8 Takeaways from Friday Night's NBA Playoff-Primed Action

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBAFeatured Columnist IVDecember 16, 2016

8 Takeaways from Friday Night's NBA Playoff-Primed Action

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    At this point in the season, it goes without saying that an 11-game NBA schedule is rife with playoff implications.

    Friday night's frenzied action was no exception to the rule. Only one game featured two teams outside of the playoff picture, two if you consider the Dallas Mavericks toast.

    Some teams had the luxury of sitting their stars, as their playoff picture has grown abundantly clear. Others poked and prodded at their premier performers, hoping to find two more weeks of elite play lurking in their bruised and battered bodies.

    That strategy (hope is probably the more appropriate term) worked better for some than it did for others.

    Read on to find out which teams are itching for the start of postseason play and which ones are starting to plan their vacations.

1. Don't Do the Right Thing?

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    If Carmelo Anthony firing at will is wrong, then New York Knicks fans don't want to be right.

    The All-Star forward continued his scalding play, matching a Knicks franchise record with his third consecutive 40-point game (via NBA.com). His victim on Friday night was a Milwaukee Bucks team that spent the first 24 minutes heading for its first road victory in nearly a month.

    Milwaukee entered the break nursing a nine-point lead, holding New York to just 36 points in the first two quarters.

    But the third quarter brought problems for the Bucks—42 of them, in fact. New York doubled up Milwaukee 42-21 in the period, as both Anthony and J.R. Smith started to catch fire.

    Anthony torched the Bucks for 42 points in an efficient 17-of-28 showing. Over his last three games, he's averaged a ridiculous 43.7 points with a 64.2 field-goal percentage to boot (via NBA.com).

    Thankfully, Smith was there to pick up whatever slack Anthony left. Smith dropped 30 points on 11-of-22 shooting.

    The pair nearly toppled Milwaukee by themselves but needed a smattering of support from their teammates. The Knicks (49-26) cruised to a 101-83 win over the Bucks (36-39), matching the franchise's third-best winning streak with their 11th straight victory.

2. Miami Mike

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    The Miami Heat could have packed it in after the Chicago Bulls snapped their league-best 27-game winning streak on March 27. 

    For all intents and purposes, that's exactly what they did. LeBron James (hamstring) and Dwyane Wade (leg) assumed cheerleading duties with Miami coach Erik Spoelstra opting to give his stars some needed rest in preparation for his team's attempt to defend its title.

    Yet even with James, Wade and Ray Allen (who tweaked his ankle late in Miami's loss to New York on Tuesday night) out of action, the Heat tallied their third win in their last four games.

    Granted, the victory came at the expense of the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, but the Heat still needed to replace the 59 points that their resting trio has averaged on the season.

    Spoelstra needed an answer, and veteran Mike Miller looked like he'd been waiting for this game all season. If he had, I'm guessing he's not the first reserve that's giddily circled a date with the Bobcats on his calendar.

    Miller erupted for a season-high 26 points, burying seven of his 11 attempts from outside. Mind you, this is the same player who entered the contest averaging just 13.6 minutes in the 51 games he's played this season.

    Chris Bosh added 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists, and Rashard Lewis finished with 14 points as the Heat (59-16) handled the Bobcats (18-58) 89-79 in Charlotte.

    The rich are clearly getting richer at this point. Miami's starting five is the best in the business, but games like these give Spoelstra even more flexibility heading into the postseason.

3. Disaster (Barely) Averted

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    Look, I get it. If comfortable wins are something you enjoy watching, then you've probably never been a fan of a Tom Thibodeau-led team.

    The Chicago Bulls can't worry about style points when they struggle to accumulate any points at all.

    But it looked as if Chicago had found enough of them on Friday night when Nate Robinson's jumper gave the Bulls an 87-78 lead over the Orlando Magic with less than four minutes left in regulation.

    Then a minute passed without any Chicago points, and a Nikola Vucevic jumper cut the lead to seven. The next minute again saw no offense from the Bulls, but two more buckets for Orlando cut the deficit to three.

    When Doron Lamb came up with a Robinson turnover on Chicago's next possession and Tobias Harris threw down a transition dunk, suddenly the Bulls were only up one with 1:33 still left on the clock.

    Both teams saw two more possessions—and none of them produced any points.

    When the final buzzer mercifully sounded, the Bulls (42-33) had somehow stumbled into an 87-86 win over the Magic (19-58).

    It was ugly and tough to stomach at times.

    It was just what we've come to expect from Thibodeau's team.

    It's not an easy way to win basketball games, but it does lend itself better to the slower-paced world of playoff hoops.

    Still, the Bulls could get bounced in the first round or roll all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, and neither outcome would surprise me.

4. Sorry, but KD Is Nice

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    Maybe he felt his three-year hold on the scoring crown slipping away. Maybe the motivation stemmed from his team's ability to take another step in improving its playoff positioning.

    Or maybe it was just the kind hands of karma rewarding Oklahoma City Thunder (56-20) superstar Kevin Durant for the good deeds that the folks at Nike and Foot Locker would like us all to forget.

    Whatever the reasons behind it were, his performance in the Thunder's resounding 97-75 win over the Indiana Pacers (48-28) on Friday night was nice.

    That's hardly what Thunder fans would have called the game as they watched their brightest star limp to the locker room with a bruised left calf after a tightly contested first half.

    But Durant returned to action and throttled one of the NBA's best defensive teams. He needed just 21 field-goal attempts to reach his 34 points, giving him at least 30 points in three of his last four games.

    Russell Westbrook chipped in with 24 points (on 10-of-24 shooting from the field), nine assists and seven rebounds as the Thunder moved into a tie with the idle San Antonio Spurs atop the Western Conference standings.

    Now whether that's a good or a bad thing may hinge on which dog wins the race for the eighth and final playoff spot out West.

    At least, it might have that effect for the basketball pundits who keep predicting a postseason showing from the Los Angeles Lakers unlike the effort they've shown throughout the season.

    The Thunder could probably care less which team they'll face in the first round. They are 3-1 on the season against the Lakers and 2-1 against the Utah Jazz, the two teams battling for that last spot.

5. Trouble Brewing in Boston?

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    If the Boston Celtics (39-37) want to put together the postseason run that the Boston faithful keep assuring us they will, then they better put out an APB on the nearest light switch.

    The Celtics have spent the last month scrounging whatever scraps they can find among the NBA's cellar dwellers. Save for an Atlanta Hawks team dealing with its own set of problems, coach Doc Rivers' team hasn't defeated a playoff team since eking out an 83-81 win over the Pacers back on March 6.

    But on Friday night, even the bottom-feeders started feasting on the Celtics' remains. The Cleveland Cavaliers (23-52), a team that has compiled the fourth-lowest winning percentage in the league, escaped TD Bank Garden with just their 10th road win of the season, defeating an undermanned Boston squad by a count of 97-91.

    The Celtics have now lost eight of their last 11 games, nine of which they've been forced to play without Kevin Garnett. He missed his seventh consecutive game with inflammation in his left ankle.

    Boston desperately needed his interior defense in this game. Cavs forward Tristan Thompson entered the game averaging 11.3 points and 9.2 rebounds on the season, but he lit up the Celtics frontline with 29 points and 17 rebounds in 41-plus minutes.

    These games are effectively meaningless at this point, as Boston's struggles have effectively destined it for a seventh seed.

    But the Celtics' struggles on the defensive end, where they've allowed opponents 102.3 points per game over their last nine outings, are hard to ignore with a potential first-round matchup looming against Carmelo Anthony's Knicks.

    There's no real relief if New York stumbles either. If Boston can't contain a player like Thompson, how will it fare against Indiana's bruising frontcourt?

6. Jazz Find Their Rhythm

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    The Utah Jazz will go as far as Gordon Hayward can take them.

    That means he's either grossly underrated, or coach Tyrone Corbin's team just doesn't have a lot of talent.

    Frankly, it's probably a combination of both.

    But team chemistry can often trump talent in exhaustive playoff races, and no race will be more taxing than the push for the eighth seed out West.

    A 95-83 win over the New Orleans Hornets (26-50) doesn't guarantee them a playoff berth by any stretch, but it keeps the Jazz (40-37) in the fight.

    Hayward isn't this team's best player; he's their third option at best. But he is the most consistent perimeter scorer this team has, the player Corbin can rely on to free up space for his big bodies to go to work in the paint.

    He shrugged off a 1-of-8 start to finish with a team-high 23 points, hitting eight of his final 10 shots. The space he created helped Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors bang with an overmatched Hornets frontcourt, and the trio responded with a combined 44 points on 20-of-32 shooting from the field.

7. D'Antoni Finds the Defensive End

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    When's the last time the Lakers didn't play a must-win game?

    With the media hanging on their every step, it's impossible for coach Mike D'Antoni's team to miss what's at stake over these final weeks. It's not like the Lakers really need any reminding, though, not with Kobe Bryant on the roster.

    Their Friday night clash with the Memphis Grizzlies wasn't a must-win due to their opponent. This same Grizzlies team had already handed the Lakers a pair of losses in their first two meetings.

    But Utah's win, coupled with the fact that a victory here could bring the momentum L.A. needs after an emotionally grueling season, made this contest one that the Lakers just had to have.

    For the third time in as many games, the Lakers (40-36) emerged victorious.

    The game didn't lack for drama, as Mike Conley took a contested layup in the closing seconds that would have knotted the score.

    But it didn't need to have as much drama as it did either. Bryant missed two jumpers, Steve Blake missed a three and Dwight Howard split a pair of free throws all in the game's final minute.

    When it mattered most, though, the Lakers made the play they had to make. Howard cut off a driving Conley and forced him to take a look destined to miss before it even left his hands.

    The Grizzlies (51-25) controlled the pace of this game, holding the Lakers to just 86 points. But D'Antoni's team showed a little grit and grind of their own, limiting Memphis to 84.

    With the win, L.A. held its half-game lead on the Jazz.

    The Lakers have to show this level of intensity over their remaining six games, as Utah holds the tiebreaker.

8. Rocketing Toward the Finish Line

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    The Houston Rockets don't know exactly where they'll finish in the standings, but they've given their fans enough confidence to start scouring for playoff ticket bargains.

    Don't expect coach Kevin McHale to call off his dogs just yet, though.

    The Rockets (43-33) sprinted past the reeling Portland Trail Blazers (33-43) in their 116-98 win on Friday night.

    Houston got 55 points from its starting backcourt (James Harden and Jeremy Lin) but still managed to put together a box score that reads as a well-balanced attack.

    Greg Smith started for the fourth straight game and put himself in solid position to keep the starting nods coming his way. He compiled 19 points on a 5-of-6 showing from the field and 9-of-12 effort at the free-throw line before fouling out after logging 24 minutes.

    Francisco Garcia and Donatas Motiejunas also hit double figures (11 and 10, respectively) although their points didn't come nearly as easily (they shot a combined 7-of-19).

    But this win started and ended with the play of Harden and Lin. Besides those 55 points (which included converting 19 of their combined 34 field-goal attempts), the pair combined for 14 assists (against eight turnovers) and 11 rebounds in their 69 minutes on the floor.

    Even in the face of so many offensive eruptions (LaMarcus Aldridge tallied 32 points in the game), the Rockets guards showed some might on the defensive end. Rookie of the Year lock Damian Lillard needed 12 field-goal attempts for his 11 points, and backcourt mate Wesley Matthews needed 19 attempts to hit 18 points.

    The Rockets remained a game back of the Warriors for the sixth seed but stayed three games in front of the eighth-seeded Lakers.