Tuesday, November 30, 2004

5 on Five 11/29-12/5

5 on Five

Week of 11/29-12/5
By Paul Benedict

5 Faces to Watch
Theme: Players Itching for More PT

1. Mikki Moore, C, Los Angeles Clippers
-Since the beginning of the 2001-02 season, Mikki (pronounced Mikey, not Mickey, ok?) has played a grand total of 84 games for 6 different teams--he was even let go by the Hawks! It's taken some time, but the former CBA stud appears to have finally found a role for the Clippers that's not the rent-a-center gig he's become so accustomed to (the Hawks!). With Chris Kaman sidelined for the first few weeks of the season, Mike Dunleavy gave the 7'0 Moore a chance to play quality minutes off the bench, and he's responded by playing some pretty good basketball. In a shade over 20 minutes a game, Moore is putting up 7.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 0.8 BPG and has some impressive shooting percentages of 57.8 from the floor and 78.8 from the line. While Kaman's return might cause a jam in the Clippers' frontcourt rotation, Dunleavy will be hard-pressed in cutting down on Moore's playing time.

2. Mickael Pietrus, G/F, Golden State Warriors
-The Warriors' lottery pick a year ago has played just 4 games this season since recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, but his impact in the lineup has already been felt. Pietrus is scoring 9.5 PPG in just 16.5 MPG, but his real significance is felt on the defensive end. With outstanding athleticism and relentless energy, Pietrus saw valuable minutes towards the end of last season and drew raves across the league for his defensive prowess. Mike Montgomery has reportedly been fed up with Mike Dunleavy's lack of production, so it could be just a matter of time before Pietrus is implemented into the lineup, and if his offense continues to blossom, his presence could be a major difference-maker for the Warriors.

3. Earl Watson, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
-One of the more underappreciated players in the league today, Watson has some Memphis faithful clamoring for him to replace Jason Williams in the Grizzlies starting lineup after a solid start to the season. In 21 MPG with the second unit, Watson is scoring at a clip of 8.0 PPG, dishing out 4.9 APG, and averaging just under a steal per game (0.8). If Mike Fratello ends up as the Grizzlies next coach, a guy known for his no-nonsense, defensive-emphasis approach, then there's a fair chance that Watson receives more minutes and potentially supplants J-Dub as the Grizz starter at point.

4. Mehmet Okur, C, Utah Jazz
-The Jazz signed Okur to a long-term deal during the summer and it was assumed that the 7-footer would fit right into the starting lineup, but through 14 games Jerry Sloan has stuck with Jarron Collins. That might be about to change with the way Okur has played recently (one of the few bright spots for the Jazz), having scored in double-figured in five straight (14.6 PPG and 57.8FG% in that span) and erasing any concerns about his slump to begin the season. With Andrei Kirilenko now out a month, Sloan will likely look to Okur to shoulder more of the scoring load and a move into the starting lineup seems imminent.

5. Eddie Griffin, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves
-Griffin has returned to the NBA with a vengeance this season, shedding the psychotic label and performing at the level he showed flashes of during his glory days (all 3 of them) with the Rockets. Though his minutes have been inconsistent off the bench, Griffin has very effective when given 20+ minutes (13.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 10-21 3PTS). Michael Olowokandi (or as we like to say, O-no-its-kandi) returned to the lineup Sunday night after a 2-game suspension, but Griffin kept 7-foot bust on the bench by having his best game of the season (20 PTS, 9 REBS, 5 BLKS, 4-5 3PTS. If Onoitskandi continues to play like (and look like) a bum, then Coach Saunders might have to 'flip' the lineup around and get Griffin some more burn.

5 Fascinating Factoids

1. The Spurs have beaten the Jazz 18 times in a row after routing Utah at the SBC Center on Saturday night. Remember last week when I mentioned how the Spurs had a 14-game win streak against the Celts, and that this sort of supremacy was reminiscent of the West's control over the East? Well maybe this San Antonio dominance over Utah is just a clear sign of the Spurs' reign over the entire NBA.

2. Danny Fortson is the only player in the NBA to average a triple double per 48 minutes, and he's doing it in convincing fashion by averaging 26.6 PPG, 18.6 RPG, and an unprecedented 14.3 FPG. The Seattle enforcer has committed at least 5 fouls in all but one game this season (he had 4 that game) and has an eye-popping total of 66 fouls and 6 technical fouls (both leading the NBA) in 13 games played. Now I'm not sure if Nate McMillan is slapping Fortson around before games to get this guy to play the way he is, but I am positive that Fortson has had a tremendous effect on the success of the Sonics this season. For the past couple seasons, teams have just pounded the ball down low against Seattle's thin frontline, but this year, with the 2-headed paint-consuming monster in Fortson/Evans leading the way, opponents are struggling to overpower the Sonics.

3. Back in his hometown of NYC and playing in front of family and friends, Rafer Alston saw his Roger Maris-like streak of 61 consecutive games of making a 3-pointer come to an end after missing all five of his long-range attempts. It was a truly remarkable run for Alston, but it's no shock that it came to an end this weekend as the breakout point guard has encountered his first shooting slump of the season. Alston is shooting just 13-46 (28.3%) in his past four games, but if those 61 games are any indication, then Alston should get back on track quick.

4. Up until Saturday's loss to the Magic, Sixers F/C Brian Skinner had not played since November 16 after 4 consecutive DNP-CDs. If you'll remember back to the summer, GM Billy King went hard after Boston's Mark Blount in the free agent market, but after Blount re-upped with the Celts, King brought back former-Sixer Brian Skinner (5 years, $25 million) to provide depth upfront. At the time it sounded like a respectable deal given that Skinner was coming off of his best season ever as Milwaukee's starting center (10.5PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.1 BPG), but now with Skinner behind Marc Jackson, Kenny Thomas, Samuel Dalembert, and (gasp) Josh Davis on the depth chart, the move looks just a tad peculiar.

5. LeBron James became the youngest player ever to score 2,000 points in Saturday's blowout win over the Bulls; just one of the many records LeBron is sure to set throughout the course of his career. LBJ is truly the key for the NBA in winning back the respect of the people in light of the recent troublesome publicity, and so far he's doing his best to steer the attention in his direction. He's already had two jaw-dropping performances on national television (the Phoenix comeback and the 43-point outburst against Detroit), a number of jump-out-of-your-seat highlights (including the fastbreak dunk where his armpits are above the rim), and led a Cleveland surge in the East that most people didn't anticipate for at least a year or two. And the Cavaliers have only played 14 games! I'm going to keep watching, are you?

5 Fretful Thoughts

1. Everyone had been talking about how much Indiana was going to struggle without their top three players, but it appears that Detroit is the team finding life more difficult in the wake of the recent suspensions. The Pistons, a team we tend to forget won a Championship last year entirely because of their physically stiffling defense, is clearly a different team with Wallace out of action. In 6 games this season without the services of the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Detroit is 2-4 and allowing an astounding 101 PPG; in 6 games with Big Ben, the Pistons are 4-2 and giving up just 91.5 PPG. Perhaps people should take a step back and realize that maybe it wasn't Detroit's "team game" that lead them to victory in June--maybe the Pistons are just Ben Wallace's team.

2. The Jazz are clearly out-of-tune after charging out of the gate to begin the season, having lost 5 of 7 including embarassing losses to the last two winless teams, the Hornets and the Bulls. After scoring 100+ in each victory during their 6-1 start, Utah has eclipsed the century mark just once in their past 7 games--a 107-105 overtime loss to the Heat. Now with Andrei Kirilenko expected to miss up to a month of action, Jerry Sloan not only has to figure out how to get his offense going, but also how to replace such a dynamic presence like AK47 on the defensive end. That's a lot to worry about when your next 9 games are against teams with winning records.

3. Many people thought that Eddie Jones had a chance to be the biggest benefactor from Shaq's arrival in South Beach, but thus far that has shown to be anything but the case. After dropping more than 17 a game for the 4th-straight season in Miami a year ago, Jones is struggling (career-low 10.7 PPG) to find shots in the Heat offense (10.0 FGA) and more problematic, he's not making them (34.7 FG%, 30.0 3PT%). Now 33 years-old, it might not be a shock that Jones' production is beginning to tumble; his minutes, shots per game, and field goal %, have all gone down in the last three seasons, and now are taking a serious dive this season. Stan Van Gundy still needs EJ's experience and defense in the lineup, but might have to look elsewhere for some extra offense.

"Did we just blow another 4th quarter lead? Are you serious?"

4. The Boston Celtics are off to a frustrating start (5-8) in what many thought would be a playoff-bound season. And it's no secret why they're having trouble winning--they just can't close out a game in the 4th quarter. Of Boston's five wins, four have been in blowout fashion by an average of 21.5 PPG, with just one of their 8 losses by double-digits. In the seven single-digit losses for the Celts, they are being outscored by an eye-opening average of 29.1 to 20.7 in the 4th. With a crunch-time lineup featuring five players (Payton, Pierce, Davis, LaFraentz, and Blount) who are at least 25 years-old with 5 years experience, it's a wonder why these guys can't finish off some of the younger teams that have toppled them late (Cleveland, Washington, Philadelphia), and until they figure this problem out, they're going to continue to encounter problems.

5. Amongst playoff teams from a year ago, only the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets had as poor away records as the Milwaukee Bucks (14-27), so it's not surprising to see the Bucks continue to have road woes this season. At 0-6, Milwaukee is the only non-expansion team yet to win a road game and is going to find it quite difficult to compete in the East unless they can overcome this obstacle. With their next four road contests against Boston, Indiana, Philadelphia, and Chicago, now might be a good time for Milwauke to buck through this trend.

5 Fantastic Matchups

1. Seattle at Portland, Tuesday @ 10:00
-The Sonics haven't won in Portland in two years, and despite their hot start, will encounter trouble once again this year. Portland has one of the more imposing frontlines in the NBA and so Seattle will need its Fortson/Evans rebounding concoction to contain the boards and keep Randolph and co. off the offensive glass (2nd in the West in ORPG).

2. Cleveland at Phoenix, Wednesday @ 9:00
-A rematch of unquestionably the game of the year in the NBA thus far in which LeBron James dropped 17 points and Zydrunas Ilguaskas buried a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation in a miraculous 19-point 4th quarter comeback. It certainly doen't hurt the magnitude of this game when both teams are near the top of their respective conferences and playing some pretty damn good basketball to boot.

3. Cleveland at Denver, Thursday @ 10:30
-The first matchup this season featuring the glorified rivalry of LeBron and Carmelo; it's a shame its only the second year and it already appears their careers might be headed in separate directions. At least there's still LeBron vs. Dwayne--and we get four of those games.

4. Detroit at New Orleans, Saturday @ 8:00
-Ben Wallace returns to the Pistons lineup after completing his 6-game suspension for initiating the malice in the palice. The bruised and battered Hornets should provide tasty fodder for a team hungry to get on track.

5. Minnesota at Clippers, Saturday @ 10:30
-The Timberwolves appear to have gotten their act together after a humiliating loss to the Pacers on Thanksgiving Day and will take their show to the Staples Center to battle the surprising Clippers, who will be in the midst of a 7-game homestand on Saturday night. The Clips have lost four straight to the Western Conference powers after crushing the Sonics on opening night, so this game might shed some light on just how real Dunleavy's boys might be.

5 Fearless Forecasts

1. Indiana's surprising run is about to come to a screeching halt. Let's face it--the Pacers are running on fumes. Yeah they've played well since the suspensions were dealt out, but how can anyone possibly expect this team to keep it up? Did anyone remind them that they just lost their three best players? Truth of the matter is, Pacers are playing great team basketball and finding ways to score; everyone knew they would still be playing Carlisle defense even without O'Neal, Artest, and Jackson, but to throw a bunch of guys on the court with little experience playing in the NBA let alone together--that wouldn't be so easy. There's a few factors working against the Pacers right now: A) They are still lacking depth, and it will begin to show. B) 5 of their next 7 are on the road; 4 against Western Conference opponents. C) Opposing teams can now scout the Pacers after not having a clue what to expect before. I still think Indiana has what it takes to remain competitive and Carlisle will undoubtedly continute to get the most out of his guys, but look for their Central Division lead to quickly slip away.

2. The Hornets won't surpass the 90-point mark until Baron gets back. This team is really going to struggle to score; first they lose Jamal Mashburn for the season, next Baron finds his usual place on the injured list, then Rodney Rogers joins Baron on the IL, and now Jamaal Magliore is out up to three months. Byron Scott is now left relying on three senior citizens (Wesley, Armstrong, and Brown) and a journeyman (Nailon) to carry the scoring load. Yikes.

3. The Washington Wizards, who haven't won more than 44 games since the 1977-78 season, will eclipse that win total and make the playoffs this season. I'll admit that I had my doubts about this club before the season began, but talent-wise, I knew they easily ranked with the top tier of teams in the Eastern Conference. Antawn Jamison (23.6 PPG, 9.4 RPG) and Larry Hughes (19.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 4.9 APG, 2.8 SPG) have simply been magnificent for the Wiz, Gilbert Arenas is still lighting up (20.8 PPG) and also beginning to show more poise at the point (8 turnovers in last 4 games after averaging 4.7 per game before), and each key member of the supporting cast (Hayes, Haywood, Jeffries, Dixon) has made significant contributions at some point during the team's 7-5 start. Eddie Jordan is doing a noteworthy job in just his second season and optimism will continue to grow for the Wiz once Kwame Brown and Etan Thomas (two major frontcourt factors) return from injury.

4. Assuming that Jerry West hires Mike Fratello to coach the Grizzlies, the Czar will have the Grizz playing good basketball again, but they'll still miss the playoffs. Fratello took both the Hawks and the Cavs into the playoffs in his first season, so expect him to have a positive effect on the team despite not having coached in five years. He also employs similar coaching strategies as Hubie with a heavy emphasis on defense and ball-control, so the team won't have to suddenly adapt to new playing styles and schemes. However, the West is loaded and with the Sonics and Clippers playing like they might remain steady throughout the season, the Czar will have quite a few teams to overcome if he is to get the Grizz back into the playoffs.

5. Despite a loss Sunday night to the Timberwolves (a team that has owned them as of late) at Arco Arena that ended their 7-game win streak, Sacramento is still the team to beat in the Pacific and will win the division. Already with road wins against their chief competitors in the division (Suns and Lakers), the Kings have started to once again resemble the club that has been a force in the West for the past half-decade. Sacramento has the talent and the experience, something that the Lakers, Clippers, and Suns all lack as strong a combination of, to maintain the level of play it will take to offset the oncoming pressure from their division rivals. It will be close, but in the end the Kings should claim their rightful crown.


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