6 Takeaways from Sunday Night's Surprising NBA Action
Of course, there was also reason to believe that the Washington Wizards might finally return to their woeful ways, or that the Boston Celtics would muster a vintage performance against the hated New York Knicks.
None of those things happened.
Instead, NBA fans got a heavy dose of the unanticipated, as Chris Bosh morphed back into a superstar, the Wizards continued to lay the groundwork for a promising future and the Knicks rolled on.
Oscar Wilde once said, "To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect."
Well then, I guess you'd better get those intellects ready—here come the takeaways from a surprising slate of NBA action.
The Wizards Are a Playoff Lock...in 2014
So long, mediocrity!
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The Washington Wizards got a career-high six three-pointers from rookie Bradley Beal and a genuine, all-around point-guard performance from John Wall in their 109-92 dismantling of the Toronto Raptors.
And while a win over the lowly Raptors isn't exactly cause for celebration, the Wizards' overall run since the calendar flipped to 2013 definitely is.
Over the past three months, Washington has amassed a 23-22 record. A horrible start that featured just four wins in the team's first 32 games means that the recent return to respectability won't be enough to earn the Wizards a playoff berth this season.
But considering the overall weakness of the bottom half of the Eastern Conference—and keeping in mind that Washington's young players are only getting better—it looks like the Wizards are all but assured of a postseason ticket next year.
Wall has been fantastic in stretches and he appears to be grasping the nuances of his position with every passing game. Against Toronto, he showed improved control of the contest's pace, scoring 18 points and dishing out 10 assists against just one turnover.
Plus, Beal is already a legitimate scoring threat at the NBA level. Some better luck in the health department next year will make him one of the brightest young stars in the game.
Throw in the underrated play of Nene and a cast of solid veterans and it's clear: Washington is no longer a joke. Next year, the Wizards will be the ones laughing their way to the postseason.
Kyrie Irving Is Unfamiliar with Rust
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It's a little odd that Kyrie Irving is somehow immune to rust, seeing as how he plays in the middle of the Rust Belt and all.
The Cleveland Cavaliers point guard returned to the court on Sunday for the first time since March 10, and his 31-point performance in just 29 minutes of action was more than sufficient to assuage any worries that his game might be suffering from its recent disuse.
The Cavs came nowhere close to beating the New Orleans Hornets, who ran away with the game in the second half to finish with a comfortable 112-92 win. But Irving's apparently healthy return was really all that mattered to Cleveland.
Given how little the Cavs have to play for at this point in the season, it's a little surprising that they decided to trot Irving back out at all. Perhaps now that they've seen enough to know he's not suffering any ill effects from the knee and shoulder injuries that have hampered him this season, they'll shut him down and hope for improved lottery position.
There Is No Quit in the Bulls
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Despite trailing for nearly the entire contest, the Chicago Bulls never gave in, ultimately erasing a Detroit Pistons advantage that was once as great as 13 points in pulling out the tight 95-94 victory.
Luol Deng was everywhere, apparently not subject to the fatigue that should be wearing down the league's leader in minutes per game by now. He pumped in a team-high 28 points, pulled down nine boards and scored the first eight points for his team in the fourth quarter.
Deng's tireless work is hardly a novelty for the Bulls, though. Jimmy Butler, meanwhile, rebounded from an awful game against the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday to turn in a 16-point, five-steal effort against the Pistons.
Still playing without defensive anchor Joakim Noah, the Bulls suffered inside, allowing the Pistons to shoot 50 percent from the field. On the boards, Detroit outmuscled the Bulls, grabbing 45 rebounds to Chicago's 37.
Nonetheless, Chicago worked its way to the line for 40 attempts from the stripe and forced 16 turnovers to eke out the narrow victory.
From a practical perspective, the win moved the Bulls back into the No. 5 spot in the East, mere percentage points ahead of the idle Atlanta Hawks. But in a more symbolic way, the gritty triumph was emblematic of a Bulls team that doesn't know the meaning of the word "quit."
Chris Bosh Is Still a Superstar
With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sidelined with a pair of phantom injuries, Chris Bosh must have felt like he had entered a time warp to the year 2006. Suddenly, he was the only star-caliber talent on a team surrounded by role players and physically limited veterans.
The circumstances clearly felt familiar to Bosh, who tapped into the alpha-dog edge he had as a Toronto Raptor on his way to 23 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
What's more, Bosh's willingness to take (and make) the game's biggest shot cemented his status as a player who still had the ability to step into a leadership role if necessary.
With less than two seconds on the clock remaining, Bosh buried a three-pointer—his third of the day—that gave the shorthanded Heat a two-point win over the visiting San Antonio Spurs.
Bosh let out a howl as his teammates mobbed him, beating his chest as if to signal to the world, "I'm still here, and I'm still a star."
Bosh with a full roar after that one.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) April 1, 2013
Miami all but secured home-court advantage through the NBA Finals by notching its 58th win, but more critically, it got a dominant performance from Bosh when it needed one.
The Knicks and Celtics Are Headed in Opposite Directions
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While the Boston Celtics continue to slip slowly downward in the Eastern Conference standings, the New York Knicks have won eight straight (their longest winning streak since November 2010). In the latest matchup between these two teams, the disparate trajectories (and their sources) were on fully display.
The Celtics got absolutely nothing from anyone not named Paul Pierce or Jeff Green in their decisive 108-89 loss to the Knicks. Outside of Pierce and Green, the other three Boston starters combined for just six points on 3-of-11 shooting.
In contrast, the Knicks got their usual production from Carmelo Anthony (24 points and 10 rebounds), but also enjoyed 22 surprising points from Chris Copeland, 15 from J.R. Smith and 10 from Steve Novak.
New York hit 14-of-27 triples on the night, and seven different Knicks rang the long-distance register at least once.
The hot shooting and unselfish style (23 assists) that the Knicks used to wallop the stagnant, clunky Celtics has been a trademark of their recent run. If Tyson Chandler can return at something close to full strength, the Knicks may end up in as good of a position as anyone to tackle the Heat in an eventual playoff series.
The Celtics, though, are stumbling to the finish.
Kevin Garnett is banged up, Pierce is on an island and the cobbled-together reserves aren't producing consistently. At this rate, it's possible that the Celtics will stagger into the playoffs with a record below the .500 mark.
Pierce and Co. had better put Sunday's embarrassing beating out of their minds, quickly; if the season ended today, Boston and New York would be squaring off in a first-round series.
Andre Drummond Has Some Things to Work Out
Everyone in Detroit Piston country was ecstatic when Andre Drummond returned to the court on Saturday for the first time since Feb. 6. There was good reason for that excitement, as the 19-year-old rookie picked up right where he left off—dominating the paint on both ends.
But a couple of air-balled free throws on Sunday probably tempered some of that enthusiasm.
Drummond may yet turn into a franchise center. He's got elite athleticism, plenty of size and all the tools to become a serious threat down low. And statistically, he's a beast, posting a PER of 22.63 that ranks 13th in the NBA.
To be fair, Drummond still played an excellent game against the Bulls. With eight points, 14 rebounds a couple of assists and a bloc in 23 minutes, he remained as productive as ever.
He'll just have to work on that 36 percent stroke from the charity stripe this summer—preferably in an empty gym where nobody has to watch his pitiable struggle face when he comes up two feet short on a 15-foot shot.