9 Takeaways from Friday Night's NBA Action
It was another busy Friday night in the NBA, albeit not exactly the most exciting one David Stern has ever seen as far as final scores are concerned.
Six games were decided by 12 points or more, while at least two others were blowouts throughout before the losing side narrowed the margin down the stretch.
Not that there weren't plenty of intriguing results to consider.
The Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Hornets and Denver Nuggets all staged sizable comeback victories. The San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies needed overtime to settle their score, and rookie Damian Lillard scored a career-high 37 points to nearly lead the Portland Trail Blazers all the way back against his hometown Golden State Warriors.
Oh, and the ongoing drama for the league's two most valuable franchises continued. Certainly, there was plenty to take away from the 11-game slate the Association strung together for Jan. 11.
There's something about the Air Canada Centre that has teams in the bottom half of the NBA running scared. That's how it seems, especially in light of the Toronto Raptors' 99-78 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday.
Beating the Bobcats by any margin isn't exactly anything to write home about, even for a Raps squad that's massively missed the mark on its preseason expectations so far.
A 14-22 record through 36 games was not what Dwane Casey and Co. had in mind. Not after trading for Kyle Lowry, signing Landry Fields, drafting Terrence Ross and welcoming Lithuanian rookie Jonas Valanciunas over the summer.
But at the very least, Toronto has made a habit of putting its collective boot on the throat of all middling clubs that dare enter its territory. The 21-point victory over the Bobcats was the fifth home win by at least 18 points for the Raptors this season.
For some perspective, the Miami Heat have four such home wins on their resume this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have six and the league-leading Los Angeles Clippers have eight.
So Long to James Harden's Scoring Streak
The Houston Rockets seem to have fallen back to Earth a bit. After piling up five straight wins and scoring an average of 115.8 points in that span, the Rockets dropped their second in a row on Friday to fall to 4-10 when failing to cross the 100-point plateau.
This time, the loss—a 103-91 result against the resurgent Boston Celtics (more on them later)—came with another caveat. For the first time since mid-December, James Harden failed to register at least 25 points in a game.
To be sure, Harden came close to extending his franchise-record streak to 15 games on Friday, but his total of 24 points (on 9-of-19 shooting from the field) left him one precious point shy. And realistically, the Beard's scoring was hardly the biggest culprit for Houston's poor performance.
(His six turnovers amid Avery Bradley's stifling on-ball defense certainly didn't help matters.)
In any case, the night was an off one for most of the Rockets, but it cost one in particular his historic streak.
The Celtics Are Going Streaking!
On the other end of Harden's scoring shortfall was another W for the C's—their fifth in a row.
Boston led by as many as 17 points and maintained a fairly steady double-digit lead throughout. Paul Pierce scored 23 points, Rajon Rondo dropped a game-high eight dimes, and Kevin Garnett and Avery Bradley anchored their respective areas defensively.
But the biggest development from Friday's victory was the play of Jared Sullinger. The rookie out of Ohio State picked up 14 points and 11 rebounds off the bench before fouling out. It was Sully's second double-double in as many games and third of the season.
If Sullinger continues to produce as reliably as he has of late, the C's might finally have some frontcourt depth of which to speak, making the jobs of Garnett, head coach Doc Rivers and general manager Danny Ainge that much easier going forward..
Carlesimo-Sanity Continues for the Brooklyn Nets
Whatever changes P.J. Carlesimo's made to the Brooklyn Nets since taking over for Avery Johnson are clearly working. Either that, or the schedule has just been really kind to the Nets of late.
Which is true, at least in part. Friday's 99-79 win over the Phoenix Suns was Brooklyn's fifth in a row and seventh in eight games. Only two of those games have come against teams with winning records, one of which—a 110-93 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder—doubles as the Nets' most impressive result of the season.
Deron Williams scored 15 points on an ultra-efficient five shots from the field to go along with his six assists, three rebounds and two steals. Reggie Evans was once again a beast on the boards with 15 rebounds.
Andray Blatche and MarShon Brooks combined for 32 points off the bench, and the Nets held the lowly Suns to 39.2 percent shooting from the field. All of which is to say, the Nets should continue to rebuild their season so long as the competition remains subpar.
Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it has upcoming games against the Pacers, Hawks (twice), Knicks, Grizzlies, Rockets, Heat and Bulls.
Devin Harris to the Rescue?
The Atlanta Hawks have been rudderless over the last three weeks or so. Coincidentally, Devin Harris has been out since mid-December with a sore right foot.
He played 12 scoreless minutes in a 16-point loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 9, but he bounced back in a big way on Friday. In his first start since returning from injury, Harris scored a team-high 24 points (on 7-of-8 shooting) with five assists, four rebounds and two steals with a 103-95 win over the .500-hovering Utah Jazz.
With Harris among the starting five, Hawks coach Larry Drew was free to move Lou Williams back to the bench. The former Philadelphia 76ers sixth man contributed 14 of the 42 points Atlanta garnered from its reserves.
Like Avery Bradley in Boston, Devin Harris (of all players) could be the key to the Hawks' ability to compete in what's shaping up to be a crowded top four in the Eastern Conference.
If this is the last year of the New Orleans Hornets, they might as well go out with a bang.
The Hornets are nowhere near the Western Conference playoff picture—11-25 overall, nine games behind the No. 8 seed Portland Trail Blazers—but they are making the most of what most expected to be a lost season. New Orleans has ripped off four wins in a row and owns a 5-1 record when Eric Gordon plays.
The Hornets' three consecutive wins against the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets were all rather impressive. Strangely enough, though, they were not as noteworthy as Friday's 104-92 triumph over the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Hornets were down by as many as 18 points in the first half before pulling ahead for good in the third quarter.
New Orleans' bench played a huge part in making up the difference, paving the way for the starters to finish off the job.
Greivis Vasquez (18 points, 13 assists) and Al-Farouq Aminu (12 points, 13 rebounds) each registered double-doubles.
Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Roger Mason and Jason Smith all scored in double figures. Rookie Anthony Davis chipped in eight points in the third quarter to round out an eye-opening comeback for the team with the worst record in the West.
Don't be surprised if the Hornets continue to play spoiler this season and make a leap into the postseason in 2014, not unlike the Oklahoma City Thunder circa 2008-09.
The Lakers (Still) Stink
Speaking of the Thunder, they sprinted out to another blowout win to re-enter a tie with the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night. But the bigger story in OKC's game, as expected, centered on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Not that L.A.'s 116-101 loss was at all surprising. The Lakers were playing without Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Jordan Hill for the third straight game, with Robert Sacre and Earl Clark filling in as starters and Antawn Jamison absorbing big minutes off the bench.
But the overarching implications of this loss were particularly troubling. For one, the team revealed during the game that Hill would likely miss the remainder of the season with a hip injury that required surgery.
More importantly, the loss dropped the Lakers to 15-21, a full five games behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Their current six-game losing streak is the Lakers' longest since March of 2007, when they dropped seven straight before a five-game ouster in the first round of the playoffs.
At this point, though, getting to the playoffs would take something close to a miracle for the Purple and Gold. To get to 48 wins—the average of the West's eighth seed over the last five seasons—the Lakers will have to win 33 of their final 46 games.
That seems like a bit much to expect at this point, given how poorly the Lakers have played thus far. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Lakers haven't started the season this poorly and made the playoffs thereafter in 46 years:
Lakers have never finished .500 or better after starting 15-21 or worse. Last time they started 15-21 or worse & made playoffs was 1966-67.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 12, 2013
In other words, get your nails ready, because the Lakers' coffin appears ripe for sealing.
The Knicks Get Bull-ied Again
The assumption in the Big Apple was that the Knicks would bounce back quite nicely from their 81-76 loss to the Indiana Pacers. After all, Carmelo Anthony would be back in the lineup and, thus, all would be well with New York's previously rudderless offense.
Instead, the Knicks fell behind early and wound up down by as many as 24 points as late as the fourth quarter. Anthony did all he could to get New York back in the game, scoring 19 of his 39 points in the final frame.
But even Melo's best efforts turned out to be too little, too late. J.R. Smith's streak of 17 games with at least 15 points came to an end, with 13 points on an abysmal 4-of-17 shooting from the field. The Knicks hit half of their 22 three-point attempts but shot just 38.2 percent on two-point attempts with all of 17 assists.
Clearly, the Knicks miss Raymond Felton and aren't any better off with the aging trio of Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas sidelined with injuries. Nonetheless, the rest of the NBA won't wait around for the Knicks to get healthy as they watch their grip on the No. 2 seed in the East slip ever so surely into the hands of the surging Indiana Pacers.
Getting on the Memphis Grind
Is there any way that NBA commissioner David Stern can guarantee that the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies meet in the playoffs? At this rate, the series would probably be an instant classic, even if a national audience neglected to tune in.
The Spurs and Grizzlies went to overtime for the second time in as many meetings this season. Memphis seemed to have the game in the bag at the end of regulation, but a three-pointer by Stephen Jackson with four seconds left closed the gap just enough that, after a pair of Zach Randolph free throws, San Antonio was able to equalize on a trey at the buzzer by Tony Parker.
The two teams combined for just nine points in the extra period, but the Grizz prevailed, earning their 24th win of the season. They now sit just a game-and-a-half back of the Spurs for the No. 3 seed, and three back of the Thunder and Clippers for the top spot in the West.
And to think, Memphis is trying to rid itself of Rudy Gay and has indicated a willingness to discuss Z-Bo when the team might be a title contender yet (Commercial Appeal).