By Andy Roth
New York, NY (Sports Network) -
The Heat turn up the defense. The trades spark a little magic in Orlando. Michael Jordan can't get rid of the real problem in Charlotte. I've got those stories and more in my latest take on the NBA.
"The Big Three" look so much more cohesive on offense than they did during the Heat's early season struggles, but it's a lock down defense that has been the driving force to Miami taking 14 of its last 15 games. It was on full display before a national televised audience on Christmas Day as the Heat shut down the Lakers in their 96-80 win. LA's big one-two punch of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were non-factors, scoring just 17 points each. Miami is number one in the NBA in opponent's points per game, allowing just 90.8. But the defense has been even stingier during this latest run, giving up a mere 86.6 points per game.
After dropping the first two games following the shakeup in Orlando, the Magic scored big wins over two upper echelon teams in the Spurs and Celtics. Orlando snapped San Antonio's 10-game winning streak with a 22-point rout, then ended Boston's 14-game run by rallying in the fourth quarter. The Magic did catch a bit of a break in both wins in that the Spurs were on a back-to- back coming off a tough game against the Nuggets and the Celtics were without Rajon Rondo. Boston's tremendous depth of big men, which was a key factor in eliminating Orlando from the playoffs' last season, was also a major cog in Saturday's game, as Dwight Howard was held to just 6 points. I still think the Magic would have a difficult time with the Celtics in the postseason because Boston has the ability to play Howard straight up, which gives the Magic a lot less open looks from three-point range, which is an integral part of its offense.
The official word was that head coach Larry Brown and the Bobcats ended their relationship by mutual agreement, but the real story seems to be that team owner Michael Jordan gave Brown his walking papers. If MJ truly did let Brown go, then he let him take the fall for the person most responsible for the Bobcat's plight, and that's Jordan himself. It was His Airness' decision to let free agent Raymond Felton walk and to trade Tyson Chandler. Both players are flourishing with their new teams with Felton playing a key role in the Knicks' turnaround and Chandler spearheading the newly defensive-minded Dallas Mavericks. But bad personnel decisions aren't new for Jordan. He selected Kwame Brown with the first overall pick in the 2001 draft when he was the Wizards team president, and he took Adam Morrison with the third pick of the 2006 draft while serving as the Bobcats GM. Jordan the player, and Jordan the executive, are in two different leagues.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Do we argue that the two-time defending champs' awful back-to-back performances to the Bucks and Heat as the usual boredom with the regular season or is their cause for concern? I believe it's a little bit of both, but I think the Lakers have to look at this season differently from years past because the competition is much tougher. The path to the NBA Finals alone will be much more difficult because the upper echelon teams in the West are clearly better this season. The Lakers would conceivably have to beat the Spurs and Mavericks to advance to a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.
I think this season will be Phil Jackson's biggest challenge in terms of figuring out what his best combination of players is. Andrew Bynum's health and productivity will play a key role in the decision-making process, but make no mistake about it that the Lakers will need an effective Bynum if they hope to three-peat. His presence alone allows Gasol to move to power forward where he's most effective and doesn't have to take the physical beating as much as he does playing center. But more minutes for Bynum will affect the playing time of the other players up front. I believe Jackson will have to give Lamar Odom, who is playing at such a high level, starter's minutes, whether he's eventually coming off the bench or not. Odom has the versatility to play small forward or even in the back court which I think Jackson should experiment with. Imagine teams trying to match up defensively against a backcourt of Bryant and Odom. Come playoff time, do you really think the Lakers are better off with Steve Blake getting minutes over Odom? I don't think so.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The "other" team in LA has actually won four of its last five games. Rookie sensation Blake Griffin extended his streak of double-double games to 18 in Sunday's win over the Suns with a 28-point, 12 rebound effort. But maybe lost among his highlight reel of dunks, and his scoring and rebounding, is Griffin's ability to pass the ball. Not too many power forwards in the league see the floor like he does and have the no-look pass in their repertoire. He's averaging 3.2 assists per game and has topped that figure this month with an average of 4.1.
Despite a rash of major injuries, including losing Yao Ming for the season once again, and an awful start (3-10), the Rockets are in the playoff hunt. Houston has won four straight and six of its last seven to pull within one game of the .500 mark. Their 14-15 record ranks them 9th in the West.
Kevin Martin and Luis Scola have soared under the national radar, but both are playing at a high level and are big reasons why the Rockets have survived injuries to the likes of Ming and starting point guard Aaron Brooks, who has played just eight games because of an ankle issue. Martin's 23.6 ppg ranks him 10th in the NBA. He's also second in free throw percentage (91.2) and 13th from the three-point range (44%). Meanwhile Scola, one of the underrated power forwards in the game, is averaging 20.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
Andy Roth covered the Knicks for NBC Radio and AP Radio for eleven years and
was an NBA Columnist for Celtics Pride Magazine for two years. He's covered
many of the major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA
Finals, U.S. Open Tennis and Golf.