TSN's Jack Armstrong offers his thoughts on the Spurs being back in the mix, the bench strength of the Raptors, the Pacers and Heat not being ready for prime time, the compete level of Kemba Walker and the Warriors' coaching situation.
1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS: Have won 15 straight games and suddenly here they are again in the mix regarding the discussion of what teams can be in the Finals in June. Don't beat you ever with flash but man, oh man lots of substance when you talk about this team. Wednesday night against Denver, they had five players in double figures and had 30 assists on 43 field goals. That's quite impressive. The commitment to the team and playing the game together is a principle that has served them well over the years and will make them a tough out in the playoffs. The sum is more important than the parts.
2. RAPTORS BENCH: It's pretty evident that in spite of the Raps being 6-5 in the absence of Patrick Patterson, they miss his presence big-time in a variety of ways. He's a wonderful perimeter defender on screen and roll sequences, gets after it on the glass, defends in the post and can give you both scoring inside/out as well as intelligent team play on offence. He and Greivis Vasquez are the two major contributors off the bench and when you look at the Boston game Wednesday night with less than 10 points coming off the bench, it's an area of concern to say the least as you prepare for the playoffs. Patterson's absence has clearly affected the defence as well with teams putting the Raptors in screen and roll scenarios and the nightly battles on the boards without one of your sturdier post guys. John Salmons has struggled of late and is a solid veteran player. When he's going good, this team has another gear. Getting Patterson back and healthy and an on-track Salmons will go a long way towards getting this team ready for the playoffs. Digging themselves early holes that they have to battle back from are an issue that has to be corrected along with tightening the screws again with the defence. They do that and I'm confident that they can compete quite well in a first round series.
3. PACERS VS. HEAT: Watched the game Wednesday night and I must say I was underwhelmed with the quality of play. Yes, it had great playoff intensity but it appeared to me that both of these teams have needed a game like this for a while to get that 'next gear' back in their playing style. Both looked like they need to work out some kinks in the final weeks with offensive flow/execution to be ready to roll in mid/late April. A long season combined with injuries, etc. have a way of messing up your chemistry and neither looked as fluid as when they're at their best. The Raptors see both of them next week with the Houston Rockets sandwiched in between (what a week!) which will be a good test of their playoff readiness as the Heat have been able to knock off the Raptors this season three times while the Pacers are 2-1 and the Rockets won their game in Houston vs the Raps. The good teams start to take that next step here in the final 10 games to get everything humming and in sync. Always fun to watch as teams gear up for the second season.
4. KEMBA WALKER (Bobcats): Al Jefferson (35 and 15) was awesome in the overtime win vs. the Nets Wednesday night. Coach Steve Clifford has done a terrific job with that team. It's about time the folks in Charlotte get behind their team and support them for a change; this is a team you can root for. Love Kemba - what a gamer, scoring 20 points and five rebounds along with 12 assists. There are certain guys that you just throw out the stats some night because they just play so hard and have amazing pride and competitive spirit and do whatever it takes to win. From his days at UConn to now, he personifies what it means to give it his all. He's been in a tough situation there with a poor roster, shaky coaching and questionable management decisions and I'm happy for him that some of the proper decisions have been made around him and things are coming together. This team has become fun to watch and Walker is the heart and soul of that.
5. BRIAN SCALABRINE (Warriors): Assistant coach gets demoted to the D-League by head coach Mark Jackson. This is right out of the book of Jason Kidd/Lawrence Frank differences that took place early in the season. Jackson was adamantly supportive of Kidd's move in the fall with Frank and now he does the same thing. I've been both an sssistant coach and a head coach and I always felt that loyalty to the boss was #1 and if you disagree, you do it behind closed doors and it never gets picked up by the players, media, etc. At the same time, it's vital that the assistant coaches can't be 'Yes Men' that have to supress their opinion as opposed to express their opinion. Healthy dialogue is important yet at the end of the day, the head coach makes the call and we all march together in unison. (He's also got to be open to suggestions and not have all the answers.) Jason Kidd got past this controversy and has done a good job with the Nets and it will be significant for Jackson to get past this as well by the performance of the team. Expectations are high in the Bay Area and results will be needed. Never an easy situation for any coach to be in and I can relate to the feeling of both. Jackson has a healthy ego and high opinion of his coaching acumen which is good to a degree, yet it's time to get this team to the next level and the playoffs will be a major stage for him and his team to show that they can do it. He's got major potential to be an outstanding coach in this league for a long time and this is another of the many tests young coaches go through in their development. You're paid to make the tough calls and many times you have to be ruthless in this results-oriented business because at the end of the day, it all falls back on you and your record. Jackson is nobody's fool and is as competitive as they come. It's his show - plain and simple. Never easy or fair. In one word, you have to produce.