Friday night's NBA action was marked by a couple of thrilling finishes and exciting returns to action from a few of the league's biggest stars.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol rejoined the L.A. Lakers' starting lineup, but instead of helping the Purple and Gold blow by the Washington Wizards, they combined to shoot just 10-of-30 from the field in a game that featured a monstrous performance from John Wall.
Tony Parker also returned to the San Antonio Spurs, who found themselves locked in an overtime battle against the surprisingly feisty Utah Jazz.
In addition to all of that, Carmelo Anthony looked like himself again, Larry Sanders lost his head and the Miami Heat stuck to the script in securing their 25th straight win.
It was business as usual in the NBA on Friday night, as the professionals put on a show that more than measured up to that other amateur tournament that was going on during the day.
Don't worry, Carmelo Anthony didn't suffer a setback with his cranky knee in the New York Knicks' 99-94 win over the Toronto Raptors. As a matter of fact, he looked pretty darn good in scoring 37 points against the hapless Raps.
If anything, his 31 shots proved that his right hand was in perfect health, too.
But with the aging Knicks suffering injury after injury in recent weeks (Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas are all out), the Knicks' playoff clincher might have required a little too much from Melo.
Mike Woodson on playing Carmelo 43 minutes: "I couldn't find a gap to sit him. I feel bad about it."— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) March 23, 2013
With the ancient pillars of New York's rotation predictably crumbling, there may be a few more nights in which Woodson will call on Anthony to play heavy minutes.
The Knicks got away with it tonight, but it seems like it's only a matter of time before the burden of carrying his team eventually catches up with Anthony's health.
Even though the Miami Heat fell behind the Detroit Pistons by 11 with about three minutes remaining in the first half, nobody really believed the final result was in doubt. After all, anyone who's been watching the Heat during their amazing run knows that coming back from a huge deficit is just part of their nightly plan.
Heat trail Pistons by 3 at the half. Heat have won 8 straight games when trailing at the half (all during the 24-game win streak).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 23, 2013
Sure enough, Miami turned up its defense and took control in the third quarter, holding the Pistons to just 14 points in the period and completely shutting down Jose Calderon, who gave the Heat backcourt fits in the first half.
Pretty much the definition of "ho-hum win" for Miami. Almost boring.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 23, 2013
On the night, the Heat forced 22 turnovers and got yet another ridiculous performance from LeBron James, who put up 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on 12-of-15 shooting.
Winners of 25 in a row, the Heat have turned their ability to "flip a switch" from a point of criticism into the most consistent aspect of their attack.
There's no end in sight to the streak.
Even though he missed a pair of late free throws that could have helped the San Antonio Spurs take care of the Utah Jazz in regulation, Tony Parker looked very much like himself in his first game back after missing nearly three weeks with a sprained ankle.
Parker finished with 22 points and five assists on 8-of-13 shooting in the Spurs' 104-97 overtime win over the Jazz, and his vintage performance was especially valuable because Manu Ginobili laid a 2-for-9 egg.
With their point guard back in the starting lineup, the Spurs' rotations fell back into place nicely. With a few more reps to get everyone up to speed, it's a safe bet that San Antonio's turnovers (17 against the Jazz) will decrease and the offense will run more smoothly.
With the Spurs still firmly entrenched in the No. 1 spot out West and Parker looking strong, San Antonio appears to have as good a chance as ever to make another Finals visit.
After getting posterized by Paul George in the first half, volatile Milwaukee Bucks big man Larry Sanders lost his cool again, picking up a pair of technical fouls with 7:54 remaining in the third quarter.
The early exit was Sanders' third in his last six games.
Milwaukee is all but assured of a playoff spot at this point, so now might be a good time for Sanders to take a little break to get himself sorted out. The Bucks are likely to be facing the impossible challenge of taking down the Heat in a first-round series, so they'll need all hands (and heads) on deck if they're to have any chance of pulling off a miracle.
Sanders is valuable because of his boundless energy on defense. He's just got to keep it from spilling over into his interactions with opponents and officials.
The Oklahoma City Thunder won their 51st game of the year behind 25 points from Kevin Durant, but it wouldn't be much of a novel takeaway to simply point out that both OKC and KD are really good.
What would make for an interesting upshot from the clash between the Thunder and the lottery-bound Orlando Magic is the emergence of rookie Moe Harkless.
After Arron Afflalo went down with a hamstring injury, Harkless blew up, finishing with a career-high 25 points and filling up the rest of his stat sheet with nine boards, four steals and four blocks.
I recently described Maurice Harkless as a "franchise cornerstone" and got blasted. What do you call a 19-year-old who has 25-9-4-4?
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) March 23, 2013
Paired with the surprising Tobias Harris and the promising Nikola Vucevic, Harkless gives the Magic a very exciting frontcourt trio for the future.
Now, wasn't that more revealing than a brief nod to the obvious brilliance of the Thunder? I thought so.
You could see this one coming from a mile away.
The Memphis Grizzlies, fresh off a thrilling overtime win against the Thunder, hit the Big Easy to meet the lowly New Orleans Hornets on Friday. In other words, the Grizz stepped right into a trap game.
It happens all the time: A high-quality team expends all of its effort against a strong opponent and then has nothing left against a lesser foe in the follow-up contest. Sure enough, Memphis started hot against the soon-to-be Pelicans, but completely ran out of gas (and its intensity) during an 11-1 Hornets run in the third quarter.
That spurt turned a one-point game into a 67-56 affair that favored the Hornets. New Orleans would go on to win by a final score of 90-83.
To the Hornets' credit, Anthony Davis and Robin Lopez played extremely well on the inside, combining for 41 points and 25 rebounds, but they pulled off that feat against a Memphis defense that was uncharacteristically sloppy in its rotations and forgetful in its box-outs.
For the Grizzlies, this game was nothing more than a predictable, schedule-induced slip. The final result doesn't change Memphis' status as a fringe title contender.
Regular viewers of the Atlanta Hawks are probably screaming "Amen!" at this slide's title, but to the public at large, Larry Drew's questionable sideline decisions aren't such familiar territory.
In Atlanta's 104-93 loss to the visiting Portland Trail Blazers, Drew's rotations defied reason and some of his play calls (assuming the Hawks were listening to them) were similarly strange.
And because nobody tears apart NBA coaches like noted NBA gambler and sarcasm expert Haralabos Voulgaris, I'll turn the criticism over to him for a moment.
Wow Drew still has Deshawn in the game. Odd.— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) March 23, 2013
I'll interject here to point out that Stevenson couldn't buy a bucket (as usual) and finished the game just 1-of-5 from the floor.
Larry Drew just played his defensive stopper 29 mins vs a team that doesn't even have a dominant 2 or 3. Thats strong.— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) March 23, 2013
Voulgaris then took apart Drew's strange tolerance for Josh Smith's mid-range addiction:
When you need a bucket when you're down late. Gotta go for the Josh Smith long 2s and 3s.— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) March 23, 2013
You'll be shocked to learn that Smith is one of the very worst jump-shooting forwards in the league. According to HoopData.com, he makes just 30 percent of his attempts from 16-23 feet.
Hey, it's entirely possible that the Hawks have tuned Drew out, which makes it impossible for even the best coaches to get anything done. Still, that doesn't explain the strange rotations or long leash he's given to Smith.
Atlanta is a playoff team this season, but it's hard to know whether they'll ever be more than that as long as Drew is calling the shots.
With Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol both returning to the starting lineup, the Lakers were supposed to continue their solid post-All-Star-break run and roll right into the postseason.
Instead, poor defensive rotations and the continued inability to handle quick point guards plagued L.A., as John Wall diced up the Lakers' defense to the tune of 24 points and 16 assists.
When the dust settled, the Lakers had lost a disappointing 103-100 contest to the visiting Washington Wizards, completing an ugly three-game stretch that should have given the team a real opportunity to climb the playoff ladder.
This week was supposed to be the soft spot of L.A.'s schedule against three cellar dwellers Instead Lakers will go 1-2.— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) March 23, 2013
From here, the path forward is very much the same as it has been all season: The Lakers have to find a way to integrate their mismatched pieces, get a leash on Metta World Peace and his head-scratching decision-making and find a way to defend against penetration.
In many ways, the Lakers' latest beginning feels an awful lot like their start. And that's not a good sign.
After losing a 104-94 contest to the Dallas Mavericks, the Boston Celtics dropped to just four games over .500 and remained an uncomfortable two games away from the No. 8 seed in the East.
The Bucks don't look like world-beaters these days, either, but Boston has looked lost lately and it's becoming increasingly likely that they'll end up with a first-round date against the Miami Heat.
And as everyone knows, that's a date with disaster.
The problem for Boston against the Mavs was an inability to score, which is a weakness that has plagued the Celtics all season long. With just 41 percent shooting from the field, including a 3-of-11 effort from Jordan Crawford, the C's really didn't have anywhere to turn for easy offense.
It's possible that defense and veteran grit will be enough to keep Boston, which has lost three straight, from slipping into the No. 8 spot, but the lack of offense is definitely troublesome.
The Minnesota Timberwolves knocked off the Phoenix Suns by a final score of 117-86, and Ricky Rubio was right in the middle of everything.
Despite playing just 29 minutes and shooting the ball only seven times, Rubio's pinpoint passing and total control of the game was truly impressive.
He totaled 12 points, eight assists, six rebounds and five steals, putting his stamp on both ends of the floor.
Rubio's limitations as a shooter may always keep him from being a complete offensive threat, but that didn't prevent Jason Kidd from forging a pretty solid two-decade career. In the end, it turns out that Rubio is exactly who we thought he was: a substandard shooter who can dominate virtually every other facet of the game.
And that's not such a bad thing at all.