Posted Dec 30 2009 5:34PM
The Mavericks and Rockets meet for the fourth and final time New Year's Eve. The calendar hasn't flipped to 2010 and these Southwest Division neighbors are done for the regular season.
That's just not right, Mr. NBA Schedule Maker. Fans should be treated with at least a couple I-45 showdowns over the stretch run. Oh, well.
Dallas leads the series 2-1 and the division, while also checking in with the second-best record in the Western Conference at 22-9. According to the man who runs the Rockets, the Mavs are stocked and the class of the once-mighty Southwest.
They've got an MVP contender (Dirk Nowitzki), future Hall of Famer (Jason Kidd), Sixth Man award winner (Jason Terry), Defensive Player of the Year hopeful (Shawn Marion) and a wild card who may be the team's most versatile player (Josh Howard). Sounds like an unbeatable combo.
"This is Dallas' division," Rockets coach Rick Adelman declared. "They've got all the talent. They're deep. They were able to sustain even when they lost Howard, and I think that they're the best team in our division and probably they're up there in the conference. This is a team that is very strong and they're going to be there all year long."
Nothing like blowing a little smoke to flame the fires of a rivalry. Terry, though, is on board with Adelman's glowing assessment and flatly called the Mavericks the "best" in the division. Now whether the Southwest is a strong as recent years is up for debate.
The Spurs (18-11) are starting to show signs of turning around a poor start, but most of their wins lately have come against outfits that are lottery bound. Still, a team built around the Three Amigos -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- with a nice mix of athleticism (Richard Jefferson, George Hill) can't be overlooked.
"San Antonio, it's just a matter of can they get everybody together again, work the new guys in, but you always have to believe that they're going to make their run and they're going to be there," Adelman said. "The rest of us, we're just trying to find out who we are."
The Spurs are fifth in the West, have won nine of the last 11 and trail Dallas by only three games. Are the Mavs in their sights?
"Honestly, I'm not really focused on anybody else but us," San Antonio guard Roger Mason Jr. said. "We're playing better, but I don't think our record is a reflection of where we want to be. We've played well, but we have a long way to go."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was even more direct: "All I care about is how we're playing and if we're improving, and we have a long way to go."
The surprising Rockets are third in the division and motoring along at 19-13, seventh in the West. Houston is without Yao Ming (bad) and Tracy McGrady (good) while stringing together wins with a hard-nosed, overachieving group. Aaron Brooks and Trevor Ariza have All-Star talent. "Gritty" might as well be inserted before the names of Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes, Shane Battier and Kyle Lowry.
New Orleans, the Southwest champs just two seasons ago, fired its coach and is wasting another MVP-caliber season by Chris Paul. The surging Memphis Grizzlies are actually ahead of the Hornets going into Wednesday. But as a whole, the division's best playoff hopes lie in the Texas Triangle.
"I still think it's one of the strongest divisions in our league," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "I think it's dangerous to overreact to the first seven weeks of the season and say that the division is down. There's still a lot of basketball to be played.
"Chris Paul goes out two, two-and-a-half weeks, that's going to change a team's fortunes tremendously. There's a long way to go. San Antonio is quietly winning games and they're getting better and better. At the end of January, whoever's opinion that is might change."
Speaking of those Grizzlies, Zach Randolph is quietly putting together another bang-up season. And judging by the squeaks from the turnstiles at FedEx Forum, it's really quiet.
Memphis' starting power forward should be in the All-Star discussion averaging 20 points (16th in the league) and 11.4 boards (fifth). He leads in offensive rebounding, with a career-high 4.8.
"I'm just being aggressive," Randolph said, "Being aggressive on the offensive end. Being aggressive rebounding, trying to get offensive rebounds. Just the little stuff."
Little stuff that adds up. The burly left-hander totaled 65 points and 42 rebounds from Dec. 20-22, becoming the first NBA player to reach those levels over a two-game stretch since Hall-of-Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar amassed 67 points and 46 rebounds from Feb. 1-3, 1978.
Randolph destroyed the Nuggets for 32 points and a career-high 24 rebounds on Dec. 20, marking the first 32-24 game since Kevin Garnett (33-25) on Dec. 5, 2003. Z-Bo also has games of 33-18, 23-19 and 19-20 this month. He's failed to reach 10 boards only twice in 12 December games.
Better yet, the Grizzlies are starting to make a move in the standings. Memphis (14-16) has won three of four and has crept into the West playoff picture after a 1-8 start. Randolph, a nine-year vet in his first season with the Grizz, sees progress with a young but talented core that includes wings Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol, who forms one-half of the best rebounding duo (with Z-Bo) in the league.
"It's just like anywhere else," Randolph said. "Guys get along and are comfortable with each other. It's a great thing. These guys want to learn. The chemistry is jelling. We compliment each other well. Rudy and O.J. are future All-Stars. We have some talent."
Randolph also knows his rep. Two of his previous three teams -- Portland and the L.A. Clippers -- traded him after winning the Draft lottery, fearing having Randolph around impressionable young minds like Greg Oden and Blake Griffin. Thing is, the Grizzlies are the league's youngest and least-experienced team.
Asked if he feels like a mentor, Randolph shrugged: "Yeah, I guess. I ain't no rah-rah type of guy, but I lead by example. It's cool."
While Z-Bo may be gobbling up stats at a record pace, the number on his mind lately is eight. He's played in only eight career playoff games and none since 2003.
"I definitely want to get back to that," he said. "There ain't nothing like the postseason. I'm just taking it one game at a time. We've got to get back to the .500 mark first. That's definitely something I want to do. We're not far away. We're right there."
Steve Nash, 35, just keeps getting better with age. Not only does the Super Sun pass the eyeball test for those who see him nightly, but numbers don't lie. The two-time MVP is in the discussion again because of a season many are calling his best to date.
His numbers stack up to any of the great playmakers in the game today -- Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo and so on. Here's how Nash compares to other all-time greats at 35.
|A comparison of Steve Nash with other NBA point guards at age 35|
|*Returned for one season following four-year retirement; did not play in 1994-95 when he was 35.|
"Vinny is our coach. Our goal is to get better each and every day. We are exploring options to get better."
-- Bulls general manager Gar Forman on speculation Vinny Del Negro would be fired.
1. Let's get this straight, Ron Artest slips while carrying Christmas presents, hits concrete and blacks out for nearly two minutes only to wake up with a concussion and deep gash on his left elbow. I guess crashing your SUV into a fire hydrant outside your home was already taken.
2. It's time to trade T-Mac ... in 2007.
3. Rookie-Sophomore game at All-Star weekend might as well be an Oklahoma City intrasquad scrimmage.
4. Make sure Jared Dudley logs major minutes against all Los Angeles teams. In the last week, the Suns' sixth man and Twitter master scored 19 (Lakers) and 18 (Clippers). He's averaging 9.4 on the season. Oh yeah, he's from SoCal.
5. More excruciating drought: Hawks to open the fourth quarter Tuesday night with Cleveland in town or Cleveland's championship wait?
AG: Not a bad rookie year.
CB: It's been going well so far. The one thing that says it most is I'm on the court playing. (Note: He's currently out with a sprained ankle.)
AG: How do the Rockets get it done?
CB: This team knows what we have. We don't have our big guns out here, so every night we have to be the hustle team and bring the energy. If we don't, we lose. We have to play a certain way and that's how we've been playing all year. Scrappy, hustle. When we do that, we win.
AG: What's it like going against players you watched on TV growing up?
CB: It's shell-shocking playing against guys I've been watching for years and years. To be able to play against them is a great honor for me. I'm a competitor and going to do my best against them.
AG: Biggest adjustment from college at Arizona to the NBA?
CB: The travel and playing 82 games. In college you used to playing only twice a week -- for me it was Thursdays, Saturdays -- here you have back-to-backs, games at home one day and travel the next. It's a constant ride.
|Spurs vs. Warriors|
Marco Belinelli records a career-high 28 points despite 30-point games from David Lee and Stephen Curry to lead the Spurs over the Warriors.
|Stephen Curry's Night|
Stephen Curry records 30 points and 15 assists in a tough loss to the Spurs.
|David Lee's Night|
David Lee records 32 points and 13 rebounds in a tough loss to the Spurs.
|Inside the NBA: Chariots Rematch|
CNN's Wolf Blitzer joins the show to settle the controversy in the Chariots of Backfire Race.
|Thursday's Daily Zap|
Kevin Durant goes off for the Thunder and the Spurs win a nail biter without the big three to round out Thursdays two game night.