We’ve now gotten to see more than one week of play since the All-Star break. Any adjustments that coaches or players made during the break have shown themselves.
Some teams have benefited from those adjustments, while others have taken a step back. Three teams stick out as making a positive move in the past week, while three others have taken a clear step down. Let’s analyze those six squads.
NBA Week 19 Risers
Portland Trail Blazers (38-23, No. 4 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
Portland is off to a 4-0 start on its Eastern Conference road trip, which includes impressive wins over playoff teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics. The Blazers were able to outgun the Sixers 130-115 and grind out a 97-92 win over the Celtics, which reflects very well on the team’s ability to play different styles successfully.
The success of this season is most definitely a testament to the Blazers’ player development staff. Portland’s main core of players is essentially unchanged from last season. However, big leaps from Jusuf Nurkic, Meyers Leonard, Jake Layman and Zach Collins have made the Blazers a team that can bully you inside while also lighting it up from the outside with star guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Portland’s biggest weaknesses as a team is a lack of two-way contributions from the wing positions. However, as long the squad’s mid-sized guys keep playing strong defense while the guards and bigs take care of the scoring consistently, the Blazers can make a nice playoff run this season.
New York Knicks (13-49, No. 15 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 2-1)
The Knicks’ blown fourth-quarter lead against the similarly tanking Cleveland Cavaliers was not pretty. However, the squad won its previous two games, both at home, against the San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic, two teams with much better records than the Knicks. Those two wins broke a streak of 16 straight losses
The rest of this season for New York will be about evaluating which young players are worth keeping as part of the core for next season and beyond. The Knicks will have a very high draft pick and will try to land a couple of big-name free agents (preferably Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving), but those three will need quality two-way players to support them.
One clear keeper is center Mitchell Robinson, who averaged around 11 points, eight rebounds and more than three blocks per game in February. The jury is still out on whether Noah Vonleh, Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier, Dennis Smith Jr., Emmanuel Mudiay and Damyean Dotson will be significant parts of the team’s future, though.
Utah Jazz (35-26, No. 6 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
Thursday’s road win over the Denver Nuggets was a great way to end a strong week for the Jazz. The Nuggets had only lost once at home since November 14 and even that game was against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. But Utah surged to a 18-point lead early in the fourth quarter before holding on for a seven-point victory.
The Jazz defense is very good, but it is still more inconsistent than it should be. The Jazz offense has definitely been solid recently, though, with efficient play from Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Donovan Mitchell and Royce O’Neale.
Things should be looking up even more for Utah in the coming weeks and months, too. The Jazz only have six games remaining against teams that are in playoff positions.
NBA Week 19 Fallers
Oklahoma City Thunder (38-23, No. 3 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
The Thunder have the NBA’s toughest schedule after the All-Star break, and they have failed to rise to the challenge so far. OKC got a win against the Utah Jazz last Friday by one point, but they’ve fallen to the Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers in consecutive games since then.
Center Steven Adams has been poor offensively as of late, especially at the free-throw line, and sixth man Dennis Schroder has shot 17-of-60 from the field since the All-Star break (28.3 percent). The lack of contribution from offensive options Nos. 3 and 4 is concerning for a team that struggles with depth on offense.
For the remainder of their season, things don’t get much easier. The Thunder don’t have any games against the NBA’s group of five bad teams at the bottom (Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns) and have 13 of their last 21 games against teams above .500.
Boston Celtics (37-25, No. 5 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
Most people didn’t expect the Celtics to have 25 losses all season, but they are already there just a week after the All-Star break. Granted, Boston’s net rating is still much more impressive than its record, but it is concerning that the Celtics are 6-8 when the game’s final margin is five points or fewer.
With a team containing several excellent offensive and defensive options and a supposedly great coach in Brad Stevens, there is no reason that Boston should be failing to close out so many of these tight games. However, as forward Marcus Morris stated before the All-Star break, the team is still playing like “a bunch of individuals” instead of a team.
The squad is also still pretty soft around the rim in terms of protecting the basket on defense and drawing fouls on offense. Will Stevens figure out how to turn a group of talented individuals into a talented team on both sides of the ball? The squad still has arguably the highest ceiling in the Eastern Conference if it stays healthy.
Golden State Warriors (43-19, No. 1 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 1-3)
The Warriors have a 1-3 record in the past week and that is never acceptable for a team of their caliber. Even though Kevin Durant missed Thursday’s loss against the Orlando Magic, the team has been mostly healthy for this week’s games.
With DeMarcus Cousins now in the fold with Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors are struggling to find a good team balance with four scorers who need to stay in rhythm. It is hard to keep all four guys going at the same time, and when some players aren’t as involved offensively, they become disinterested on defense. Cousins is probably the biggest culprit in that aspect.
Failing to get the No. 1 seed isn’t the end of the world for the Warriors. They are now just a half-game ahead of the Denver Nuggets in the standings. However, if you are a Warriors fan, you would like to see the team flash its amazing potential a bit more often.