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We’re into 2017 now, and it’s fair to say this NBA season has gone as expected.
Although there were some initial growing pains, the Warriors superteam is great and remains the betting favorite despite the Christmas Day loss to the Cavs. Golden State is -250 to win the West at Sportsbook.ag and -125 to recapture the NBA title. Meanwhile, the defending champs are the class of the East, appearing to be even more formidable since Kevin Love looks more comfortable in his skin and embracing his role. Cleveland is -500 to win its conference and +180 to repeat in the Finals. The Spurs (+400, +1000), even having lost Tim Duncan, have had the type of success we’ve come to expect from them, even if it’s taken Gregg Popovich kicking them around after wins to keep them on their toes.
If there’s been a real surprise, it’s been how bad the Timberwolves have been given Tom Thibodeau’s presence and all that young talent. If you’re looking to accentuate the positive, the fact James Harden has taken so well to Mike D’Antoni’s coaching while embracing the role of distributor falls into that category. He’s made his teammates better. Sometimes, he shockingly even plays defense.
Still, it’s not good enough. We dig drama. We love to be surprised.
The remainder of the week could provide some clues as to who is actually mentally tough enough to emerge and prevent a third consecutive Cleveland-Golden State NBA Finals. I won’t even include San Antonio since the Spurs have been ubiquitous in going deep in the playoffs for two decades. You won’t find the Clippers here either, since they’re a shell of themselves until Chris Paul and Blake Griffin get healthy.
Sadly, there’s no Eastern Conference team worth putting on this list, which is why you’ll read about no potential variable there. Barring injury, Cleveland will be back in the NBA Finals. Load up on your Cavs to win the East futures without apprehension unless Toronto finds a way to extract Paul Millsap from Atlanta or the Celtics make another Al Horford-like acquisition.
The top threat
The Utah Jazz have been riddled with injuries over the first few months and yet are still edging out Oklahoma City for the Northwest Division lead. In Rudy Gobert, they have one of the NBA’s premier rim protectors, which is why they’re potentially so dangerous in a series against the Warriors. Although the fact Golden State shoots it so well from the perimeter mitigates the advantage Gobert provides Utah, the Jazz do have the pieces, when healthy and completely whole, to really frustrate anyone in the league. They're a great potential cash cow since Sportsbook.ag has them +4000 to emerge out of the Western Conference and +8500 to win it all.
Wings Gordon Hayward, Derrick Hood and Joe Johnson are flammable and capable of raining down 3-pointers on anybody. Gobert and Derrick Favors, who has been in and out of the lineup all season, are physically dominant and can own the boards while providing fantastic post defense. Point guards George Hill and Shelvin Mack are among the top defenders at their position, so there’s no question they’ll be able to make Stephen Curry work for everything he gets over the course of a series.
A collective approach isn’t likely to beat the Warriors, but Hayward has demonstrated the ability to take over a game. He’s averaged a career-best 22.4 points and opened 2017 with his fourth game of 30 points or more in a 101-89 win over the Nets.
Utah appears to check all boxes, but what we want to see now is whether it has staying power, and that’s going to be tested this week. The Jazz opened a five-game road swing in Brooklyn to begin a seven-day, five-city oddysey. Although they opened with a win and cover after a slow start in Brooklyn, they fell in Boston on Tuesday 115-104, surrendering a season-high points allowed. They’re toiling short-handed with stops in Toronto, Minnesota and Memphis ahead. Each game will be incredibly challenging, especially when you factor in the travel involved.
Hill’s availability will be key since he’s in concussion protocol after catching an elbow from Phoenix center Alex Len over the weekend that opened a gash in his lip so wide it required 22 stitches to close. There’s no word as to when he’ll be available, so the Jazz may have to make it through the entire trip short-handed with rookie Dante Exum also out. Shelvin Mack is handling point guard duties and has his limitations, while backups Raul Neto and Joe Ingles wouldn’t ordinarily be out there in the role they’re having to play.
The Celtics snapped Utah’s four-game losing streak, but despite playing a third game in four nights without their preferred floor generals, there were bright spots. Favors distributed a career-high seven assists. Veterans Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, brought in this offseason precisely to help provide leadership through periods like these, combined for 32 points off the bench.
It remains to be seen how long Hill is out or how well the rest of this road trip goes, but the Jazz need to continue making strides. Quin Snyder’s team has a chance to be the ultimate x-factor once fully healthy. For now, I wouldn’t pick on them simply because they’re short-handed, but an ‘over’ run may be coming without Hill around. The ‘under’ had come in 10 of 12 times before Boston got off against their tired legs.
Great players can own a series, so Harden-led Houston and Russell Westbrook’s OKC Thunder have to be taken seriously.
It’s always going to seem like Mike D’Antoni’s teams are winning via smoke and mirrors. Even his masterpieces, those Suns squads of a decade ago featuring the maestro Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Johnson and Shawn Marion, were always greeted with a sense of skepticism. Do they play enough defense? Can they beat four games over the course of seven games by running and gunning?
Count on Charles Barkley dismissing the Rockets as a gimmicky jump-shooting team. The current odds have them +1800 to win the West and +4000 to claim a championship.
However dubious you are about their chances, there’s no debating that GM Daryl Morey has assembled some great shooters around Harden. Newcomers Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon have lived up to their reputations and thrived. Gordon leads the NBA in 3-pointers made. Trevor Ariza often finds himself completely wide open.
D’Antoni’s other starting guard, Patrick Beverley, is not at all his typical type of player due to the fact he doesn’t shoot it well, but his pesky, relentless defense and intensity crashing the boards and pitching in wherever he can has endeared him to the veteran coach and makes him someone who can make Curry’s life a nightmare in a series.
Beverley has a wrist issue that sidelined him for Monday’s game against John Wall-led Washington, but he should be fine for games against Russell Westbrook’s Thunder, the Magic, Kyle Lowry’s Raptors and Kemba Walker’s Hornets over the next 10 days. Beverley takes the pressure off Harden, a suspect defender at best, so his return will be key even though the Rockets managed to beat Washington 101-91 without him for their 16th win in 18 games. Houston is 24-6 over the last 30, covering the spread 21 times.
Westbrook is the NBA’s other top MVP candidate and has averaged a triple-double while attempting to keep the Thunder (+4000, +8500) among the league’s elite. Whether he’ll wear down is a subject of great debate, but he’s regarded as the league’s top athlete and only has to deal with three back-to-backs this month, the first of which comes as they continue a three-game road trip that began with Monday’s 98-94 loss in Milwaukee.
Playing at Charlotte and then attempting to run with Houston in its building puts OKC in an underdog role both nights, so it will be important to try and gain a split in order to avoid a losing streak that would keep it winless in ’17 until the weekend.
Oklahoma City is playing 12 of 15 games away from home in January, so it could be a trying period if health issues creep in. Fortunately, the Thunder just got Victor Oladipo back from a wrist injury and have point guard Cameron Payne trying to get back in a rhythm in the D-League, so Westbrook will soon have multiple playmakers to take some of the burden off him available.
Billy Donovan is trying to piece together a bench with inexperienced players like Jerami Grant, Joffrey Lauvergne and Alex Abrines, so monitor how the second unit holds up on the road. If things go poorly, this could be a forgettable month. If they rise to the occasion, it could be the point where Oklahoma City truly turns the corner in its first season without Kevin Durant.
The Wild Card
The final threat to the Warriors appears to be Memphis, since point guard Mike Conley is among the game’s best defenders at his position and the same can be said about Marc Gasol at center. Having thrived despite Conley’s extended absence has put the Grizzlies (+4000, +8000) in position to compete for a top-four seed.
The fact they were able to lean on young players like Andrew Harrison and JaMychal Green while Conley, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter were out of the lineup provided their youth invaluable experience. Top offseason acquisition Chandler Parsons appears to be finally ready to play without restrictions and could raise the Grizzlies’ ceiling significantly.
While Utah has supplanted them in playing the league’s slowest pace, the Grizzlies still are edging them out in defensive efficiency, nosing out the Spurs and Warriors too. Being comfortable in grinders is essential to winning on the road and slowing down a team like Golden State, so it would be foolish not to take this group seriously.
First-year head coach David Fizdale is still learning how to push his team’s buttons, so it will be interesting to see how his rotation changes with a full team intact, especially with so many veterans competing with young athletes for minutes.
The Grizzlies spent New Year’s Even on the road after torching Sacramento and remained out West to face the both Staples residents in a Tuesday-Wednesday back-to-back before testing themselves against the Warriors in a matchup all eyes will be on come Friday.
The Lakers hit 16 3-pointers against Memphis through the first three quarters in a 116-102 upset win, so this week could get ugly if the defense doesn’t get its act together.
“I don’t know who we were performing for, but it wasn’t for each other,” Fizdale said afterward. “We show signs of greatness and then we are just zombies out there.”
With challenges against the Clippers and Warriors ahead, this will be a great opportunity to see if the resiliency demonstrated during a marvelous Conley-less two-week stretch from Nov. 30-Dec. 14 can be replicated now that they’re whole.
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