FIVE QUICK NBA THOUGHTS:
1. RAPTORS STRUGGLING: The bottom line is the true test in sports isn't just how you handle failure, but how you handle success. This team has gotten off track from the formula that it was using beautifully of late. The games against the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Monday's loss to the Charlotte Bobcats all had major stretches where this team looked like they acted as if they had already "arrived" and didn't have to do the dirty work anymore and just wanted to win pretty instead of grinding it out and laying it on the line with great effort and passion. I felt bad for coach Dwane Casey in Charlotte. It's a helpless feeling as a coach when you have a team that thinks that they can beat folks with talent and not have to do the work to win. He was scrambling, trying to mix and match combinations and burn timeouts to give wake up calls, yet in the end, a terrific desperate effort came up short. As you can tell, I haven't even mentioned Xs and Os once and don't have to or plan to - that's not the issue here, nor is it talent. To sum it up, winning is really, really, really hard to do, but losing is really easy. You're a 20-20 club. Do you want to be mediocre or average or do you want to accomplish something? It's gut-check time and there's a very simple solution to the problem: Respect your opponent, have top-notch attention to detail, compete with great passion and stay committed to the team concept. You do that and you''ll be fine. If you don't, there will be changes. The trade deadline is 30 days away. You don't want to get stuck in no man's land. You gave away three games in the past six days to teams that are banged up with slightly inferior talent levels and you have to wonder about the direction you want to take this. I love what general manager Masai Ujiri has done with this whole thing, being patient with the process. It's all on the players now. It's time to produce and, more importantly, learn from this experience and, if you do have success again, don't let these things happen again. You can't stay like this - either cross the line and be a consistently good team with great habits or make changes. The clock is ticking now.
2. HERE THEY COME: Hearing footsteps yet? I'm sure you've all noticed that the Atlanta Hawks have gotten the third seed back in its possession and the Brooklyn Nets are now breathing right down the Raptors' backs with Deron Williams back in the line-up, as well as a huge game on Monday between the Raptors and Nets in Brooklyn coming up. And don't sleep on the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls, either. They're both 20-20 and not going away. The Raptors had a chance to make hay against weak competition and didn't do it. Things get tougher and tougher now. Can they still win the Atlantic? Sure. Can they get the #3 seed? Sure. If, and it's a big if, they play the way they're capable of playing. Excellence is a habit, not an act. This is a nice test coming up and we'll all find out in the next few weeks what they're all about. I think they can do it. It's a good group of guys with enough talent that get more than a good share of the coaching and leadership they need to be successful. They've now put themselves into a "backs are against the wall" scenario and maybe that's what this team needs and I can't wait to find out. The middle part of the schedule is when the distancing starts to happen. Who will fight and contend and who will fade away and make plans for golf and the beach for mid-April? The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat already know what their spring plans are, but the rest of the East is in complete flux. It is all starting to take shape now and the competition is on.
3. NICK YOUNG (Lakers): This guy can flat out score. He torched the Raptors on Sunday with some ridiculous shots and then drops 31 against a terrific Bulls defence on Monday. He's one of those guys that will always have a job because it's hard to find guys who can heat up like him and bring you back into a game. His defence and maturity are areas you wonder about sometimes, but he is a talented guy who has some high octane ability. He creates his own shot quite well and shoots it from distance effectively. He's able to get to the foul line and has good creativity with his ball skills. He seems to wear out his welcome eventually, but while you have him, he gets you the numbers, that's for sure.
4. RICKY RUBIO (Timberwolves): He's an exceptional defender and a wonderfully entertaining and creative passer and playmaker. With that said, for his game to truly get to the next level, he has to become a guy who is a consistent long range shooting threat in order to open up his impact in the screen and roll game and space the defence out, because you've got to come out and guard him rather than sag off him. He's a point guard who can make all the plays with amazing vision and reflexes, yet for him to reach that upper tier, he needs to get his shot mechanics in order. He has great work habits, so I'm sure he'll pay the price. If he gets that together, he can make that next step.
5. JOAKIM NOAH (Bulls): You gotta love this guy. He's already had three 20 and 15 games this season and had 17 and 21 against the Lakers last night in an OT win. Since the Bulls traded Luol Deng, he's been on a mission and he's playing angry and with amazing energy. He's a winner in every sense and doesn't get enough credit for this, but he's a really good passer. He's a smart player who makes the right play next in your offensive sequence. He's got a bigger piece of the puzzle in the Bulls' scheme now with Deng in Cleveland and he's responding. Noah is not a bad guy to bank on. And, by the way, I'm happy for former Raptor DJ Augustin. He's found a home with this Bulls team and playing pretty well. He's a good guy who has the talent to help you win.I'm glad it's worked out for him.