Full-Court Press: Keep your enemies close

The NBA doesn’t need another Magic and Larry. It doesn’t need a savior, and anyways, it has KD and LeBron, after all. It has, after last season, the idea that two dominant forces are forming, the Heat and the Thunder, two forces that seem like a safe enough bet to meet in the Finals again this June.

In those teams, the NBA has the most overarching of rivalries, the best vs. the second-best, with the designation of which is which rather subjective and varying based on the night. It has the evil Heat vs. those saintly Thunder, the big, glittering city vs. cowtown. (I apologize for the vast generalizations.) It has a championship rivalry, nowhere near that of the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s, but perhaps on its way to approaching something similar.

But this season, there’s another kind of rivalry, one based less on talent and more on proximity and connections and something linking two teams besides having played their way into the Finals. The NBA has been lacking in those rivalries in recent years, sorely lacking, but things are changing.

The Nets have ascended out of New Jersey into Brooklyn and out of the Eastern Conference basement. They’re not quite contenders, but you have to think they’ll make the playoffs, and at the same time, their crosstown rivals, the Knicks, are the best they’ve been in years. The three times the teams have met up this season have been riveting, with the Knicks holding a 2-1 edge but with the first two games being decided by an average margin of five points. If that isn’t a rivalry, with those crowds and cheers and the intensity that each game has brought, then who knows what is.

On the other coast, the Lakers and Clippers are also finally creating something more than just a lopsided relationship while sharing a building. The Clippers are good — really good — and the Lakers are resoundingly mediocre but perhaps on pace to improve. The world of basketball in Los Angeles has been flipped on its head, with some kind of Staples Center primacy at stake. And in the teams’ most recent meeting, the Lakers came close to staging a frantic comeback before losing, 107-102.

These are rivalries. Real rivalries. They’re crosstown, cross-arena, tradition vs. upstarts with the playing field finally somewhat level. They’re in the country’s biggest markets too, which only boosts their profile, and they’re the only rivalries that are anything more than seeds. Sure, there are some smaller tussles forming — too many connections, arguments and attempted thefts between Portland and Minnesota makes for bad blood, and those chippy games between Denver and Memphis this year suggest that these two fringe contenders without even a trip to the Finals between them might be fighting for an edge — but there’s nothing of the scale of Lakers-Clippers, Knicks-Nets or even Thunder-Heat.

Rivalries aren’t necessary. The NBA has proven it can thrive without them. But they’re fun. Really fun. This season has proven that, and there’s certainly plenty of room for more.

What to do in Dallas?

The Mavericks currently sit at 13-21, eight games below .500 after losing eight of nine. (Their one win in that stretch came against the miserable Wizards, to boot.) Dirk Nowitzki is back, but he’s aging, and it’s seeming more and more like the end of an era in Dallas.

Before Mark Cuban bought his majority stake in the team in Jan. 2000, it had a sub-.500 winning percentage and a playoff record of 21-32 over the first two decades of its existence. Since, it has made the playoffs every year except for that first season, from 2001 on.

Now, with a roster full of one-year contracts that will be easy to jettison whenever Dwight Howard or another superstar comes a calling in the offseason, the Mavericks are at a crossroads. Do they concede that this is a lost season and rest Nowitzki, preserving his 34-year-old body, which is becoming ever more prone to injury? Or do they keep fighting for a seven or eight seed and an eventual first-round playoff loss, sacrificing the chance for a higher pick and another player to build around? That will be the central question in Dallas over the coming weeks, and it’ll be interesting to see how Cuban and company end up approaching the situation.

The return of Eric Gordon

The Hornets shooting guard returned to the lineup on Dec. 29, and in three games since, he’s averaging 16.3 points and 4.7 rebounds. He helped his team earn just its eighth win of the season Saturday, and his return makes New Orleans far more interesting than it was without him. Gordon’s presence will take some of the heat off struggling rookie Austin Rivers, and though Gordon won’t make the Hornets a playoff team after digging this early hole, they will be at least intriguing.

Trending up

The Nets, who have won five of six games since firing coach Avery Johnson on Dec. 27. They’ve mostly been bunnies, sure — Charlotte, Cleveland, Sacramento, Washington — but their 110-93 drubbing of the Thunder on Jan. 2 made quite the statement.

Trending down

The Timberwolves, who had two bad losses on the week, one in Utah and the other at home against Portland. Though they staged a comeback after being down 18 points going into the fourth quarter against the Blazers, the Timberwolves ultimately fell short, and just hours after learning that Kevin Love had broken his right hand again, that hardly came as a surprise.

Best of the week

Team: The Rockets, who are playing in transition like maniacs and have won four straight by an average margin of 13.3 points. They’re 20-14 and solidly lodged as the sixth-best team in the Western Conference.

Player: The Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, who averaged 36 points per game in three games this week for a cumulative plus-minus of plus-24. He had two games in which he scored 40 or more points.

New member of Twitter: Kobe Bryant, who joined Twitter on Friday and by Sunday had already sent out four pictures and one self-deprecating correction, in which he misspelled the world “yacht” and then corrected himself by advising his followers (530,683 and counting as of 3 p.m. CT Sunday) not to skip college.

Worst of the week

Team: The Magic, who have lost eight straight, falling from a perfectly respectable 12-13 to 12-21. Since that streak began on Dec. 21, Orlando’s point differential has worsened from -1.4 only to -3.1, which almost makes it more painful; five of eight losses have been by four or fewer points.

Player: Indiana’s Gerald Green, who shot 22.2 percent on the week, including 2-of-17 from long range. He averaged 3.8 points over four games, down significantly from his average of 7.7 points per game going into the week.

Injury: The Spurs’ Stephen Jackson, who sprained his right ankle during a game at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 3 while tripping over a waitress who was serving Mayor Michael Bloomberg courtside. Make of that what you will.

Telling stats of the week

96-plus possessions: The Lakers are 5-13 this season when they have 96 or more possessions in a game, 2-11 in those circumstances under coach Mike D’Antoni. Conversely, they are 10-5 with 95 or fewer possessions, 8-2 under D’Antoni.

115-89: The score of the Clippers’ win over the Warriors Saturday. Just three days prior, Golden State had handed the Clippers their second consecutive loss, 115-94, which was by far their worse loss of the season. Saturday was revenge, led by Chris Paul’s 27 points and Blake Griffin’s 20.

400 wins as a player and as a coach: The Cavaliers’ Byron Scott reached that mark on Friday, when his team beat the Bobcats, 106-104. He joins Boston’s Doc Rivers as one of two active coaches to have reached that mark. Six others have done so in NBA history: Tom Heinsohn, Phil Jackson, K.C. Jones, Nate McMillan, Don Nelson and Lenny Wilkens.

What we heard

“Thoughts of self doubt Am I done? Is this how my career will end?? I REFUSE to give in to these thoughts. #strongwill#countonchallenges”

 — Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on Twitter early Saturday morning after the Lakers’ 107-102 loss to the Clippers, which pushed their record to 15-17.

“They should try coaching a team without him.”

 — Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman, responding to the growing fan sentiment that his team might be better without Kevin Love, who was sidelined with a broken hand Thursday for the second time this season.

“What’s suspending me suppose to do   I’ve been away from the team for a month 1/2. Guess we want to give it a title to shift accountability.”

 — The Rockets’ Royce White (@Highway_30) on Twitter Sunday, after Houston officially suspended him in what might be one of the most anticlimactic suspensions ever. White hasn’t been with the Rockets for months and a week ago refused to report to his D-League assignment.

What’s ahead

Timberwolves at Thunder, 8 p.m. ET, Wednesday: This is the rematch of one of the more exciting games I’ve watched all season, when the Timberwolves snapped the Thunder’s 12-game winning streak on Dec. 20. These two teams always match up well — in other words, the Timberwolves always seem to play far better than you’d think they would — but the Thunder will definitely be out to exact some revenge on a Timberwolves team without Kevin Love.


Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.