NBA teams, including the Wolves, are getting by without injured stars -- none more so than the Knicks.
By JOAN NIESEN FS North
The Knicks could have it worse.
They have two stars, two scorers, two big names, but that doesn't make what they're doing without Amar'e Stoudemire any less impressive. They lost a major piece of their game plan, and two weeks into the season, they're the NBA's last undefeated team. They're making it possible to forget that with Stoudemire, they could potentially be even better.
Other teams, too, have been compensating for their injuries early, but none on the scale of the Knicks. With other teams, the plan is altered and teetering on inferior, especially as the grind of the season becomes routine.
The Mavericks, without Dirk Nowitzki, started the season 4-1, but they've lost successive games to the Knicks and Bobcats. The Timberwolves, without Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, made it to 4-1, but with more injuries piling up, their 4-2 record is precarious at best. The Bulls sans Derrick Rose are 4-2 and gave the Thunder a good run Thursday before losing, and the 76ers without Andrew Bynum are 4-2.
That's a combined 20-9 record for some of the league's gimpiest teams, but two weeks into the season, reality is descending. For the Mavericks, it's looking like their depth can stretch only so far – no team that plays Eddy Curry 17 minutes on opening night can sustain winning, right? – and the Timberwolves have dropped a player per game since Wednesday. But the Bulls, through their airtight, physical defense, seem for real without Rose, and the 76ers, too, look poised to maintain a winning record. Then of course there are those improbable Knicks.
Some teams, though, have not been so lucky as to even masquerade as contenders without their stars. The Pacers without Danny Granger are sluggish, and the Wizards without Nene and John Wall look like every other Wizards team in recent history. Then there are the Lakers, off to their slow start without Steve Nash, but you have to know Nash isn't exactly the biggest problem at Staples Center.
Good luck and backups playing like All-Stars are a precarious currency in the NBA, and in the next week, some of these bubbles are poised to burst. It won't be pretty, and we'll soon see just how invaluable the likes of Love, Rubio, Nowitzki, Rose, Bynum and Stoudemire truly are.
No longer America's sweethearts
It began with the James Harden trade, and though you can't blame Thunder GM Sam Presti, losing a fan favorite is never a genius PR move. Then there was Oklahoma City's slowish start, with those losses to San Antonio and, even worse, Atlanta, and suddenly, it seems that at the precise moment that we began to take the Thunder for granted, they became something short of a sure thing.
The Thunder as upstarts are lovable, the stuff of rainbows and butterflies and floppy-eared puppies. The Thunder as a powerful team forced to make business decisions and break up their family of players – that's not so warm and fuzzy. That's reality, and there was no place for the harshness of reality in our conception of the Thunder's identity.
They'll keep winning, of course. But now we'll notice when Russell Westbrook plays selfishly or when there are squabbles on the bench. The rose-colored glasses are off, and Hasheem Thabeet is logging minutes. It's a weird new world in Thunderland.
He really might be that good
Damian Lillard is the ultimate underdog. He attended Weber State, after all. Ever heard of it? I hadn't either. He hasn't trademarked a body part, and he attended four full years of college. Imagine that, four whole years. But despite all that, he's making a name for himself up in Portland, a name that right now includes the distinction as being the league's hottest rookie.
Lillard is averaging 18.8 points and 7.0 assists through six games. Those are the best marks of all rookies in each category, and he's been just as impressive as he was at summer league in Vegas, the same venue where Wes Johnson lit it up for the Timberwolves and Adam Morrison was described as unstoppable. It's a venue where reality can be distorted, but early this season, Lillard is proving that he may just be worth the hype.
Despite a tough game against Dallas on Friday, the Knicks remained undefeated, 4-0, and you've got to wonder whether this team is for real. They'll lose, sure, and probably this week – they play San Antonio and Memphis on Wednesday and Friday – but it's hard to argue with what Carmelo Anthony has done this season. Thirty points, then 27, then 21, then 31 – if some form of this keeps up and players don't suddenly remember how much they all hated one another last year, this team could remain fun to watch.
The Pacers announced Wednesday that Granger, their leading scorer since 2007-08, will be out for three months with patellar tendinosis. Although Granger's production has been decreasing since 2008-09, he's still been a major contributor and the center of the Pacers' offense, averaging 18.7 points last season. Losing Granger is an obvious blow, and Indiana has been uninspired without him, going 3-4 thus far.
Best of the week
Team: The Grizzlies, who haven't lost since their opening game against the Clippers on Halloween. They've since beat Golden State, Utah, Milwaukee, Houston and Miami. Those first few wins were hardly against the cream of the NBA crop, but Memphis's 104-86 victory over Miami Sunday left little doubt that this team can be among the Western Conference's best.
Player: O.J. Mayo, who's gone from backing up Tony Allen (and fighting with him over card-game debts, always great for chemistry) for Memphis to the best player on a Mavericks team without Nowitzki. Mayo is averaging 21.9 points and 3.7 rebounds, and his 49.0 percent field-goal shooting is the best of his career by a good margin. Oh, and he's making $5.6 million this year, which has to give him some of the best points-per-dollar production in the NBA.
Comeback: The Timberwolves, who were down 22 in the third quarter in Brooklyn before bouncing back to beat the Nets, 107-96. They sucked the life out of the Barclays Center and won resoundingly, and it was perhaps a good thing Jay-Z was conspicuously absent from the arena, campaigning with President Barack Obama instead. At least he got that win.
Worst of the week
Team: The Pistons, who are 0-7 and have lost their games by an average of 11.5 points. They're not the only winless team – the Wizards are 0-5 – but Detroit has had two more tries to shed its ineptitude. Lucky for them, they head home Monday after six games on the road, but really, a game against Oklahoma City hardly seems like the cure for all this.
Player: Lamar Odom, whose Candyman nickname has finally caught up with him. He's out of shape and back in Los Angeles with the Clippers, and he's playing so poorly that watching him talk with Khloe Kardashian about her fertility issues on reality TV might be more rewarding than watching him on the court. He's scored a whopping 11 points in seven games, and you've got to wonder how much longer he has in the league.
Gut: Glen Davis, who shuffled his way up and down the court in Minnesota on Wednesday to the tune of four points, a performance I got to see live and in person. Last year, there were murmurs of Davis being back in shape, but he must have found a favorite fast-food place in Orlando this offseason. Somehow, though, he routinely plays upward of 30 minutes per game, and for that, I commend him.
Telling stats of the week
23,034: Ray Allen scored his 23,000th career point on Monday night against Phoenix. He's the 24th player in NBA history to reach the milestone and the fourth active player to get there. The other three: Kobe Bryant, Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett, who it's safe to say did not congratulate Allen for the feat.
4-0: When the Spurs beat the Pacers last Monday, Gregg Popovich's seemingly immortal squad pushed its record to 4-0. Big whoop, you might think. The Spurs are always good. They never age. Seriously. Shouldn't Tim Duncan be collecting Social Security by now? But what the Spurs did Monday was remarkable, not because it gave them the league's best record but because never in franchise history had the team ever begun the season with a 4-0 mark. Four championships – easy. Four wins to begin a season – apparently more elusive. Spoiler alert, though: they lost to the Clippers on Wednesday.
26-25: The score of the Mavericks-Knicks game on Friday with 10:48 remaining in the second quarter, which marked the first time in four games that the Knicks trailed after the first quarter. Carmelo and company responded, though, to this first tiny taste of adversity with yet another win, their fourth.
What we heard
"You think because of that we win? Me and AK, we make him to cut his hair. Now he look like a man."
— Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic, on rookie guard Alexey Shved's dramatic haircut, which was suggested as a possible catalyst for his team's 22-point comeback in Brooklyn.
"You don't start 0-3 for the first time since we've owned the franchise without being on top of it. No matter what, you have to be aware. That doesn't mean change is coming. That just means you have to be aware."
— Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss to ESPNLosAngeles.com on Wednesday, about the pressure on coach Mike Brown. Not even 48 hours later, Brown was fired.
"Nothing is happening right. It's just chaos."
"Kevin does a great job of talking, just follow the leader. It's not as hard as it seems."
— Rajon Rondo on the Celtics' struggles when Kevin Garnett isn't on the court and how they'll address the fact that their 36-year-old star can't play all 48 minutes.
Spurs at Lakers, 10:30 p.m. ET, Tuesday: This will be the first major test of the post-Mike Brown Lakers, and a win would be huge for their turnaround. Absent all that, though, it's a matchup of two of the best teams of the past decade.