Thursday’s four games each delivered more intensity and competition than Christmas Day’s duds, beginning with the Hawks’ gasp-inducing victory in double-overtime against the Cavaliers. Jeff Teague delivered the winning basket—a 20-foot jumper which danced around the rim five times before finally dropping through as the buzzer sounded—and the victory was even more stirring since Atlanta lost two starters to injury during the game. Starting SF DeMarre Carroll left with a sprained right thumb in the fourth quarter, which was bad enough, and Al Horford exited with a right shoulder injury in overtime.
Horford finished with 25 points, eight boards, four assists and two blocks, but the health of his shoulder is the only thing fantasy owners will care about. Initial reports were very vague and it sounds like we’ll have to wait until Friday afternoon before the team releases any details. An MRI is all but inevitable and it we can only hope that Horford didn’t tear a muscle as he did in January 2012, when a torn pectoral knocked him out for four months.
As for DeMarre Carroll, he was in serious pain and although the initial diagnosis is a ‘sprain’, it will again require an MRI before we can rule out a tear or other serious damage. If Horford and/or Carroll miss games, which isn’t guaranteed, coach Mike Budenholzer will have to get creative with some matchup-based lineups, while relying more on a deep bench that includes Mike Scott, Gustavo Ayon, Pero Antic, Elton Brand and Cartier Martin. Fantasy owners should also keep an eye on reserve guard Shelvin Mack (see below).
Those injuries marred what was otherwise a brilliant road victory for the Hawks, whose 16-13 record has them entrenched as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. They join the Pacers and Heat as the only teams in the East with records above .500.
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Patient fantasy owners are finally reaping the benefits of Jeff Teague’s position as the starting PG on a team that leads the NBA with 25.7 assists per game. It was only a matter of time. He racked up a season-high 34 points with 14 assists, three steals and six turnovers vs. the Cavaliers, and over the past five games he’s had phenomenal averages of 20.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 11.0 assists and 1.4 steals. His 41.1 percent shooting through 28 games was his lowest mark since he was a rookie in 2009-10, and tonight’s game should be the beginning of a slow correction toward last year’s 45.1 percent. The assists, as mentioned above, are a given in Mike Budenholzer’s offensive system which prizes ball movement and spacing above all else.
Fantasy stalwart Paul Millsap filled up the boxscore yet again with 20 points, 11 boards, three assists, two steals, two blocks and two more 3-pointers on just four attempts from beyond the arc. Yahtzee. Kyle Korver also had 20/6/5 with four 3-pointers in 44 minutes, but we expect Millsap and Korver to go off in high-scoring double-OT games.
What might not be expected, and may go unappreciated, is Shelvin Mack’s steady leadership of the second unit. He played 36 minutes to finish with 10 points, one 3-pointer, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and zero turnovers, and he didn’t leave the court during the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter and both overtimes. His ability to succeed alongside Jeff Teague is crucial, though it may be partially a product of the Cavaliers’ own willingness to play three-guard lineups with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack/Matthew Dellavedova. As promising as Mack’s performance was tonight, he should be avoided unless the Hawks announce some bad injury updates on Friday…and even then he’s not a lock for value unless Budenholzer leans toward small lineups.
The Cavaliers third straight defeat came in heart-breaking fashion, squandering Kyrie Irving’s dazzling 40-point performance (17-of-33 shooting with three 3s, nine dimes and four steals). Irving’s slow start to the season is receding from memory with each game, and he’s raised his scoring average to 24.5 points per game in December. Dion Waiters said that he’s still bothered by his wrist tendinitis, but he led Cleveland’s reserves with 20 points on unusually efficient 9-of-14 shooting, in addition to four rebounds. I say unusually efficient because Waiters’ 43.1 percent shooting this year represents a new career-high. His bugaboo assist-to-turnover ratio was also evident again, as he coughed up five turnovers while finding his teammates for just two made baskets.
Andrew Bynum, coming off an atrocious 0-of-11 shooting performance, staggered his way to just four points, one rebound and one block in 18 minutes. It’s hard to envision his plodding, half-court game fitting in with Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson (22 points, two blocks) and the Cavs’ personnel, regardless of how badly Mike Brown wants Bynum to be the anchor on a defense-first team. That’s actually amusing to write after last night’s loss, in which the Cavs yielded 127 points.
The flipside of Bynum’s struggles was that bouncy big man Anderson Varejao thrived in extended playing time off the bench – he scored eight points, grabbed a game-high 17 rebounds (five offensive), and chipped in three assists, one steal and three blocks in 35 minutes. There hasn’t been as much trade chatter surrounding Varejao as I anticipated this season, though that will certainly change if he stays healthy once the trade deadline begins creeping into view. Presumably any team willing to trade for AV would play him at least the 28 minutes he’s currently averaging off Cleveland’s bench, so I’d view a trade as a break-even prospect at worst.
The other ‘big news’ for the Cavaliers was Mike Brown’s decision to bench Alonzo Gee in favor of Earl Clark at SF. This arrangement didn’t work when the Cavs started the season, and Clark’s three points and five boards in 18 minutes on Thursday don’t give me any reason to think it’ll be more effective this time around. Alonzo Gee and Sergey Karasev both wound with DNP-CDs, Anthony Bennett was scoreless in five minutes, and it’s safe to say that the Cavs’ SF position is a black hole for fantasy value.
We now shift our attention to Houston, where the Rockets used a decisive 34-20 advantage in the fourth quarter to beat the Grizzlies for their third consecutive win. After a recent three-game period in which Tony Allen averaged 17.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.7 steals, the Grizzlies’ veteran has stalled out. He scored six points on Monday and finished Thursday’s loss with eight points and zero rebounds, assists or steals, as major foul trouble limited him to 21 minutes. On average he’s a middle- to late-round value, and anyone who owns him should be targeting his 2.0 steals per game.
Zach Randolph predictably led all Memphis starters with 23 points and 17 rebounds. Just as predictably, Tayshaun Prince’s return from a sore left knee was an event worthy of indifference. He immediately resumed starting at SF and coach Dave Joerger doesn’t seem inclined to tamper with his role, as he’s enamored with Prince’s veteran poise and experience, but that doesn’t mean much for fantasy purposes. Prince finished with nine points and four assists in 25 minutes. The really intriguing variable at SF is newcomer James Johnson, who followed up Monday’s solid game with another understated gem in 28 bench minutes – 12 points, one 3-pointer, five rebounds, three steals and one block.
I’ve highlighted Johnson’s per-minute steals and blocks as a reason to watch him closely in fantasy leagues, or even stash him if you need defensive stats, and he’s proving the point on a nightly basis. After averaging 1.9 steals and 3.4 blocks in the D-League before his call-up, he’s notching 2.0 steals and 1.7 blocks in the past three games. If his playing time off the bench on Thursday is any indication, there’s plenty more where that came from.
On the flipside we have Jon Leuer, whose streak of excellent games sans Marc Gasol has quickly stalled out. He scored just two points vs. the Knicks last Saturday, bounced back with 11 points on Monday, and was limited to six points with zero rebounds in 12 minutes last night. With his playing time dwindling and Gasol potentially returning in just 1-2 weeks, Leuer can be cut for any free agent with a more promising near- or long-term outlook. He was found money for fantasy owners, and it was fun spending while it lasted.
A series of quick whistles held Dwight Howard in check vs. the Grizzlies, as he picked up his fifth foul with eight minutes left in the third quarter and gave way to Donatas Motiejunas (four points, three boards, three blocks). Of greater concern is Dwight’s back, which stiffened up on him and led Kevin McHale to bench him in the fourth quarter. The injury doesn’t seem serious but owners should check for updates leading up to Saturday’s game vs. the Pelicans. Howard has been unstoppable all month and a quick recitation of his splits from December should suffice to buoy his fantasy owners’ spirits – 21.3 points (61.7 percent FGs and a relatively stellar 60.2 percent FTs), 15.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. If you ignore FT percentage, as well as his 3.3 turnovers per game this season, Dwight has been a top-10 fantasy option.