The First Place Hawks? And Last Place Mavericks?
Taking a scroll down the NBA standings and prepare to be in shock. You'll find the first place Atlanta Hawks, who would be undefeated if they hadn't lost to the best team in the Eastern Conference - the Philadelphia 76ers. You'll find the first place Los Angeles Lakers, who are 1-1 since Kobe Bryant returned to the lineup - but 2-0 without him. You'll also find the last-place Miami Heat and the winless Dallas Mavericks, whose owner, Mark Cuban, has vowed to be less involved this season. Huh?
What's going on? What does this mean? That it's early. These positions could change as early as next week.
But let's take a look at the situation in Atlanta, where the Hawks are 2-1 and Joe Johnson appears poised to finally shake the label of the best player nobody has heard of. Of course, Johnson was a member of the US National Team in Japan this summer, but after serving mostly as the fourth option in Phoenix before Atlanta lured him to town with $70 million, he is now truly coming into his own. He has scored at least 30 points in back-to-back games - he's averaging 28.7 points (second in the league) after three games - which both happen to be in wins against the New York Knicks and the Orlando Magic.
Okay, two wins is not enough to get too excited about, but you have to remember this is a Hawks team that hasn't been above .500 since November 2002, when it was 6-5 (I happened to cover that team, the infamous "Playoff Guarantee Hawks." After that start, the Hawks went into a 6-17 free fall, which saw Lon Kruger lose his job, and the Hawks well on their way to another first-class trip to Secaucus, N.J. So, you know how quickly things can go from sugar to s. . .our in the ATL). While I don't expect the Hawks to keep it up - we're talking about the Hawks! - I do see Johnson only getting better. And, keep an eye out for Zaza Pachulia. The kid from Georgia (the other one, in Europe) is going to be nice. He's an emerging big man who might go down as one of the smartest free agent signings general manager Billy Knight has made down there.
As for the 76ers, who would've thunk it? Their wins have come against the Hawks, Magic and the Shaq-less Heat, so we're not exactly getting ready for the parade up there either. Last season, the 76ers started the season 0-3, then won the next three during what would prove to be an up-and-down season that ended with them plummeting toward the lottery, too. The Philadelphia formula is the same as always - a lot of A.I. and dashes of everyone else sprinkled around. Iverson leads the NBA at 34 points a game. Philly's success shouldn't hold up for long. They have road games against Indiana and Toronto, Denver at home, then they head to Seattle, Phoenix and Los Angeles Clippers for a three-game west coast swing. The drop could be swift.
In Los Angeles, the first-place Lakers are looking a lot like the team that pushed Phoenix to seven games. Translation: Not a one-man team. Kobe Bryant, still recovering from offseason knee surgery, is taking some time to find his rhythm and is serving more as a facilitator. He had nine assists in the Lakers' loss to Seattle on Sunday. Until Kobe returns to form, a determined Lamar Odom, who leads the team at 23.8 points per game, is carrying the Lakers. The Lakers' 3-1 start might not be fluke - at least not yet - because nine of their next 11 games will be at home, with one of those "road" games coming against the Clippers, who share the Staples Center with them.
No need to worry too much about the Mavericks, who followed an emotional loss to San Antonio by getting an open-handed smack to the mouth from the Houston Rockets, 107-76 on Saturday. The losses prompted Jason Terry to gather his teammates for a players-only meeting. New Mav Austin Croshere said they aren't in "panic" mode, but doesn't it seem a bit early for team meetings? We'll see how they respond against Golden State tonight in the return of Nellie. Dallas also has tough challenges against the Clippers and the Suns this week. When does the Mavericks' schedule lighten up? Hmmm. . .okay, Sunday at Portland. Sounds good.
Here are five games to look out for this week:
Golden State at Dallas (Monday)
Don Nelson returns to Dallas. That story line would be strong enough, except Nelson is also feuding over $6 million he believes Mark Cuban owes him.
Atlanta at Cleveland (Tuesday)
An Eastern Conference Finals preview? I'm kidding. Cleveland isn't that good yet. But seriously, two first-place teams square off. And, really, how many times can you put "first place" and "Hawks" in the same sentence.
Minnesota at Los Angeles Lakers (Tuesday)
Two of the best, if not the best, to ever make the leap from high school to the NBA, Kobe and KG, go head-to-head. Will they ever be teammates?
Phoenix at San Antonio (Wednesday)
A Western Conference Finals preview? Maybe. Just maybe. At least we'll get to see 80 percent Amare against 100 percent Tim. Stoudemire and Duncan haven't shared the court since Stoudemire torched Duncan in the 2005 Western Conference Finals.
Dallas at Phoenix
A Western Conference Finals preview? Again, maybe. Just maybe. This certainly is a rematch of their thrilling matchup in the conference finals last season, when the Suns gave the Mavericks all that they could handle until attrition took over. Phoenix, which had been playing on fumes through the playoffs, simply ran out of serviceable players.
Miami at New Jersey (Friday)
An Eastern Conference Finals preview? Okay, I'm really tripping. But these teams get to continue a rivalry that has played out in each of the past two postseasons.
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