Monday night's six-game NBA schedule was chock full of playoff implications. It was also missing some of the league's biggest stars.
The Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets put their double-digit winning streaks on the line minus key pieces (Dwyane Wade and Ty Lawson, respectively). John Wall was forced to put on a one-man show for the Washington Wizards, who squared off with a Memphis Grizzlies team playing without Marc Gasol. Both the Indiana Pacers (George Hill and Lance Stephenson) and New Orleans Hornets (Greivis Vasquez and Eric Gordon) went to war without their starting backcourts. And for the Orlando Magic, they were forced to overcome the absence of their anchor, Nikola Vucevic, much to Chris Bosh's delight.
Even the teams apparently working at full strength wouldn't claim that they were. The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers battled in Oakland with their typical starting lineups, but each team's leader was nursing a recent ankle injury (Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant, respectively).
Some teams handled their losses better than others. A lot better. Four of the six games on tap were decided by double digits.
So, which replacement players best filled the voids? And which ones reminded us all how they ended up on the second team in the first place?
Read on to find out.
With a convincing 108-94 win over the Orlando Magic (18-53), the Miami Heat (56-14) now stand just six games out of the NBA record books. Dwyane Wade (sore knee) missed his second straight game, but coach Erik Spoelstra's squad still stretched its winning streak out to 27 games.
And for the third straight game, Miami played largely drama-free. The competition level hasn't been overbearing (before Orlando, it was the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Bobcats), but the Heat have now won their past three games by an average of 23.3 points.
LeBron James was once again the catalyst for Miami's attack. He finished one rebound shy of a triple-double (24 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds) and topped the 20-point mark for his eighth straight game.
But with Wade sidelined, the Heat needed more out of their supporting cast. And that's just what they got.
Mario Chalmers finished with 17 points, connecting on four of his five attempts from long-range. He's now scored at least 17 points in three of his last five games.
Chris Bosh and Ray Allen chipped in with 12 points apiece, Rashard Lewis, Norris Cole and Chris Andersen combined for 27 points off the bench, and Andersen also had three blocks in his 17 minutes, giving him seven for his last four games.
With the San Antonio Spurs (53-17) idle, the Heat pushed its edge for the league's best record to a full three games.
Assuming Miami can extend its winning streak to a record-setting 34 games—no small task with the Chicago Bulls, Spurs and Milwaukee Bucks among the teams on docket—it will be interesting to see when Spoelstra decides it's time to rest his players for the postseason. If Miami's supporting cast has more games like this, that decision becomes a much easier one to make.
While one streak lived on, another came to a crashing halt.
The Denver Nuggets carried a 15-game winning streak into the Big Easy for a date with the New Orleans Hornets.
Despite playing without their starting backcourt of Greivis Vasquez (sprained ankle) and Eric Gordon (sore ankle), the Hornets (25-46) made their streak-stopping intentions known early. New Orleans held a nine-point advantage after the first quarter, then stretched their lead to 21 points by halftime.
The Nuggets (49-23) played better in the second half, but not nearly well enough to overcome their early struggles. The final buzzer brought a merciful end to Denver's night, with coach George Karl's squad on the wrong side of a 110-86 scoreboard reading.
The Nuggets were without their own starting point guard, Ty Lawson, who missed his third straight game with a sore heel. His absence was clearly noticed.
Andre Miller had nine points on 3-of-5 shooting, six assists and three turnovers in 39 minutes. Twenty-seven-year-old rookie Brian Roberts, starting in place of Vasquez, torched the Nuggets with 18 assists and 13 points.
Only three Denver players scored in double figures, and only Danilo Gallinari (24 points) scored more than 13.
This is hardly a cause for concern for Denver fans. When teams are winning like the Nuggets have been of late, it feels as if they may never lose again. But streaks often find their way to these abrupt endings. If we learned anything about this Nuggets team on Monday night, it's that they do have a star player. He just wasn't able to give it a go in this game.
For 36 minutes on Monday night, coach Mike D'Antoni's Los Angeles Lakers reminded the basketball world why they're battling just for a playoff spot in their 109-103 loss to the Golden State Warriors.
The Lakers (36-35) had no answers for the Warriors (41-31) through the first three periods. L.A. had no trouble on the offensive end, totaling 76 points through three quarters, and doing so despite the fact that it opened the game with a lethargic 16-point effort in the first period.
The Lakers' problems, though, came on the defensive end. They spotted the Warriors 28 points in the first frame, then 66 more over the next 24 minutes.
The box score suggests that the Lakers finally found some defensive solutions in the fourth quarter, where they held the Warriors to just 15 points. But that figure had a lot more to do with the Warriors' inability to effectively work the clock in their favor without sacrificing their offensive flow.
The Lakers forced the Warriors into just nine turnovers on the night—the same Warriors team that entered play averaging more than 15 giveaways on the season.
Of course it's hard to turn a team over when you're struggling to force the ball out of the guards' hands. Stephen Curry (25 points) and Klay Thompson (22 points) had no reason to take unnecessary risks, as they repeatedly, and successfully, challenged L.A.'s defenders.
The key to L.A. salvaging something out of this season starts with a renewed focus on the defensive end. The Lakers have now allowed three of their last four opponents to reach triple digits and have dropped two of those games. For the year, the Lakers are just 11-26 when they allow at least 100 points.
The Lakers now hold a one-game lead for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Warriors moved to a game ahead over the idle Houston Rockets for the sixth seed.
Washington Wizards point guard John Wall has been the hottest thing going outside of South Beach in the Eastern Conference of late.
He came into Monday night's matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies averaging 22.3 points (on a scorching 54.9 field-goal percentage) and 9.5 assists in his last eight games. And that includes the ejection-shortened outing against the Golden State Warriors his last time out.
But his performance against the Grizzlies was incredible even by his standards. In 45 minutes, he poured in a career-high 47 points. His shooting efficiency was staggering. He hit 13-of-22 (59.1 percent) from the field, 2-of-4 (50 percent) from three, and 19-of-24 (79.2 percent) from the free-throw line.
Wall wasn't just the best scorer on the court, though—he was clearly the best player, padding his stat line with eight assists, seven rebounds, a steal and a block. Turnovers have been an issue at times in his early career, but the former University of Kentucky star gave just two away.
Even with some numbers working in their favor—Memphis entered the game with three straight road losses, Washington had won five in a row at home—this wasn't a game the Wizards were supposed to win.
Memphis was missing center Marc Gasol (torn abdominal muscle) for the second straight game. But Washington was nearly playing without its whole team. Rookie Bradley Beal (sprained ankle) missed his third consecutive game, and fellow starters Nene (sore knee) and Martell Webster (abdominal strain) joined Beal on the sideline, as did key reserves Trevor Ariza (flu) and A.J. Price (groin).
By the time the final buzzer sounded, none of that mattered. Wall nearly outscored all five Memphis starters (47 to 50). Emeka Okafor's 21 points, just the third 20-plus outing for the defensive center, helped the Wizards (26-44) handle the Grizzlies (47-23), 107-94.
With a limited number of healthy bodies, Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel delved deep into his available reserves to eke out a 100-94 win over the Atlanta Hawks.
Normally reserves Jeff Pendergraph and Orlando Johnson don't see the floor outside of garbage time. On Monday night, though, the two played a big factor in sending this game there.
The Pacers (44-27) looked destined for cruise control thanks to a 25-7 run in the second quarter. Pendergraph and Johnson were right in the thick of that surge, accounting for 20 of those 25 points.
But, as the final score suggests, Indiana came frighteningly close to giving that lead back. Atlanta coach Larry Drew had all but conceded the loss, emptying his bench to start the final period. But the Hawks (39-32) reserves refused to waive the white flag, narrowing the deficit to as little as four points.
Luckily the Pacers had done enough to prevent a horrendous 31-15 fourth quarter from spoiling their night. And they had Pendergraph and Johnson largely to thank for that. Johnson, a rookie, set his career high with 15 points. Pendergraph matched his season best with 14. The pair shot a combined 12-of-22 from the field.
It might not be enough to buy either any action come postseason time, but if either one sniffs out some playoff minutes outside of garbage time, it will be because of games like this one.
The Utah Jazz have looked like a well-paid punching bag of late.
They entered the night having lost 12 of their last 15 games, including dropping four straight. Their slide down the Western Conference playoff standings had them on the outside looking in, entering play a half-game behind the Dallas Mavericks for the 10th seed.
But thanks to a favorable nod from the schedule makers, the Jazz (35-36) welcomed the lowly Philadelphia 76ers (27-43) to the EnergySolutions Arena. And they looked determined to not let this game slip away.
They led by four points after the first quarter but a dominant 31-19 second quarter gave them a comfortable edge heading into the break.
No single player jumped off the box score, but that was a greater credit to their depth than to any rough outings from Jazz players. Seven different players scored in double figures and the team shot nearly 49 percent from the field.
Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks combined for 37 points off the bench. The reserve bigs added 16 rebounds, giving starters Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap a light workload (40 combined minutes).
This game doesn't put the Jazz completely back in the playoff picture, but it keeps them from being completely cropped out.