9 Takeaways from Friday Night's NBA Action

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 13, 2013

9 Takeaways from Friday Night's NBA Action

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    It was a triumph turned tragedy during the NBA's heavy 14-game schedule on Friday night.

    The night opened with so much promise. Six Eastern Conference playoff teams took to the hardwood in head-to-head battles in possible previews of postseason matchups.

    When the action headed out West, the storylines didn't relent. The haves looked to stand ground, and the have-nots funneled a season of disappointments in an effort to play spoiler.

    The schedule was packed with promise and delivered game after game. When only two teams were left standing, the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors, the night's intensity only increased.

    The squads traded buckets, as both teams tried mightily to flex their superstar strength. But it was the loss of one of those superstars that will come to define this night. It was a loss that the basketball world can only hope isn't permanent.

Winning, but at What Cost

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    Kobe Bryant's desire to win has been on full display for every second of his 16-plus-year NBA career. Love him or hate him, there's always been an underlying respect for one of the game's all-time greats.

    But even Bryant's most ardent supporters had never seen anything like what he's shown over these last six games. A student of the sport in every respect, he understood better than anyone how damaging a lost season would be for a Los Angeles Lakers team that started the year with so much promise.

    This wasn't about a change in style of play or a series of ridiculous scoring outbursts. We'd seen all that from him before. This was about a man willing his team to victory night in and night out, no matter the potential lasting effects he was placing on his body.

    Entering Friday night, Bryant had averaged an astounding 45.6 minutes per game over his last six outings. Regardless of his world-class training regimen or even his age, analysts and fans alike were amazed but what they saw but unable to shake the what-ifs stemming from his heavy use.

    The worst fears of the hoops nation were realized in the closing minutes of the Lakers' 118-116 win over the Golden State Warriors.

    Bryant had logged every second of the game's first 44:54, during which time he not only poured in 34 points, snagged five rebounds and tossed out four assists but also carried a noticeable limp that grew worse as the game went along.

    But with 3:06 left in regulation, his body had had enough. He stayed on the floor long enough to bury a pair of clutch free throws, then headed straight for the Lakers locker room so the trainers could get a closer look at the reason behind his limp.

    The initial diagnosis was nearly incomprehensible:

    Lakers say Kobe Bryant is suspected to have torn his left Achilles. MRI needed tomorrow to confirm but ... wowza

    — Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) April 13, 2013

    This is the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history. A player who's spoken at length about retirement over the past years, and admitted just weeks ago that he was leaning toward calling it quits after next season.

    Selfishly, I'm hoping he makes it back on to the floor. But more than that, I'm hoping that he's comfortable with whatever decision he makes.

Bigger Than 3

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    With a series of absences for playoff rest (LeBron James, Chris Bosh) or more legitimate ailments (Dwyane Wade), the Miami Heat hadn't spent much time together lately.

    Well, not with a fully loaded Big Three at least.

    Wade returned to action for the first time since March 29 and brought with him some anticipated rust—12 minutes of it in fact. Before the Heat faithful had settled in their seats, you know the whole fashionably late thing, Miami (63-16) was staring at a 27-17 deficit to the Boston Celtics (40-39).

    Whether Erik Spoelstra pushed the right buttons or the Heat simply awakened from their slumber, things changed quickly and dramatically over the next 12 minutes. Miami slashed, shot and slammed its way to 41 second-quarter points, its highest scoring period of the season.

    They eased off their burners over the second half, sliding into a comfortable 109-101 win by the end of the night.

    This wasn't the same trio that Heat fans were used to seeing. The efficiency level was still there (they shot a combined 18-of-32 from the field en route to 48 points), but the forward-thinking Erik Spoelstra limited the trio to just 87 minutes, nearly 30 fewer than their season average.

    As has been the story throughout the Heat's current five-game winning streak, Spoelstra found contributions throughout his rotation. Rashard Lewis scored a season-high 19 points, Ray Allen added 17 and Norris Cole chipped in with 12 as the Heat benched outscored the Celtics reserves 52-14.

'Melo Malone

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    Carmelo Anthony took one more step toward the first scoring title of his career. And he needed fewer than 30 minutes to do it. The Cleveland Cavaliers sort of have that effect on opposing stars.

    Anthony poured in an efficient 31 points (12-of-24 from the field, 2-of-5 from deep) and enjoyed J.R. Smith's fourth-quarter barrage from the sideline. Smith added 31 points of his own, also in under 30 minutes, and connected on his last 12 shots to finish 13-of-16 on the night.

    The Knicks' (52-27) 101-91 win over the Cavs (24-55) doesn't happen without Anthony continuing his torrid scoring. He's averaging a staggering 36.2 points per game over his last nine games.

    But there's another notable Anthony trend developing, one that's worthy of far more recognition than it has received. He had 14 rebounds in this game, the fourth time in his last five that he's corralled at least 12.

    In fact, over that same nine-game stretch, he's averaging 10.6 per game with an astounding 41.4 percent of those boards coming on the offensive end (he had seven in this game).

    So I'm offering up the new official nickname for the Knicks star: Melo Malone.

    He scores it like Karl, rebounds like Moses and always goes glasses in his GQ moments.

Brooklyn's Finest

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    Now that rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z is preparing for life as a Scott Boras clone, he might want to look back to his former team to build his budding sports agency's clientele.

    If he's able to get back into the Barclays Center (which shouldn't be too difficult since he owns a minor percentage of it), he has to make a beeline for Deron Williams' locker room. Carmelo Anthony might have the majority stake in New York City, but Brooklyn belongs to Williams.

    Rather than sulk over a rare All-Star weekend break, he used the time to cleanse his system and found the right treatment to cure his ailing ankles.

    D-Will 2.0, who bears a Cliff Paul-esque resemblance to D-Will 1.0, put the Indiana Pacers through a point guard clinic on Friday night. He thrashed the Pacers backcourt for 33 points (including five threes) and 14 assists in Brooklyn's 117-109 win.

    Indiana should have been ready for this. Since the All-Star break, Williams has averaged 23.2 points and 8.2 assists per game.

    Brooklyn's game plan as a whole was fairly simple: give it to any one of its three stars and get out of the way. The Nets got just three points out of 40 percent of their starting five (Reggie Evans and Keith Bogans) and 81 from their other three starters (Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez).

    With the victory, the Nets (47-32) guaranteed themselves home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. They also moved just two games back of the Pacers (49-30) for the third seed, as Indiana lost for the third time in its last four games.

Deng, That's Rough

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    A night after snapping the New York Knicks' 13-game winning streak, the Chicago Bulls couldn't carry that same magic past customs.

    Coach Tom Thibodeau's team headed north of the border for a Friday night date with a Toronto Raptors team playing without Jonas Valanciunas (neck), Terrence Ross (ankle) or postseason aspirations.

    And for the second time this week, the undermanned Raptors (31-48) defeated the short-staffed Bulls (43-36), this time with a more comfortable 97-88 edge on the scoreboard.

    Veteran Nazr Mohammed started in place of the injured Joakim Noah (foot) a night after failing to get off the bench against the Knicks. He gave Chicago a commanding advantage in terms of the substitute centers, outscoring Aaron Gray 16-6 and out-rebounding him 13-6.

    But that's where Chicago's advantages started and stopped.

    Carlos Boozer needed 19 field-goal attempts to reach 19 points before fouling out after 31 minutes. Luol Deng labored through a 3-of-9 night from the field (10 points) but did dish out eight assists (against no turnovers) in his 33 minutes.

    Chicago, the NBA's eighth-worst three-point shooting team at 34.6 percent, couldn't take advantage of a rare strong showing from its perimeter shooters. Nate Robinson (3-of-5) and Marco Belinelli (2-of-5) helped the Bulls reach a 50 percent success rate from beyond the arc.

    In the end, though, they couldn't find any answers for Amir Johnson (24 points, nine rebounds), Rudy Gay (23 points, five steals), Kyle Lowry (13 points, nine rebounds, 11 assists) or DeMar DeRozan (19 points).

    With the loss, Chicago eliminated any chance of hosting a first-round playoff series and has now lost four of its past five games against lottery-bound opponents.

Boston Baked in Scorching Heat Wave

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    The Celtics knew their trip to South Beach wasn't for leisure.

    Boston entered the game without Kevin Garnett for the ninth time in its last 11 games and didn't have Paul Pierce available for the third time in its last six. Both players were dealing with ankle injuries.

    Doc Rivers rode his starting five for as long as he could. No Boston starter saw fewer than 32 minutes, with Jeff Green's 36-plus leading the way.

    Whether you want to credit Miami's defense or blame Boston's tired legs, the Celtics could not shoot their way to victory. They connected on just six of their 23 attempts from long range, exactly half of what the Heat got out of the same number of attempts.

    Rivers' regulars showed up. Jeff Green (25 points) topped the 20-point mark for the sixth time in his last nine outings. Brandon Bass (17 points) hit double figures for the sixth straight game.

    But Boston simply ran out of productive bodies. Bass, Green, Jordan Crawford (20) and Courtney Lee (18) accounted for 80 of the Celtics' 101 points.

    If Pierce and Garnett are healthy and ready for playoff basketball, Rivers has something work with—even in a likely first-round matchup with the New York Knicks.

    If they're not, it's probably time to start thinking about vacation plans, maybe seeing the brighter side of Miami for a change.

Big Al Goes Big Time

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    The Utah Jazz do not control their own destiny; they are a game behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the last playoff spot. But the only scoreboard watching Utah center Al Jefferson was doing was seeing just how far his numbers could go.

    Jefferson blasted a Nikola Pekovic-less Minnesota Timberwolves frontcourt for 40 points (which matched his career high), 13 rebounds and six assists (a new career high). More importantly, his effort wasn't wasted. The Jazz (42-38) edged the Timberwolves (29-50) 107-100 in Salt Lake City.

    Even against an injury-riddled Minnesota squad, Jefferson's performance came out of no where.

    It's not that Jefferson doesn't have the talent, but he hadn't even hit 20 points in his last four games. He eclipsed the 30-point mark just three other times this season, and he hadn't done so in more than two months.

    But with Enes Kanter (shoulder) lost for the season and the Jazz struggling to find offense of late, this was the kind of effort Jefferson will need to bring for Utah to eke out the eighth seed.

    Asking for 40 and 13 a night is a little much, but he might need more than the 17.7 and 9.2 he's averaged on the year.

Failure to Launch

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    It was the age-old battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object when the Memphis Grizzlies headed out for a road match with the Houston Rockets.

    At least that was how it was billed. The Rockets pitted their league-leading offense (106.2 points per game entering the contest) against the Grizzlies' stifling defense (89.5 points allowed per game).

    Well, that unstoppable force never really got started. And that immovable object didn't budge.

    The Rockets (44-35) matched a season-low in points in their 82-78 defeat at the hands of the Grizzlies (54-25). Houston shot just 31.1 percent from the field and turned the ball over 20 times.

    Houston coach Kevin McHale leaned heavily on his star players (James Harden and Jeremy Lin), and in terms of points only, they delivered (47 combined). But the duo shot just 12-of-37 from the field and were responsible for 12 of those turnovers.

    Memphis didn't fare much better on the offensive end, connecting on a mere 34.9 percent of its field-goal attempts. But the Grizzlies mustered up enough grit and grind (and got 30 points and 20 rebounds from Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) to come away with their 23rd road win of the season.

    The Rockets entered play just a half-game behind the Golden State Warriors for the sixth seed. The difference between the sixth and seventh seed is delaying a playoff showdown with either the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Then again, the sixth seed could also mean a first-round matchup with these same Grizzlies. Their win, coupled with the Denver Nuggets' overtime loss to the Dallas Mavericks, moved Memphis into a tie for the third seed, although Denver holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Wasted Effort

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    Stephen Curry logged one of the finest 44 minutes of basketball that the league had seen this entire season.

    His Golden State Warriors had a chance to build a comfortable, at this time of the season at least, 1.5-game lead over the Rockets for the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

    And Curry did everything in his power to put his team in position to topple the Lakers in front of a raucous Staples Center crowd.

    He brutalized the Lakers backcourt for 47 points. He drilled 17-of-31 from the field, 9-of-15 from three and all four of his free throws.

    For kicks, he threw in nine assists (against only one turnover), six rebounds and three steals.

    But like his 50-point effort inside Madison Square Garden earlier this season, Curry's efforts were wasted.

    The Warriors dropped a heartbreaking 118-116 decision to the Lakers, a loss that may well carry heavy playoff implications for this club.