Thursday's eight-game slate of the Las Vegas Summer League was all about creating separation.
For the 16 teams on the floor, a win was the difference between a day of preparation for Saturday's quarterfinals and a win-or-lose-and-go-home game in Friday's consolation round in the summer league tournament. Until the real standings start moving, these were as close to meaningful games as there are going to be for a while.
Dion Waiters, Dwight Buycks and the Morris twins helped lead their teams to victory, while John Henson and Jordan Hamilton made plenty of noise even in losing efforts.
Not everyone came out ahead on Thursday—this is Las Vegas, after all. Deshaun Thomas' plummet back to Earth was like watching a 30-minute train wreck.
With so many games to digest and so little time before Friday's battle for the best losers, here's everything you need to know about Round 2 in Sin City.
Dion Waiters didn't need these games in Vegas to build his basketball brand. He was a first-team All-Rookie performer last season and flashed a versatile scoring arsenal perfectly suited to complement the strong offensive hand of Kyrie Irving.
Waiters doesn't belong here—the Cavs' 72-66 win over the San Antonio Spurs was just the latest example of that. He led all scorers with 27 points, connecting on better than 50 percent from the field (12-of-23) despite being the obvious focal point of San Antonio's defense.
He relentlessly attacked off the dribble, getting all the way to the basket or earning his way to the free-throw line. When defenders closed off his driving lanes, he poured in pull-up jumpers or worked off the ball for efficient spot-up looks.
There was already a concern that there wouldn't be enough offensive touches to go around for him and Irving. If Andrew Bynum looks anything like he did for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011-12 (18.7 points per game, 55.8 field-goal percentage), Cleveland has another mouth to feed on the offensive end.
But don't let Irving's gaudy scoring numbers (22.5 a night last season) fool you—he had scouts salivating long ago over his natural leadership qualities, along with his ability and willingness to share the wealth. It's hard to figure out where Cleveland ranks in the Eastern Conference picture heading into the 2013-14 campaign. For the first time in the post-LeBron-James era, that's absolutely a good thing.
The Milwaukee Bucks' roster purge this summer was the best play the franchise could've made. Rather than risking an ungodly amount of cash to see if Josh Smith could be their savior (he wasn't), the Bucks broke free from the never-ending cycle of mediocrity.
Monta Ellis found his free-agent money from the Dallas Mavericks. J.J. Redick signed with Doc Rivers' Los Angeles Clippers. Mike Dunleavy took his shooting stroke to the Chicago Bulls. Brandon Jennings hasn't officially been ruled out of the equation, but Milwaukee seems to be distancing itself from that analytical nightmare.
The Bucks haven't formally entered the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes (veterans O.J. Mayo, Carlos Delfino and Zaza Pachulia have all been brought on board), but they're closing in on landing an impactful player from next year's loaded rookie crop.
Milwaukee can take another step in the right direction if it lifts John Henson's puzzling minutes restriction. Despite producing whenever called upon (16.5 points, 12.9 rebounds, 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes), he managed only 13.1 minutes his rookie year.
Henson advanced his case for more playing time on Thursday. In 32 minutes, he tallied 16 points (7-of-11 from the field), 13 rebounds and three blocks.
Milwaukee ultimately fell, 72-68, to the Los Angeles Lakers, but could emerge as one of the night's biggest winners if it decides to loosen Henson's leash. A Henson-Larry Sanders frontcourt pairing is a nice foundation for the (hopefully) rebuilding Bucks.
The Golden State Warriors needed a lift.
The 16th seed Dallas Mavericks had the top-seeded Dubs teetering on the brink of elimination. Justin Dentmon's jumper with 7:04 left in regulation pushed the Mavs lead to 70-56 over the Warriors.
As he'd done so many teams from the Warriors sideline last season, Kent Bazemore gave his team that emotional boost and treated the fans inside the Thomas & Mack Center to a firsthand viewing of the best dunk of the Vegas summer.
My only question is, if Bazemore's the one filling the highlight reel, who's picking up the celebratory slack on Golden State's sideline?
On a more serious note, though, it's time for casual fans to understand that there's actually a talented basketball player behind those exuberant outbursts. Bazemore finished with a game-high 25 points and matched Draymond Green's team-best six boards as the Warriors rallied to a 79-76 win.
With Toney Douglas and Nemanja Nedovic battling for the right to back up Stephen Curry, Bazemore's days as a miscast reserve point guard should finally be over. Already a strong defender, if he shows the ability to consistently put points on the board he'll be another weapon in the suddenly crowded Warriors wing.
Dwight Buycks spent last season with BCM Gravelines in France, and was a member of the D-League's Tulsa 66ers the year prior. Attempting to do whatever it took to finally get his NBA career started, he suited up for the Oklahoma City Thunder in Orlando then headed to Las Vegas to play for the Toronto Raptors.
His hard work paid off. The Raptors announced that signed the former Marquette star on Tuesday, and two nights later he carried his team into the Vegas quarterfinals.
Despite Jordan Hamilton's 25 points, the Raptors rolled to a 95-78 win over the Denver Nuggets. Buycks led the way with 18 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, but Toronto also got strong contributions from some more familiar faces.
Jonas Valanciunas, who's lifted his ceiling as high as anyone on the summer league circuit, continued his stellar play with 15 points, 12 rebounds and a pair of blocks. Terrence Ross chipped in with 17 points and eight boards.
Toronto made an expensive gamble on new GM Masai Ujiri's ability to make this team a contender. Under-the-radar talent finds like Buycks won't make that leap possible by themselves, but they're a necessary step in building a competitive roster.
The Charlotte Bobcats made a $41 million investment in Al Jefferson this summer, and they're hoping to see instant returns once the real season gets under way. Still, the success that they've enjoyed in Las Vegas is unlike anything they'll experience at the big league level (in the short term, at least). So they have every reason to savor this moment.
Thursday's 92-84 win over the Memphis Grizzlies pushed Charlotte's summer league record to 3-1. The last time the real Bobcats sat two games over .500 was Nov. 12, 2012, when they started the year 6-4. By Jan. 1, Charlotte held an abysmal 8-23 mark.
Next season might not be that much better in terms of wins and losses, but there are signs that things are finally looking up.
Cody Zeller (18 points) has a deep of bag of offensive tricks and a motor that doesn't stop. His soft shooting stroke should open up space for Jefferson underneath, and he's an intriguing pick-and-pop partner for Kemba Walker.
Jeffery Taylor (18 points) does just about everything well and projects as a strong glue guy. Athletic, intelligent and a two-way contributor, he should set the tempo for the second team and keep the pressure on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to perform.
Deshaun Thomas had the lottery-level resume on draft night. In three seasons at The Ohio State University, he made dramatic improvements on a yearly basis, peaking with last season's 19.8 scoring average.
Unfortunately, he also had the physical profile of a fringe prospect. Just 6'7" and 215 pounds, he doesn't have the body to withstand the abuse in the NBA post nor the necessary athleticism to defend today's supercharged wings.
So Thomas slipped all the way to the No. 58 pick, where the San Antonio Spurs finally convinced themselves they'd find a way to put his natural scoring talents to good use. When the former Buckeye averaged 17 points (on 54.1 percent shooting) through his first three games as a pro, it looked like the Spurs had an unearthed another hidden gym.
That could still be the case, but Thomas' magical run through Las Vegas came to a screeching halt on Thursday. Despite seeing more than 30 (long) minutes of action, he managed just five points on a woeful shooting performance. He hit just 1-of-12 from the field and misfired on all four of his three-point attempts.
On the plus side, he did track down six boards and dropped a pair of dimes—at least partially dispelling the notion that all he does is score. Fresh off their NBA Finals appearance, the Spurs didn't enter draft night in dire need of talent. If Thomas can give a scoring boost in spot duty next season, this is still a sound investment.
Alvin Gentry tried to maintain the tempo for the Steve Nash-less Phoenix Suns last season (a 93.4 pace, ninth-highest in the league), but he didn't have the scorers to produce at even an average rate (95.2 points per game, 21st).
Jeff Hornacek might not have a lot of scorers, either, but he's got the bodies to turn any NBA game into a world-class track meet.
The Suns soared past the Portland Trail Blazers, 92-84, on Thursday behind a blistering 31-of-65 (47.7 percent) showing from the field. Six different players scored in double figures, led by 15 each from Markieff Morris and Dionte Christmas.
Freakish athlete Archie Goodwin had a rough shooting night (1-of-6) but made 11 trips to the charity stripe thanks to his quick first step and strength. Look for Goodwin and Eric Bledsoe to do their best Mike Wallace impressions if Kendall Marshall can steal some snaps from incumbent signal-caller Goran Dragic.
Throw a healthy Alex Len near the basket (or filling a lane in transition), and this Suns squad should be fun to watch, if nothing else.