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Nowitzki, Garnett excelling on both ends of the court

Posted: Friday February 2, 2007 5:09PM; Updated: Friday February 2, 2007 6:14PM
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Talent is an asset, one has to understand that. But one also has to keep in mind how much stock we put into defensive aptitude 'round these parts, the type of things that can barely be gauged with simple statistics and aren't as obvious upon an initial scouting venture. Just something to keep in mind while you wonder where Ray Allen and Vince Carter are.

(All statistics and records through Feb. 1.)

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1 1 It may not show in the same way as Karl Malone's ever-increasing biceps did when they were visible from the cheap seats, or Michael Jordan's shooting percentages from the perimeter as they rose year by year, but Nowitzki's growth as a defender over his career has been no less than astonishing. Dirk was easily the worst defender in the NBA during his rookie year, among the worst in his second and an outright liability at times until 2003 or so. And, while he hasn't grown into an All-Defensive talent, he's close. Nowitzki and Josh Howard cover so much ground on that Mavericks team that it's easy to forget just how far Dirk has come, especially when he barely registers in the usual defensive statistical categories, with just 1.3 combined blocks/steals per game.
2 3 Since our last batch of Rankings, Garnett has averaged 27.8 points, 10 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 3.8 steals. His Timberwolves split four contests, losing two games by a combined four points. KG's performance against the Phoenix Suns on Monday was no less than astounding. He not only spent the bulk of the evening barking out defensive orders (usually to no avail; as Jim Petersen pointed out on the Wolves' telecast, Garnett would see a play develop, tell his guards exactly what was going to happen and they'd still fail to rotate properly) but also had a hand in all the stops down the stretch. Garnett also seemed to answer each defensive stop with a score of his own. The All-Star finished with 44 points and 11 boards and played the entire second half as Minnesota ended Phoenix's 17-game winning streak.
3 2 D-Wade needs to send Cleveland coach Mike Brown some comped Super Bowl ducats. During Miami's win over the Cavs on Thursday, Brown seemed incapable of adjusting to the same Heat play -- the same late-game set they've been running on national TV since Wade's rookie season in 2003-04. With Wade safely ensconced in his favorite 1-4 set, he was able to drive his way to 24 fourth-quarter points (and 41 overall). Brown refused to send a help defender initially, and then chose to send slow-footed (relative to Wade) big man Anderson Varejao as Wade dribbled and waited. With only Drew Gooden to beat, Wade had his way. Why Brown felt a need to have his perimeter defenders stick closely to Antoine Walker and Gary Payton (with both at 29 percent from behind the arc this season), we cannot understand.
4 4 It was a typical week for Nash; he basically offered what he averages on the year (19.5 points, 11.9 assists, lest you forgot). Though Nash, who is averaging a career-high 35.7 minutes, is carping at having to take part in All-Star festivities -- the Skills Challenge, which is always a classic, and the All-Star Game itself -- he should benefit from having played more than 37 minutes just once during the Suns' 15-1 January.
5 6 You can throw all manner of Kobe Bryant conspiracy theories at me, and I'll buy just about all of them. I think it's safe to say that he's just about the coldest (until recently, at least) and most calculating (that hasn't let up) superstar we've seen in any sport over the last 20 years, with the possible exception of the man (Michael Jordan) whose career he's made a point to emulate. That said, against the Spurs last Sunday, Bryant was attempting to fling a basketball 20-odd feet when his shooting arm was sent off course by a defender's hand. Once the pressure from the defender's hand let up, Bryant's natural follow-through was sent off-kilter, though the strength behind the follow-through (created so that he could throw a basketball 20-odd feet) hadn't been mitigated. He then accidentally struck another human with that arm, and was needlessly punished for it a few days later.
6 5 Alongside the typical double-double, Duncan was very impressive in wins over Memphis (with nine blocks) and the Lakers (with nine assists) last week. And yet, the Spurs lost on consecutive nights to the Jazz (Duncan had 25 points on just 13 shots, 13 boards and five blocks) and Suns (20 points on only 6-of-18 shooting, 18 boards and five blocks). The good news? Five days "off," an eternity in an NBA season, until San Antonio plays at Washington on Feb. 7.
7 9 Sometime between now and Feb. 18, David Stern will announce that Carmelo Anthony and Josh Howard have been added to the Western Conference All-Star team as injury replacements, and Brand will just have to deal with it. Sadly, Brand is used to it, as he's had to deal with uninformed snubs in 2003, '04 and '05. Just in case you haven't looked yet: Brand is averaging 20.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks and shooting 56.2 percent from the field. And there might not be a sturdier post defender in the NBA.
8 10 McGrady hasn't shot this well (45 percent) since his brilliant 2002-03 turn with the Orlando Magic, he's on pace to set a career high in assists (6.3), and he hasn't scored (23.7) or played (35.7 minutes) this little since his final year with the Toronto Raptors. And what is that telling us? McGrady is picking his spots and doing great things with a Rockets rotation (which currently takes in big minutes from iffy offensive guys like Dikembe Mutombo, Luther Head, Juwan Howard and Rafer Alston) that struggles to score every night. T-Mac averaged 29.9 points and 7.1 assists in January, as Houston won 10 of 14. The Rockets' defense allows them to compete, and McGrady pushes them to win.
9 8 The play, the statistics and the look of the man ... it's just not adding up. We're still of the opinion that LeBron's Cavaliers should be quite pleased with a 26-20 record, considering the roster is thin on talent, youth and shooting. But LeBron's on the hook for a lethargic tone and an inability to rise above a limited roster and tired legs. A tough sliding scale for the 22-year-old, we agree, but we also remember watching a 22-year-old Nowitzki crash the boards and start fast breaks by himself a few years ago. When Cleveland's offense bogs down, LeBron needs to take over, and this doesn't mean spreading the floor in a half-court offense and going one-on-one. James has to learn to mix it up because he and his Cavs have become an absolute chore to watch.
10 7 We like the direction of Arenas' Wizards, who have beaten the Pistons twice in the last week. Antawn Jamison may miss a month due to a sprained knee, but with Darius Songaila set to return, Washington should hold serve. All Songaila will do is spread the floor and nail jumpers, and his passing skills will make life wonderful for Caron Butler, Jarvis Hayes and a future screen-and-roll partner: Agent Zero himself.
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