TNT or no TNT, the NBA opted for a light schedule on Thursday night. The league put just two games up against the Fiesta Bowl, which figured to occupy the attention of most casual sports fans.
But for those die-hard hoop heads, the NBA attempted to whet their collective appetite by pitting the San Antonio Spurs against the New York Knicks and the Minnesota Timberwolves opposite the Denver Nuggets.
Again, not a ton of basketball, but still plenty from which to derive notes on in the new year. From Gregg Popovich's decisions (past and present) to Amar'e Stoudemire's slow return from injury, let's have a look at who and what stood out from a short night on the hardwood.
The San Antonio Spurs have played four games in five nights on two occasions this season. Both times, the fourth game has come on the road against a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference. Both times, the Spurs have lost—once by five points and once by 17 points. Only one of those defeats featured Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard in the starting lineup, with Manu Ginobili coming off the bench.
Can you guess which game was which?
Here's a hint: the 100-83 blowout loss came at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks on Thursday night.
And all of San Antonio's principals played.
The closer result, you may recall, came on Nov. 29, when Popovich sent four of his core players home ahead of a nationally-televised tilt opposite the Miami Heat and incurred the wrath of David Stern. Even without their Big Three on hand, the Spurs nearly upended the defending champions on their home court.
My point? That Pop was right...and, by extension, that Stern was wrong.
Pop played the odds back in November. He knew that his Spurs would have a tough time winning in Miami on the second night of a second back-to-back. He also knew that he'd rather sit his stars to keep them fresh for later than strain them against a well-rested opponent, all the while giving his reserves a chance to shine.
The fact that San Antonio nearly emerged victorious from that game was vindication enough for Pop's decision. The fact that the Spurs were run out of the building when Pop let his biggest boys play only validates that thinking further and makes Stern look even dumber for having punished him in the first place.
Small consolation for such a disappointing defeat.
On the other end of things, Raymond Felton missed his fourth game with a fractured finger, though his absence hardly stopped the Knicks from scoring at will against the typically stingy Spurs defense.
The Knicks followed the same formula that's worked so well for them all season. They hit threes (12-of-27 from downtown), leaned on Carmelo Anthony (23 points) and J.R. Smith (20 points) to create for themselves, and took care of the basketball (just 12 turnovers).
More importantly, at least as far as Felton's absence is concerned, New York spread the wealth. The Knicks racked up 26 assists, nine of which were the result of deft passing from 35-year-old rookie Pablo Prigioni. Four other Knicks contributed three or more helpers, including four from Tyson Chandler.
This, after averaging 21.7 assists per game in the three previous outings sans Felton.
The defensive effort—New York held San Antonio to 36.4 percent shooting and just 12 points in the paint—was remarkable, but the Knicks' success on that end stemmed, at least in part, from the way they shared the ball on offense.
If they can continue to find each other as well as they did against the Spurs, the Knicks should be able to survive just fine until Ray returns.
In other Knicks-related news, if you're expecting Amar'e Stoudemire to play like an All-Star off the bench...well, don't.
Not yet, anyway.
In his second game back from knee surgery, STAT chipped in 10 points, two rebounds and a steal in 21 minutes.
Not bad, except that four of Stoudemire's shots were blocked and that he turned the ball over twice. Where once there was an explosive athlete who couldn't be stopped in the paint, there's now a hobbled big man who struggled to get a shot up without having it deflected by a defender.
To be sure, it's tough to see a player who was so dominant not so long ago look like such a useless corpse on the floor. But if Amar'e can work himself back into shape, show off his Hakeem Olajuwon-inspired post game and grow into his new niche as a big off the New York bench, he might yet be a valuable contributor to the Knicks cause.
Poor Kevin Love. The guy can't seem to catch a break.
Or, rather, his hand can't...or something.
Love left with a sprained finger during the Minnesota Timberwolves' 101-97 win over the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center in Denver Thursday night. The two-time All-Star missed the first nine games of the 2012-13 season after breaking his hand while doing his usual finger-tip push-ups.
Love's shooting hand has given him fits all season, even when he's been able to play. Love came into the game shooting dreadfully in all aspects—35.4 percent from the field, 22.2 percent from three and 70.7 percent from the free-throw line.
Not what you'd call becoming numbers from a guy who was the three-point shooting champion during All-Star Weekend in 2012.
Clearly, Love's hand has hampered his typically pure shooting stroke, and another nick to one of his fingers probably won't help.
The Nuggets had every reason to believe they'd beat the T-Wolves on Thursday night. They were playing at home against a Minny team—which they'd beaten once before this season—playing its second game in as many nights.
Denver also came into the game with but one loss on its home court. Better still, the Nuggets held the lead heading into the fourth quarter, while the T-Wolves had won only once when trailing after three frames.
If all of that weren't enough, Ricky Rubio didn't play a single minute and Love left with a sprained finger in the third quarter.
And yet, the Nuggets still couldn't pull it out. They scored 27 points and shot 63.2 percent from the field in the fourth quarter, but were undone by poor defense and a trio of their own turnovers.
The Nuggets can ill-afford to let games like this slip out of their hands, especially after their slow, road-heavy start to the season.
And especially if they're to compete for anything more than a bottom-three playoff seed in the Western Conference.