contest.

In the Pelicans (6-6) 105-98 victory versus the Utah Jazz (1-14) on Wednesday night, Nov.13, Davis had 22 points on 9 for 12 from the field, nine boards and eight block shots. The eight rejections Davis had was the second consecutive outing that he recorded that number, joining current Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Garnett as the only players in league history to record back-to-back games of eight or more blocks at the 20 years of age or younger.

Davis had 13 points nine boards and nine blocks in the Pelicans 135-98 win versus the Sixers four days prior.

The improve play of Davis on both ends has helped to makes the Pelicans a very competitive team in the early part of this season. More than anything else though, he has made life a little easier for the likes of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon. Davis' ability to shoot from 15 feet along with his ability to score around the basket and change ends helps the Pelicans to score quickly, which they have made a better effort to do this season and to keep teams from having easy chances at the rim in the half court.

Along with that, the effort and energy that Davis has shown on a nightly basis gives this talented group the most important thing they will need if they have plans on making the playoffs. A sense of urgency to bring a high competitive spirit to the court night in and night out.

That was never more prevalent than this past Friday versus the Cleveland Cavaliers (4-10). Trailing 93-81 late in the fourth quarter, the Pelicans closed the game on a 23-7 run the final 4:44 to win the game 104-100.

Davis was one of six Pelicans in double-figures with 17 points to go along with 13 boards and three blocks.

When Davis came out of the University of Kentucky as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 Draft out of Kentucky, he was a player in the eyes of many experts as one who can change the fortunes of a franchise.

This season in particular, he is living up to those expectations and if he continues to perform at the level he is this season, he not only has a strong chance of winning the Most Improved Player Award, but to make his first All-Star appearance, which would be really nice, since the game will be played in New Orleans.

Coming into the season, the Sixers (6-9) were in a rebuilding mode. The centerpiece of this new era of Sixers basketball was rookie guard Michael Carter-Williams (17.3 ppg, 7.4 apg-leads team, 5.7 rpg, 3.0 spg-2nd NBA). The anchor of the team was going to be swingman Evan Turner (21.7 ppg-leads team, 6.9 rpg, 3.6 apg). While he and forward Thaddeus Young (14.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.7 spg) was going to be important in this process as the veterans, no one expected the kind of start that starting center Spencer Hawes got off to this season.

His averages of 16.8 points, 10.3 boards and 1.6 blocks per contest are the best numbers of his career.

To put these stellar numbers of Hawes into perspective, there are only six guys who are averaging 15-plus points and 10-plus rebounds per game. Those players are Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star forward Kevin Love (24.9 ppg-3rd NBA, 13.6 rpg-T-1st NBA), Los Angeles Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin (22.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg), aforementioned Davis of the Pelicans, Houston Rockets All-Star center Dwight Howard (17.9 ppg, 13.6 rpg-T-1st NBA), Orlando Magic starting center Nikola Vucevic (15.0 ppg, 10.7 rpg) and Hawes.

For much of his career, Hawes has been a solid player. In three of his prior six seasons coming into this one with the Sacramento Kings and the Sixers, he averaged double figures in points and aside from his rookie year, he has averaged between five and seven boards per contest.

His emergence has been a huge boost for the Sixers who have a lot of talented players in the aforementioned Turner, Carter-Williams, guards James Anderson (10.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Tony Wroten (12.6 ppg) to name a few.

When you have that kind of talent, it takes having guys like Hawes, Turner and Young who have some years in the NBA and production to go alongside it as teammates to see from practice to game action the kind of work ethic and committment it takes to succeed individually and to help the team succeed.

Hawes put that veteran experience on full display last Friday versus the struggling Milwaukee Bucks (2-10), when he hit a fall away three-pointer right in front of the Bucks bench with 1.7 seconds left in regulation to tie the score at 102-102.

He scored 11 of his team-high 25 points in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime to lift the Sixers to a 115-107 win, snapping a four-game losing streak. Hawes also had 12 to garner his ninth double-double of the season. He was 11 for 16 from the field, including going 3 for 6 from three-point range.

Hawes is a great example of how being prepared is the first step in becoming a great player and his stellar play combined with the young talent on the roster gives the Sixers hope for the future.

As mentioned earlier, the emergence of George is a big reason why the Pacers (12-1) pused the back-to-back champion Heat to the limit in the Eastern Conference Finals a season ago. The other player who emerged a season ago and has really raised his game this season is swingman Lance Stephenson.

In the East Semifinals against Heat two years ago, Stephenson got attention not for a play that he made on the court, but for a chocke gesture he made when back-to-back Most Valuable Player forward LeBron James of the Heat missed a technical foul free throw. It was not received well afterwards, especially since the Pacers after winning Game 3 of the series to go up 2-1, they lost the last three of the series to fall 4-2.

Last season though, the Brooklyn, NY native grew up and allowed his play on the court to do the talking as he averaged 8.8 points and 3.9 boards as a starter for the East runner up Pacers who took the Heat all the way to Game 7 before falling again to the Heat one game short of the NBA Finals.

This season, Stephenson has been stellar as the Pacers second leading scorer at 13.4 points to go along with 5.9 rebounds and a team leading 5.2 assists per contest.

His play along with the continue emergence of leading scorer Paul George (24.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.7 spg) is the reason why the Pacers are becoming a true threat to the Heat in the Eastern Conference.

It is not just his scoring, but like George, Stephenson has raised his game in every other area with his rebound and assists averages. Stephenson has learned that he can effect the game in other areas besides scoring.

He demonstrated that the 103-96 overtime win at the struggling New York Knicks (3-9) last Wednesday night. He struggled scoring the ball putting in just nine points, but he had nine boards and five assists.

In the Pacers 97-82 win at the Celtics (5-10), Stephenson recorded his second triple-double of the season with 10 pionts, 11 rebounds, 10 assists to go along with four steals.

Of all the players mentioned who are in early running for the Most Improved Player Award, Stephenson is the one player who is on a championship contender and his continued improvement will play a major key to the Pacers this season, especially if they want to unseed the Heat in the East.

It is one thing to have a breakthrough season it is another to go to an even higher level. That is the case for Hawks (8-6) lead guard Jeff Teague.

Last season, the product of Wake Forest University had the best season of his young career averaging 14.6 points, 7.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game.

The question coming into this season though, with a new head coach in Mike Budenholzer, former teammate Josh Smith moving on to the Detroit Pistons and a new cast of teammates like forwards Paul Milsap, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Cartier Martin, could Teague bring his game to another level.

So far, the answer has been a solid yes, leading the team in scoring at 18.0 and assists at 8.8 for the Hawks.

In their 113-103 victory over the Sixers 10 days ago, Teague had a career-high of 33 points to go along with 10 assists in the victory.

When you are the floor general for your team, you are an extension of your head coach. You are the engine that makes the car go. So far this season Teague has been driving the train for the Hawks pretty nicely and is a big reason why the Hawks are going to be in the playoff hunt once, despite the fact that the roster has had some major changes to it.

Another starting guard who has risen his game to a different height has been Eric Bledsoe for the Phoenix Suns (7-6).

In the first three seasons of his career with the Los Angeles Clippers, Bledsoe has been a reserve who has shown flashes of brilliance. He has also had the chance to be an understudy to one of the best at his position in All-Star Chris Paul.

When he was traded to the Suns this summer, he finally was going to get his chance to prove that he can run a team on his own.

So far, the former Kentucky Wildcat guard has done a stellar job averaging career-best of 20.4 points, 6.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds on 50 percent from the field and 83.3 percent from the free throw line.

Bledsoe has been a solid compliment starting backcourt mate Goran Dragic (16.4 ppg, 6.4 apg). They along with other new additions in guard Gerald Green (15.2 ppg), starting center Miles Plumlee (10.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg-leads team, 2.1 bpg-leads team) and some of the current core which includes the Morris twins Markieff (11.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg,) and Marcus (10.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), P.J. Tucker (9.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and forward Channing Frye (8.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg).

Of the five players that I have mentioned that are on early watch for Most Improved Player Award, Bledsoe was the one player that has been the most impressive.

He was coming to a new team that was coming off one of the worst season in the history. There was a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek. Other new players in Green, who had shown flashes that he could be brilliant and Plumlee, who barely got any time with the Pacers a season ago and a first round pick (5th overall) Alex Len, who has played little this season and core players like the Morris twins, Dragic and Tucker who had a lot of room to grow.

So far, the match of Bledsoe and the Suns has been one made in heaven, even though he has missed the last four games because of an injury to his left shin.

Davis, Hawes, Stephenson, Teague and Bledsoe are players who entered this league with a world of talent. Unlike a lot of players who have a lot of talent, these five players have taken their skills to another level and made themselves better individuallly and have made their teams better.

These are five worthy candidates for Most Improved Player Award and who ever wins it will be worthy because it is not just the fact that these players have taken their games to another level, but the teams they play for are benefiting from that improved play in the win column.

While the Pacers were expected to be great this season and so far they are living up to the bill, not much was expected from the Sixers, Pelicans, Hawks and Suns. Many experts thought the Suns and Sixers were going to be two of the worst teams in the league. While they and the Pelicans are longshots to make the playoffs, their futures look a lot brighter because of the play of the Bledsoe, Hawes and Davis. Teague's continued emergence has given the Hawks a fighting chance to make their seventh straight playoff appearance this April.
Information and statistics are courtesy of 11/23/13 5 a.m. edition of NBA TV's "Gametime" with Vince Cellini, Mike Fratello and Michael Redd;;

Monday, November 11, 2013

J-Speaks: National Basketball Association (NBA) Review: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

It has been a very exciting start to the 2013-14 NBA season. Some teams and some players have lived up to the hype they came into the season with. Some have had a rough go of it to begin. Then there are a couple of teams who have shown that things are going to get worse before they get better. Here is the NBA in review.

The Good
On Saturday night, the Atlanta Hawks (3-3) defeated the Orlando Magic (3-4) 104-94 for their ninth straight home win verus the guys from Walt Disney World, forward Kyle Korver hit a three-pointer for the 79 straight game, which tied former guard Michael Adams and surpassed current NBATV analyst Dennis Scott, who recorded his 78 straight game with a three-point connection on Apr. 4, 1996 versus the Boston Celtics. He is now just 10 games short of tying former NBA guard Dana Barros, who did it from 1994-96.

"Records are good. I got a lot of great teammates looking for me setting great screens," Korver, who had 14 points, eight boards, five assists on 6 for 10 shooting, going 2 for 5 from three-point range, said to NBATV's Matt Winer after the game on Saturday.

Back on Nov. 5, the Miami Heat (4-3) won at the Toronto Raptors (2-4) 104-95, garnering their first road win of the season, two-time Most Valuable Player LeBron James achieved a remarkable milestone.

With his 35-point effort, which led the Heat, he recorded his 500 straight game of scoring in double-figures. He joined Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, who scored in double-figures for 866 consecutive games; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had a 787 streak and a 508 streak of scoring in double-digits; Karl Malone who did it for 575 straight games and Moses Malone who scored in double-figures for 526 straight games.

"When I see a stat like that, I'm like 'Wow,' because I know the history of the game, I know the guys who paved the way for myself and my teammates," James said after the game.

"To be in such a great class like that, it's an amazing feeling."

To top it off, when James scored on a put back with 2:31 left in the opening quarter, it was the 162nd time during that streak that he reached double-digits in the first stanza.

This streak began after he scored just eight points at the Milwaukee Bucks back on Jan. 5, 2007. The next night at the then New Jersey Nets he scored 19 and the rest as they say is history.

What this streak brings into focus more than anything is that James, like Jordan before him understands that the fans whether at Miami's home court the American Airlines Arena or when the Heat play on the road, fans come to see the four-time MVP at his best and he has delivered and at the same time he has a tremendous amount of respect for those that came before him and the foundation they have laid for him to be who he is and wants to continue to be on the hardwood.

"That's not something that any average player can do," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game.

"Part of his greatness is consistency. Night in, night out, you know what to expect."
While we have come to expect a lot from James, we did not know what to expect this season from Philadelphia 76ers (4-3) starting rookie guard Michael Carter-Williams.

Well, the 2nd player to win the first Eastern Conference Player of the Week to start a season, since current NBATV/TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal back in 1992-93, made a solid impression, especially in his first game of his NBA career.

The rookie out of Syracuse had a debut for the ages when put up 22 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and nine steals. Not a bad way to announce that you are in the league.

For a team that was supposed to have more low moments than up this season, the team has shown that they want to start growing this season and their lead guard is a big reason for that.

While the sample has been a small one, Carter-Williams has shown he not only belongs, but he can take care of business against the best as he stats of 18.7 ppg, 8.1 apg and 5.9 rebounds per contest has stated so far.

Against one of the best in the East the Chicago Bulls (2-3), who bring to the table one of the best defenses in the business, Carter-Williams scored 26 points and dished out 10 assists as the Sixers came from behind to defeat the Bulls 107-104 to go to 3-0.

On Saturday night in a 127-125 defeat at the Cleveland Cavaliers (3-4), Carter-Williams shined again against former Rookie of the Year guard Kyrie Irving as he scored 21 points to go along with 13 assists, seven boards, two steals and two block shots. Irving was stellar for the Cavs with 39 points and 12 assists.

While the Sixers have a small chance of making the playoffs this season, they at least have the lead guard of the future in Carter-Williams. While he will experience some tough times as this season moves on, if the small sampling can become a consistent one, the Sixers have something special to build around.

In New Orleans, the Pelicans (3-4) have that building block to build around in last season's No. 1 overall pick out of Kentucky in forward/center Anthony Davis, who this past Friday night had a game to remember.

In the Pelicans 96-85 win versus the Los Angeles Lakers, which snapped an 11-game losing streak to the visitors from the "City of Angels," Davis had a career-high 32 points to go along with 12 rebounds and a career-high tying six block shots.

This was the fourth double-double for Davis in the Pelicans first six games. He added another with 14 points and 12 rebounds in his team's 101-94 setback at the Phoenix Suns (5-2).

After last season, where he showed flashes of how good he could be, Davis start to this season has shown that he wants to stratch that surface of greatness and eventually break that glass. He also hopes that will help the team win more games and eventually be one of the elite in the Western Conference.

"We defintely got to keep playing like this. We can't come into our next game and be lackadasical and be satisfied with this win. We just got to keep coming in with this energy and effort," Davis said to Fox Sports New Orleans sideline reporter Jennifer Hale after the game on Friday night.

While they had a setback on Sunday at the Suns, it is clear that the Pelicans have a different mindset this season.

That showed in the rest of the Pelicans on Friday night at least as starting lead guard Jrue Holiday had a double-double of his own with 13 points, 13 assists and four steals. His starting backcourt mate Eric Gordon had 16 points and six boards.

If there is one team that came into this season where we did not know what to expect is the Phoenix Suns.

They have shown in their first seven games, winning five of them and four of those have come at home, they are headed in the right direction.

In their 114-103 victory versus the Denver Nuggets (1-4) on Friday night, some of their young core players really showed how much they have grown.

Forward Markieff Morris had a career-high 28 points on 10 for 13 from the floor to go along with 10 boards off the bench. His twin brother Marcus had 11 points and eight boards.

Two of the Suns newest players have been a major part of the Suns amazing start this season and they were on full display against the Nuggets. New starting lead guard Eric Bledsoe had 17 points and nine rebounds on 6 for 11 from the floor and new starting center Miles Plumlee, who the Suns acquired from the Pacers in the off-season had 18 points and 11 rebounds.

In the Suns 101-94 win versus the Pelicans on Sunday, Bledsoe led the way with 24 points. Markieff followed up his career night on Friday with a 23-point effort off the bench on Sunday. Plumlee had just eight points, but he had 12 rebounds and five block shots.

If there is one thing that is different about this team from a year ago is that they have leadership on the bench in former Suns and NBA veteran Jeff Hornacek as their head coach.

An example of this is that in the third quarter of Sunday's win at home, he called a timeout and ripped into his team for their uninspired effort and it resulted in them outscoring the Pelicans 30-29 in the fourth quarter to capture the win.

While the Suns, Sixers and Pelicans are teams trying to build consistency, their is one team that has the talent on paper that should be consistent, but injuries a season ago derailed an chance to turn that into reality. This season however, good health to begin the season has been great for the Minnesota Timberwolves (5-2).

Driving this train that will hopefully lead them to their first playoff birth since 2004 is the combination of forward Kevin Love and guard Ricky Rubio and the newest edition in starting shooting guard Kevin Martin.

In their 116-108 over the Dallas Mavericks (4-3), Love was amazing with 32 points, 15 boards and eight assists on 12 for 21 from the floor, including going 3 for 6 from three-point range and 5 for 5 from the free throw line.

Martin matched Love with 32 points of his own on 10 for 19 from the field, including going 3 for 5 from three-point territory and 9 for 10 from the charity stripe.

At the Lakers (3-5) the duo of Martin and Love were spectacular again and so was Rubio.

Love recorded his seventh double-double in as many games with 25 points, 13 rebounds on 8 for 17 from the floor, including 4 for 9 from three-point territory and 5 for 5 from the free throw line.

Martin led the way with 27 points on 11 for 23 from the floor.

Rubio, who has had his struggles shooting wise this season from the floor, recorded his second career triple-double on Sunday night with 12 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.

Starting forward Corey Brewer and starting center Nikola Pekovic also contributed with 17 points and 14 points and 10 rebounds respectably in the win at the Lakers.

The 23-point win at the Lakers was not only the T'Wolves biggest against their opponent in team history on Sunday, it also snapped a 22-game losing streak to them.

The last time the team from the "Twin Cities" beat the Lakers prior to Sunday night was a 117-107 victory at the Target Center on Mar. 6, 2007.

The T'Wolves were led not led by current Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Garnett, who had 26 points and 17 rebounds, but guard Ricky Davis, who had 33 points, 10 boards and eight assists.

The Lakers were led by Kobe Bryant, who is out right now recovering from surgery on his Achillies, who had 40 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

As mentioned earlier, the Wolves are healthy unlike a season ago. Love by himself played in just 18 games a year ago because of a broken hand that he suffered twice. Martin, who played with the Thunder a season ago, has been a great pick up.

His stellar play though should not be a surprise because earlier in his career with the Sacramento Kings (2004-10) and the Houston Rockets (2010-12) he put up numbers like this while playing for the T'Wolves current coach Rick Adelman.

With the team that they have and stellar way they play offensively, if they can stay healthy and Rubio's shooting percentage improves, the Timberwolves will make the playoffs.

The one team and one player that have come out of the gates like gang busters has been the Indiana Pacers (7-0) and their top gun Paul George.

In their 96-91 win at the Nets (2-4), the Pacers eclipsed their best start in team history, which surpassed their 6-0 beginning since 1970-17 team when they were in the American Basketball Association (ABA), where they were led by Hall of Famers Mel Daniels and Roger Brown. The team went on to win the Western Division that season.

The Pacers were led by George, who scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half to go along with six rebounds.

George in Saturday's victory tied former Pacer Clark Kellogg for the most games of 20 points to start a season with seven. Kellogg's accomplishment came in the 1985-86 season.

In the Pacers 91-84 win versus the Toronto Raptors last Wednesday, he tied Hall of Famer Reggie Miller with six games of scoring 20-plus points to start a season. Miller accomplished that in the 1990-91 season.

"He's a stat stuffer. He just doesn't score. He rebounds, block shots, defends," Pacers starting center Roy Hibbert, who had 15 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks at the Nets on Saturday, said to NBATV's Matt Winer after the game.

After their season ended one game short of reaching the Finals a season ago to the eventual back-to-back champion Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers came into this season with a chip on their shoulder and it has shown in the first two weeks of this season.

They are balanced team now and the core players like George, last season's Most Improved Player, Hibbert, forward David West, who had 18 points and eight boards on Saturday and guard Lance Stephenson, who had 15 points and seven assists also on Saturday are primed for a big year.

The editions of forwards Luis Scola and Chris Copeland and guard C.J. Watson have made the bench better and when forward Danny Granger returns from injury soon, this team should be primed to challenge the Heat in the East. 

The Bad
When the 2013-14 NBA campaign began, one of the teams in the East that was seen as a big threat to the two-time defending champion Heat was the Bulls. A big reason for that is that the Bulls' star guard Derrick Rose was back after missing all of last season recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered in the first round of the playoffs the year prior.

The team with their top scoring ace back in the lineup however, they have not gotten off to a great start.

Rose individually is struggling averaging career-lows to so far in scoring (14.4), assists (4.0) and shooting percentage (32 percent).

To bring this more into focus, Rose coming into last Friday nights action versus the Utah Jazz (0-7), Rose had more turnovers (25) than field goals made (24).

In the Bulls 97-73 win versus the Jazz on Friday, Rose stilled struggled scoring just 12 points on 3 for 8 shooting. The one positive is that, he did get to the foul line five times connecting on all of them.

What also happened in this game is that they were able to get contributions from the rest of the cast, which is why they were able to still win and make the playoffs a season ago.

Forward Luol Deng nearly had a triple-double with 19 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and five steals. The other starting forward Carlos Boozer had 18 points and 10 boards. Starting center Joakim Noah had 14 points and eight rebounds. forward Taj Gibson had 12 points off the bench and new acquistion swingman Mike Dunleavy had nine points as well off the bench.

We have to remember that it is early in the season and while Rose is medically recovered, it will take time for him to return to the form that made him the only player to win the MVP Award not named LeBron James, which he accomplished in 2010-11.

On top of that though, the Bulls must become consistent at the offensive end. The defense will always be there because that is preached each day by head coach Tom Thibodeau. If the offense cannot catch up though, they will have another disappointment in the postseason.

One other team that feels that they have a serious chance on contending for a title, at least in the eyes of their owner is the New York Knicks (2-4).

Unfortunately, the team that won their first Atlantic Division title since 1993-94 season and won their first playoff series a season ago since 1999-00 season has gotten off to a rough start.

They are just 1-3 at Madison Square Garden after beginning last season 10-0 at home.

Their 120-89 loss on Sunday versus the defending Western Conference Champion San Antonio Spurs (6-1), which was their largets marging of victory ever against the was a microcosm of their season.

They played very poor defense as the Spurs shot 53.9 percent from the floor, hit 12 three-pointers, surrendered 17 fastbreak points and 44 points in the paint.

A big reason the Knicks struggled defensively is because the absence of starting center Tyson Chandler, who suffered a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula in the 102-97 loss versus the Charlotte Bobcats last and will be out for the next four to six weeks.

On top of that, their three-point shooting which carried them a season ago has gone down to 29.9 percent this season.

"We didn't compete tonight," Knicks head coach Mike Woodson, whose team suffered its worst home loss since a 128-78 defeat versus the Dallas Mavericks back on Jan. 24, 2010.

"That's just unacceptable. Right from the start, we let our offense, shots that we missed dictate how we defended on the other end and that's a bad combination.

Anthony, who had 16 points and eight boards on Sunday, echoed those same feelings of Woodson saying, "It was embarrasing for us to come in on our home court and lose a game like this. It wasn't about losing the game, its just how we lost the game. We didn't compete today and it showed out there on the court."

While it may be early and that cannot be stated enough, the Knicks have some serious issues they need to straighten out and soon.

They need the likes of forward Andrea Bargnani, guard J.R. Smith, who made his season debut after missing the first five games for violating the league's anti-drug policy and scored five points on 1 for 9 from the field, guard Raymond Felton, forward Amar'e Stoudemire and Metta World Peace to play better on both ends.

To put the direction of both the Spurs and Knicks into perspective, they met in the NBA Finals back in 1999.

Since then, the Spurs have had only one head coach, Gregg Popovich, while the Knicks have had eight head coaches, current NBA on ESPN color analyst Jeff Van Gundy, Don Chaney, Herb Williams, Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas, Mike D'Antoni and Woodson. The Spurs have won four titles (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007), the Knicks have won none. The Spurs have won the Southwest Division 10 times, while the Knicks won their first division title since the aforementioned 1994. The Spurs have made 15 straight playoff appearances and the Knicks have made the playoffs just seven times.

So while in the eyes of owner James Dolan that his team is a title contender, those that were in the audience at MSG on Sunday afternoon and those that watch on television, might have a different point of view.

From one team that might be consider delusional of thinking their are championship caliber to a couple of teams who talent wise are that, but things have gotten off to a rocky start are the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors (4-3).

When the Clippers brought in Glenn "Doc" Rivers to be their new head coach, re-signed starting lead guard Chris Paul and brought in the likes of guard J.J. Redick and swingman Jared Dudley, it was clear the other Los Angeles basketball team was serious about winning it all.

Right out of the gate however, they lost to the undertalented Lakers 116-103. They followed that up with three straight wins, which began with a 126-115 victory on national television versus the Warriors, where Paul had 42 points and 15 assists. They followed that up with wins at the Sacramento Kings (1-5) 110-101 and versus the Houston Rockets (4-3) 137-118. That was followed by back-to-back losses in Florida at the Magic 98-90 and at the Heat 102-97. They did bounce back with a come from behind win at the Rockets 107-94 on Saturday night.

Their is amazing talent across the board with the Red, White and Blue Clippers. They have a championship caliber coach in Rivers. One of the best players and leaders in Paul. A supporting cast in the likes of guard Jamal Crawford, Redick, Dudley, guard Darren Collison, sharp shooting forward Byron Mullens and the athletic duo in all-star starting forward Blake Griffin and starting center DeAndre Jordan.

With all of that being said, they have to get to the point where they force themselves to become consistent where they beat the teams they are supposed to like the Magic and Lakers. They showed they are capable with two wins over the Rockets this season.

That consistency though must start at the defensive end and it must then turn into an offensive style that allows for consistent sharing of the basketball and Griffin to be more complete offensiveley with a lethal jumper from 15 to 17 feet and an ability to operate in the post.

In the case of Jordan, Rivers has said he should be Defensive Player of the Year. If he can perform to the tune of 12 points, 18 rebounds, three blocks and two steals nightly for the rest of this season, he will have a great chance of making his coach's dream a reality.

Last season, the Warriors showed that they are primed to be in the conversation as one of the best in the West. With four wins in their first five games, all be it against not the best competition in terms of the perception of each team, the Warriors started this season trying to build on their 47-35 season, which ended in the Conference Semis a season ago.

Their last two losses however at the Spurs 76-74 and at the Memphis Grizzlies (3-3) 108-90 are a cause for concern.

The Warriors setback at the Spurs last Friday night did reveal some positives. The team found out that they do have a solid back up in Toney Douglas who had 21 points on 8 for 14 shooting, including going 5 for 9 from three-point range off the bench. He got a lot of time at the lead guard spot because normal starting point guard Stephen Curry missed the game because of a bone bruise in his ankle.

They also learned that on a night they struggled offensively, they could defend and keep the game close and give themselves a chance to win. That is how it will be come playoff time.

The Warriors did not fair well the next night at the Grizzlies, who shot 53 percent from the floor, out-rebounded them 44-33 and outscored them 54-18 in the paint.

If the Warriors have any plans on contending for a title, they just cannot rely on their ability to make their hey offensively from the three-point line, where they went 10 for 30 from on Saturday night.

The Ugly
There are two teams in the league who in the first two weeks of this season have shown that its going to be very long and painful run.

The Utah Jazz (0-7) after 115-91 loss at the Toronto Raptors (3-4) continued them on a path to their worst start since their 0-11 beginning to the 1974-75 season when they were playing in New Orleans.

Their last two losses have been extremely tough as they lost by 24 points at the Bulls on Friday night and to the aforementioned Raptors the next evening.

"This is not fun. I don't think we showed up with the intensity that we need to compete against these guys tonight," Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin said after the game.

Coming into this season, the Jazz, Knicks and Lakers are the only NBA franchises not to lose 60 games or more in a season.

At the rate the Jazz are going, they could experience that.

What also has to be understood here is that this team is not the same that it has been in previous seasons.

For starters, veterans forwards Paul Milsap and Al Jefferson left in free agency for the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats respectably and the leadership and scoring responsibility has fallen to the likes of forward Derrick Favors, swingman Gordon Hayward and center Enes Kanter.

They are also without their prized draft choice in guard Trey Burke, who is out right now because of an injured finger.

This will be a season of growing pains for the Jazz and if they have plans of salvaging this tough beginning, Favors, Hayward, Kanter along with the likes of guard Alec Burks, forward Marvin Williams, when he returns from injury and forward Richard Jefferson have to step up.

Current starting guard John Lucas III said it best after the game on Saturday, "We got to figure out who we are. That's out thing. We got to look ourselves in the mirror because this ain't cool. I know its seven games in, but still I don't want nobody to get use to this."

The other team that has struggled out the gate mightly is the Sacramento Kings (1-5), who lost both games in the home-and-home against the Portland Trail Blazers (4-2) over the weekend.

After their 96-85 home loss to the Trail Blazers, head coach Mike Malone expressed his frustration.

"I'm embarrassed. Every night, its the same thing," Malone said. "I think we have a lot of guys that just care about themselves on this team and if their game is not going, they quit playing."

With everything that went on with the Kings from the owners to keeping the team in Sacramento, to the selling of the team to Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive, the addition of new minority owner current NBATV/TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal and the selection of guard Ben McLemore at No. 7 in June's draft, it seemed like better days were ahead for the Kings.

They also gave talented but immature center DeMarcus Cousins a four-year $62 million contract extension and so far he has performed well early in the season.

After winning their first game on opening night back on Oct. 30 90-88 versus the Nuggets, they have not won a game since.

This team has talented players that have a lot of skill from forward Jason Thompson, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette, Isaiah Thomas Travis Outlaw and Greivis Vasquez.

However, talent is only half the battle. It takes committment to the task at hand. That task in Sacramento is making that group of talented players develop winning habits and understanding the way things use to be cannot continue. Those who do not conform will not play.

"I've seen enough at this point. We've played six games and its more than a broken record so we'll make changes and give ourselves a better chance to win," Malone said after the game on Saturday night.
Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 11/6/13 2 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" with Rick Kamla, Steve Smith and Rick Fox; 11/9/13 1:30 a.m. edition of ESPN 2's "NBA Tonight" with Cassidy Hubbarth and Avery Johnson; 11/9/13 2 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" with Rick Kamla, Mike Fratello and Steve Smith; 11/11/13 1:30 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" with Rick Kamla, Steve Smith and Brent Barry;; USA article "Tyson Chandler injury puts Knicks' Title Bid in Reverse" by Jeff Zillgitt on Nov. 7, 2013.