By HOWARD BECK
Published: November 28, 2009
It is late November, and the season-preview magazines are a little frayed, their predictions coated in dust. The best N.B.A. guide now might be the TV guide.
Consider the prime-time choices over the holiday weekend:
On Thanksgiving night, the Atlanta Hawks played a nationally televised game against the Orlando Magic. For a rising team like the Hawks, there could be no greater sign of their ascendance than a TNT game against the defending Eastern Conference champion, played on a major holiday.
The Friday night ESPN schedule was even more revealing, with the N.B.A.’s most electric rookie (the Milwaukee Bucks’ Brandon Jennings) facing one of the league’s most compelling young teams (the Oklahoma City Thunder).
In a season that has followed a mostly predictable script, the networks’ choices highlighted the few surprises thus far.
The Hawks were viewed as a second-tier team. Then they won 11 of their first 14 games, knocked over the Boston Celtics, the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers and forced their way to the top of every Web site’s power rankings. By last week, pundits had expanded the East’s Big Three to a Big Four, putting Atlanta alongside Boston, Orlando and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Nothing was more telling than ESPN’s decision to bump another game from the Friday night airwaves in order to televise the Bucks and Thunder. Credit Jennings, who is forcing television executives and opponents alike to make quick adjustments.
Two weeks ago, Jennings scored 55 points against the Golden State Warriors — the most by a rookie since 1968, when Earl Monroe had 56. Entering Friday’s game, Jennings was averaging 23.4 points, 5.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds, making him the leader for rookie of the year, and perhaps a starting spot in the All-Star Game.
No one saw this coming, including Jennings, who has acknowledged being surprised by his success. The Bucks drafted Jennings with the 10th pick in June, after eight other teams — including Minnesota, which had two picks — passed on him.
Scouts and executives had viewed Jennings, who bypassed college to play a year in Italy, as too small (6 feet 1 inch, 169 pounds), too raw and too immature. With a tantalizing combination of quickness, skill and swagger, Jennings is now being compared, favorably, with a young Allen Iverson. If the draft were held again today, he would not last past the third pick.
Because of Jennings, Milwaukee is relevant again for the first time in eight years. Every season preview had the Bucks — who dumped three starters because of financial concerns — finishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Thanks to Jennings’s blinding start, they won 8 of their first 11 games.
Growing pains are starting to become evident, however.
Jennings often looked lost in Friday’s loss to the Thunder, finishing with 12 points, 3 assists and 3 turnovers in 30 minutes. He missed 8 of 11 field-goal attempts, including a handful of driving layups. He was replaced by the journeyman Luke Ridnour just five minutes into the game and split time with him the rest of the way. Over his last three games — all defeats — Jennings has gone 13 for 47 (.277) from the field. That rookie of the year campaign may yet become a three-man race, with the Sacramento Kings’ Tyreke Evans and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin, once he is healthy.
If Jennings forced casual fans to tune in Friday, Kevin Durant kept their attention. Durant put on a show with 33 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists, showing why Oklahoma City was everyone’s favorite sleeper pick in the Western Conference. Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook are fast becoming one of the best young trios in the league. The Thunder, which has been methodically rebuilding, suddenly looks ahead of schedule, with a 9-7 record after Friday’s game, and victories over Orlando, the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs.
The prime-time spotlight was not kind to the Hawks, however. They alternately looked like finals contenders and frauds, depending on when you tuned in Thursday night.
In the first half, the Hawks looked crisp, selfless and tough. They moved the ball on offense and were active on defense, containing Dwight Howard and the Magic’s shooters. They led by 14 points early in the third quarter. Then the ball stopped moving, the offense devolved into one-on-one play and the defense sagged. They lost by 17 points, raising the possibility that the Big Four discussion was premature.
If anything, the first four weeks of the season have mostly been a tribute to predictability. Boston, Orlando and Cleveland are still the undisputed kings of the East, despite the temporary incursion by Atlanta.
While the Hawks have been a little better than expected, the Nets and the Knicks have been even more pathetic than expected, with a combined record of 3-29. The Nets (0-16) are now one loss shy of the N.B.A. record for the most losses to start a season and are almost certain to get it Sunday, when they play the Lakers in Los Angeles.
In the West, there are mild curiosities, such as the San Antonio Spurs starting slowly at 8-6 and the Houston Rockets going an impressive 8-8 without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. But only one team is smashing conventional wisdom: the resurgent Phoenix Suns, who won 13 of their first 16 games and had, as of Friday night, the best record in the league.
One year after the front office shoved out Coach Mike D’Antoni and reshuffled the roster, the Suns have reclaimed their run-and-gun glory under Coach Alvin Gentry. They are averaging a league-best 111.9 points, giving up 105.2 and again looking like the N.B.A.’s most dynamic team.
After several playoff disappointments, Phoenix fans had begun to take the Suns’ success for granted. In a messy transition year, they missed the playoffs entirely. Now that the Suns are back to their speedball glory, it is the networks that are taking them for granted. On Friday, the Suns were bumped from ESPN in favor of Jennings and Durant.
you guys want to add
I really liked this piece. Jennings will get a lot of hype but he makes his teammates so much better, something nobody is talking about right now.
I feel bad for downplaying Jennings b4 the season, I apologize to y'all
he gots his growing pains but he can be is already in MVP discussions. :P
Its now no secret that the media was hating on him bcuz he didnt go to college
but I never seen him play so I shouldnt have fed into it
he has great pick and roll ability, which is new 4 young PGs
he'll take his lumps but Jennings has made Milwaukee relevant again,
now they need a good wing player
i feel like jennings had slumped ever since redd came back.. why would this happen?
is he taking shots away from him?
Jennings is still averaging the same amount of shots he was when Redd was hurt, he just isn’t making near as many of them, which is kind of expected once the other teams adjust to you being more than just a rookie and they see you as their main defensive assignment.