Now that we’ve undoubtedly relinquished our New Year’s resolutions to the pain of reality, we can return to the one constant in this twisted life: J.R. Smith is a raging lunatic. The NBA’s most notorious night owl has been benched, and the Knicks have subsequently begun winning with much more frequency than we saw in the 2013 portion of this season. Elsewhere, the maniacal genius Rajon Rondo has hinted at a possible return to the court on Friday night, and the Eastern Conference has a fourth viable team that is playing over .500 basketball – an excellent defensive squad in the Atlantic Division, of all places, which is where we turn our attention this week.
1. RONDORONDORONDORONDORONDO…maybe: On Monday night, the NBA’s reigning leader in assists sent out an astoundingly cryptic tweet with hints of Broadway:
The conspiracy theorists immediately went to work. 29,233,380 seconds would represent, almost exactly, the time between Rondo’s knee surgery on February 13 and the coming Friday. While Celtics coach Brad Stevens has said that the team is going to run Rondo through a series of physical exercises, neither he nor Rondo would say for certain if the point guard would be able to play on Friday. The NBA’s self-proclaimed best roller skater has been adamant that he would return prior to the All-Star break, and it would come as no surprise to anyone who knows of his almost Mamba-like competitiveness if he did return ahead of schedule.
2. J.R. Smith could be a second-tier quasi-Ewing Theory player: Courtesy of a series of bizarre incidents, most notably his untying of Shawn Marion’s shoelace at the free throw line in a game against the Mavericks and a subsequent $50,000 league fine, J.R. Smith has lost his spot in the Knicks’ rotation. In the last six games, mostly without J.R., the Knicks won five in a row prior to a loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. Coach Mike Woodson has implored Smith to practice greater professionalism – essentially, to grow up – but J.R. will be J.R., and he shows no signs of slowing down. Interestingly, NBA columnist Steve Popper sent this tweet out following the loss:
This is compelling only because many fans point to Smith’s elbow of Jason Terry in last year’s playoffs as being a derailing point for his stellar 2012-’13 train, which means that he is no stranger to psychological adversity carrying over to the court. The Knicks’ cohesion without Smith will be a point of contention for fans as the team tries to push its way into the playoffs, and what effect this will have on Smith may not be seen until and unless New York finds a willing trade partner for the beleaguered shooting guard.
3. The Toronto Raptors may actually really be legitimately good at playing basketball: A bright spot rising out of the Atlantic Division is its leading team, the Toronto Raptors. Although it is not a terribly effective offensive team, Toronto is 3rd in the league in points allowed, which may be the most viable way to match up with the Heats and Pacers of the world. Outrunning LeBron and co. will not happen, but playing solid defense is good enough to beat any team in this league. The Raptors have a legitimate All-Star candidate in DeMar DeRozen, who leads the team in points per game at 21.3. His play has been elevating the Raptors as of late, who currently hold a 19-17 record and the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Center Jonas Valanciunas is a stalwart near the rim, and Amir Johnson provides serious sparks of excellence time and again. The Raptors are a “whole greater than the sum of its parts” kind of team, which may be just the formula necessary to stop the star-powered squads in Miami and Indiana come playoff time.