|Don't Look, Just Heave|
A 7-game winning streak in the NBA is, in and of itself, not all that notable. A fair number of teams will run into that kind of hawtness over the course of a year, especially if they have scheduling luck and a steady diet of Eastern conference opponents. And that winning streak involves triumphs over DOA teams like the Knicks, LeBron-less Cavs, Orlando and Sacramento on the road. Only the last two wins, both of them on the road in Texas against the Spurs and Mavs, come off as truly meaningful, and point to the club making the playoffs in the always forgiving East. (As I write this, despite that astoundingly bad start, they are just three games out of the eight spot, though there are three teams between them and the Heat.)
Is it for real? Well, this club shouldn't have been as bad as they were at the start of the year. Between Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, they can hurt you down low, head coach Stan van Gundy knows how to coach up slugs, the return of shooting guard Jodie Meeks from injury gives them a guy who has helped a lot, and PG Brandon Jennings may actually be Getting It; combine him with DJ Augustin, and you see why I picked this club to take the 8 slot in pre-season. But it truly took the purge of Smith, a bad player by the numbers whose obvious million-dollar body and five-cent head had to be a nightmare to coach, and a terrible role model to the young'uns.
Will it continue? Well, they've got the startlingly good Hawks on the road on Friday, and if the winning streak survives that, I'd be a little surprised. The next night is Brooklyn at home, with both teams having played the night before... but the Nets are coming off the de facto bye that is the Sixers, and also have been a little hot on their own recently, with Brook Lopez and Deron Williams coming back from injury and making the bench deadly. Monday is a road game in Toronto, the other surprise team in the East this year, so there's a really good chance that they'll end their winning streak with a losing one. The week after, with home dates against the Pelicans and Sixers sandwiching a bus ride to Indiana, is a little more forgiving, but the club probably needs to win 30 of their last 49 to get in to the post-season, and the math doesn't get better if it is, say, 27 of 43. But it's a chance at meaningful ball after a horrific start, which is really all that any club could ask for. (If they had been in the West, they'd still be nine games out of the 8 slot. Wow.)
Sometimes, it really just does take getting rid of the guy that the numbers say you should get rid of. If, for no other reason, than that it gives your coach some teeth, and in the NBA, regular minutes and touches matter.