Stoudemire breaks into top 20 for first time all season
Posted: Friday December 22, 2006 11:31AM; Updated: Friday December 22, 2006 3:10PM
You can't help but get the feeling that the NBA is on hold a little bit until late January. By then, the pointless exercise that is the annual Christmas Day Lakers vs. Heat matchup will have passed; Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony will be ready to suit up together for Denver; Paul Pierce will have returned from the injured list; Shaquille O'Neal might be back; and the litany of fatigued World Championships participants will have garnered their second wind. Until then, more of the usual: Tim Duncan, and his tasty jump hooks.
Not only are Duncan's Spurs a league-best 20-6, but they're also blowing out teams with regularity. The Spurs are beating their opponents by an average of 9.6 points per game, 2.8 more points than the No. 2 Suns and nearly twice the differential of the Mavericks, who share the third-best record with the Jazz. Duncan's obviously the mainstay, dominating on both ends, and he's made 52 of his last 68 shots (76.5 percent over seven games). He is averaging 21 points, 10.1 boards and 1.7 blocks in just 34 minutes a game for the season.
Take away the two games in which he's had to leave in the first quarter because of injury, and Nowitzki's averages of 24.8 points and 10 rebounds seem pretty spectacular. The Mavs' forward may be a little gimpy for the next few days with a bum ankle, but Dallas should be able to hold the fort due to improved production from Erick Dampier (22 points and 16 rebounds against Seattle on Wednesday) and Josh Howard (averaging 22 points and 5.4 boards over his last five games).
Nobody has played better over the last three games. Since having his wisdom teeth removed, Wade has averaged 32.3 points (on 58 percent shooting) eight assists and 3.67 steals and committed a combined 15 turnovers. For as much as he has the ball in his hands, that last mark isn't too bad. Wade is carrying an 11-14 Heat team that is lucky to have won that many. Antoine Walker doesn't rebound anymore and he looks like Michael Ruffin at the free throw line (38.3 percent), and starting point guard Gary Payton is offering Eric Snow-like offense (six points, 36 percent shooting, 25 minutes a game) with Jason Williams-level defensive intensity. And his backup is Jason Williams.
The Western Conference's Player of the Month for November is playing even better in December, especially as the big fella has taken to showcasing his finest Dikembe Mutombo impression. No vocal emulations, sadly, but Yao is averaging 3.3 blocks this month, while keeping the fouls down and the rest of the production on high. Twenty-seven points and 10 boards on the season for Yao, who also is shooting 86.2 percent from the free throw line.
Like Wade, James is only as good as the help around him. The lethargy angle is for real; LeBron's play has been remarkably consistent (at an MVP level, no less) all season, but he doesn't seem to have the energy to singularly win three games a week after 13 draining postseason contests last year and a turn with Team USA. And though we've long admired Donyell Marshall's ability to crash the boards and hit daggers from the perimeter, it may be time to lessen his minutes and throw more looks toward Drew Gooden, who is averaging 26 minutes a game. Gooden has cooled off after a hot start, and a few extra reps -- he has played more than 35 minutes just twice all season -- may get his motor running again.
There is a distinct Allen Iverson hangover clouding Minnesota's focus. The Timberwolves don't appear to particularly enjoy playing alongside each other, and a choppy recent schedule (just three games in 13 days, all losses, following a strong win over Chicago on Dec. 9) isn't helping. Wednesday's 17-point loss to the Lakers, one that saw the T'wolves give up a season-high 111 points, could only be described as desultory. Garnett has been stellar as always, averaging 22.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists during the swoon.
Kobe's bit of petulance in the wake of Gilbert Arenas' 60-point game against the Lakers wasn't the nicest thing, but we can understand his postgame frustrations. Arenas developed that hot hand going up against horrible defenders like Smush Parker and Jordan Farmer, and by the time Kobe switched over to Arenas, let's face it, Agent Zero was just testing that hot hand. No shame in that, as Kobe's done it a time or 182 himself. Bryant had 45 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in that game, but missed 13 of 19 shots and fouled out in a loss to Chicago two nights later.
Nash's Suns are dragging a little bit (speaking in relative terms, of course) as they keep adding to that 15-game winning streak. Nash is shooting 43 percent over his last three games and hasn't topped the 20-point mark since his 42-point outburst against the Nets on Dec. 8. And I'm having a hard time finding a problem with this. It's not that the Suns are going out of their way to pace themselves; they're just doing enough to win, quite cognizant of the fact that they need to showcase their best effort in June and not against the Kings in December. Plus, the team got into a snowball fight in Denver on Wednesday, which is just precious.
Boozer is having a little trouble holding on to that microfiber ball as the NBA inches closer to returning to its leather-bound roots, turning it over 19 times in the last four games after coughing it up just eight times in the previous five. SI.com colleague Paul Forrester's latest column does a fine job of detailing just how the Jazz like to use their go-to guy -- taking advantage of his ability to move without the ball and finish after absorbing contact -- on his way to averaging 21.8 points and 11.8 rebounds for the season.
The Trail Blazers are hot, they're making clutch plays and listening to coach Nate McMillan, and Randolph continues to act as the scoring (25.3 points) and rebounding (10.2 boards) rock down low. Randolph hasn't been shooting well lately (41 percentin his last four games), but he continues to get to the line and knock down the freebies (84.1 percent). Better yet, the Trail Blazers have won five straight despite a litany of injuries.