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Steve Aschburner

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Rookie Brandon Jennings has thrust himself into Rookie of the Year talk.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

After season's first quarter, surprises and disappointments


Posted Dec 7 2009 12:28PM

At the end of the first quarter, Allen Iverson is subbing in for Greg Oden, the New Jersey Nets are hitting 1-of-20 so far, the referees' worst heckling is coming from one of their own and Kobe Bryant is officially a cinch for a remake of the Bird-Jordan HORSE commercial.

Oh, and the Chicago Bulls are a disappointment in the Central Division standings, but they are runaway leaders in early balloting for the Lady Byng Trophy.


Nice defense, Bulls. Too nice.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Six weeks is the equivalent of 12 minutes, if you're going to treat the entire NBA season like a typical game. And as a buddy suggested to me recently, there is no statistic in sports quite as meaningless as a first-quarter NBA score. What you see at that point often bears little resemblance to the result at the final horn and, taking the analogy to the extreme, every game (season) ends up in overtime (playoffs) anyway. At which point your team either wins or goes home.

Still, even first quarters have their share of highlights and lowlights. Such as the discombobulated Bulls on Saturday night, feebly waiting while Toronto point guard Jarrett Jack -- out top, the clock running, near the end of the third quarter -- tied his right sneaker, basketball tucked vulnerably under his arm. What was understood in Chicago to be just another episode of listless defense might have been mistaken up in Raptors' hockey land as a show of sportsmanship or something.

Here are other moments, moves and missteps worth remembering through twenty-something games for most teams:

Surprises

Phoenix rising: When the Shaquille O'Neal detour was abandoned, most observers figured the Suns would wind up settling for a poor man's version (as in slower, less productive) of the heralded up-tempo game they once played under Mike D'Antoni. Not so fast -- or rather, just as fast. That's how Phoenix was playing again and those were the sort of results the Suns were getting at 15-5, with an ageless Steve Nash, a healthy Amar'e Stoudemire, a durable Grant Hill, an appreciated Alvin Gentry and, OK, a pretty friendly schedule.

Brandon Jennings' itinerary: Instead of hearing NCAA coaches carp about the deleterious effect on their programs when some future pro prospects enrolls for just one academic/athletic year, we soon might have Euroleague bench bosses griping about these one-and-done phenoms. That's one of the few potential downsides to Jennings' stunning play for the Milwaukee Bucks. What's looking like a wildly successful internship in Italy as a one-season Euro pro could convince others to pursue a similar career path. It doesn't seem to matter that Jennings' minutes were short and his dramatics few in games; he and his Bucks coaches rave about the learning he did in Lottomatica Roma's plentiful practices. Much of the soundtrack of this season's first quarter (which included Milwaukee's surprising 8-3 start) has been the drumbeat of Draft second-guessers, wondering how nine guys could have been picked before this exciting young point guard.

The D in Dallas: It's respectable, even fashionable now, not to simply outscore the other guys in Dallas. The Mavericks are 14-7 despite numerous injuries largely because of their defense; they're allowing 96.7 points and a 44.2 opponents' field-goal percentage, while holding the edge in rebounds, blocks and steals. In games following their losses (they're 5-1), the Mavs have held foes to 89.8 points, and they are 6-4 when they shoot worse than 44 percent -- compared to 6-24 when they did that last season.

Houston's resiliency: If you correctly predicted that the Rockets would have to play without Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest and still would start the season 11-8 -- including a 7-4 road mark until their late loss in Portland on Saturday -- please drop me an e-mail with verifiable proof. And while you're at it, please pick six numbers between 1 and 59 that I can play in Powerball on Wednesday. Coach Rick Adelman has done more with less than any of his peers. And general manager Daryl Morey's basketball version of "Moneyball" looks to be paying off.

Long live the Kings: Hey, getting through one quarter of their schedule at .500 (well, 9-9 is almost there) is a shocker to those who picked Sacramento to bottom-feed in the Pacific. They have endured Kevin Martin's absence thanks to Tyreke Evans, the Western Conference's best rookie so far, and the play of second-year big man Jason Thompson. In the Kings' 8-5 November, Evans averaged 20.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists, while Thompson contributed 15.3 points and 9.6 rebounds.

Kevin Durant's ascension: Durant has scored 30 points or more eight times and has finished with fewer than 20 in a game only three times, twisting the knife a little more each night into fans in Portland, whose team could have had the talented Oklahoma City forward in 2007.

The Magic's makeover: I expected dire consequences in Orlando from the departure of free agent Hedo Turkoglu and the inclusion of Courtney Lee in the package to acquire Vince Carter. Didn't think Carter had much left in his tank, either. But the veteran swingman has scored 20 points or more eight times, including 27 with seven assists at Golden State on Saturday, and the Magic are a sparkling 9-2 on the road. Meanwhile, guard Jameer Nelson is making another bid for the title of Most Expendable All-Star for the Magic's ability to survive his injuries.

Carmelo Anthony's streak: This is now in man-bites-dog territory. Anthony, the Nuggets' star, will make bigger headlines now when he doesn't score at least 20 points in a game than he will by doing it again. And again. And again.

Business as usual in Boston: Their just-completed 4-0 trip has the Celtics looking again like the team to beat out East. 'Nuff said.

Disappointments

Injuries: You're excused if you confuse the NBA with the NFL lately, considering all the marquee names and other key players who are losing time to injuries. This is supposed to be a league of attrition, where the goal is to avoid late-season setbacks due to wear and tear. But the start of 2009-10 has been frontloaded with ailments to players such as Pau Gasol, Chris Paul, Josh Howard, Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Redd, Kevin Martin, Tyrus Thomas, Kevin Love -- wait, do we have to name them all? -- and three quarters of the Nets' available manpower. The silver lining is that, for the teams who stay competitive enough, they might get some fresh reinforcements for a playoff push. For those who sag due to their stars' missed games and slip from the postseason entirely ... uh, no silver lining.

The trials of Oden: This is an injury tale, too, but in Oden's case, the sad saga of his repeated layoffs and uncertain future deserves its own category. His spirits were chipper even after suffering a blown knee Saturday night against Houston, but his 7-foot body just seems brittle. The linkage to Bill Walton and Sam Bowie, other hobbled big men who passed through the Trail Blazers' gates with ultimately disappointing results, didn't seem fair previously in Oden's aborted NBA career. But they do now. And to think, the affable big guy had averaged 15.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in his five most recent games. Now he's neck-and-neck with Yao Ming in the premature-retirement race, which nobody wants to see won.

(While on the topic of injuries, New Jersey's Yi Jianlian needed 50 stitches to close a cut opened in his upper lip in practice Saturday. Fifty stitches? What is he, the Rolling Stones logo?)

Iverson's last hurrah: Look, I'm hoping that Allen Iverson gets a sip of Ponce de Leon's elusive juice with his return to Philadelphia. I'd like nothing more than to see the irrepressible, emotional scoring star get 40 on a bunch of otherwise meaningless nights in January, February and March, and then go out with 50 in the Sixers' season finale. But this move is all about turnstiles, not victories, and entertainment now at the possible expense of development for later. Besides, wiping Memphis off the bottom of his sneakers like somebody's old chewing gum was a very unclassy way of ending up in Philly. Iverson went to the Grizzlies with his eyes open -- and frankly could have been a big plus there if only he had cooperated a little.

Bearish on the Bulls: And on the Pistons, the Wizards, the Raptors and the Sixers, the league's most disappointing teams relative to preseason expectations.

Donaghy does 60 Minutes: He didn't drop names of fellow referees in any specifically damaging way, and most of Tim Donaghy's double-segment appearance with CBS' Bob Simon seemed intended to scrub up the tainted ref just enough to be presentable for a book tour and the gambling-addiction speech circuit. But integrity is kind of like virginity -- either you have it or you don't -- and if Donaghy was telling the truth about his crewmates acting on grudges or good relations with players or coaches, it is a problem for the league. It's hard enough for these guys to strive to be perfect, but way harder for them not to be human. Unfortunately, the audience for suspicions and conspiracies is a vast one these days.

Knicks' knocked: Can someone please explain what it is LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or any of the other coveted 2010 free agents are supposed to see in New York that would make them want to join this club? "We're not the Nets'' is not the most alluring siren song.

The Nuggets' night off: George Karl's blood pressure did not need his Denver team throwing away a home game against Minnesota just four days after toying with those same Timberwolves. Nights like that are the reason so many observers don't take the Nuggets seriously quite yet.

Bye-bye, Byron and Lawrence: The good news is that, by the middle of December last season, six head coaches already had been fired. Not that it's good news to Byron Scott or Lawrence Frank, gone respectively from the Hornets and the Nets.

Looking off Ron Artest: I'll take your Artest in undershorts on network TV and tales of halftime Hennessey, and raise you with Dennis Rodman wearing a bridal gown and kicking a courtside cameraman. Let's see if Phil Jackson and Bryant can keep Artest from derailing a championship in 2010 as well as Jackson and Michael Jordan did with Rodman from 1996-98.

Teflon owner: If the Clippers' Donald Sterling were a player rather than an owner, he'd have been given X number of games by now to watch his team from home rather than from courtside.

RIP, Abe Pollin: Didn't know much about the longtime and recently deceased owner of the Washington Wizards but I was reminded in his obits of several reasons to admire him. There was his willingness to build not one but two great facilities for his team through the years, when most others scrounge for public funding. There was his staredown with Michael Jordan, thus avoiding Jordan's less-than-Jerry-West-like results as a team executive. And there was the memory of the 1998-99 lockout, when Jordan rudely suggested that Pollin sell his franchise if he couldn't afford new millennium NBA prices. That's the negotiating session where snot-nosed Stephon Marbury dissed Pollin, already a league elder statesman, by saying, "Look at the old dude," during the back-and-forth with Jordan.

Yeah, well, look at that young dude now ... on YouTube rather than on any NBA roster.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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