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I recently looked at some of the NBA teams that provided the easiest and toughest matchups for fantasy owners.
My short list of tough matchups included the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. In the course of my admittedly quick stat search, I almost mentioned the Miami Heat. At the time the Heat were strong in a couple of categories, but the team was still struggling near the .500 mark, so I let it go without comment. Needless to say, things have changed. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and crew are finally starting to rise to expectations.
In five games in December, the Heat have allowed just 83.0 points per game. And for the season, check out these rankings: points allowed (third), shooting percentage against (third), 3-pointers allowed (fourth), steals against (second) and blocks against (first, just 2.6 per game). In the actual NBA, the Heat remain vulnerable to talented bigs -- in their past three games alone they've yielded 25 points and 11 rebounds to Al Jefferson, 11 points, 13 boards and three blocks to Andrew Bogut and 22 points (on 10-of-11 shooting) to Al Horford. But when it comes to making a fantasy lineup, use only your top players against the Heat -- just in case you didn't already know this.
The Magic play just two games during the week of Dec. 13-19. The schedule shenanigans will only pick up as we move through the holidays.
Houston Rockets (SAC, @OKC, MEM, @SAC): Oh, if only Shane Battier could keep this going. In his past four games, the 32-year-old is averaging 12.0 points, 2.0 3-pointers, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks. That neat little package of fantasy fun explains why Battier ownership is currently approaching 10 percent in ESPN.com leagues. Of course the catch is that Battier, who hasn't shot better than 43.0 percent in a season since 2006-07, is 16-for-his-past-25 from the floor (64.0 percent). Still, this schedule offers him a chance to postpone the inevitable regression to the mean. As I point out on a more or less weekly basis, the Memphis Grizzlies surrender tons of 3-pointers. Grizz opponents are currently second in this regard; they're also third in steals and seventh in blocks. Meanwhile, Sacramento Kings and Oklahoma City Thunder opponents are fifth and eighth, respectively, in shooting percentage. One very surprising downside with this set of games: Kings opponents are dead last in treys made. While I'm on the Rockets, keep adding Kyle Lowry, who remains available in 30 percent of leagues. Aaron Brooks is progressing, but he has yet to be cleared for practice. Lowry, meanwhile, is sporting this stellar line through four December games: 18.5 points, 9.5 assists, 3.3 steals and 2.8 triples. You should be able to get at least another week from him.
Los Angeles Lakers (@WAS, @IND, @PHI, @TOR): At some point in his young life, I'm thinking someone, probably a parent or grandparent, or perhaps a reader in an infomercial, told Shannon Brown to make the most of every minute. Or maybe it's just that Brown is a talented player who gets overlooked on the star-studded Lakers roster. The point is, only 11 players average at least 1.7 3s and 1.0 steals, and one of them is Brown, who gets it done despite playing just 19 minutes a night. Now that's making the most of every minute. Since Brown will never play that much -- he's eclipsed 23 minutes only once this season -- it's tough to evaluate him by schedule. Nevertheless, I'll note that Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors opponents are second and third, respectively, in shooting. Raptors opponents are also fifth in steals.
Minnesota Timberwolves (@GS, @PHO, @POR, @DEN): While Jonny Flynn is expected to make his season debut during the Wolves' upcoming road trip, I think in a league of at least 12 teams you could get by with Luke Ridnour for at least one more week. Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors opponents are second and fourth in assists. Suns opponents are also tops in shooting (at 49.0 percent) and sixths in 3s. In 10 games since returning from injury, Ridnour is averaging 11.7 points, 4.9 assists, 1.3 3s and 1.1 steals. He's available in about 90 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
New Jersey Nets (PHI, WAS, @TOR, ATL): His exile to the D-League ended, Terrence Williams returned to the Nets and scored six points in 26 minutes against the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 9. In a season-plus as a pro, Williams' big problem -- besides chronic tardiness -- has been his shooting. He's just 40.0 percent from the field in his first 87 games. But Nets coach Avery Johnson has said Williams is again part of the rotation, so deep-leaguers may as well try him here. As noted, Wizards and Raptors opponents are second and third in shooting. Wizards opponents are also fifth in assists.
Philadelphia 76ers (@NJ, LAC, LAL, @ORL): You'll never guess (unless he's on your roster) who's the only non-center among the NBA's top seven in field goal percentage: It's Thaddeus Young. The third-year pro is an astonishing 59.7 percent from the floor this season -- this after going 8-of-11, 11-of-12 and 7-of-11 in his previous three games. In fact, in his past 12 games, Young is shooting 60.8 percent (73-of-120). As long as Young keeps getting 25-plus minutes, he should be a productive player for fantasy. But note that all of these opponents are average to above average defensively -- Lakers and Magic opponents are only 26th and 23rd, respectively, in shooting. This is a slightly more promising schedule set for deep-leaguers adding Jodie Meeks, since Los Angeles Clippers opponents are tops in 3s and Lakers opponents are seventh in this category. In three games since joining the starting lineup, Meeks has drained a staggering 15 buckets from downtown, including four 3s against the Celtics on Thursday. Even for leagues of at least 12 teams, though, I'd call Meeks a risky add -- opponents are bound to start giving him more attention on the perimeter, and so far he's been a non-factor in rebounds, assists and hustle cats.
Portland Trail Blazers (@MEM, @DAL, MIN, GS): Don't be too quick to discard Nicolas Batum just because Wesley Matthews replaced him in the starting lineup. In his past four games (this includes one start due to Andre Miller's suspension), Batum has been decent, averaging 12.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.5 3s. Batum should do some damage here, given that the Grizzlies, Timberwolves and Warriors are all in the top eight in 3s. Grizzlies and Warriors opponents are also fifth and sixth in rebound differential.
Sacramento Kings (@HOU, @NOR, @OKC, HOU): Tyreke Evans' MRI results should come out later on Friday. And if the news is bad enough, you might want to reach for one Pooh Jeter. He is a 5-foot-11, 27-year-old point guard who's played in Spain, Ukraine and Israel in recent years. Though small, Jeter is very quick and a good playmaker -- witness his nine assists and two steals in 27 minutes in a blowout win against the Wizards on Wednesday. Though it'd probably take a significant injury to Evans to make him a fantasy factor, Kings head coach Paul Westphal has said he wants to give Jeter some meaningful minutes. Speaking of Westphal, apparently Omri Casspi has gotten back into the coach's good graces. Casspi followed up a 21-point showing against the Clippers with 12 points and six steals in 25 minutes against the Wizards. This schedule doesn't seem to offer a lot beyond the four games, but Rockets opponents are eighth in steals.
Neil Tardy is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. Send him your lineup-related questions at email@example.com.