Dixon Leading Blazers' Surge
Tuesday, January 17, 2006; 3:45 PM
Look back, look ahead:
Team of the Week
Portland Trail Blazers
The wins have been hard to come by in Portland, so when a team gets almost a quarter of its wins this season in one week, it's cause for celebration. The Blazers improved to 13-24 after winning three in a row against the Lakers, Magic and Cavaliers. Beating the shorthanded Magic is not incredible feat, but Portland was able to withstand a 45-point barrage from Kobe Bryant in a 113-103 win and a 29-point onslaught from LeBron James in an 89-87 victory. Much of the success can be attributed to the play of former Washington Wizards guard Juan Dixon, who scored 52 points on 20 of 29 shooting (69 percent) in wins against the Lakers and Magic. Dixon had a near flawless outing against the Magic, shooting 10 of 13 from the field and buried two game-clinching jumpers in the finale minute.
"I live for those moments," Dixon told the Portland Oregonian. "I have confidence that I will make those shots, and I have confidence from the coach. He has my back by making calls for me down the stretch." Since he took over the starting shooting guard role Dec. 18 against Washington, Dixon has averaged 17.4 points, 3.9 assists and 2.9 rebounds and has shot 47.4 percent from the field in 15 games. "He has become one of the guys we look to give the ball to if the game is close," Blazers Coach Nate McMillan told the paper. "He has been the guy who is able to finish, make that big bucket down the stretch." Dixon has been aided during the run by his former Maryland teammate Steve Blake, who has started the past 16 games at point guard for the Blazers. Blake has held on despite the return of Sebastian Telfair, Portland's top pick in 2004. Against the Magic, Blake hit four of five three pointers and finished with 17 points, six assists and one turnover.
Team of the Weak
Has anyone noticed that former Wizard Juwan Howard has averaged 23.5 points and 10.8 rebounds in the past four games? Does anyone care? Didn't think so. Houston has been rocketing to the cellar ever since Tracy McGrady went down with a sore back during a loss against Denver. Howard has since returned from his one-game suspension for shoving the basketball in the face of Toronto's Mike James and played like he did before Abe Pollin awarded him with a $100 million contract -- but that hasn't translated into any wins for the Rockets. The Rockets have lost the past six games, including the past four without McGrady. They are 0-12 without McGrady this season. At least Utah has won two of the 10 games they didn't have Andre Kirilenko. Of course, the Rockets have also been without Yao Ming the past 13 games. They are 2-11 without Yao, but the low point may have been getting completely outplayed against the Hawks in a 94-83 loss on Monday, adding more wrinkles and bags to the eternally miserable Jeff Van Gundy. The losses are growing tiresome, but so has the Rockets' inability to score points. Houston is 0-14 when it fails to score at least 90 points this season.
Player of the Week
Shaquille O'Neal, Miami Heat
For finally burying the hatchet with Kobe Bryant. Shaquille O'Neal was understandably hurt after the Lakers dismissed him only two seasons after he led the franchise to its third consecutive championship. Believing Bryant had forced him out of town, he had done everything he could to belittle his former sidekick, refusing to mention his name in interviews. He moved a step closer to reconciliation before the Christmas Day matchup when he refused to insult Bryant but he completely embarrassed him by refusing to acknowledge him before the game. But on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, following a conversation with the legendary Bill Russell, O'Neal finally decided to put aside his differences with Bryant, shaking his hand and hugging twice before the opening tip-off and congratulating Bryant on the news that he and his wife were expecting their second daughter. They don't have to be best friends and they don't have to necessarily like each other, but at least they were able to put aside their petty differences and end the childish shenanigans. This move was long overdue, especially since it's been almost 18 months since they have gone their separate ways and O'Neal and Bryant, respectively, have better objectives than feuding with each other: O'Neal looking to get back to the NBA Finals and Bryant looking to get back to the playoffs.
Player of the Weak
Steve Francis, Orlando Magic
Steve Francis, a three-time all-star, is displeased with his reduced role in Orlando but he chose the wrong way to stage a protest last week when he refused to go into a game late against the Seattle SuperSonics and was suspended a day later for conduct detrimental to the team. Francis wants to be treated like a superstar but hasn't figured out that respect works both ways. It may not have been the best decision for Coach Brian Hill to put Francis back into a blowout loss, but there is no justification for undermining the coach and refusing to be a professional -- especially when the Magic were already shorthanded without Grant Hill and Keyon Dooling, who was kicked out of the game for sparring with Seattle's Ray Allen. Francis has been fuming ever since Hill benched him in favor of Jameer Nelson for the entire fourth quarter of a home game against Minnesota on Dec. 30. So how did he responded? He pouted, sulked and moped to the inconvenience of the Magic. In the next six games, Francis averaged 11.5 points, took an average of 9.3 shots and scored in double figures just once. He played 27 minutes -- his low this season -- against the SuperSonics and scored just 10 points with six turnovers. This is the second straight year Francis misbehaved in the Pacific Northwest. A year ago, Francis got frustrated and kicked a photographer, earning a three-game suspension. Next time Francis returns to Seattle, he might consider avoiding the loss in salary and just staying in his hotel room.
1. Detroit Pistons (30-5)
Okay, the Pistons know they can beat the Spurs. They've done so twice by an average of 15 points. The reason Detroit is so good? The Pistons don't need one or two guys to carry the load for the entire season. In the first two months, Chauncey Billups was putting up league MVP numbers, but of late, Rasheed Wallace has emerged as MVP of the team, highlighted by his 27-point, 12-rebound showing in San Antonio.