NBA viewing guide, Week 11: The cruelest stretch

Nick Laham

An Atlantic Division showdown and a game between the best fast-break team in the league and the worst at defending it highlight this week's NBA games to watch.

January is the cruelest month in the NBA calendar. The holidays have passed, it's cold and everyone is sick, grouchy and irritable. You can see winter's effect spread throughout the league as petty jealousies and slights become harder to deflect with the knowledge that the season hasn't hid the midway point and the All-Star break is still over a month away.

It's depressing just thinking about it, but that may be the cold medicine talking. Nevertheless, here's what we'll be watching:

MONDAY: Boston at New York, 7:30 p.m.

Remember when the Knicks lost to the Nets back in late November and Jay-Z said the city was under new management? That's OK, I can barely remember it either. The Knicks won nine out of 10 after that and have basically lived a carefree existence on top of the Atlantic Division ever since, while the Celtics decided to do their annual sleepwalk early this season.

Two games is not enough to make formal declarations, but in their wins over Indiana and Atlanta, the Celtics looked like the Celtics again. That is to say they looked mean, angry and focused. After playing the Knicks, they have five straight at the Garden and 12 of their next 16 at home. If they're going to make a run, it will probably be now.

Somewhere in the back of the mind of self-aware Knicks fans is an image of Paul Pierce lining up a 25-footer in the final seconds and then bowing at center court after it inevitably goes through the basket. No one trolls harder than Pierce and there's no team he likes to troll more than the Knicks, especially at Madison Square Garden. It's like he has a second home under the tracks of the A-train. Be wary, New York.

TUESDAY: Lakers at Houston, 8 p.m.

At 97 possessions per game, Houston is playing faster than everyone by more than two possessions per contest. Some teams start fast and inevitably slow down, but the Rockets are actually speeding up, getting over 101 possessions in games in December. Their offensive efficiency has shot up along with the faster pace and so have the wins. Houston has won 11 of its last 14.

All that is very clinical and dry, which should not detract from the fact that it is the most fun team in the league and a compulsive League Pass watch every time it plays.

The Lakers are like that, but the opposite. We watch the Lakers to see how they're going to spectacularly implode this time. Whether its Kobe Bryant taking a gazillion contested shots while Steve Nash -- STEVE NASH! -- idles in the corner like Chris Duhon, or Dwight Howard blocking shots right to Danilo Gallinari, this Lakers season has been like watching Sideshow Bob step on a rake over and over again.

WEDNESDAY: Minnesota at Oklahoma City, 8 p.m.

This Lazar Hayward sees dead people story didn't get nearly enough attention, and now that the Wolves have waived him again, I fear that it's in danger of disappearing like so many apparitions. For the record, Hayward told Wolves beat writers the following:

"I've always just had a lot of questions spiritually because I always kind of seen stuff when I was a kid and I used to tell friends and they'd look at me and say, 'Lazar, you might need some help.' So they used to make fun of me. I just had a lot of questions because I've always just wondered."

It's too bad Hayward wasn't around earlier. Maybe his medium could have told Kevin Love not to do knuckle pushups.

THURSDAY: Miami at Portland, 10:30 p.m.

At the risk of slipping into hack sportswriter-ese, Damian Lillard has IT -- that indefinable quality that separates good players from potentially great. We can quantify IT better these days, but at the risk of offending all my Sloan Conference brethren, we can still see IT and sense IT better than we can sort it on a spreadsheet.

In the last five minutes of games with his team either ahead or behind by five points, Lillard is a +54 while shooting 50 percent from three-point range, and the Blazers are 13-4, per NBA.com's stats tool. Conversely, he's made just two of eight attempts with the game truly on the line -- ahead or behind by three points or less with 30 seconds left -- but both are such small sample sizes that it's dangerous to make assumptions about either moments.

It's not only the ability to score or the stones to take the last shot. It's the vision and feel to do the right things when the game is on the line and the pressure becomes highest. It's a make/miss league, as some are fond of saying, but what's important is that the rookie point guard is in control of the situation. That's what Lillard has from the first minute to the 48th, and that's one of the main reasons why the Blazers -- a team with no bench and one other legit halfcourt scoring option -- are still in the playoff chase.

FRIDAY: San Antonio at Memphis, 8 p.m.

Left over from my conversation with Tony Allen last week is this gem of a quote:

"The rabbit's out of the hat about the Memphis Grizzlies," he said. "We're starting to get everybody's A Game and that's what we need. In order for us to be talked about as one of the contenders we have to come in and compete and get these wins. That's what it's all about, man."

You don't have to tell the Spurs about the Grizz, but it's also worth asking if Memphis is anywhere near as good as the team that started the season 14-3. The Grizzlies have gone 7-7 since then, and the question is whether they can score enough points to match their TA-led D.

So, here we are talking about trading Rudy Gay again. He's apparently available and the options are numerous, but are any of them the right play for Memphis? This is the first big call for the new management group that includes a new owner and front office. There are luxury-tax and roster concerns in play, but dealing Gay wouldn't be a cost-cutting move as much as a chance to significantly tweak a very good team with the hopes of making it better.

SATURDAY: Utah at Detroit, 7:30 p.m.

The Pistons have won six out of eight, and their two losses were both in overtime. Did we mention Andre Dummond has a 21.6 PER? Get familiar.

SUNDAY: Golden State at Denver, 9 p.m.

Some people think about the 80s and think Bird and Magic. I think about the greatest decade and see Alex English and Purvis Short going back and forth. I'll settle for Gallo and Steph Curry though.

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