Monday night's frenetic five-game schedule featured at least one playoff hopeful in each matchup.
Things kicked off in the City of Brotherly Love, where the plummeting Philadelphia 76ers welcomed a hungry Brooklyn Nets team hoping to continue its recent winning ways.
With the Indiana Pacers showing their vulnerability in Miami on Sunday and the New York Knicks feeling the bite of the injury bug, the Nets looked to stake their claim on one of the Eastern Conference's top seeds.
Then the action shifted to Texas, where the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs welcomed the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. One team was missing its starting point guard. By the end of the night, the other might have wished that it had been.
All eyes in Los Angeles Lakers land were glued to Salt Lake City. The Utah Jazz needed a win to keep pace with the surging Lakers, and it attempted to find one without the service of one its top players.
The Denver Nuggets followed the Rocky Mountains south for a showdown with the Phoenix Suns. They found yet another leading man in this game, just bolstering their reputation as a Western Conference postseason nightmare.
The night's final game saw the sputtering Golden State Warriors greet a New York Knicks team playing without Amar'e Stoudemire. Two top performers returned to action (David Lee for the Warriors, Carmelo Anthony for the Knicks), but a third would see his night cut short before this game was finished.
Read on to find out which teams improved their playoff positioning and which took a step in the wrong direction.
How do you replace a player like All-Star point guard Tony Parker (21 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting, 7.6 assists)?
Easy, you don't.
Rather than tabbing a specific player to fill the massive void left in Parker's absence (sprained ankle), the San Antonio Spurs will have to rely on a collection of players to pick up the slack. In their 105-93 win over the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder, the Spurs did just that.
Coach Gregg Popovich commanded his rotation masterfully, drawing double-digit performances out of six of his players. On a night when the always-reliable Tim Duncan put forth an uncharacteristically inefficient performance (13 points, 6-of-14), that impressive depth couldn't have come at a better time.
Third-year big man Tiago Splitter bullied the Thunder interior for 21 points (on 9-of-11 shooting) during his first 20-10 night of the season. Wings Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green combined for 33 points and five of San Antonio's eight made threes.
Whenever Parker's ready to return, which may be sooner than expected, nights like this will prove invaluable. It will only add to the team's already-potent offense (104.8 points per game prior to this game, via ESPN.com).
Enigmatic Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook picked the wrong night for his Mr. Hyde side to appear.
The San Antonio Spurs had no answers for Kevin Durant (26 points on 7-of-13 from the field), but Westbrook took them off the hook.
Despite the absence of Parker, Westbrook's deceptive stat line (25 points, six rebounds, six assists) was marred by inconsistency and poor decision-making. He took 27 shots, none worse than his attempt at drawing a whistle near halfcourt with over two minutes left in the third quarter, and turned the ball over four times.
On paper, Westbrook should have been the focal point of coach Scott Brooks' offensive attack. With the offensive-minded Gary Neal and seldom-used Cory Joseph on his assignment sheet, Westbrook appeared to have a decisive edge. Durant, meanwhile, faced some daunting matchups with the athletic Kawhi Leonard and crafty veteran Stephen Jackson drawing his number.
At some point, though, Westbrook needed to realize that Monday was just not going to his night. He shot just 4-of-12 outside of 10 feet (via ESPN.com), yet he fired up six more shots than Durant and Serge Ibaka (13 points, 4-of-8 combined).
He makes this club a championship contender and the league's greatest waste of talent, depending on which Westbrook shows up. When things go this poorly for him, he's got to learn to defer to his teammates.
It was the matchup of the team no one wants to face in the postseason and the club everyone hopes to see on its remaining regular-season schedule.
Although it took a while to get going, the Denver Nuggets-Phoenix Suns matchup eventually played out as such.
The Nuggets, perhaps growing more comfortable with their lofty position in basketball circles, appeared to sleepwalk through the game's first three quarters. Although they won the second and third quarters (and lost the first by only a point), the game was far from a certainty before their decisive 28-19 edge in the final period.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Nuggets left the desert with a 108-93 victory—their ninth straight. As has been the case throughout this winning streak, there was another leading man for coach George Karl's club.
Kosta Koufos—the Nuggets starting center whose name has been battered by fans hoping to see more of reserve JaVale McGee—showed why substance trumps style in Karl's mind. He needed just 11 field-goal attempts for his game-high 22 points, becoming the fourth different Denver leading scorer during this stretch. He added 10 rebounds in his 26 minutes of work.
With each aerial display that the athletically gifted McGee puts forth, there will always be calls from the casual fans to get him more run.
But the luxury of stashing players like McGee (eight points, five boards), Corey Brewer (20 points), Wilson Chandler (11 points, six boards) and Andre Miller (seven points, five assists) needs to be treated as such.
The Western Conference fears this team—and that has nothing to do with the presence of a single star player.
The Golden State Warriors have gone from potential playoff sleeper to fighting for their postseason lives.
Their 92-63 rout of the New York Knicks was either a return to their early-season success or a fleeting glimpse at what could have been for coach Mark Jackson's bunch.
The top performers certainly fit the appearance of the team's previous triumphs.
Stephen Curry led the way with 26 points, and backcourt mate Klay Thompson chipped in with 23. The duo combined for 10 of the team's 11 three-point makes, making the team's outside-in approach formidable on this night.
But it wasn't hard to identify the apparent missing ingredient in recent games, forward David Lee.
He was limited to just 25 minutes on Friday night after bumping knees with Houston Rockets rookie Thomas Robinson. He was then forced to play the role of observer during the team's Saturday night battle with the Milwaukee Bucks. Without their All-Star available, the Warriors dropped both games.
Back in action on Monday night, Lee proved what a vital piece he can be for this Warriors attack. It wasn't just his 21 points and 10 rebounds (his 23rd 20-10 game this season), but rather his total command of the Warriors offense.
He finished the night with a game-high eight assists, masterfully walking the fine line between calling his own number and finding teammates for open shots.
If the 36-29 Warriors are able to turn this season into anything more than a brief stint in the playoffs, they'll need more offensive and defensive showings like this.
For the New York Knicks, that answer became lower than any team had ventured this season.
And, no, that isn't a sly reference to J.R. Smith's questionable flagrant 2 or Kenyon Martin's forearm to Warriors rookie Festus Ezeli late in the action.
New York's 63 points wasn't just a season low; it was the fewest points the team had scored since 2007 (via Howard Beck of The New York Times).
The Knicks' 27.4 field-goal percentage was the worst such mark of the season, nearly two full points behind the Chicago Bulls' woeful 29.1 percentage against the Oklahoma City Thunder back on Feb. 24 (via ESPN.com).
In the end, this loss carries no more weight than any of New York's previous 22. But it does raise some legitimate concerns over the team's ability to manufacture points on those rare off nights from Carmelo Anthony and Smith.
Anthony, playing his first game since injuring his knee against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 4, struggled to find his rhythm (14 points, 4-of-15 from the field). Smith was equally atrocious before his night came to an abrupt end, finishing with just nine points to show for his 11 field-goal attempts.
With Amar'e Stoudemire lost for the regular season with yet another knee surgery in his future (via Marc Berman of the New York Post), the Knicks have to find a reliable offensive source to complement their talented twosome.
When Chris Copeland's the high scorer with 15 points, this team is going to struggle mightily regardless of the competition.
But a loss to the stumbling Philadelphia 76ers sure is one for the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn carried a three-game winning streak into the Wells Fargo Center for a Monday night matchup against a Philadelphia team that had lost its previous five games and 13 of its last 15 overall. But you would never have known which was supposed to be the better team if you tuned in to the festivities.
If I told you the 76ers cruised to a 106-97 home win, your first assumption might be that rising All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday obliterated the Nets. In reality, Deron Williams gave his team a decisive edge at the point, finishing with more points (27 to 15), more assists (13 to 11) and more rebounds (six to zero) than Holiday.
The Nets' supporting cast carried the burden of this loss.
Joe Johnson (20 points) and Brook Lopez (19) did their part, but no other Brooklyn player finished with double-figure scoring. The 76ers, meanwhile, got double-digit efforts from each player in their starting five (led by Spencer Hawes' season-high 24) and 15 points off the bench from Dorell Wright.
The Nets have a chance to make up some ground when they host the New Orleans Hornets Tuesday night, but this could be one of those games they look back on if they fall a game or two short of the top three seeds. Considering a top-three spot delays a potential showdown with the Miami Heat (barring a monumental collapse, of course), it's certainly something they should be chasing.
Normally a 13-point win over the 23-43 Detroit Pistons is hardly a cause for celebration.
At this point in the season, though, style points get thrown out of the window. And that couldn't be more true for any team other than the sputtering Utah Jazz.
The 103-90 win was just the team's second in its past nine games. With the long-anticipated surge from the Los Angeles Lakers starting to take shape (8-2 in their last 10 games), this was a game that the Jazz had to have.
Credit the team (to a degree—maybe a golf clap, perhaps) for playing like it new what was at stake. The Jazz turned a one-point first-quarter lead into a much more comfortable 14-point halftime edge. After nearly giving away that lead in a frustrating 25-33 third quarter, the team responded with a game-saving seven-point advantage in the final period.
Mo Williams led the team to victory for the first time in his fourth game back from a thumb injury that cost him more than two months of the season. He scored 20 points (9-of-14) and added six assists to just one turnover in his 26 minutes.
Al Jefferson was the only other starter to reach double figures (16 points), but Utah's 54-41 advantage off the bench proved to be the game's deciding factor.
Marvin Williams and Enes Kanter both scored 14 points and added a combined 14 rebounds, while Gordon Hayward added 13 points.
2012 Slam Dunk Contest champion Jeremy Evans totaled eight points, seven rebounds and five assists, getting some rare minutes with Paul Millsap sidelined by a bruise of his right patella and quadriceps tendon (via Jody Genessy of the Deseret News).