The NBA annually rests on Thanksgiving, leaving the sports stage to football. Action is heavy on Wednesday and Friday, so going in and coming out of the brief respite in a positive fashion is always the top priority coaches have as they prepare for this week.
We’ve locked in on the three teams that need to manage this well given expectations and how things are going for them thus far. New York, New Orleans and Oklahoma City will all sit down for their turkey knowing that what awaits them when they’re done with their cranberry sauce will go a long way into deciding what mood they’ll be in entering December.
It was easy to mock Derrick Rose’s “Superteam” declaration after New York opened 1-3, which was punctuated by Mike D’Antoni coming into town with the Rockets and winning 117-99. Over the last week, the Knicks won three of four games for the first time under Jeff Hornacek, pulling off an upset of Southeast Division-leading Atlanta on Sunday that followed a closed-door meeting between players and team president Phil Jackson.
With a home date on Tuesday against slumping Portland and a weekend home-and-home against Charlotte, this group has a chance to climb above .500 for the first time all season with a surge.
Joakim Noah entered the week dealing with an illness, but may be headed to the bench in favor of Kyle O’Quinn since he hadn’t been playing well before missing Sunday’s game against the Dwight Howard-led Hawks. While Rose and Carmelo Anthony were being cast in the scapegoat role for not allowing talented 21-year-old Kristaps Porzingis assert himself earlier and impose his will, Noah had escaped criticism until his regression became glaring.
Less than a month in, it’s a bad sign that finger-pointing has already started, with even Jackson and Hornacek not above such behavior. Going out and playing an exceptional defensive game to beat the Hawks was a great sign, but if this team that’s already being pulled apart at the seams less than a month in doesn’t follow up that success, it’s hard to fathom them making it through 82 games.
Next week’s games feature Oklahoma City coming to town in addition to a home-and-home with Minnesota. The Knicks want their fans engaged and enthusiastic for those showcase games, which magnifies the importance of putting their best foot forward this week.
It can be argued that no one is having a better season than Anthony Davis, who was leading the NBA in scoring (31.7) and blocks (3.0) while ranking sixth in rebounds (11.3), but New Orleans has had very little to show for it, digging themselves a hole by starting 0-8.
Now, there’s finally hope.
The Pelicans have won consecutive games for the first time and welcomed back point guard Jrue Holiday from an excused absence as he stuck by his wife following brain surgery to remove a tumor. All Holiday did in his first two games back was participate in victories over the Trail Blazers and Hornets, averaging 21.5 points and eight assists while shooting 55 percent. Clearly, he’s kept himself in shape.
He’ll be back in the starting lineup sooner than later, so Davis will have someone making plays for him rather than vice-versa, while guys like Tim Frazier and E’Twaun Moore can return to reserve roles they’re better-suited for.
Shooting guard Tyreke Evans is also due back by month’s end, so the Pelicans will finally get back to full strength, but the 0-8 start means they can’t afford to wait. You can tell Alvin Gentry means business since he’s cut the minutes of ineffective rookie guard Buddy Hield, so expect New Orleans to pull out all the stops as it tries to navigate a difficult week that begins Tuesday in Atlanta, features a home date against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves on Wednesday and a weekend two-game excursion to Portland and Dallas for duels with teams that are also struggling to get going. Davis will need to put the Pels on his back, but the weight isn’t as heavy with Holiday now around to help ease the burden.
Oklahoma City opened 6-1 as “KD-who?” chants became audible and the Russell Westbrook MVP campaign began in full swing. The Thunder have lost five of seven since, and if they had lost that Westbrook-James Harden duel that they held on to win at home 105-103, total panic would’ve probably already set in.
On Sunday, Westbrook hit a cold-blooded 3-pointer just to send OKC to overtime at home against Paul George-less Indiana, but then couldn’t finish the job as Pacers backups emerged victorious.
Are the Thunder dead as a title contender?
The brilliance of Westbrook and presence of quality young pieces like Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson provides hope that the future will remain bright, but the loss to Indy was a crusher because the team will spend the holiday on the road in California for games against the Lakers and Kings, coming out of the break in Denver before a Saturday night home date with Detroit.
All of these games are winnable, but the Thunder have to turn it on if they’re still going to be mentioned as an elite team. Adams is dealing with a broken finger while Oladipo is still learning how to be most effective playing next to Westbrook, so the growing pains aren’t necessarily unexpected, but they are frustrating.
Westbrook must find the right balance between his relentless solo act late in games and allowing others to find a rhythm so they can ease his burden. A big week would ease the pressure.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA