Around the League

Big Returns

It seems a lot of key players have missed time this season but last week there were a few notable returns. In their third game back in the Pacers lineup Danny Granger and Troy Murphy joined forces to take last  Monday’s game over the Raptors.

In his fifth year Danny Granger is developing into a franchise player.  He opens the court up with his athleticism and ability to stretch the floor. With these two playing well the Pacers are a totally different team. And with the bar set somewhat low in the East, Indiana could conceivably have a shot at the playoffs.

There’s been some speculation that with the emergence of Tyreke Evans Sacramento will look to trade Kevin Martin. Kevin’s been off his first few games back from injury but I don’t think it’s a given the two can’t play with each other and I’d be careful not to give up a proven player like Martin without a good look at him and Evans playing together. Too often when we see teams trade players like Martin we see them receiving 70 cents on the dollar.

Nuggets on the Rise

The Denver Nuggets, perhaps the Lakers’ toughest challenge in the West, got NBA leading scorer Carmelo Anthony back. They played .500 ball without Chauncey and Carmelo but are on the start of a little run. I think this team has a legitimate chance to come out of the West.

The leadership of Billups and the tremendous offense of Anthony surrounded by energetic, tough players will make the Nuggets very dangerous in the post-season. Last year’s playoff series was a great learning experience for the guys. Anthony looks like he’s taken the next step this year and it will be interesting to see if the team can fight their way to the next level in the postseason.

Some rest for the weary

Laker Pau Gasol was back in action Friday in a 40-point win over the Clippers. The Lakers need Gasol to stay on the court and to be the focal point of the offense during the next few in order to take the load off Kobe because there’s no way to convince #8 to sit and rest his injuries. I know it’s said over and over again but his competitive drive and will to win are unmatched.

I think Pop giving Duncan the night off this past week on the tail end of a back-to-back was a good move. Duncan’s played a lot of tough minutes with Ginobli and Parker injured this year and he’s logged a lot of minutes over hiscareer. He goes deep into the playoffs every year and played summer ball for five USA Basketball teams including the 2004 Olympic team. The Spurs are in tow for the Championship run and a healthy Duncan in the playoffs is well worth a couple of regular season losses.

Another big guy who’s logged a lot of minutes over his career is still out for Boston – Garnett is itching to get back in there but I think Doc and the team are taking the right approach being extremely cautious with Garnett’s return.  Boston is a veteran team whose season will be a success only if they win a championship. Having Garnett as healthy as possible for the post-season will be a key to meeting their goal.

The East bounces back

It was a bounce back week for the Hawks. It looks like they’ve snapped out of their lull with victories over Phoenix, Washington and Boston and remain in control of first place in the Southeast. They are 3-0 against Boston this year and won’t be afraid to see the Celtics again in the playoffs. The NBA season is a marathon and inevitably there are slumps; for young teams making their way up the ladder it’s crucial to find a way to remain confident and fight through the dips and not allow them to extend into a prolonged rut.

Chicago also looks to be turning around their season. They picked up their fourth straight game and have moved into playoff position in the forgiving East. Derrick Rose is becoming that relentless force that had Chicago near the top of the East in many pre-season predictions. Against the Wizards Friday he led his team with 37 points, six assists and nine rebounds and hit the game winner with five seconds left. It always takes a few years for point guards to develop a consistency but there’s no denying this guy has what it takes to be one of the top three points in the league. Unfortunately they can’t get too comfortable as the win comes at the juncture of a treacherous seven-game road stretch.

The Cavs had a solid road trip going 2 of 3 last week with their only loss coming at the end of a heroic shot by Jazz call-up Gaines. I don’t know what to say about LeBron. When the bell rings for the 4th quarter he is becoming Super LeBron. He went for 41/10/8 in Portland.

Then in the Golden State showed off his post game against Corey Maggette dominating down low and scoring 15 of the Cavs last 18 points to finish the Warriors 117-114. I had the chance to call LeBron’s next game in Utah and with less than 5 minutes left and the Jazz up 13 it looked like the Cavs were done. But LeBron led his team by scoring 18 points in a furious 20-2 run that put the Cavs up 6 with 32 seconds left. They would ultimately lose on a buzzer beater but LeBron brought an energy and presence that is unmatched in the League.

He continued to make his case for the MVP against the Clippers leading his team back from a double digit deficit and scoring 22 of his 32 points in the second half. The MVP award is really subjective but I look at it this way: If we took LeBron, Kobe or Dirk and subbed them with the next best players at those positions where would their teams stand? I’ll let you guys answer the question.

Charlotte Bobcats won their seventh straight at home against the Suns on Saturday. Steven Jackson was a great pick up for them – he brings leadership and a dynamic element to the floor. He can put the ball on the floor, post up and is a solid jump-shooter. His offense is important but his confidence and tenacity will be invaluable as Larry Brown tries to lead his team into the playoffs.

Hold on LeBron . . .

. . . Says Mr. Gaines of the Utah Jazz. I was at that game and what a wonderful moment for Sundiata Gaines. It’s why we love sports. Gaines a rookie from the D-League on a 10-day contract thwarted LeBron James’s comeback effort as time ran out hitting his first career 3-pointer in front of a thrilled Utah crowd. With Deron Williams out and the game looking like it had swung Cleveland’s way due to a tremendous effort by the King, Jerry Sloan played out the last 32 seconds masterfully. Kyle Korver hit an incredible trick shot from behind the backboard; Cleveland broke down at the foul line; and Sundiata Gaines took advantage hitting a shot he’ll remember for the rest of his life. And so will a lot of people in the building. It’s a lesson to all the players in the D-League: keep working hard and your time can come.

In other buzzer beater news, Jamal Crawford buried a 28-footer over Jared Dudley as the clock expired to give the Hawks a 102-101 victory over the Suns. Jamal has hit some big shots in the past. But now he’s making them for a playoff bound team. It’ll be fun watching Carl Landry of Houston and Crawford battle it out for the Sixth Man award.

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