The first night of NBA action produced two overtime contests on a four-game card and another that was up for grabs in the final minute, so hopefully that’s a preview of things to come.
The unfortunate news that James Harden will miss at least a few weeks to try and ensure a hamstring tear doesn’t linger and affect the team come playoffs is certainly a buzzkill, but the Clippers have Blake Griffin back, Isaiah Thomas finally debuts for Cleveland and the Jazz should see center Rudy Gobert return.
The following are my annual 2018 resolutions for all Eastern Conference teams with most approaching the halfway point:
Atlanta: Play John Collins more. The 20-year-old rookie has had his minutes restricted for most of the season, playing more than 29 minutes just twice. In those games, losses to the Spurs and Clippers, he shot 17-for-21 and grabbed 19 boards. Having brought him along slowly to this point should help avoid a second-half collapse. With center Dewayne Dedmon returning soon, the Hawks could become a live ‘dog later in the month.
Boston: Wrap up homecourt. The Celtics started 0-2 but then took off and won 16 straight to set the pace in the East. They’re the first team to 30 wins and need to stay ahead of the Raptors, Cavs and Wizards to maximize their potential, but the stamina of key contributors Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is about to be tested. The same goes for Kyrie Irving’s ability to lead a team.
Brooklyn: Keep developing Jarrett Allen. The 6-foot-10 teen won’t turn 20 until after the regular-season and appears to be a great building block. He opened 2018 by setting a career-high with 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting in a win over the Magic and has reached the point where he should stop being restricted to just 20 minutes per game. With Jahlil Okafor now on board, the hope is they can help make one another better.
Charlotte: Nicolas Batum must play better. The talented wing has had a dreadful season interrupted by injuries and hasn’t been able to find a rhythm. His lack of production is the main reason the Hornets have been a disappointment and enters the new year on a 4-for-17 run from 3-point range and has lacked the explosion to routinely get to the free-throw line, shooting no more than two in 14 of his 15 December outings. That’s not going to cut it.
Chicago: Tank properly. There’s no way the Bulls wanted to have a stretch where they won seven straight games since the plan this season was to rack up the losses and play all the kids, so Fred Hoiberg will have to pull moves like keeping Nikola Mirotic off the floor in an eventual OT loss despite the fact he’s been the one most responsible for the team’s unlikely success.
Cleveland: Bring Isaiah Thomas along responsibly. The x-factor for the Cavs this season will be how they manage the biggest asset gained from appeasing Irving’s trade request. He’s coming off a hip issue and needs to find his niche, be it coming off the bench or taking pressure off LeBron among the starting five, so there are a lot of potential mines in incorporating him into the King’s court now that he’s healthy enough to play.
Detroit: Andre Drummond must finish as strongly as he’s started. The 7-footer has become one of the NBA’s top big men by becoming more polished, avoiding foul trouble and hitting a career-best from the charity stripe as he’s stopped being a liability late in games. If he stays healthy, continuing his strong, steady play will serve as the Pistons’ backbone and should result in an unexpected playoff berth.
Indiana: Victor Oladipo needs to take it easy. The Pacers must be responsible with their standout shooting guard, the clear favorite in the race for Most Improved and a likely All-Star given his production to date. He’s driven, so the organization needs to take the cautious approach to ensure he doesn’t wear himself out after playing the best basketball of his career these last few months. Their unlikely playoff push depends on patience.
Miami: Put together a similar second half to 2017. The Heat were 11-30 at last season’s halfway point before rallying to finish 30-11, narrowly missing the playoffs on the final night. They’re in much better shape this season despite injuries to center Hassan Whiteside, forward James Johnson and wing Justise Winslow throwing a wrench into things, so if they can get everyone healthy, they could be a team to ride going forward.
Milwaukee: Jabari Parker has to elevate everyone’s play. Coming off an ACL injury, he’ll be brought along slowly, but the former No. 2 pick is eventually going to be expected to play major minutes in a small lineup alongside Giannis Antentokounmpo, Khris Middleton and guards Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon. If it comes together, it should be a force.
New York: Frank Ntilikina has to factor in more. The French 19-year-old rookie had injuries hold him up over the summer and he started slowly, but he’s being counted upon to play starter’s minutes lately and dished out a career-high 11 assists on Dec. 28 in San Antonio. Considering how well he defends, if he’s able to get comfortable on the offensive end, the Knicks have a real gem.
Orlando: Aaron Gordon must continue to be the first option. He’s put up some monster numbers when the offense runs through him. Though the versatile forward has his inconsistencies, he’s got to be the franchise player for a team that’s been waiting for someone to fully take hold of that role. They’ll have to max him out in the offseason, too.
Philadelphia: Joel Embiid has to go back to playing no more than 30 minutes. He’s special, but certainly brittle, entering the new year doubtful to play in the first game due to a hand injury. He dominated in December and played more than 30 minutes in all but one game, but scaling back some is essential to keep him fresh for March and April as the 76ers attempt to crash the playoffs.
Toronto: DeMar DeRozan’s killer instinct must continue to be a weapon. After scoring 52 points on New Year’s night, it’s clear he can carry the Raptors to a level they aspire to. With a talented, deep supporting cast around him, he’s got a shot at fueling Toronto past Boston and into the East’s top seed, which is a prerequisite if they’re going to shock the world by coming out on top. His Jan. 1 performance was a good start.
Washington: Bigs must play better. Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat have each seen their numbers dip to start the season. Morris has been dealing with a hip issue while Gortat may have some issues after playing in Eurobasket, but both are essential to the starting five reaching previous heights.