Now that the slam dunking, 3-point shooting and other wretched excess of NBA All-Star weekend is in the rearview mirror, even those of us who aren’t 7-footers can stand on our tip-toes and see the playoffs from here.
There’s jockeying the standings to be done: Races for the No. 1 seeding in both the Eastern and Western Conference, the long-shot hopefuls trying to sneak in at the No. 8 spot and the down-to-the-wire elbowing for home-court advantage in the first round.
While Kobe Bryant continues driving himself to make it back onto the court this season because, well, he’s Kobe Bryant, there are a handful of other players and teams who need to step up their games coming down the homestretch:
Deron Williams — After a slow start a year ago, Williams found his stride and finished strong, averaging 22 points and 10 assists per game in the second half of the season. While the Nets have picked themselves out of the bottom of the garbage heap of the East to climb into the No. 7 spot in the standings thanks to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett finally starting to come around, the most expensive roster in the league isn’t going anywhere in the playoffs if Williams can’t bounce back again and lead them. Is it the ankles? Is it the lack of confidence that he has mentioned? Or is he simply at the end of the line as an elite level point guard in his ninth season? Williams has scored 20 points just once since Jan. 4 and has only two games of handing out double-digit assists in 2014. He was even challenged to a 1-on-1 duel by coach Jason Kidd at a recent practice to try to light a spark.
Carmelo Anthony — He doesn’t show an interest in defense and, yes, he can turn Knicks games into a circus where he’s in the center ring and everyone else watches him hog the spotlight and the ball. Yet if it weren’t for Anthony carrying the offensive load, New York would be buried deeper in the standings. His PER of 24.61 is the second best of his career. Even at 20-32, the Knicks are within striking range in the East and Anthony is going to have to find a way to lift up his teammates — and save the job of coach Mike Woodson — rather than just outshine them before going into his summer of free agency. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if J.R. Smith stopped his clown show and got back to playing basketball at least part time.
Timberwolves — The clock is ticking. Not just on another season when the Wolves were supposed become a playoff team that is slipping away. It could — and should — be ticking loudly on the end of Kevin Love in Minnesota. Two more seasons until Mr. Double-Double can fly out of the icy north to a landing some place where they actually do more than just talk about making the playoffs. Healthy again, Love is back to putting up big numbers. Yes, he’s faltered at times down the stretch as the Wolves have lost a ton of close games. But it really is a case of not having a supporting cast around him that has shown much inclination for improvement. That’s you, Ricky Rubio. Reports have said G.M. Flip Saunders is willing to trade anybody on the roster except Love in an attempt to keep him in Minnesota. But as another year comes off the calendar, you have to wonder if it isn’t already too late.
Manu Ginobili — Sidelined since the end of the January with a strained hamstring, the San Antonio firecracker is scheduled to jump back into the lineup this week. He’s not on this list due to underperforming but for how much the Spurs need him back in their lineup to get the fire burning again. Tony Parker got a chance to get a head start on his All-Star break because he has simply looked worn out this season after going all the way to The Finals last June and then playing for the French national team in EuroBasket. Tim Duncan is showing more and more of his age at times and there are rumors that he is thinking of retiring at the end of the season. The Spurs have played miserably against the top contenders in the West — just a single win over a Clippers lineup without Chris Paul. They need Ginobili to come back strong and healthy and durable to be considered real playoff contenders again.
Andre Iguodala — When the Warriors brought him in from Denver, the belief was that he’d upgrade the roster at both ends of the floor. They figured he’d be the slashing, penetrating force of the past, adding another scoring option and helping Stephen Curry distribute the ball and being a solid wing defender. While he’s helped move the ball and been solid on defense, the problem has been a lack of offensive production. He’s scoring just 9.6 points per game, the lowest since his rookie season in Philly. The Warriors don’t need him to challenge Curry or Klay Thompson as a big gun every night, but occasional flashes of firepower will be necessary if the team hopes to climb out of the No. 8 spot in the West and reach the preseason goal of a top four finish. Iguodala has scored 20 points only once since the opening week of the season.