The Man Behind the Mask

SECAUCUS, N.J., Dec. 30, 2006-- Richard Hamilton wearing a protective facemask when he plays these days is about as necessary as Dick Vitale keeping a bottle of Pert Plus in the shower.

Hamilton first donned the Phantom of the Opera look in the 2003-04 season after fracturing his nose twice, but his shnoz has since healed and now the mask is for familiarity rather than function.

As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and if it was broken and now fixed ... Err, um ... Maybe a more applicable maxim for Rip is, "Don't mess with a good thing."

The eight-year swingman out of Connecticut has increased his field goal and free throw accuracy since putting on the plastic, not to mention made two trips to The Finals, winning a ring in 2004.

After a career-high 51 points vs. the Knicks on Wednesday, Hamilton's scoring is at an all-time best 22.1 points per game clip.

In other words, the mask isn't coming off any time soon.

Let me know which players you think make up the all-time mask-wearing starting five.

And now, these are the 10 things I learned from last week ...

1. Can I get an encore?

I mentioned that Hamilton ripped the Knicks for 51, but I didn't say that it was in a triple-overtime thriller, nor that it was the most points scored by a New York opponent at the Garden since Michael Jordan dropped his double-nickel. With that said, the Bobcats-Lakers game on Friday might have been even better.

The Bobcats, no strangers to multiple overtimes themselves after losing a double-OT marathon to the 'Bockers last week, somehow withstood 58 points from Kobe Bryant (the third-highest total of his career, including 14 straight for L.A. in the fourth) to win 133-124. Emeka Okafor had a Russell-esque line of 22 points, 25 rebounds and four blocks for Charlotte.

2. Happy days for Iverson

Allen Iverson started his days in Denver with arguably the best three-game stretch of his career. The Answer dropped 22 points and 10 assists on the Kings, 28 and 13 on the Celtics and 44 and 10 on the Sonics, making it just the second time of his pro tenure that he has registered back-to-back-to-back double-doubles. The last time came Nov. 24, 26 and 27 of 2004. (Thanks to our friend Bob Rosen at Elias for doing the leg work on that little nugget of info).

Staying on the subject of Denver, I might have to call up Bob again to investigate if a shorter duo has ever scored as many points in a four-game stretch as Iverson and Earl Boykins have. Since becoming teammates, the 6-foot Iverson has 115 points and the 5-5 Boykins has 103, giving 137 inches of men 218 points over four games ... Do they even keep statistics like this or am I just weird?

3. The Raptors are in first

Yes, you read that right. With a record of 13-17, Toronto leads the Atlantic Division. The amazing part about their meteoric rise to the top of their mediocre division is that it happened with the face of the franchise, Chris Bosh, out. Bosh has been nursing a bone bruise on his left knee, but the Raptors have held their ground and gone 6-5 in his absence. Trailing Toronto by just one game in the Atlantic is New York, which has won four out of six.

4. Vote for this guy

While Washingon has won 12 of its 15 games in December, the guy getting most of the credit has been Gilbert Arenas. Gilbert is certainly deserving. He is third in the league in scoring at 30.5 points per game, he earned back-to-back Player of the Week honors, and he's a lock to make his third-straight All-Star appearance.

But there is another Wizard who is worthy of a trip to Vegas in February.

Caron Butler is the only one of the top East forward candidates that can note he is putting up career-highs in points, rebounds and assists. Butler is averaging 20.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and has been a model of consistency as he has scored in double-figures in every one of Washington's games this season.

Even Arenas can't claim that as he had clunkers of seven points on opening night and three points on Nov. 24.

5. Break up the Mavs

December is early for a statement game, but there was extra intrigue surrounding the Mavericks' match-up with Phoenix on Thursday considering that the two teams met in the Western Conference Finals last season and Nowitzki and Nash used to be Texas' version of Michael and Scottie. The Mavs proved their mettle and doused the Suns with a 101-99 victory thanks to Dirk's game-winning jumper with 1.3 seconds left.

They were just one quarter away from being one win away from an NBA Championship last June, but now with Shaq and Wade out for Miami, Dallas' squad looks a lot more like the defending champs than the runner-ups. Dirk and Co. have won eight in a row and hold the league's best record at 22-7.

6. Home vs. Away message

It makes sense for a team to have a better record at home than on the road, but the disparity between Chicago's and Cleveland's home vs. away records is glaring. The Bulls are tied with the Jazz for the best home record in the league at 13-2 (.867) and the Cavaliers are tied with the Mavericks for second at 13-3 (.813).

Conversely, Chicago and Cleveland are sputtering in away games, with both teams carrying a .333 road winning percentage. If either of these teams hopes to make a playoff run come spring time, they will need to learn how to win outside of the Q and the United Center.

7. Steal of the 2005 draft

He was the last pick of the first round in 2005, but now he looks better than a few of the lottery selections. David Lee is giving the Knicks a whole lot more than they bargained for. Who would have thought that Lee would be more valuable to New York than perennial All-Star Steve Francis?

The 6-9 forward is averaging 10.8 points and 10.5 boards per game and his .630 field goal percentage is third in the league among players with 100 shot attempts or more. The mop-topped Lee is entering into rarified territory for New York big men as he has grabbed 13 rebounds or more in the last seven games, something only two other Knicks have done in the last 35 years: Bob McAdoo in 1977-78 (eight straight) and Patrick Ewing in 1994-95 (seven).

8. Hornets going down like flies

First it was David West, then it was Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson, now add Chris Paul to New Orleans/Oklahoma City's infirmary pile.

Paul went careening down the lane against the Sonics on Tuesday and came down on Johan Petro's foot, severely spraining his ankle in the process. Paul looks to be on crutches for about four weeks. At 12-17 with Desmond Mason as their highest healthy scorer at 12.4 points per game, Byron Scott has his work cut out for him keeping the sting in the Hornets' attack.

9. Memphis makes a change

When a team is 6-24, it's pretty clear that something isn't going right. So, on Thursday, in hopes of moving forward, the Grizzlies relieved Mike Fratello of his coaching position.

The czar should be just fine as he will undoubtedly return to broadcasting and Tony Barone Sr. steps in as the interim head coach. Hopefully this will help Jerry West relax. If you saw Friday's press conference, he looks as if he needs a rest.

10. T-Mac's back

Will Yao and T-Mac ever get to play a significant stretch of games together? The story of their time in Houston together is becoming down right Shakepearean as the star-crossed teammates can't seem to stay healthy at the same time.

Just as the Rockets had righted the ship (pardon the pun) in McGrady's absence, Yao went down last Saturday with a knee injury. Now T-Mac is back, but he doesn't have a 7-foot Chinese target to pass to. Don't count Houston out, though. McGrady had 31 points on 13-for-18 shooting on Friday to make it two straight wins for the Rockets who are 18-12.

Have a question or comment for The McTen or care to share what you learned this week? Get at me.