Thursday's thin slate of NBA action turned out to be a bit of a referendum on the top of the Eastern Conference. The Miami Heat had their mettle tested out west by the plucky Portland Trail Blazers, but only after the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers slugged it out in a battle with implications for postseason seeding.
Not that all was necessarily quiet on the Western front. The Blazers shocked the Heat to continue their own surprising climb into the Western Conference playoff picture. A little ways south, the Dallas Mavericks avoided the embarrassment of an 11th straight overtime loss against the Sacramento Kings, who saw another eruption of Mount DeMarcus in the end.
Still, the story of the night has to be the top of the East, which is on the verge of a shakeup if current trends hold for much longer.
A remarkable accomplishment at this relatively early stage of the 2012-13 NBA season, to say the least. The Pacers slumped out of the gate to a mediocre mark of 10-11. They looked lost on defense and rudderless on offense, as Paul George and Roy Hibbert struggled to pick up the slack in the absence of Danny Granger.
Since then, Indy has ripped off 12 wins in 15 games behind a stiflingly physical defense and a deliberate, opportunistic offense. George has been the biggest catalyst behind the turnaround. He came into the game averaging 18.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals since Indy's last foray below the .500 mark.
He continued that trend on Thursday night, leading the Pacers in points (24), rebounds (11), assists (five) and steals (six) while chipping in a block and turning the ball over just once in 44 massive minutes.
The Pacers will need Paul to play with the same vim and vigor on both ends of the floor that he's shown since his own slow start to the season if they're to maintain their ascent through the East.
And if George's breakout season persists into Granger's impending return from injury, the Pacers might just give the mighty Miami Heat a run for their money come playoff time once again.
On the other side, Carmelo Anthony bolstered his own profile among the NBA's leading MVP candidates by not playing a single minute.
Anthony was serving out a one-game suspension for attempting to "confront" Kevin Garnett following the Knicks' 102-96 loss to the Boston Celtics Monday night. During that game, The Big Ticket allegedly made some disparaging, breakfast-cereal-related remarks about 'Melo's wife in the heat of battle, which apparently rubbed Anthony the wrong way.
In any case, he wasn't even allowed inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday, and his absence was all too evident for New York. The Knicks scored a season-low 76 points on an appalling 34.8 percent shooting from the field. Their starters combined to contribute all of 35 points to the cause.
Not that the bench was all that much better. Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith combined to shoot 14-of-40 in "relief," with Smith, in particular, absorbing the bulk of 'Melo's self-created looks.
In any case, the Knicks clearly missed Anthony on the offensive end. Without 'Melo around to command defensive attention, open looks were few and far between, and New York couldn't buy a basket when Indy's D caused the play to break down.
He still has a ways to go to catch LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul in the MVP race but, for now, Carmelo's still comfortably in the conversation, thanks in no small part to the offensive futility of his short-handed teammates.
The end of the Dallas Mavericks' 12-year playoff streak is far from official, but it seems all but inevitable at this point, even (or, perhaps especially) after eking out a 117-112 win over the Sacramento Kings on Thursday night.
Over the last five seasons, the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs has averaged approximately 48 wins during the regular season. To get to that mark, the Mavs, now at 14-23, would have to 34-11 over their final 45 games.
That's not an entirely impossible feat, not with the championship pedigrees of Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion on the floor and Rick Carlisle on the bench. But, for all intents and purposes, it might as well be.
Which is a shame, because it didn't have to be that way. Back in December of 2011, when the lockout came to an end, the Mavs had an opportunity to keep together the same core that had just topped the Miami Heat for the NBA title.
But rather than spend money to keep Tyson Chandler and, to a lesser extent, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler on board, Dallas decided to rebuild on the cheap. Owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson preferred preserving financial flexibility amidst the new collective bargaining agreement over extending their existing championship window.
And so far, the gambit has failed. The Mavs snagged the seventh seed in last year's playoffs, but were bounced in four games by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Now, after replacing Jason Kidd and Jason Terry with a slew of spare parts this past summer, Big D finds itself on the brink of the 2013 NBA draft lottery.
Which wouldn't be a big deal, if not for the fact that, by taking a mulligan on this season and last in hopes of landing big-name free agents, the Mavs have wasted the remainder of Nowitzki's prime. It's imperative that a team make the most of any given title window and/or future Hall of Famer, because each is so fleeting and so difficult to come by.
The Mavs, it seems, didn't see it that way, and have squandered the chance to win multiple titles with the best player in franchise history while doing so.
Speaking of 2011 NBA Finalists, who are currently struggling, how 'bout those Miami Heat? They picked up their fifth loss in their last eight games at the Rose Garden against the rebuilding Blazers, 92-90.
There will be no casting of stones in Miami's locker room, though, considering that none of the principals were without sin. LeBron James fell one assist shy of a triple-double, but mustered a mere 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting from the field. Dwyane Wade was similarly disappointing, scraping together 18 points from a 6-of-18 performance. Chris Bosh carried the day with 29 points to lead all scorers, but his four rebounds left much to be desired on the boards.
As for the supporting cast, Ray Allen resuscitated his inconsistent season with 15 points, but missed long on a wide open look from the top of the key that would've put the Heat ahead with 12 seconds remaining. Mario Chalmers came up similarly short at the buzzer as LeBron deferred.
In the big picture, the defeat dropped Miami to 23-11, just a game ahead of the Knicks and two clear of the hard-charging Pacers atop the Eastern Conference.
In the even bigger picture, the Heat can thank their 2012 title for making a close loss at the Rose Garden in January a disappointing-but-acceptable result rather than a reason for outright panic. This team is clearly in a funk, but the defending champions can still count on the benefit of the doubt to keep them safe from the flames of the fiery punditry.
For now, anyway.
Few, if any, would've picked the Portland Trail Blazers to be in the playoff hunt right about now. Their collapse over the second half of the 2011-12 season portended a rebuild that, if not full scale, would at least set the Blazers back a bit in 2012-13.
Instead, PDX's finest now sit at 20-15, tied for the seventh spot in the Western Conference, thanks in no small part to Wesley Matthews' clutch three to deliver a two-point win over the visiting Heat. LaMarcus Aldridge registered a monstrous double-double of 20 points and 15 rebounds; Nicolas Batum was all over the place with 28 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block; and rookie Damian Lillard dropped eight dimes and picked up two steals to accompany his 10 points.
The win was about as typical as any for Portland this season. Their starters accounted for all but eight of the team's 92 points and the Blazers missed 18 of their 27 attempts from beyond the arc.
The only difference? This win came opposite a squad of significant profile. The Blazers are now 14-5 since their dismal 6-10 start, with victories over the San Antonio Spurs, at the New York Knicks, at the Memphis Grizzlies and now at home against the Heat standing out from the crowd.
This Blazers team may well fade over the course of the season as their lack of depth and experience catches up to them. But, in the meantime, they've emerged as a League Pass favorite behind a talented core that figures to make noise across the Association in the years to come.