This wild 72-game season that doesn’t have a back half scheduled out yet reaches the one-month mark this weekend. From Jan. 10-18, there was only one day out of nine where at least one game wasn’t canceled. Wednesday’s matchup between the Wizards and Hornets was already called off. Expect a few more to follow.
Successfully handicapping games in this climate isn’t impossible, but certainly packs new challenges. There have been some incredibly strange results so far, highlighted by the Knicks’ first win coming in a 20-point conquest of the Bucks and their recent five-game losing streak being snapped by dominating the Celtics by 30 points at TD Garden this past weekend. There have been some drastic swings, often within the same game.
We’ve now seen enough to where the personalities of teams are beginning to emerge, allowing us to move past the point where we simply label teams “good” or “lousy.” Some would-be contenders like the Nuggets look lost on the defensive end. The Heat and Mavericks have been decimated by a COVID-19 outbreak that ate away at their depth.
Although they survived their own bout with the virus well enough to remain atop the Eastern Conference, there are times where the 76ers still appear lost with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons again looking like a mismatched combo.
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) January 18, 2021
The Raptors opened the season 2-8 but have won three straight entering games against Miami on Wednesday and Friday. Desperation set in and Toronto edged the Hornets twice before blowing out the Mavericks on Monday. The Jazz have won five straight games following a 4-4 start. The Clippers have won four in a row after a players-only meeting took place on the heels of the team falling to 6-4 when they squandered a 22-point third-quarter lead on Jan. 8 against the Warriors, falling victim to an extreme lack of focus once Stephen Curry got going.
The Clips were so despondent that they didn’t say much after the game but aired out grievances more than two weeks after Festivus, holding one another accountable. L.A.’s last two wins, at Sacramento and home against the Pacers, have come by a combined margin of 71 points.
It’s starting to look like isolating teams that are feeling the burden of expectations this early in a season where peers are simply trying to get games in looks like a winning formula. We’re roughly 20 percent of the way into schedule, so there’s still plenty of time left for those that have been struggling to get on track.
However, both conferences are so competitive that a lengthy losing streak has the potential to derail your season. Toronto, stuck in a division with three title contenders in Boston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia, needed to get off the mat quickly after losses in eight of its first 10 considering it doesn’t even have the familiarity of Scotiabank Arena to fall back on since it is playing its home schedule at Tampa’s Amalie Arena. The Raptors have managed to find their footing, aided by the emergence of center Chris Boucher playing x-factor off the bench.
The Nets were starting to feel the crunch of Kyrie Irving’s unexpected absence, having fallen under .500 after 11 games. James Harden’s arrival has now helped Brooklyn get to four straight victories after a thrilling upset of the Bucks on Monday night. Miami is finally getting players back from contact tracing after missing nearly half its roster, including catalysts Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic. Expect an increased sense of urgency to be a driving force once everyone is again available.
The Western Conference remains loaded despite the Rockets dealing Harden away and rebuilding on the run with a host of draft picks coming their way, but the Southwest Division is now definitely up for grabs. Gregg Popovich has a young Spurs squad leading the way at the moment but a Mavericks team that is 6-7 and a Pelicans squad that entered Tuesday’s game at Utah 5-7 have the potential to go on a run. Dallas had its own COVID outbreak sideline most of the team’s glue guys for over a week while Stan Van Gundy is still trying to get New Orleans to defend consistently. Both teams could emerge.
Denver is hovering around .500 and wasting an MVP-caliber start from Nikola Jokic, while Northwest Division rival Portland is now down shooting guard C.J. McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic for at least the next few weeks and must survive without them.
Desperation is fuel in 2021. Keep an eye out for teams that can’t afford to fumble away games.
Rockets at Pistons: Christian Wood emerged with Detroit after Blake Griffin went down with a season-ending injury and turned a breakout season into a nice contract with the Rockets, where he’s now been joined by Victor Oladipo. Stephen Silas finally has a group that’s playing hard for one another with Harden gone and he should have John Wall back from a knee injury for this one. Look for the visitors to handle business Friday, taking down a Detroit squad that was first to 10 losses on the season. ROCKETS
Pelicans at Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns was diagnosed with COVID and won’t be in the mix this week, leaving Minnesota extremely shorthanded. Considering Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Steven Adams are finally gaining traction as a frontcourt trio and Lonzo Ball is returning from a knee issue to make the roster whole, expect New Orleans to win and cover on Saturday night in Minneapolis. PELICANS
Knicks at Trail Blazers: Portland can’t afford to mess around in winnable games like these. Even though New York looks improved, Damian Lillard needs help from Enes Kanter, a now healthy Rodney Hood, Gary Trent, Jr. and young Anfernee Simons to overcome the injuries to Nurkic and McCollum. Look for a strong performance here from the short-handed Blazers as they win and cover on Sunday night. TRAIL BLAZERS
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