TSN's Jack Armstrong offers his thoughts on Anthony Bennett's big game, the skills of Jeff Teague, the performance of Nick Calathes, the energy of Joakim Noah and the compete level of Amir Johnson.
1. Anthony Bennett (Cavs): Congrats! Finally. It's been a very frustrating and disappointing rookie campaign for the young Canadian out of UNLV. The Cavs have won three in a row after an embarrassing loss at home to the undermanned Lakers and firing their GM Chris Grant. A wake up call? Maybe. For Bennett, it's got to feel good and hopefully the fact that he's rounding back into shape will help his confidence and he relaxes and plays his game. Lots of pressure being the #1 overall pick in the draft to say the least.
2. Jeff Teague (Hawks): For the Raptors to win Wednesday, they have to control this guy at the point of attack. He's terrific at getting into the lane and outplayed Kyle Lowry in their first meeting back in early November. He's had a nice season at 15.7ppg and 7.3 apg. Lightning quick and he changes speeds really well. Gets into the lane almost at will. His penetration and ball-hawking skills defensively will be factors to watch.
3. Nick Calathes (Grizzlies): Awesome job filling in at the point guard spot vs. the Wizards Tuesday night with 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Not a bad performance at all. Loved how he played with great poise at the end of the game vs. John Wall and concentrated on getting his team organized in their half-court offence and getting the ball to their two bigs and playing the power game. He really impressed me with his command of the game plan. Nice pick for them.
4. Joakim Noah (Bulls): Fabulous game Tuesday night vs. the Hawks. Watched the game and was blown way by the energy he had and the impact he had on the game. Posted a triple-double with 19 points, 16 boards and 11 assists. He competes at the top of the list for players in the NBA; not many that play harder in the entire league. A winner. With the Raptors currently (big game Wednesday vs. Hawks) in the third seed right now in the East with the Bulls, Hawks and Wizards occupying the 3-6 range of the East, the team I fear the most for a first round matchup for the Raptors is the Bulls. In spite of Derrick Rose being out and Luol Deng being traded, this team has what it takes to win in the playoffs and grind the game to a screeching halt and make you play ugly. For a young Raptors team in their first playoff series, this would be a matchup I'd prefer they avoid. I know the Raptors have beaten them two of the first three games they've played this year (they play again on next Wednesday in Toronto, coming off a back-to-back with Washington) but just ask last year's Nets if you want to deal with the Bulls in the playoffs. Led by Noah, this club gets after you at a level in the playoffs that takes some getting used to.
5. Amir Johnson (Raptors): One of my all-time favorite Raptors. Not sure if he'll play vs. the Hawks Wednesday but he's always been a gamer and wonderful competitor. The All-Star Break couldn't come at a better time for him than now. He needs the break to heal his injuries and fatigued body. He gives it his all for you and I respect that. I think he'd be the first to tell you that he needs to play better and with more consistency down the stretch for the Raptors to be Atlantic Division champs and to also secure the third seed. If you watch the Raptors enough, it's pretty obvious that when Johnson and Terrence Ross are going good and compliment Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas and the bench, this team can play with anyone in the league. The night in and night out high level performance of Johnson and Ross, in my eyes, is the key to this team making a run here down the stretch. Consistency needed.