This is the time of year in the basketball landscape where the sense of urgency noticeably ramps up. In the college game, teams are fighting for conference titles and ultimately, NCAA Tournament inclusion.
An entire season’s goals are on the line. Things aren’t as drastic on the NBA level, at least for most.
The Spurs can afford to take a cautious approach with Kawhi Leonard. Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving can leave a big game because of a flu. Miami can make sure all is well with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade before getting back into action.
Same goes for the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, who still needs to be cleared in order to begin serving a four-game disciplinary suspension prior to his return. Chris Paul may need to take a seat beside him if a thigh bruise suffered over the weekend becomes a prolonged issue, but L.A. has done enough to this point to ensure it keeps the big picture in mind.
Not all pro teams have the luxury of time on their side. After watching Utah and Portland play a riveting game on Sunday night that star guard Damian Lillard ultimately delivered with his exceptional play down the stretch, one conclusion can be made.
The Trail Blazers beat the Jazz 115-111 in a game where the teams traded punches as the likes of Derrick Favors, CJ McCollum, Rodney Hood and Mo Harkless took turns shining. Anyone watching saw these recent draft picks are far more polished than they’ve ever been. Anyone watching saw two playoff teams.
You can bet the higher-ups in Houston and Memphis were watching.
With the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Mavericks looking formidable to count as Western Conference locks, the undeniable emergence of the Jazz and Blazers means it’s again going to be difficult to crack the top-eight. Given that the Rockets and Grizzlies entered the season with aspirations, it feels like there’s a college basketball-like urgency to keep them from falling behind.
Houston couldn’t move Dwight Howard at the trade deadline and was willing to part with point guards Patrick Beverley and Ty Lawson, so it deals with an uncertain future going forward.
The season has undeniably been a massive disappointment since the Rockets are an underdog taking a 28-28 record into Salt Lake City, so it will be quite telling to see how they respond. Everyone involved in trade rumors acted like big boys in the first game following the deadline, but beating a Suns team that hasn’t won twice since Dec. 19 isn’t much of an accomplishment.
Going toe-to-toe with the Jazz and then traveling to Portland for a Thursday night date with the Blazers will test their resolve. They’ll close the week back home against the Spurs on Saturday.
Can James Harden and Howard put their differences aside to elevate the level of the rest of the group? Frankly, that’s been a riddle the Rockets haven’t been able to solve consistently, but last year’s tantalizing run to the Western Conference finals suggests it can be done.
This week will go a long way in determining whether the want-to is even there. On the road, it will be Houston vs. everybody. If the Rockets aren’t united, they’ll stand no chance.
The Grizzlies are in a better spot than their Southwest Division rival as they enter the week in the No. 5 spot, nine games above .500. This week is make-or-break not because it can bury the team now, but rather, because it can come back to bite them later.
A home game against the Lakers on Wednesday, the final time Kobe Bryant will visit the Grindhouse, is one that Memphis will be expecting to win. They’ll turn around and face L.A. again on Friday at Staples Center, beginning a three-game road swing that will also take them to Phoenix and Denver to close February.
Given the records and current state of all their opponents, the Grizzlies have to take advantage to buy themselves room for error with a tough March in store.
Center Marc Gasol is likely to miss the entire next month with a fractured foot, and without the recently traded Courtney Lee and Jeff Green to lean on off the bench, odds are good that Memphis is going to dip a few spots in the West hierarchy before he returns.
A strong week would help matters immensely, but the Grizzlies’ 98-85 loss in Toronto on Sunday illustrated how offensively challenged this group is. The Grizz were held to 36.8 percent shooting (3-for-20 on 3s), relying on 39-year-old Vince Carter to be a major offensive catalyst.
Newcomer P.J. Hairston started against the Raptors this week, while Lance Stephenson joins the party this week. Tony Allen will return to his usual allotment of minutes after dealing with a knee injury, but it remains to be seen whether the Griz pack enough punch to hang around in the crowded West.
If Memphis struggles with the competition this week, its slide could be significant, taking them right out of the playoffs.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].