HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — More than Christmas or even All-Star weekend, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday provides the NBA a platform to showcase some of the best players and teams the league has to offer. Stars young and old, championship teams and those aspiring to join those ranks … they’ll all be on display Monday.
A total of 10 games from across the country will highlight a day of celebration of both the game and the Dream Big mantra of not only Dr. King but also the league. What to watch for during the MLK Day hoops smorgasbord, the official halfway mark of the regular season:
The skinny: The Cavaliers are feeling good after a 3-2 road trip and look to take advantage of a Mavericks team still smarting from getting blown out by Portland Saturday night. Luol Deng has infused the Cavaliers with a new energy, much like what Monta Ellis has done all season for Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. That loss to Portland was a wake-up call for Rick Carlisle’s team, a group riding high after winning four-of-five prior to that humiliating defeat. “We regressed. The first three quarters are beyond embarrassing,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told the team’s official website. “We weren’t playing together. We weren’t helping each other. Do that against a quality team … and they’re going to make you pay a heavy price.”
The skinny: Losses to the league’s elite have left a cloud over the Clippers’ season to this point. They look like a championship team on paper and when everything is clicking (and when everyone, Chris Paul specifically, is healthy). The Clippers are 0-5 on the road this season against the league’s top five teams, and while this game against the Pistons doesn’t provide a similar test, Clippers coach and Senior VP of basketball operations Doc Rivers is constantly evaluating his crew. “I like our team,” Rivers told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “That doesn’t mean we won’t make changes. We’re not looking to make changes, but we’re always looking just like every other team. I like our team right now. If the season ended and we had the group we have right now, I like how we look. Obviously, I’d add Chris Paul to that group — but other than that I like our team a lot.”
The skinny: Playoff dreams in Charlotte this season have a lot to do with Kemba Walker and how well the point guard plays at what is the league’s deepest and most difficult position. If you don’t believe it just look at what Kyle Lowry has meant to the Raptors during their post-Rudy Gay-trade renaissance. So with the news that Walker will miss the next 10-14 days with a second-degree sprain of his left ankle, the Bobcats need Ramon Sessions to step up in a major way to keep the playoff vibes alive. The Raptors, meanwhile, are 6-4 in their last 10 games and can continue their momentum with another big road win.
The skinny: The Wizards are trying desperately to reach the .500 mark, for both tangible and symbolic reasons. The break even mark gives them a chance to climb above .500 as they continue their playoff chase. And getting above that mark allows them to think about themselves in a different light, as they continue to work through the inconsistencies that have plagued their season. They haven’t had a winning record since starting the 2009-10 season 2-1. “Somebody just needs to not tell us our record and we’ll just go out and play,” shooting guard Bradley Beal said. “Every time they tell us ‘.500,’ we just pressure ourselves too much and end up not showing up.” Wizards point guard John Wall and his Sixers counterpart Michael Carter-Williams better show up for their showdown.
The skinny: There’s no shortage of subplots in this Battle of the Boroughs. Both Knicks coach Mike Woodson and Nets coach Jason Kidd have survived all of the turmoil of the early season and, courtesy of a feeble Eastern Conference playoff field, remain in the thick of the hunt for postseason positions. The Knicks are still dealing with myriad injury issues, not to mention the ongoing J.R. Smith drama. The Nets just want a little payback after the Knicks beat the starch out of them in their last meeting (a 113-83 rout on Dec. 5). “We definitely do,” Nets point guard Shaun Livingston told ESPNNewYork.com. “They came in and beat us pretty well at our place. We have to take that upon ourselves and take it personally. We’ve got to come and compete.”
The skinny: The Grizzlies five-game win streak is tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the best current run in the league. The surge couldn’t have come at a better time for a team that has been bolstered by the return of All-Star center Marc Gasol. He will do his best to help take advantage of an injury-plagued Pelicans team that doesn’t know if it’s coming or going. Even with Anthony Davis playing out of his mind, the Pelicans cannot find a groove. Davis is averaging 22.4 points and 11.1 rebounds during the Pelicans’ eight-game skid, both above his season averages. But he needs help if the Pelicans are going to avoid sliding all the way down the ladder in the Western Conference. “It’s adversity,” Davis said. “We have to learn how to deal with it.”
The skinny: The best way for the Heat to shake out of their recent funk is to continue to find inspiration wherever they can. For LeBron James, it’s watching his biggest rival and good friend, Thunder star Kevin Durant, who has been on a tear of late. The unfortunate recipient of LeBron’s wrath could end up being the Hawks. Because Durant has raised the bar, even for a LeBron. “I do a lot of checking and seeing what guys have done overnight,” James told ESPN.com’s Heat Index of keeping up with the performances of other players. “After every game, I always go … and see what guys did. I didn’t have to look too far to see what K.D. did last night. As soon as I looked at my phone, a family member of mine said, ‘K.D. had 54, you only had 21. You stink.’ So, there it is.”
The skinny: It’s tough to get excited about these two teams squaring off when their best players are wearing designer suits instead of uniforms. It’s a good thing the Lakers and Bulls have learned how to operate without Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, respectively. To their credit, the Lakers enter the game riding the wave, however slight it might be, of a two-game win streak. That’s a good way to hit the halfway mark of the season for team that has to feel like it’s endured 82-games worth of tumult already. “We just have a lot of injuries and a lot of stuff,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after Sunday’s win over the Raptors. “We got some guys who are improving and we’re not as good as we’d like to be, obviously this last stretch really knocked us for a loop, but our whole goal is to get back and win one at a time and play well, just get better, keep our energy up and our spirits up and see if we can have a good second half.”
The skinny: It’s funny the way things work out sometimes in the NBA. The Trail Blazers are every bit of the elite, title-contending team most of the pundits predicted the Rockets would be last summer when they landed Dwight Howard in free agency. The Blazers have done it all season with a steady mix of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and arguably the most underrated supporting cast in the league. It won’t be that way for long if it’s up to Nic Batum, who told our very own Jeff Caplan that he believe he’s an All-Star. “You know, KD, is way up there, so can’t reach him he’s so far. But the West has to take a small forward after KD; I think it should be me. The West is crazy. I talked about it with Tony Parker two nights ago — I had dinner with him — that in the West, for a bench, to pick seven guys is pretty tough. KD is going to start at small forward, but I know if I get a chance to be on the bench to be a backup to KD, I would be very happy to do it.”
The skinny: Paul George‘s 360 dunk has been the talk of the basketball world the past 24 hours and rightfully so. But that one dunk shouldn’t overshadow what is a most appropriate nightcap of a monster day of hoops. We get the most consistent team in the Eastern Conference and perhaps the league against arguably the most exciting team, though not the most consistent, in the league. George, Steph Curry, Lance Stephenson and Klay Thompson will provide the offensive fireworks. But the fellas up front on both sides love to mix it up (David West‘s pockets are $15,000 lighter after he was fined for that elbow to the jaw of the Clippers’ Blake Griffin). Keep an eye on West, Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi of the Pacers and Andrew Bogut, David Lee and HT fave Draymond Green of the Warriors. They’ll wage their own battle during the game.
VIDEO: Pacers star Paul George leads the top 10 dunks of the week