The winds of change are blowing in the NBA, and even though we have yet to pass the quarter pole in the season, some major trends are starting to take shape.
Monday's NBA action featured LeBron James further distancing himself from the rest of the mortals who populate the league, the Boston Celtics heralding an impending apocalypse and the Dallas Mavericks failing to protect their own house for the first time this year.
Elsewhere, the New Orleans Pelicans got a wake-up call from the mighty San Antonio Spurs, and Iman Shumpert sent a clear message to a flailing New York Knicks organization.
Key injuries reared their ugly heads in Memphis and Chicago, too.
There are still a great many months left in the 2013-14 season, but Monday's games went a long way toward setting up the storylines we'll be following all year.
Thanks largely to James' singular statistical brilliance, the Miami Heat knocked off the Phoenix Suns by a final of 107-92.
For most players, amassing 35 points on better than 75 percent shooting—while also totaling five rebounds and four assists—would be a major career milestone. It'd be worthy of celebration and would warrant news blurbs and tweets from just about every NBA-related news source on the web.
For James, that's just a routine Monday.
LBJ has done it twice in the last two weeks.
If he's waiting for company in his rarefied statistical stratosphere, he'd better not be holding his breath.
Although, that might help determine whether or not James actually breathes air like the rest of us. Maybe if we sort that one out, we can move on to wondering about more pressing issues. You know, like whether or not he's also got X-ray vision and the power of flight.
Maybe the heading for this slide sounds a little sensational. But in securing their sixth win of the season by dropping the Charlotte Bobcats, the Celtics now have as many victories as the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets combined.
If that doesn't signal the end of days, I'm not sure what does.
Boston was supposed to completely mail in its season in hopes of kick-starting a rebuilding effort. The Nets and Knicks were both supposed to be on the fringes of championship contention.
And yet, here we are.
Brandon Bass' eight fourth-quarter points had a lot to do with the Celtics' 96-86 triumph. The same could be said for Gerald Wallace's 17 points off the bench. Those are both logical, rational explanations for what happened.
But if you want to attribute Boston's victory—along with the mind-blowing fact that it now has as many wins as both New York franchises put together—to the chaos that typically accompanies an apocalypse, I won't be the one to stop you.
The Indiana Pacers' 98-84 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves didn't prove that Paul George and Co. are literally undead. But based on the way Indy chased down and devoured the Wolves on the way to its 13th win of the year, the figurative comparisons are starting to slant that way.
Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press tweeted: "This is what the Pacers do to people. They grind on them, wear on them and eat them alive."
Again, not literally.
George Hill kept the Pacers going through the game's first three quarters, ultimately finishing with 26 points, seven assists and five steals. But it was Paul George who took Indy home, igniting a late third-quarter run that extended into the fourth to turn a one-point deficit into a 17-point lead.
By working together and willingly exchanging alpha-dog roles during the game, Hill and George combined to sink a very good Wolves team.
Those last three sentences are probably the best evidence that the Pacers are, in fact, not zombies. Coordinated effort, a sense of the moment and teamwork aren't typically associated with hordes of reanimated corpses.
Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks shared a contentious relationship for the better part of four years, ultimately resulting in a point guard swap that sent the lefty to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Knight this past offseason.
With his old team in town, Jennings got his first crack at the franchise with which he started his NBA career on Monday.
And he wasted no time in making a statement.
As part of a 21-0 first-quarter run, Jennings nailed a trio of triples in a 90-second span. That would have been a noteworthy achievement for any player, but Jennings had been struggling mightily with his jumper all season long.
I'm guessing the added motivation of playing against his former team was helpful in straightening out his broken stroke.
All told, Jennings finished with 15 points and 13 assists on 5-of-10 shooting in Detroit's walkover 113-94 win. The loss was Milwaukee's ninth in a row.
Vengeance belonged to Jennings on this night.
Let's get this out of the way so Houston Rockets fans don't feel slighted: On a night when James Harden missed yet another game because of a sore foot, the Rockets put on a fourth-quarter clinic in an impressive late comeback against the Memphis Grizzlies.
When the dust settled, Houston had outscored the reeling Grizzlies by a margin of 38-23 in the final period en route to a 93-86 victory.
But the real takeaway here is that Marc Gasol's absence is going to be devastating for Memphis.
Anyone who's watched the Grizzlies play over the past few seasons could have foreseen that. But in the first game since Gasol left with a sprained MCL, all of Memphis' flaws were on full display. Flaws that, until now, Gasol's all-around game largely obscured.
Without the league's best passing center orchestrating the offense from the elbows, the Grizzlies simply couldn't get anything going. They shot just under 42 percent from the field, and Mike Conley knocked down just two of his 14 attempts.
Spacing has always been an issue for the Grizz because their perimeter shooters aren't consistent enough to stretch defenses. So, Gasol's operation at the elbow has long been one of the only ways Memphis could unclog the middle and create lanes for cutters.
Kosta Koufos will absorb Gasol's minutes while the Spaniard recovers, and he played well against the Rockets. But his eight points and 13 rebounds didn't come with the defensive brilliance or unparalleled facilitation skills that Gasol brought to the table.
It's going to be a long few weeks for the Grizzlies. If they can't find a way to patch together a cohesive offense without their best player, a brutal Western Conference schedule could result in a lottery berth for the team that made the conference finals last season.
Heading into Monday night's contest against the Denver Nuggets, the Mavericks had a perfect 7-0 record at home. In notching a 110-96 win at the American Airlines Center, the Nuggets pretty much kicked in the door, roughed up the occupants and walked out with a valuable victory in hand.
It was an invasive effort by Denver.
Appropriately, Nate Robinson—a man often described as having the guts of a cat burglar—masterminded the operation.
His personal 11-2 run in the fourth quarter took a tight game and put it out of reach. Denver's scoring guard pumped in three long-range bombs and another jumper between the 8:37 and 5:31 marks in the final period. Dallas got just a single field goal from Monta Ellis during that span as the lead ballooned to an insurmountable 13 points.
Robinson finished with 17 points on the night, joining five other Nuggets in double figures.
The next time the Nuggets roll into Dallas, the Mavs had better find a solution for their shaky perimeter defense. Otherwise, Robinson and the rest of Denver's guards will pull off another heist.
The New Orleans Pelicans were riding high, emboldened by a three-game winning streak and feeling confident as they ventured into the AT&T Center to take on the San Antonio Spurs.
Following a blowout 112-93 loss that saw the Pellies fall behind by as many as 31 points, it's safe to assume that New Orleans has come back to Earth.
The Spurs did lots of "Spurs" things—which is to say they executed brilliantly on offense, created a never-ending parade of open shots and generally outclassed the young Pelicans in every way. On the night, San Antonio registered 30 assists on 44 made field goals, shot 54 percent from the field and knocked down 40 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc.
New Orleans center Jason Smith offered up the understatement of the year after the game, per Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune: "That's a good team over there."
Yes, Jason. Yes it is.
The Pelicans are still a respectable 6-7 on the season, and they also still have Anthony Davis, whose "bad" game included 10 points, six rebounds and four blocks. So, reality's not all bad.
No D-Rose? This stinks.
The Chicago Bulls took a royal beating in their first game after Derrick Rose's devastatingly sad knee injury, dropping a 39-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 24. And now they've followed up that effort with a dismal overtime loss to the worst team in the NBA.
Yep, the Utah Jazz outlasted Chicago in an 89-83 overtime contest that painted a grim picture of what the Bulls are facing without Rose for the rest of the season.
Kirk Hinrich, Marquis Teague and Mike James combined to score just three points on 1-of-7 shooting. Rose might have been having a rough season before his injury, but the output of his replacement trio makes his substandard numbers look positively spectacular.
Granted, Chicago was on the back end of a back-to-back set and was probably still reeling from the loss of Rose for the second consecutive season. But the effort from the Bulls backcourt was so bad, so unequivocally awful, that general manager Gar Forman and his staff have to be thinking about blowing things up.
On a lighter note, rookie Trey Burke was integral in leading the Jazz to their second win of the season. He had 14 points, six rebounds and four assists in his fourth game back since breaking a finger on his right hand.
Incredibly, Utah's point guard situation (which very recently included Jamaal Tinsley) is now more promising than Chicago's.
The New York Knicks lost their 10th game of the season and sixth in a row, falling 102-91 to the surging Portland Trail Blazers. And from the looks of things, one of their most valuable assets has totally checked out.
Iman Shumpert failed to score a single point in 23 minutes, filling his stat sheet with only a steal, two turnovers and three fouls in his time on the court. After the game, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported that Mike Woodson was planning to talk to Shumpert on Tuesday to "see where his head's at."
Here's a theory: The talented wing has emotionally given up on a team that doesn't seem to want him.
Isola reported earlier this month that the Knicks were considering swapping Shumpert for Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, and it seems as though hardly a day has gone by this season without a story surfacing about the Knicks' desire to parlay Shumpert into some other asset.
Shumpert's disengagement is really just a predictable symptom of a diseased organization. From owner James Dolan on down, there's a poison seeping through the Knicks. Worse still, there seems to be a prevailing belief that cutting off one of the team's healthiest limbs (Shumpert, if the analogy's unclear) would serve as a cure.
Expect the putrefying Knicks to see more—not less—of the kinds of games Shumpert turned in on Monday. Everybody should want out of New York.