You see, it was 21 days ago that I wrote the following about the Atlantic Division:
“Meanwhile, everyone else has been awful. The Knicks are still a mess. The Celtics have been understandably terrible since Paul Pierce went down. The Sixers dealt Allen Iverson away and are completely rebuilding. The Raptors are the Raptors.”
Well, so much for that opinion. The Raptors have been playing nothing like the team they were at the start of the season, or the start of 2007 for that matter.
I glossed over this at the end of this column last week, but the Raptors swept the January awards for the Eastern Conference. Chris Bosh won player of the month. Andrea Bargnani won rookie of the month. Sam Mitchell won coach of the month.
Let that sink in for a second.
Now that your brain has processed that knowledge, let me blow your mind again. Chris Bosh is playing some incredible basketball right now, and he deserves to be in the MVP conversation for the time being.
Over a two-game span, Bosh made 17 consecutive field goals. In a victory over Orlando, he outlasted fellow budding superstar Dwight Howard, scoring a career-high 41 points in the process. He followed that performance up with a 75% shooting night in a hard-fought win over the Lakers.
Meanwhile, Bargnani has gotten nasty. Last Sunday, he dunked on Chris Kaman with fury and buried a three on the next trip down. He knocked down four of five from behind the arc against Los Angeles on Friday night. Bargnani is drawing so many comparisons to a young Dirk Nowitzki that I’m already tired of hearing it, and even Dirk himself got into the act saying Bargnani is better than he was at the same age.
In addition, Jose Calderon has been wonderful at the point, and with T.J. Ford getting his health back, that’s a pretty solid two-headed monster in the backcourt.
Predictably, the Raptors faltered last night in Detroit in what was hyped as a big test for both teams. Toronto might not be the best team in the East right now, but they seem to be in great shape to win the Atlantic. The Raptors are 18-7 at home, and they’ve compiled a 7-2 record within their horrible division.
It remains to be seen if they can keep this run going, but with a 14-6 record in 2007, Toronto is certainly a team to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
WESTERN CONFERENCE DIVISION RACES OVER?
I know we have a ton of basketball left to play, but it sure looks like you can start creating division championship banners in Phoenix, Dallas and Utah.
Entering today, the Suns hold a seemingly insurmountable 9 ½ game lead over the Lakers. The Mavs hold a surprising eight game lead over San Antonio, while Utah owns a 7 ½ game cushion over Denver.
Because the NBA changed the playoff seeding rules, the only sure thing at this point is that Dallas and Phoenix will be one and two, with the order to be determined.
What makes the West so interesting is how well the next tier of teams is playing to this point. Utah, San Antonio, Houston and the Lakers are indistinguishable based on record, and that’s what has NBA fans excited for playoff time.
Dallas and Phoenix have separated themselves from the pack, and while a potential playoff series against the Clippers or Nuggets is by no means a cakewalk, it looks a lot nicer on paper than the options facing that middle pack of teams. That’s assuming that Denver and the Clippers don’t kick things into another gear during the stretch, which is entirely possible considering the rosters on those teams.
With the division races seemingly non-existent, the real race to watch in the West is which teams end up with the coveted third and fourth seeds. Since the matchups appear to be tough, home-court advantage should play a key factor in the opening round series.
NBA ALL-STAR SATURDAY NIGHT PREDICTIONS
The field is set for both the Slam Dunk contest and the Three-Point Shootout, so I think I’ll go on record with some predictions leading into what used to be one of the most fun nights in sports.
The dunk contest used to be the marquee event of the weekend, but not anymore. Tyrus Thomas said he was going for the free money, and now that the Bulls fined him $10,000 for his comments, he’s probably going for a victory so he can have more free money.
Thomas is the sleeper in the contest. His leaping ability is off the charts, so who knows what he can come up with.
Nate Robinson is back to defend a title he never should have won. In my opinion, Andre Iguodala would have won the competition if not for the emotional, nostalgic influence of the great Spud Webb.
Anyway, most are excited to see what Gerald Green of the Celtics comes up with, and I think many are confused by Dwight Howard’s inclusion in the proceedings. Howard’s size makes his entry unique, and I’m thinking somewhat prohibitive for a contest like this.
So, with all of that said, I think it comes down to Thomas and Green, and from what I’ve seen I think Thomas will impress the crowd and judges with his power and athleticism. That is, of course, unless someone has already decided that he can’t win because of his comments. Just kidding. Ahem. Let’s move on.
The Three-Point Shootout is my favorite event of Saturday night now that 2-Ball is gone, and this year’s field is deep. Defending champ Dirk Nowitzki will have his hands full trying to repeat, as he needs to hold off Gilbert Arenas, Jason Kapono, Damon Jones, Mike Miller and his teammate Jason Terry.
This is a tough event to predict, but I like Kapono based on how he’s been shooting the basketball lately. He feels the least streaky to me, which is either good or bad depending on how you look at it. I will argue that it's good, since he'll be more consistent. However, I have no evidence to back this up, so take it for what it’s worth. Mike Miller also seems like a good choice.
Everyone is a winner in the Shooting Stars competition due to the inclusion of WNBA greats, but I think San Antonio repeats, holding off Detroit.
As for the Rookie-Sophomore game, the Sophomores will blow the Rookies out in a game that has absolutely no defense, and Andrew Bynum will win the MVP thanks to Deron Williams and Chris Paul constantly feeding him the basketball.
-Just as everyone in the world predicted, the Wizards are really struggling without Antawn Jamison. They’re now 1-4 since Jamison was injured, and they’ve been blown out at home by San Antonio and Portland. On top of that, Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood can’t stop fighting each other. Oh, and Miami is only four games back.
-There are a lot of slumping teams out there. Orlando is back down to .500 after their torrid start. The Lakers desperately need to get back to California following an ugly road trip. The Bulls are having the same issues on the left coast. Then there’s the predicament the Celtics find themselves in. Boston is headed towards a historic level of losing, but with each loss comes the increased hope of Greg Oden or Kevin Durant.
-On the flip side of the previous "putback" are the few scorching teams in the NBA. Detroit is rolling with Chris Webber, and they’re very quickly separating themselves from the pack at the top of the East. Meanwhile, Sacramento has very quietly won five straight to pull closer to a playoff spot.
-I highly doubt this will hold up, but it’s fun to consider: if the season ended today, Miami and Detroit would meet in the first round of the playoffs. Since I still consider the Heat and the Pistons to be the best teams in the East, wouldn’t it be something to see that series so early? Again, don’t bet on it happening.