There is basketball outside of South Beach and L.A.: 10 things worth watching

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Yes, the Heat have the three biggest stars we have seen on a team since the 1980s. Yes the Lakers are the two-time defending champs and may have more talent than any team in the league.

We get it. You love them. We’ll talk about them plenty this season.

But there is so much more to this NBA season than the Heat and the Lakers. It’s going to be a fascinating year filled with highlights and experiments, players on the rise and others on the mend. A lot of teams with questions, a lot of answers to discover.

Here are just 10 storylines that have nothing to do with Miami or Los Angeles that you need to watch:

1. John Wall and the new look Washington Wizards. John Wall is as fast with the ball in his hands as anyone in the league right now. As a rookie. He is lightning. He is a game changing point guard surrounded by athletic wings and big men who will run with him. (Plus Gilbert Arenas, who could blend right in with that group or be a show unto himself.) Washington is John Wall’s team now, make no mistake, and while there will be some bad rookie nights, it will be hard to keep up with all the highlights this guy will provide.

2. The Orlando Magic, contenders. The Magic may well be the best team in basketball. Scoff if you want, but they were the best team the second half of last season, and two-rounds into the playoffs you thought they were on pace to return to the finals after sweeping aside the Bobcats and Hawks. Dwight Howard was a beast and Jameer Nelson had found a grove. Don’t let one series against a rejuvenated and hot Boston squad fool you, this team is very good and has a new focus this year. They will be near the top of the East, and they could win it all.

3. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento. Last year’s rookie of the year teamed with the guy who could win it this year. Evans can slash and run, Cousins is physically imposing, can get his shot off in the post or drain the midrange, and he can board. Cousins never should have fallen to No. 5. There will be rough patches, but watch as Sacramento becomes relevant again, a team on the rise.

4. Portland will remind you they were Oklahoma City before Oklahoma City. Two seasons ago, Portland was the young up-and-coming team that was next in line to become the best in the West after the Lakers. Then last season injuries decimated the team (more than 300 man games lost) yet they still won 50 games. Forget the Greg Oden saga, this team cold bounce back big with or without him. And watch for Nicolas Batum to have a huge year.

5. Josh Childress rises like the Phoenix. Everyone seems to have forgotten how smooth, how good this guy is. He was talked about as a possible sixth man of the year, a guy who could run and knew how to attack the rim. Then he took his talents to Greece for a couple years after lowball offers from the Hawks. Now he brings his game back to play along side Steve Nash, who is going to get him great looks. Childress (especially if he developed a jumper while on his European vacation) will be back to dazzling everyone.

6. Yao Ming is back. Yao Ming was the best center on the planet. (Before you say Dwight Howard was better, go check out the box scores of their head-to-head matchups.) He is 7’6” with a deft touch around the basket and who can step out and drain the midrange. He’s graceful with a high basketball IQ. He’s a good person and huge to the sport globally. With him healthy, the Rockets are threats in the West. Without him, they may miss the playoffs. He is that important, and everyone should have their fingers crossed for him.

7. Roddy Beaubois being the missing piece in Dallas. The Mavericks are good, deep, professional, and have been for years. But Beaubois can be their game changer. Their missing spark. Rick Carlisle sat on him for reasons we don’t understand last playoffs and when the guy finally got loose against San Antonio he almost won them a game single-handedly. He is the quickness, the energy Dallas needs. You’ll have to be patient on this one though, he will miss the first few weeks with a broken foot.

8. Al Jefferson comes to Utah. The people of Utah are convinced that Al Jefferson will be an upgrade over Carlos Boozer. Deron William has told Jefferson he will be an All-Star in Utah. He brings a more post-based game that may balance with Mehmet Okur (once Okur gets healthy) and he will bring some rebounds. He won’t bring much defense, but neither did Boozer. Some think this is an upgrade, we’re not convinced but it will be an interesting experiment. One Kevin Love wholeheartedly approves of, by the way.

9. Derrick Rose and the new look Chicago Bulls. Derrick Rose is dynamic, one of the most entertaining players in the game. You watched the Bulls last season and kept saying, “if they just had a guy who could consistently score inside…” Now it’s “hello Carlos Boozer.” There are a lot of questions, the biggest being can new coach Tim Thibodeau get Boozer and Rose to play good defense. Another is can Rose hit a three (he worked on it all summer but shot just 27.8 percent in preseason) to open up the floor. But this is a team that looks just half a step behind the top three in the East, but it thinks it belongs. And maybe it does.

10. Games decided because of technical fouls. The NBA is cracking down on complaining by players, but in doing so has taken the issue to the other extreme and created a problem where none really existed before. At some point early this season a game is going to be decided by a technical — a foul will be whistled in the last 20 seconds of a close game, an emotional player will have an outburst and some ref with an itchy trigger finger will call the technical and change the game. Or, some star will get tossed for nothing in the second quarter. By January the two sides — players and officials — will find a groove on this, but some games will be changed in the coming weeks.

Trust us. Just watch.

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”