Game of the Day: April 12

Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trailblazers — 10 PM eastern

As the NBA’s regular season winds down, there are still many playoff positions up for grabs, especially in the tightly contested Western conference. Monday’s best game features two of the teams jockeying for advantage.

These two teams also boast some of the league’s finest young talent: the Thunder with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Jeff Green, among others, and the Trailblazers with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Both of these teams will be playing the second half of a back-to-back. On Sunday the Thunder lost a barn burner 120-117 to the Warriors. The Blazers defeated the first-place Lakers 91-88, and Roy didn’t even play in the second half.

Obviously whether Roy plays could be a deciding factor in the outcome, but it’s not yet clear whether he’ll suit up. If he doesn’t, Portland will have to make due with players like Nicolas Batum and Martell Webster to fill in for him.

Westbrook should be effective against point guard Andre Miller, who has lost a step over the years and can’t defend quick guards as well anymore.

The Blazers have won two of the three games played against the Thunder this season, but in the one they lost, Durant dropped 33 points and 11 rebounds. Portland will have to be cognizant of stopping Oklahoma City’s star, and the addition of Marcus Camby up front should help to limit No. 35′s production. In their last matchup (the first since the Camby deal with the Clippers), Durant shot just 7-18 from the field.

The winner of this game should hinge upon Roy’s status. If he plays, he’ll have a tough defender in Thabo Sefolosha, but he should be able to overcome that for a solid line. If he’s inactive, I can’t see that Portland will be able to put up enough offense to contend with Oklahoma City’s youngsters.

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Camby’s departure: what the Clippers have been missing

The Clippers have suffered without Marcus Camby this season.

On February 10, at the all-star break, the Los Angeles Clippers traded PF/C Marcus Camby to the Portland Trailblazers in exchange for G Steve Blake and F Travis Outlaw. Even though the Clippers were not on pace to make the playoffs at the time of the deal, Camby’s departure has really hindered them.
First, just take a look at Camby’s stats for this year. He’s averaging 7.2 points, 11.7 rebounds, 1.96 blocks, and 1.3 steals a game. While his offense has been subpar for the power forward or center position, he has made up for it with his elite rebounding and defense — two areas in which a team needs to excel in order to win. But looking just as the raw player stats does not tell the whole story.
To measure the trade’s true impact on the Clippers requires an examination of the team’s marks before and after the deal. As Camby was dealt after the Clippers’ final game before the all-star break, a review of the team splits pre- and post-break yields a clear picture of the effect that Camby’s absence has had on the team.
Most simply, look at the Clippers’ record with and without Camby. LA was 21-31 prior to the break but since then is only 7-21. Moreover, the team is recording over two fewer steals and blocking half a shot less per game compared to before the trade. The negative influence on the team’s defense is more profound than just that, however.
Prior to the all-star break, opponents shot only 46 percent from the floor against the Clippers. Since then, they are shooting nearly 49 percent. Compared to the other NBA teams’ opponents’ field-goal percentages today, the former number would rank them 15th in field-goal percentage allowed, while the latter figure would place them dead last in the league.
Furthermore, prior to the trade the Clippers allowed only 99.8 points per contest to their opponents. Since February 10, they have allowed 106.1 points — that would represent a ranking drop from 16th to 28th compared to other teams today. Not having Camby has also increased opponents’ assists and decreased opponents’ turnovers and personal fouls.
Notwithstanding all these numbers, the most glaring indication that the team is hurting without Camby accompanies a look at the Clippers’ plus-minus figures with and without Marcus this season. 82games.com tracks the plus-minus figures for the top-20 lineups (by minutes played) on the floor for each team during a season, which gives us this: While Camby has been on the floor in 2009-2010, the Clippers are +88 in scoring margin. While Camby has been off the court (while he was on the bench or since he was traded), the Clippers are -125 in scoring margin. Clearly, he has an overwhelmingly positive impact on the team.
So why did then-GM Mike Dunleavy choose to make this trade? After all, Camby was an expiring contract for this season. Honestly, it’s not quite clear. Maybe he wanted to free up some minutes in the front court for second-year player DeAndre Jordan, so he could see what he could do. More likely, though, Dunleavy saw it as an opportunity to help both Camby and the team. Camby, who just turned 36, is not getting any younger. The swap allows him to start on a Trailblazers team that will play in the postseason and has a chance to succeed there. In terms of improving the team, with the playoffs out of reach, the Clippers can secure a better spot in the lottery and increase their chances of being able to draft an impact player like Evan Turner, Wesley Johnson, or Al-Farouq Aminu, among others.
One thing is palpable, though: Trading Marcus Camby severely hurt this team’s on-court performance.

Game of the Day: April 11

Orlando Magic at Cleveland Cavaliers — 1 PM eastern, telecast on ABC

This game will be more interesting in the absence of LeBron James. It’ll also be one the Magic have to win to prove they can play with the Cavs come playoff time.

The league’s top two teams (by a wide margin) square off in a rematch of last year’s conference finals, and it should be a great contest.

The Magic face the Cavaliers for the first time since they acquired Antawn Jamison from the Wizards and since Shaquille O’Neal injured his hand. Missing, too, from the Cleveland rotation will be James, whom Mike Brown is electing to sit so he can rest for the upcoming postseason.

Vince Carter should have a good day against Anthony Parker and Delonte West, so look for big points from him. Jamison and Rashard Lewis will be a great matchup, as both feature the perimeter game as their primary means of scoring.

Most important for Orlando will be Dwight Howard’s play. He’ll only be dealing with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao up front, whose inability to guard D13 in last year’s summer collision led to Danny Ferry’s acquisition of the Diesel in the offseason.

The Cavaliers have won two of the teams’ three meetings this campaign, but both of those wins featured 30-point scoring outbursts from LeBron. To be honest, they have very little chance without the King or the Big Cactus. Give the W to Orlando.

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Making a case for an ROY not named Tyreke

What's in store for Stephen Curry later on in the NBA?

Almost all NBA experts and fans have resigned themselves to the fact that the Sacramento Kings point guard Tyreke Evans will be crowned this season’s Rookie of the Year. The truth is, they’re probably right in their predictions. That said, amid outstanding performances from players like Brandon Jennings, Marcus Thornton, Darren Collison, Ty Lawson, and DeJuan Blair, is it fair to write everyone else off right off the bat?

The truth is, in place of Evans, I wouldn’t name any of the aforementioned players the ROY award. Instead, it would go to Stephen Curry.

Get this straight, though: Looking at the statistics of the two players over the course of the entire season, Evans has put up a more productive campaign than Curry. He’s scoring three more points per game and outdistances Curry by about two-and-a-half points in PER. But the Davidson alumnus’s marks are nothing to scoff at.

He’s scoring 17 a game and adding 6 assists, 4 boards, and 2 steals. In addition, his shooting percentages are fantastic: 46 percent from the floor, an alarming 43 percent from long range, and 88 percent from the charity stripe. Those numbers, if not for a minutes minimum, would have garnered Curry a spot on John Hollinger’s Greatest Shooters Ever list. That’s pretty amazing.

But everyone knew Curry could shoot coming into the league. He lit up the scoreboard from any distance in college. Where he has really shined is in his ability to make good passes and lead an offense. No one was really sure whether he had the distribution skills to play the 1, and he lacks the size to effectively play the 2, so he has helped himself in that way.

Since the beginning of February, Curry has nine double-doubles, including one triple-double. Over that span, he’s averaging over 7.7 assists to go along with just over 21 points. His second-half play has led David Thorpe to suggest that Curry could be the next Steve Nash in his NBA Rookie Watch.

To recap, Stephen Curry has shown signs of being a top-10 shooter of all-time and comparing to Steve Nash, one of the finest point guards in NBA history, according to two of the NBA’s leading experts. That’s quite a résumé already.

Sure, he doesn’t play defense, but how can you really expect him to on the Golden State Warriors. Maybe with a new owner and coach he will develop some skill on that side of the ball.

As for Evans, he’s playing the point-guard position, but should he be? He succumbs to what Hollinger calls tunnel vision — he drives to the hole, looking for an assist as only an absolute last resort. He is a prolific scorer, but to take his name to the next level, he needs to learn to find his teammates for easy shots, else he risks drawing routine double teams and alienating his peers to the point where it becomes an issue in the locker room. Curry is already a step ahead of him in that respect.

But to solve this debate requires a specific definition with respect to the Rookie of the Year award. Is it given to the player who shows the most promise, or is it given to the player who has the most effective rookie season? The answer is the latter, or at least it should be (Derrick Rose edged Brook Lopez for the prize last year undeservedly, but that’s another story). Accordingly, the winner of the award should be Evans. He undoubtedly put up the better numbers over the course of the entire season.

Regardless, it will be fun to watch these two guys develop, and I’m sure losing out on the award won’t discourage Curry from playing to the best of his ability in the years to come. It’s just too bad we won’t see either of these guys in the playoffs this season; watching Rose nearly upset the heavily favored Celtics in a number of multiple-overtime games was incredibly exciting. Alas, their teams are both lottery bound in May.

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Game of the Day: April 10

San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets — 9 PM eastern, telecast on NBA TV

The San Antonio Spurs have lost two in a row, and the Denver Nuggets have won their last four — including a thrilling two-point victory over the Kobe-less Lakers. That doesn’t bode too well for the former team.

In what could very well be a first-round playoff matchup, Tim Duncan and the Spurs visit Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets for the teams’ final meeting of the season.

This game will feature a number of great matchups, including Tony Parker and Chancey Billups at point guard; Manu Ginobili and Aaron Afflalo at the 2; Richard Jefferson and Anthony at the 3; and Duncan and Nene up front.

The Spurs need to attempt to slow down Melo and contain J.R. Smith’s shooting to win. Likewise, the Nuggets (whose defense is less reliable than the Spurs’) need to stop Ginobili from going off, like he has routinely of late.

The Nuggets have won two of the three previous matchups this year, and the Spurs look to even the series out and avoid having to play the top-seeded Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. They’ll need a balanced scoring effort again (they had seven players in double figures in their win February 11), and they’ll need to play their trademark quality defense.

I give the win to Denver, as it is playing well of late and is jockeying for position at the top of the conference amid several other teams close by. Watching Duncan go at Nene and Chris Andersen down low should be a lot of fun, as should Ginobili and Melo’s exchanging of ridiculous scores in the lane.

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Expectation Series: Part 4 (Most Surprising Players)

Over the next four days, I’ll be writing on what I call my Expectation Series — a four-part set of rankings for the following: most disappointing teams, most surprising teams, most disappointing players, and most surprising players.

Hornets point guard Darren Collison has filled in brilliantly during Chris Paul's absences this season.

For every player who underachieves each season, there is another who exceeds expectations to compensate. And this year is no exception. In selecting my top five, I tried to avoid rookies (who really don’t have clearly defined projections), though I couldn’t help but include my No. 1. So here’s the list.

No. 5 — Kevin Durant

Everyone knew going in that Kevin Durant was a fearless and unstoppable scorer. But who really thought that we’d be seriously considering him as MVP if LeBron James weren’t playing? Durantula added four-and-a-half points to his per-game scoring rate and may very well win the scoring title. In addition, he’s nearly flawless at the line, has improved his rebounding, and can hit the big shot. And believe it or not, he can still improve. If he can get his field-goal percentage over 50 percent and shoot over 40 percent on threes, he’ll truly be in the elite category. Let’s see if he has the ability to lead his team to victory in the playoffs this year.

No. 4 — Andray Blatche

Andray Blatche’s performance has gone more or less unnoticed because of his playing on a terrible, terrible team. If you look at his per-40-minute averages, they are rather impressive. He’s posting nearly 20 points and nine boards per 40 minutes. As a starter, he’s averaging over 20 points a game. While Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison were in town, he didn’t have a chance to shine. Maybe while Washington is rebuilding, he can let the world know he’s ready to stand out at the highest level with the right playing time.

No. 3 — David Lee

David Lee’s improvement this season has come mostly in the scoring department. He could rebound last year, and he has carried that over to this season. But he’s scoring over 20 a game, and his high PER reflects that, all while playing out of position at the 5. Hopefully he can sign with a serious team next year and wreak some serious havoc when the games actually matter.

No. 2 — Andrew Bogut

Andrew Bogut is what situated the Milwaukee Bucks in prime playoff position for 2010. Now that he’s out for the rest of the season, they don’t stand too much hope of advancing beyond the first round. The former first-overall pick began to justify his draft selection, adding 16 points and 10 rebounds a contest to his team’s line. Moreover, his defense was stellar. He contributed 2.5 blocks a game and began to develop a Dwight Howard-esque effect on opponents’ shots whenever they were foolish enough to enter the paint. Bogut will be back next year with a healthy Michael Redd, so he should be able to do the same again for the Deer.

No. 1 — Darren Collison

As I mentioned above, it is tough to include rookies on this list because their abilities aren’t really evident with no experience in the league. In this case, what chance does a point guard playing behind Chris Paul have of succeeding in his first professional campaign? That said, Darren Collison, the 21st-overall pick out of UCLA, has played magnificently this year. Paul has missed a lot of time with injures, and Collison has capitalized. His per-game averages over the course of the season aren’t terribly impressive, but if you limit the scope to the games he’s started, it becomes more glaring. His stat line in games started: 18.4 points, 9 assists, 3.6 boards, 1.4 steals, 47 percent shooting, 41 percent from deep, and 85 percent from the charity stripe. The dude needs to get out of New Orleans, because he doesn’t deserve to be playing behind CP3; he’s way too good.

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Game of the Day: April 9

Dallas Mavericks at Portland Trailblazers — 10 PM eastern, telecast on NBA TV

After the Denver Nuggets beat the Los Angeles Lakers Thursday, the Mavericks need to respond with a win to keep pace in the Western Conference. That will be no easy task against the hungry Trailblazers, though.

The Blazers are coming off two straight wins and have won eight of their last 10 contests, thanks in large part to the defensive efforts of Marcus Camby and the balanced, multifaceted offensive attack. Furthermore, they play very well at the Rose Garden, having lost only 13 games on their home floor all season.

The Mavericks are certainly up to the challenge, though. While they have struggled a bit of late (going 5-5 in their last 10), surrendering 100+ points in seven of the previous 11 games, they field a loaded roster that can come away with a win on any given day. Dirk Nowitzki should prove a hassle for LaMarcus Aldridge on defense, and Caron Butler and Jason Terry will keep Brandon Roy on his toes.

That said, they need to step up their defense to win. Butler needs to limit Roy, and Jason Kidd needs to contain Andre Miller. Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier should have no problem with the offensively challenged Camby, but Aldridge will be just as tough to contain for Nowitzki as Nowitzki will be for Aldridge.

The Blazers have won all three meetings between the two teams this season, most recently on March 25. No particular player for Portland killed Dallas, but they were balanced in their offense, resulting in four different players with 15+ points.

I see no reason why the Blazers shouldn’t complete the season sweep here. If all three of the wins had come prior to the Mavericks’ February trade, I might think otherwise. But Portland has demonstrated that they can defeat the new-look Mavs, and it seems they just pose some sort of matchup problem for Mark Cuban’s boys.

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