Sunday, December 25, 2011

NBA 2011-12: Christmas Opening Day

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12pm ET: Boston Celtics at New York Knicks

Spotlight on: the Celtics bench. It's a motley crew that's half-veterans who might not have any juice left (Marquis Daniels, Keyon Dooling, Sasha Pavlovic, Chris Wilcox) and half-young guns who have yet to see significant NBA minutes (Avery Bradley, JaJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore). Boston usually starts the season on fire, but with Pierce hurt and an abbreviated training camp, the aging Celtics are crossing their fingers that their reserves will be able to keep them in playoff contention.

Spotlight on: the Knicks point guards. With Baron Davis out for six to eight weeks, the point guard position, Mike D'Antoni's extension on the court and the engine that makes his run and gun system go, will fall on the shoulders of shooting guard in point guard's garb Toney Douglas, the zombie-like Mike Bibby who is far removed from his glorious Sacramento Kings days, and rookie sparkplug Iman Shumpert. It used to be that defense was the over-scrutinized aspect of this squad, but now, even their offense will be put under the microscope, especially if turnovers become a problem.

Pick: Boston +5

2:30pm ET: Miami Heat at Dallas Mavericks

Spotlight on: the Big Three's growth. After coming within two games of a championship trophy, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Lebron James spent the offseason working on their games. Bosh has extended his range, Wade worked on his durability and James finally, supposedly, added a post game to his arsenal. The excuse all of last season was that these three needed time to gel together and get their games in synch after being individual strs for so long. Now that more than a year has passed by, it's put up or shut up time for the NBA's super-villains. 

Spotlight on: the Dallas defense. They say defense wins championships, and the Mavericks took that to heart a season ago, with Tyson Chandler dominating the paint, DeShawn Stevenson emulating a pitbull on the perimeter, and Shawn Marion filling in the gaps. Fast-forward to now, and both Chandler and Stevenson are gone, and Marion is a year older. The additions of Vince Carter and Lamar Odom make this squad harder to stop, but will they be able to stop anybody, let alone Wade and James?

Pick: Miami -4.5

5:00pm ET: Chicago Bulls at Los Angeles Lakers

Spotlight on: Richard Hamilton. The Bulls jettison Keith Bogans in favor of Rip Hamilton, former NBA champ with the Detroit Pistons, to finally fill in their hole at the two-guard spot, but it doesn't quite look like the most ideal fit. Yes, even at his advanced age, Hamilton is still extremely adept at running his defender through multiple screens, freeing him up for open mid-range shots, but the Bulls were looking for more triples, which he's good but not great at. Chicago might have been better off too with someone who could create his own shot in a pinch, to give them a safety valve when Rose is doubled, I'm sure the coaching staff would have wanted someone who is at the very least, an above average defender. That's three strikes against him, but will his scoring make up for all that?

Spotlight on: the non-Kobe Lakers. Could this be the worst supporting cast the Lakers have had since the days of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown? On the brink of being cast out as Los Angeles' premiere team, the Lakers braintrust are backing an aging Bryant up with holdovers Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, Luke Walton, Derek Fisher and Metta World Peace, while adding the whitebread trio of Jason Kapono, Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy. Pau Gasol will need to work his way back from a mediocre playoffs run, while Andrew Bynum needs to be healthy, and get through a four-game suspension. There's hope that draftees Devin Ebanks and Darius Morris can give the team something, but it's hard to imagine them as game-changers.

Pick: Chicago -4

8:00pm ET: Orlando Magic at Oklahoma City Thunder

Spotlight on: Dwight Howard. In their two preseason games, Howard was a disinterested non-factor in their first match against Miami, before bouncing back in the second outing. While everyone in the Magic camp is saying D-12's trade demands aren't bothering the team, it's hard to imagine that it's not there in the back of everyone's mind, waiting for an extended losing streak to push it to the forefront. And if Howard continues to play lackadaisical, he was the only one keeping them alive versus Atlanta in the playoffs after all, that pie-in-the-sky losing streak might come sooner rather than later.

Spotlight on: the Russell Westbrook-Kevin Durant connection. The Thunder return basically intact from last season, and so too returns the interior drama about whether or not the team's best two players can co-exist. The two get another year to prove that they can get along, that Westbrook can continue to mature as a point guard and that Durant can improve on his shot selection and ability to get open. However, if the same issues from their playoff series versus the Mavericks persist, or heaven forbid, even get worse, I wouldn't be surprised if general manager Sam Presti bites the bullet and unloads his All-Star guard.

Pick: Oklahoma City -8

10:30pm ET: Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors

Spotlight on: Blake Griffin's offensive repertoire. We all know Griffin can throw down some vicious dunks, and the addition of Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups will likely boost the frequency of those jams, but for the Clippers to take the next step, LA's new poster boy will need to be more than just someone who throws it down. We saw some flashes of that during the preseason, including extended range on his jump shot, and a few up and under moves. Consistency will need to be the key. If Griffin can mix it up enough, teams will be hard-pressed to stop him, and his fellow dunker, DeAndre Jordan, and that means the playoffs will come to "Lob City."

Spotlight on: the Warriors' defense. "Hand up, man down," is the philosophy Golden State's new head coach Mark Jackson constantly espouses, but the last time someone tried to make a run and gun team try to force a couple of stops, Terry Porter in Phoenix, it was a complete failure. The chances of it happening could have improved drastically had they signed Tyson Chandler or DeAndre Jordan in the off-season, but the team was forced to settle for Kwame Brown, definitely not the best portent. Toss in the fact that you still have the sub-par defender trio of David Lee, Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry in the starting line-up, and that raised hand might be more of surrender, than stoppage. 

Pick: Los Angeles Clippers -5.5

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