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SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST
Posted by Rob Peterson on Jan. 25, 2005 2:30 p.m. ET

SMELLS LIKE A WINNER TO US

Like the Southeast and the Northwest, the Southwest Division has that new division smell to it. In this case, the smell from the Southwest is one Lt. Col. Kilgore from Apocalypse Now would love: It smells like victory.

(And with barbecue in Memphis, Tex-Mex in -- duh -- Texas and Cajun food in New Orleans, the division also smells delicious. But I digress.)

Created this season because of expansion and re-alignment, the Southwest has so far proven to be the best division in basketball. With San Antonio leading the pack at 34-10, the division has four teams (Spurs, Mavs, Grizzlies and Rockets) at least four games over .500 and a combined record of 107-61 for a .637 winning percentage.

If the season ended today, all four would make the playoffs. Even the 7-33 New Orleans Hornets are, ahem, relatively hot, winning five of their last 10 after winning two games in their first 30.

Let's start with the Spurs, who do everything well. They lead the league in point differential (+10.86), play suffocating defense, have a prettified offense and they date beautiful women. (Whoops, was that out loud?)
-- [San Antonio Express-News Reg. req'd.]

Witness this past week. Sure they stumbled in Portland on Monday night, but consider their two wins before that. They erased a 17-point fourth-quarter hole to top the Suns in overtime last Friday in one of the best games I've seen on any level of hoop.
-- [San Antonio Express-News Reg. req'd.]

And as many "XXXOOOs" we've given the Suns for their execution of the Xs and Os, this columnist, after watching the Spurs dismantle the Kings by 30 on Sunday, may be on the money with her assessment.
-- [Sacramento Bee]

As a matter of fact, one writer likens the Spurs to a certain successful NFL team.
-- [San Antonio Express-News Reg. req'd.]

Then there are the Mavericks, led by their Deutsche Marksman, Dirk Nowitzki, (called the best athlete in Dallas here) who are a mere five games behind the Spurs as of Tuesday.
-- [Dallas Morning News, Reg. req'd]

They have Jason Terry winning Player of the Week honors, they have Jerry Stackhouse rebounding, and they're doing it without Don Nelson, who had surgery on his rotator cuff.
-- [NBA.com, Dallas Morning News, Reg. req'd, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Reg. req'd]

Then you have the two teams tied for third in the division, Memphis and Houston, both of whom have each made remarkable turnarounds this season.

When Mike Fratello was named head coach of the Grizzlies on Dec. 2, they were 5-11. They're 18-8 since the Czar of the Telestrator took over. The Czar says his squad is resilient. He should know, of course.
-- [Memphis Commercial-Appeal, Reg. req'd]

More importantly, the Grizzlies have responded to Fratello's style: Defense.
-- [Rocky Mountain News]

Defense is also Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy's M.O. wherever he has been.
-- [New York Times Reg. req'd.]

In fact, the Rockets allow opponents to score a mere 90.8 points per game, fourth best in the NBA, which is a whisker behind Memphis at 90.7 points per game. The Grizzlies, in turn, are a full four points behind the league leader in that category, none other than -- you guessed it -- San Antonio. The Spurs allow a miserly 86.3 points per game. That's three Southwest Division teams in the top four for defense in the NBA. Impressive.

Also impressive has been the Rockets' play in the new year. They entered 2005 at .500 (15-15). Since then, they've gone 8-4, mainly on the strength of their defense and the strength of Tracy McGrady's offensive game. T-Mac's averaging 28.9 points per game in his last 10 games. The Rockets are playing so well, in fact, that they even swept the season series with Orlando on Monday with McGrady in street clothes.
-- [Houston Chronicle]

Still, the Rockets need help from those not named McGrady and Yao.
-- [Orlando Sentinel, Reg. req'd]

That being said, when a team heads to a Southwestern Division city, they know that they can often find a great meal ... and a team waiting to hand them their lunch.

JAMESIAN

Hey, this LeBron James guy is good. He had two triple-doubles in the past week. He's the youngest player ever to record a triple-double, let alone two in a week. He attributes his success to hard work.
-- [Willoughby News-Herald]

That hard work earned James another Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor, his third this season. (Here are Nos. 1 and 2.)
-- [NBA.com]

James' play of late has some people wondering if he can go Big O on the league.
-- [Akron Beacon-Journal]

Of course, hoop-heads know Oscar Robertson is the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season when he poured in 30.8 points, grabbed 12.5 boards and dished 11.4 assists per game for the 1961-62 season. Then again, the Big O averaged a triple-double for the first five years of his career (30.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 10.6 apg). Eh, but who's counting?

(I am. Plus, Robertson was also one of the NBA's five greatest intimidators, according to this scribe.)
-- [SI.com]

Speaking of numbers, James is also on the verge of doing what only Robertson (six times), John Havlicek (twice), Larry Bird (once) and Michael Jordan (once) have done in a season: average 25-plus points, 7-plus boards and 7-plus assists in a season. After the Cavs' loss to the Wizards on Monday, LeBron's numbers read as such: 25.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 7.4 apg.

As for LeBron on another team, even columnists can dream, can't they?
-- [Chicago Tribune, Reg. req'd.]

COACHING CAROUSEL

Last week, Lenny Wilkens, the winningest coach in NBA history, resigned as head coach of the Knicks, who had lost 9 of their last 10 prior to Wilkens' departure. Herb Williams replaced him on an interim basis.

One writer thinks Wilkens may have been too laid back for the high-pressure stage.
-- [SI.com]

So, who should replace Wilkens? Hmm. Who? Who would make a splash? Who would be a big name? Hmm. Ah, you guessed it: Phil Jackson.
-- [New York Daily News]

Meanwhile, was this Daily News headline -- "Herb debut not so peachy" -- a tip of the hat to old soulsters, Peaches and Herb? Very clever.
-- [New York Daily News]

And in Denver, the whispers are turning into shouts for George Karl.
-- [Denver Post]

TIP-INS

Can a running team win the title? Dave Cowens thinks so. So does this writer, because conventional wisdom doesn't hold with the Spurs and Suns.
-- [Washington Times]

Also, if conventional wisdom is wrong, is it really conventional? Just wondering.

Let's give out mid-season awards.
-- [Chicago Tribune, Reg. req'd.]

"So (me looking down, kicking at the floor nervously), how's that title defense coming? Uh, not so well, eh?"
-- [Detroit News]

T-Mac has completely put Orlando in the rearview mirror.
-- [Orlando Sentinel, Reg. req'd]

What up wit dat? Can't a wily vet get some burn?
-- [Milwaukee Sentinel]

Will Karl Malone retire? That's what his agent said. That would be sad, says this writer.
-- [L.A. Times, Reg. req'd.]

This could be good, no, great news.
-- [Fort Worth Star-Telegram]

AND FINALLY...

Can we deal you in?
-- [ESPN.com]

The Spurs are together and winning big.
(D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images)

QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Former NBA player Joe Klein on showing his kids his old game tapes:

"They ask me why I played in my underwear."

2004-05 ARCHIVE
Jan. 25 -- South by Southwest
Jan. 19 -- My Kind of Town
Jan. 11 -- 'S Wonderful
Jan. 4 -- Points Well Taken
Dec. 29 -- New Year's Wishes
Dec. 21 -- A Wonderful Life
Dec. 14 -- How Good is Good?
Dec. 7 -- Getting Medieval
Nov. 30 -- LeBron vs. Dwyane
Nov. 23 -- Playing Good Ball
Nov. 16 -- SuperbSonics
Nov. 9 -- Hitting the Blue Note
Nov. 3 -- Bling, Bang, Boom
2003-04 -- Archive