Posted Dec 29 2011 10:00AM
The mantra has long been that the NBA regular season is a marathon, not a sprint. Except for this year, when the long labor lockout delayed the opening tip by nearly two months and a compressed schedule of 66 games already has the season flying past like it's being carried by Usain Bolt wearing a jet pack.
While there are veteran rosters filled with talent -- Heat, Lakers, Mavs, Knicks -- that can take the long view down the road, as usual, to being ready for the playoffs, there are a handful of clubs that can't afford to dawdle and get left in the starting blocks.
Blink and you'll sink. These are the teams that need to start paddling right now before the water gets too far over their heads:
Boston Celtics -- Since Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce came together four years ago, the Men in Green have been almost rocket-propelled coming out of the starting blocks. Over the first 20 games of each season, the Celtics have rolled up a combined 70-10 record and used those starts to secure a good playoff seeding. But now Boston is 0-3 at a time when the aging Big Three need to build as big and comfy a cushion as possible, because the schedule turns absolutely brutal when the season gets late.
The Celtics will play 10 back-to-back sets after the Feb. 26 All-Star Game and that closing stretch also includes an eight-game, 13-day trip through the Western Conference. There's no doubt that coach Doc Rivers will have to closely monitor the minutes of Garnett, Allen and Pierce coming down the stretch, which means Boston would like to avoid having to scramble for one of the top four spots in the East. That also means the Celtics have to get the ailing Pierce (right heel) on the floor as soon as possible to make his regular season debut and begin making up ground. A stretch of eight out of nine at home from Jan. 2-20 could already be critical.
Orlando Magic -- Is Dwight Howard in or out? Staying or going? Playing all out or putting the machine on cruise control and going through the motions? See the season opener where Howard sometimes seemed to be playing like his eyes were closed at Oklahoma City in a dismal loss to the Thunder. Then see the home opener when it appeared he rediscovered his spark in a win over the Rockets. There's no doubt that the Magic can ill afford an early losing streak that could allow a malaise to set in and get Howard to start talking out loud about greener pastures again.
Let's face it, every time Orlando loses two in a row, D12 is going to be tempted to look toward New Jersey or L.A. or Dallas as his salvation. Starting Friday night at Charlotte, the Magic will play six out of nine games on the road, which should be a real test of the fabric of this team that might only be hanging together by a few threads. By the time the Spurs and Lakers come to Orlando for back-to-back games on Jan. 18 and 20, the good ship Magic could be taking on water.
Washington Wizards -- Coach Flip Saunders has had seven 50-win seasons, taken 11 teams to the playoffs and advanced to the conference finals four times. But after back-to-back records of 26-56 and 23-59, the Wizards have to get things going in the right direction -- at the very least show real signs of life -- or Saunders probably won't make it to the end of his third season in Washington. The franchise simply can't afford to let its brilliant young point guard John Wall go through another wasted year where he shines individually and the team spins its wheels. It's not a good sign when the Wizards allowed the season to begin with restricted free agent Nick Young sitting a continent away unsigned. If they're not going to meet his demands, then it's past time for a sign-and-trade and moving on.
Washington has plenty of size and athleticism on a roster with JaVale McGee, Jan Vesely, Andray Blatche, Rashard Lewis and Chris Singleton. But if they can't take advantage of a schedule that delivers 10 home games in January, the Wizards' approval rating will be in danger of slipping lower than Congress.
Memphis Grizzlies -- The Grizzlies should treat what happened last April and May like it was Las Vegas: What happened in the playoffs stays in the playoffs. From their stunning first round upset of the No. 1 seeded Spurs to their gripping, emotional, seven-game tug o' war with the Thunder in the second round that eventually went the full seven-game limit, the Grizzlies and the city of Memphis delivered the message that they had finally arrived in the NBA. Staying in the conversation and on the tip of everyone's tongues now requires the Grizzlies to build on top of that foundation.
Team owner Michael Heisley has stepped up and done his job at every turn -- signing the core of Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol to big contracts. With Gay returning from the shoulder injury that forced him to miss the playoff run, the Grizzlies should be ready to take the next step. They staggered out of the box with their opening loss in San Antonio and then lost at home on Wednesday night in a rematch with OKC. Here we go again. Memphis is a team that traditionally has struggled to find a rhythm over the first half of the season and the result last year was a bare-knuckle brawl and struggle to squeak into the playoffs. The No. 8 seed isn't going to knock off the No. 1 seed every year. With seven of their first 12 games at the Grind House, the Grizzlies need to step out of the Cinderella role and make themselves a factor in a Western Conference race that could be wide open.
San Antonio Spurs -- A year ago when they rang in New Year's Day 2011 with a win over the Thunder, the Spurs sat atop the entire NBA with a glittering 29-4 record and there were people who were asking coach Gregg Popovich if he thought his team could make a run at the Bulls' all-time record of 72-10. Pop just gritted his teeth and shook his head, because he knows how the worm can turn. Things, of course, turned very ugly when Manu Ginobili suffered a fractured elbow in the last week of the regular season, was unable to be himself in the playoffs and the Spurs were upset by Memphis in the first round. It was a short time after that when point guard Tony Parker told a French newspaper that he thought the Spurs' days as real championship contenders might be over. That made Pop grit his teeth again.
Now the Spurs are healthy again, but need to re-establish their own confidence early. Ginobili and Tim Duncan are a year older and the Spurs and if there is an upper-echelon team in the West that could be severely tested by the condensed schedule, San Antonio is it. On the bright side for the Spurs, the defending champion Mavericks and the perennially contending Lakers appear weaker. They've beaten the Grizzlies and Clippers at home for a 2-0 start. It is critical for the veteran bunch to start fast. Because from Jan. 17 to Feb. 23, the Spurs will play 15 of 21 on the road, including their annual Rodeo Trip (nine straight). So it's vital that the Spurs stomp down hard on the gas pedal right now.
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