MMPG: The FourCast
1. Atlanta at Phoenix (Tuesday)
Of note: For the first time since he left Phoenix in the summer of 2005, Joe Johnson returns with a Hawks team that is in playoff contention. The Hawks have stumbled in 2009, losing four of five games, and will have to spend the next month without Al Horford (knee). Johnson will face a Phoenix team that looks nothing like the 2005 conference finalist -- only Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa remain -- and barely resembles the team he faced in January last season. Former teammate Shawn Marion has since been swapped for Shaquille O'Neal. Boris Diaw -- whom Phoenix acquired for Johnson in the sign-and-trade deal with Atlanta -- was used to get Jason Richardson from Charlotte.
2. New Orleans at Cleveland (Friday)
Of note: Chris Paul and LeBron James are Olympians and have been good friends since playing AAU basketball on competing teams and being on the same 2003 McDonald's All-American game. They often bring out the best in each other, but when the Hornets played Cleveland on Nov. 1, Paul came away with a lopsided win. He led his team to a 104-92 victory with 24 points and 15 assists, while James had 15 points and 13 assists. The loss was the Cavaliers' worst of the season and dropped them to 1-2 -- the last time this season that Cleveland was below .500. James is the front-runner for the league's most valuable player award, but based on player efficiency rating, Paul isn't far behind. James has a PER of 29.9, while Paul is second at 29.3.
3. Orlando at Los Angeles Lakers (Friday)
Of note: Lakers center Andrew Bynum had his best night of the season on Sunday, as he scored a season-high 24 points, including the go-ahead tip-in with 18.5 seconds, in a 108-105 win against the Miami Heat. Dwight Howard was equally impressive that night, posting 24 points and 14 rebounds in a win against Tim Duncan and San Antonio. Now the two young big men will face each other for the final time this season -- unless they meet in a Finals matchup of Shaquille O'Neal's first two teams. When the teams met last month, the Magic withstood Kobe Bryant's 41-point outburst to win 106-103. Howard and Bynum were both in foul trouble most of the game, but Howard finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks, three steals and five fouls, while Bynum had just three points, one rebound and five fouls. This will be the first match up of 30-win teams this season.
4. Utah at Dallas (Saturday)
Of note: The Los Angeles Lakers have been atop the Western Conference all season, but the competition among the teams that rank between second and ninth is intense. After the Lakers, the next eight teams are separated by just 2 ½ games. Utah and Dallas starts this week tied at 22-15, with the Jazz holding a slight edge over the Mavericks because it has the better conference record. The Jazz has been sputtering because of injuries, but Mehmet Okur and Paul Milsap have kept the team afloat while Carlos Boozer is on the shelf. Dallas is still waiting for Josh Howard to return to his all-star form of two years ago.
Others in consideration: Portland at Chicago (Monday); Los Angeles Lakers at Houston (Tuesday); Dallas at Denver (Tuesday); New Orleans at Dallas (Wednesday); Los Angeles Lakers at San Antonio (Wednesday); Phoenix at Denver (Thursday); New Orleans at Detroit (Saturday); Orlando at Denver (Saturday); Miami at Oklahoma City (Sunday).
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