Down the Stretch They Come...
By NBA TV's Rick Kamla
March 17 -- Kobe Bryant finally -- and officially -- won his first scoring crown when he dropped 81 on the Raptors.
Steve Nash won his second straight assist title when he showed up to Suns' training camp.
Shaquille O'Neal won the field-goal percentage category -- again -- as soon as he got back to work.
But what about the three other major statistical categories: rebounds, steals, and free-throw percentage?
Through Monday's work, the rebounding race looked like this:
1. Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves: 12.3
How about five guys within three-tenths of a rebound with about 15 games to go?
For KG, it would be his third straight rebounding title. I don't think that resume builder motivates him, but I do think he's going to threepeat because he's got this "I'll do it myself" vibe about him right now. Over the last month, he's averaging 14.4 rebounds on the strength of three 21-rebound games and a streak of 22 double-doubles.
At this pace, if Garnett doesn't give you 12 rebounds, you find yourself pouting like supermodel with gas.
The Wallace named Gerald currently leads the league in thefts at 2.5 per, and if he maintains that average, as well as 2.1 blocks a night, he would become the third player in NBA history (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson) to average two-plus blocks and two-plus steals in the same season. Based on that ultra-exclusive company, Wallace is not just having an incredible season, he's proving that he is a special player in this league.
Crash -- or "G-Force," as the Charlotte fans call him -- was coming off a DNP because of a sprained ankle as this was pecked, and he left the game before that with a calf injury, so the injuries force me to favor Ron-Ron in the steal race. And when you think about it, Ron-Ron pretty much has to win steals because he definitely stole Indiana's season.
With free throws, there aren't five guys who can win, like rebounds, or four guys who can win, like steals. With free throws, it's a two-man stare down from here till Tax Day.
Steve Nash and Peja Stojakovic were tied at .924 through Thursday's games, while Ray Allen and Chauncey Billups were battling for third at .904 and .902, respectively. Dirk Nowitzki rounds out the top five at .896, and he's a couple 10-for-10s away from joining the 90-percent club.
I've noticed a trend over the years that Serbians just aren't clutch (Peja, Marko Jaric, Vladimir Radmanovic, Vlade Divac), and because it's crunch time in the league, I have to pick against Peja. I gotta go with the reigning MVP to win the year long free-throw shooting competition, and I gotta go with the reigning MVP to successfully defend his title.
It's cool that good buddies Nash and Nowitzki are neck-and-neck for MVP honors, along with Mr. Big Shot, but Nash is better this year despite working with more unheralded guys. Freaks, because of Nash (more so than Marion), the Suns are right behind the Pistons, Mavericks, and Spurs with no-name players like Boris Diaw, Raja Bell, James Jones, Leandro Barbosa, and Tim Thomas.
If anyone has done a greater job of making his teammates better, I'd love to see it.
• Um, it's officially time to worry if you own Luke Ridnour. It seems head coach Bob Hill didn't hear about the whole Olympic tryout thing because he's favoring Earl Watson, especially in the fourth quarter. Is Luke still paying for his Madison Square Garden choke job when he missed two straight free throws with seconds to go in a shipwrecking loss? That was brutal, but even .875 free-throwers have off nights from the line.
At any rate, with Thursday's five-cat line of 12-6-7-1-3 and three trips, Watson is averaging 13 points and eight assists over the last four games. But the most telling stat is the 32-21 split in minutes on Thursday that favored Watson.
Bottom line: both point guards are ballin' right now, but Hill can't take Watson off the floor.
• Well, if there was any doubt about who would start at center for the Sixers, that was pretty much put to bed with Steven Hunter's career night against the Sonics in which he exploded for 20 points, seven rebounds, and six blocks. It was as if two kids, Hunter and Samuel Dalembert, were going for the same toy and Hunter grabbed it and said "mine".
I wouldn't drop Dalembert, if at all possible, but I would add Hunter to my roster at once.
• I realize Shaq had 26 and 11 on Thursday against the Celtics, but the news that broke on Thursday doesn't bode well for his late-season numbers. As he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel: "After we clinch (the No. 2 seed), I'm going to try to see what I can do to take it easy. I'm not going to mess around and get hurt like I did last year."
What are you waiting for, Shaq? Shut her down. Entering this weekend's work, the Heat is 7.5 games up on the Cavaliers and Nets. I'm sorry, but the Cavs and Nets are not catching the Heat.
We already got a sneak peak at what cruise control might look like in the two games prior to Thursday's outburst, when Shaq averaged 15 points and seven rebounds. Going forward, beware the blowout and know that Alonzo Mourning likely will have increased value down the stretch.
• Just a quick follow up to the column I dedicated to the maxness of Al Harrington. He's been in the 20s in 10 of 12 games since the deadline passed.
• In spending some time in Denver recently, I noticed that the Nuggets Nation is not real high on Kenyon Martin, who has missed 19 games -- and counting -- because of recurring knee pain and other maladies. Denver is 14-5 without Martin this year, so the stats seem to justify the frustration.