Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 28, 2017

The NBA Begins In Earnest

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life is traveling over the next several days, so there will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday. Happy New Year!

For casual fans of the NBA, the hardcourt season has finally begun. While true basketball loyalists have been following the exploits of their favorite franchise for more than thirty games, those who are less invested apply a version of the old rule that held there was no need to start watching an NBA game until the final two minutes. In the season-long variant, that portion of the schedule from the opening tip in mid-October until the Yuletide is a meaningless preamble, with Christmas Day’s multi-game televised orgy of professional basketball the true start to the season. From there the calendar is divided by February’s All-Star Weekend into two roughly equal halves.

Those who have just started paying attention have missed some notable headlines through this season’s first ten weeks. The Boston Celtics’ season appeared to crash and burn barely five minutes into the team’s very first game, when Gordon Hayward went down with a gruesome ankle injury. But prize offseason acquisition Kyrie Irving led the very young lineup coach Brad Stevens was forced to rely on to sixteen consecutive victories. The C’s have come back to earth a bit, playing just .500 ball over the past twelve games, but Boston still leads the Eastern Conference.

Close behind the Celtics in the standings, the Cleveland Cavaliers have already gone through competing headlines. After starting the schedule a sluggish 5-7, pundits were quick to ask what was wrong with the defending Eastern Conference champions. Some even dared to suggest that LeBron James might have lost a step. Those stories were quickly replaced by paeans to King James as Cleveland won nineteen of its next twenty-one contests.

The Western Conference saw its own early season winning streak, with Houston running off fifteen straight W’s while both Chris Paul and James Harden were on the court. The problem for the Rockets is keeping Paul healthy. He missed time at the start of the season and now is out again with a groin strain. Meanwhile, with headline writers looking elsewhere, the defending champion Warriors have quietly slipped into their expected position atop the West’s standings. Golden State claimed sole possession of first place with a 99-92 win over Cleveland on Monday, while Houston, sans Paul, came up five points short against Oklahoma City in one of the four other Christmas Day games.

There have been stories further down in the standings as well, such as the Thunder scuffling through the first two months as new team members Paul George and Carmelo Anthony struggled to find a rhythm with Russell Westbrook. The three may finally be singing in harmony. The Christmas victory over the Rockets was the fifth in a row for the Thunder, and a sixth straight win was added Wednesday night. The streak has moved OKC from a game below .500 back into the middle of the playoff picture.

Then there is the tale coming out of Madison Square Garden, scene of so much drama and angst in recent years. The Knicks are five seasons removed from a playoff appearance, and recent headlines have been more about the off-court battle between star forward Anthony and team president Phil Jackson than about New York’s occasional wins and frequent losses. But both antagonists have now been dispatched from the Garden. Anthony agreed to be traded to Houston and Jackson was summarily dismissed from his first, and very likely last, turn as a basketball executive. In New York, fans began the new season hoping that this year might finally be different.

There have been some positive signs in the early going. After opening the schedule with three losses, two of which were blowouts, the Knicks won six of their next seven to climb above .500 by the first week in November. Since then New York has never been more than one game under the .500 mark, and three times the Knicks have climbed three games above break-even. For a team that has averaged almost fifty-three losses per season since 2013, that is genuine progress. New York most recently reached that high-water mark four days before Christmas. With Michael Beasley in the unlikely role of hero off the bench, the Knicks delivered what the New York Times called “a statement win” over the Celtics, 102-93. Beasley led all scorers with a season high thirty-two points, all but four of which came in the second half.

Aside from the big night by their reserve forward, the Knicks have been led by Kristaps Porzingis, who in his third year in the league is showing signs of becoming a true star. New York has also gotten big contributions from Tim Hardaway Jr., and Enes Kanter. The growing role of the 6-foot-11 Kanter is an unexpected but entirely welcome surprise for Knicks fans. The 25-year old was made the third overall pick in the 2011 draft by Utah, but in six seasons split between the Jazz and the Rockets he hadn’t shown much to justify that lofty spot. He came to New York in the Anthony trade, and has endeared himself to fans, both by standing up to opposing players and by making some timely baskets. In the Knicks’ Christmas Day game against the 76ers Kanter racked up thirty-one points and twenty-two rebounds.

Unfortunately, the rest of his team was not so impressive, and New York fell to Philadelphia 105-98. That defeat at home was sandwiched between two road losses, at Detroit and Chicago. As this is written, the Knicks are in San Antonio getting ready to play the Spurs, once again back at .500 with a 17-17 record. It will be New York’s third road game in a week, and it is the schedule that surely gives Knicks fans pause, despite their team’s relative success so far.

The one drawback of calling Madison Square Garden, the self-styled “World’s Most Famous Arena” home, is that the Knicks need to make room not just for their NHL cousins the Rangers, but many other competing events. From the Grammys to the Big East college basketball tournament to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, MSG is a busy place. As a result, the Knicks’ home schedule has been heavily front-loaded, with twenty-one of their first thirty-four games played in the arena that sits atop Penn Station.

That imbalance is about to be righted. Starting with the game against the Spurs, the Knicks will play fifteen of nineteen contests on the road through the end of January. To date, New York is an anemic 2-11 as the visiting team. Over the next month that must change, or Knicks fans will once again see a season dissolve into disappointment. At .500 New York is on the edge of playoff contention. But whether they are truly worthy of the postseason is an NBA story that will be told while the Knickerbockers are living out of their suitcases.

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