What Thursday night's NBA action lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality. Despite featuring just three games on the slate, there were plenty of front-page storylines in play.
The L.A. Clippers did the (nearly) impossible by knocking off the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, marking just the sixth time that has happened all season. Chris Paul took control of the game late, stifling a potential Pacers comeback and assuring the Clippers of a second straight winning season.
In Chicago, Joakim Noah went bonkers, joining the 20-20 club and notching one of the rarest triple-doubles in a win over the reeling Philadelphia 76ers that all but slammed the door shut on a disappointing Sixers season.
Finally, the L.A. Lakers inched closer to .500 by defeating the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves. Kobe Bryant, having apparently abandoned "facilitator mode" for an evening, relentlessly attacked the Wolves' totally overmatched guards on the way to 33 points. Thanks to the win, L.A. now sits just two games behind the Houston Rockets for the eighth playoff spot in the West.
There were phenomenal individual performances, statement wins and revealing losses on a Thursday night that helped set the stage for the season's final few weeks. Pay attention to what happened in these games—it'll go a long way toward predicting what we'll see down the stretch.
The great point guards have always deferred to their teammates in the early going before scoring late when necessary. This shouldn't come as a shock, but Chris Paul is one of the great ones.
As such, CP3 dished his way to eight assists in a 99-91 win over the host Indiana Pacers, but his real impact on the game came down the stretch, when he single-handedly pulled the plug on a potential Pacers resuscitation.
With a 13-0 run in the fourth quarter, Indiana cut the Clips' lead from 17 points to just four in the span of only three minutes. And that's when L.A. went to the bullpen for its closer.
Paul scored 29 points on the night, but logged the Clippers' final eight on a pair of jumpers, a driving layup and a couple of ice-out free throws in the waning seconds. From the 2:45 mark till the final buzzer, CP3 took control of the game as only he can.
With the way the L.A. Dodgers are tossing money around, don't be surprised if they tap Paul to handle ninth-inning duties this spring. After all, he's made a habit of slamming the door on the helpless opposition.
Serving a suspension for getting into some extracurriculars with Golden State Warriors forward David Lee on Tuesday, Roy Hibbert could only watch as the Clippers sashayed into the paint—his paint—for layup after layup on the night.
In all, L.A. put up 50 points in the lane against a Pacers front line that clearly missed its anchor.
Everyone has focused on Hibbert's shooting woes this year (he's shooting just 42 percent from the floor), but the fact is that he's still one of the NBA's single most impactful interior presences. He blocks 2.6 shots per game and a recent research paper by authors Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss determined that no other player in the league has had a bigger effect on opponents' close-range field-goal accuracy as Hibbert.
Do yourself a favor and read that thing—it'll make you smarter.
Anyway, Hibbert's absence was glaring against the Clips, and it may very well have been the reason the Pacers lost the game. Going forward, Indy will get their center back and will almost certainly return to its status as the league's best defensive team.
Maybe this game will make everyone realize that with the big man in the middle, the Pacers are a fringe contender for a title, while they're little more than an early playoff exit waiting to happen without him.
When Joakim Noah rolls out of bed in the morning, he probably sprints to the bathroom to brush his teeth. The Chicago Bulls center used his uncanny energy to absolutely get after it against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Noah's Bulls won the game by a final score of 93-82, but nobody will remember that result a few days from now. What everybody will be unable to forget, though, is the utterly ridiculous stat line Noah posted.
In 45 minutes, Tom Thibodeau's workhorse big man blitzed his way to 23 points, 21 rebounds, 11 blocks, three steals and an assist. To the surprise of none, the unusual triple-double was a product of Noah's unflagging effort and activity, as the All-Star center simply out-hustled everyone else on the floor.
Per the Elias Sports Bureau, only three other players in the last 25 years have put up single-game totals of at least 20 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks. Noah makes four.
The Bulls have slipped in the standings of late, losing five of their last seven before this latest winning effort. As Chicago struggles to fight on without Derrick Rose, Noah will continue to be its emotional leader and defensive catalyst.
His raw effort was a sight to behold on Thursday night.
Coach Doug Collins railed against his team, himself and just about everything else he could think of after the Philadelphia 76ers fell to the woeful Orlando Magic on Tuesday night. But all of his critical bluster went for naught, as Philly dropped its seventh in a row to the Bulls.
It's a little ridiculous that Collins is so down on his team's effort when the real issue is a lack of talent. Outside of Jrue Holiday, whose maturation process was put on the fast track by necessity this year, no Sixer could rightly be called anything more than a role player.
It takes stars to win, coach; and you don't have enough of them.
At any rate, the 76ers seem like they've slipped far enough back in the Eastern Conference playoff chase to officially close the book on their postseason chances. A full dozen games below .500 and six games out of the eighth spot, it's probably time for the Sixers to turn their focus to 2013-14.
That'll mean deciding whether to re-sign Andrew Bynum and possibly looking for a new coach. Remember, Collins has never coached for more than three years with any one team; this dude's burnout clock is a finely tuned machine. Currently in his third year with Philadelphia and clearly exasperated, it seems like Collins is far from a safe bet to return next year.
After starting with a 10-6 bang in November, Philly's season is ending with a whimper.
Thanks to 33 points from the scorching Kobe Bryant, the L.A. Lakers have climbed to within one game of a .500 record. Not since Dec. 28 have the Lakers held the distinction of having as many wins on the scorecard as losses.
L.A.'s 116-94 blowout win over the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves helped the Lakers get to within two games of the idle Houston Rockets for the final playoff spot out West. With the way Bryant has been playing lately, it's starting to look like the Rockets (or possibly the seventh-seeded Utah Jazz) will have to put a decent run together down the stretch to avoid being overtaken by the Lakers.
No. 24 had been averaging 28.6 points, 7.6 assists and 6.8 rebounds on 55 percent shooting in the previous five games, and he certainly stayed hot for a sixth.
The bench showed up, Dwight Howard posted another double-double, and L.A. shot 53 percent from the field. Don't look now, but the Lakers are nearing respectability.
At this rate, the next stop on the team's gradual and arduous road to redemption might be overtaking the Rockets for that eighth playoff spot. As improbable as it seemed just weeks ago, the Lakers are almost average.