It looks like some N.B.A. teams got an early start on their New Year’s resolutions.
The Washington Wizards — who less than a month ago looked like one of the worst teams in the league — ended 2016 on a tear. They have won nine of their last 13 games and vaulted into sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
While the Wizards rose, lesser climbs were taking place in the West, where the New Orleans Pelicans have won five of their last seven (including victories over the Knicks and the Clippers) and the Sacramento Kings have won four of their last six to leap into eighth place.
None of these teams seem bound for the later rounds of the playoffs. (The Utah Jazz, who won seven of their last 10 December games, are an exception.) But with just over a month until the All-Star break, these late-December turning points could end up redefining their seasons: The top eight teams in both conferences on Dec. 31, 2015, composed the entire postseason field last season.
If that happens this season, the Wizards and the Kings will have changed their fortunes through their recent play. Maybe by the end of 2017, they will find themselves featuring heavily in a highlight reel like this one:
Let’s get into some games.
Have a question or a suggestion for this column? Send an email to NBAweek@nytimes.com, or bother me on Twitter: @Jonesieman.
Game of the Week
Oklahoma City at Houston, Thursday, 8 p.m., TNT
The N.B.A. starts slowly this week, as the league recovers from its biting New Year’s Eve hangover. (Too much of Michael’s Secret Stuff, I guess.)
But by Thursday evening, it should be back in fighting shape, as Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder visit James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
At one point in the season, the two teams appeared to be mirror images of each other. Oklahoma City lives and dies by Westbrook’s performances, and he has been putting up some of the most impressive stats in N.B.A. history, averaging more than 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists a game. His 16 triple-doubles have him on track to pass Larry Bird as one of the five most prolific triple-doublers in league history, joining the illustrious company of Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd and Wilt Chamberlain.
Harden is also having an extraordinary season: His eight triple-doubles are second to Westbrook’s, and as of Sunday, he actually had more double-doubles than Westbrook. But it is not as if the Rockets are superior to the Thunder simply because Harden is subtly winning the superstar matchup. Houston has more talent.
Clint Capela, the Rockets’ 6-foot-10 third-year center, has steadily become more reliable. He is averaging close to 12 points and eight rebounds, and his scoring has made it more difficult for teams to leave the paint and close out on the Rockets’ 3-point shooters.
Houston scores a greater percentage of its points from the 3-point line than any other team, which Capela helps make possible. But to be a great 3-point team, great shooters are also necessary. In his first season in Houston, guard Eric Gordon has proven crucial. Averaging more than 17 points a game, he is taking more 3s than he ever has, and his new team is benefiting.
The Thunder are a significantly better defensive team than the Rockets. But Westbrook carries too much of the load on offense to make Oklahoma City a contender. He has been productive enough to keep the Thunder afloat, and there is nothing that suggests he will not be able to drive them into the playoffs.
But once there, Oklahoma City will meet teams like Houston, whose skill across the court should spell doom for any one-man band, no matter how talented that man is.
Two Others to Watch
Knicks at Milwaukee, Friday, 8 p.m.
The Knicks are barely hanging on. After looking great through the first half of December, they are in 10th place in the East after having lost eightof their last 10. After missing the postseason last year, Milwaukee is in sixth place and looks poised to return in 2017.
Utah at Memphis, Sunday, 8 p.m., NBATV
The Jazz are no joke. Their offense is rated in the top 10, and their defense in the top two, per NBA.com. Gordon Hayward is a legitimate all-star, George Hill is having the season of his career and Rudy Gobert is one of the most entertaining players in the N.B.A. Memphis is able to beat any team on any night, but Utah will pose quite a challenge.
How have the Wizards improved so fast?
Let’s start with their best player. John Wall, Washington’s All-Star point guard, has gone into overdrive. In December, he averaged 24.5 points per game to go along with 10.7 assists and 2.7 steals, according to ESPN.
Wall, the team’s leading assist man, is the key to the success of the other Wizards. His leap from nine assists a game to 10.7 coincides with a teamwide boost, from 20.9 a game in November to 24.2 in December, per NBA.com. And because Washington is passing better, it is having a far easier time scoring: The Wizards averaged almost 6 more points a game in December than in the previous month.
Wall’s leadership has coincided with improvements across the board for Otto Porter Jr., now in his fourth season, as well as the new acquisition Trey Burke, whose contributions had been quiet until he broke out for 27 points against the Nets on Friday. (Burke could become an important asset for Washington, which desperately needs some scoring off the bench.)
Given their improvements, you would think that the Wizards would have been involved in one of the games of the week. But Washington is rarely on national television, something that irks Wall to no end.
“If you don’t have League Pass or NBA TV, you don’t see the Wizards,” he told Candace Buckner of The Washington Post last week.
That has been true. But if he keeps leading his team as he has been, N.B.A. fans are going to have no choice but to see Wall and company when they make it to the postseason.
That is all for now. See you all next week.
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