12 Takeaways from Saturday's NBA Action
Twelve games were played on Saturday, December 28. As usual, East Coast NBA fans had to stay up late to catch the evening's marquee matchup, which happened out West.
The Portland Trail Blazers might have felt confident hosting a Miami Heat squad missing LeBron James. But Chris Bosh had other plans.
In Atlanta, the Hawks were forced to carry on without All-Star center Al Horford against a game Charlotte Bobcats squad. Forty-eight minutes were not enough to settle that contest.
The Rockets and Pacers both held serve at home, while the Bulls learned that their home-court advantage isn't what it used to be.
Let's get to it.
Chris Bosh Is Still Pretty Good at Basketball
When you're the third wheel on a team featuring an all-time great LeBron James) and a surefire Hall-of-Famer (Dwyane Wade), you can sometimes get overlooked, even if you are an eight-time All-Star like the Miami Heat's Chris Bosh.
But with James sitting out Saturday night's matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers, Bosh got a rare chance to be Miami's first option. And he took advantage.
The Blazers hadn't lost to an Eastern Conference team (11-0) until Bosh hit a three-pointer with 0.5 seconds left to send Miami to a 108-107 victory. Bosh had 37 points in the win.
In case you doubted his ability to hit a big-time three late in a tight game, let the good people at ESPN Stats put the debate to rest.
Chris Bosh is 7-for-10 in his career on potential game-tying or go-ahead 3-point attempts in the final 10 seconds of the 4th quarter/OT.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 29, 2013
Not bad for a third wheel!
Kyrie Irving Still Needs Help
The Cleveland Cavaliers did their best to rally in their first game since the suspension of center Andrew Bynum. Kyrie Irving scored 21 of his game-high 32 points in the second half. Irving and Dion Waiters combined for 21 points in the fourth quarter.
Alas, the Celtics blocked Waiters' potential game-tying layup, and held on for the 103-100 win. Irving displayed his usual late-game magic, but the Cavs could not quite make it over the hump.
The Cavaliers have struggled of late, losing six of their last seven. Irving has picked up his game after a dismal start to the season and Waiters seems to have found his niche coming off the bench. But their play is not adding up to victories.
Cleveland needs somebody to step up and support their star. Now that Bynum is out of the equation, the list of potential helpers is growing short. If the Cavs want to make the playoffs, they might have to make a trade.
The Toronto Raptors Are Elite (When They Play in Their Division)
The Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors are an easy team to mock; a sub-.500 team leading a historically terrible division. But the Raptors are a good team...so long as they're playing within their own division.
The Raptors completed a two-game, home-and-home sweep of the New York Knicks with a 115-100 win on Saturday night. Toronto had three players score at least 20 points: Kyle Lowry (32), Terrence Ross (23) and DeMar DeRozan (20)
Toronto is now 5-1 against the Atlantic and 8-14 against the rest of the league. Luckily for them, they will play another 10 games against their Atlantic brethren, including two more against these same pathetic Knicks.
If Toronto can play simply mediocre basketball against the rest of the NBA from here on out, they have a chance to finish the season over .500, thanks to their inter-divisional dominance.
The Washington Wizards and Bradley Beal Dodged a Bullet
Perhaps no team this season has played such a roller-coaster back-to-back as the Washington Wizards experienced on Friday and Saturday.
Friday's game was one of the lowest points of the season. The Wizards lost badly, 120-98 to the Timberwolves. More importantly, shooting guard Bradley Beal suffered what looked to be a horrific knee injury.
But the injury wasn't as bad as it looked, and Beal played just 24 hours later, scoring 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting as the Wizards crushed the Detroit Pistons, 106-82. Washington scored their biggest win over Detroit in more than two decades, according to ESPN Stats.
The @WashWizards beat the Pistons, 106-82, their largest win over Detroit since April 3, 1992. Ledell Eackles led the Bullets with 29.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 29, 2013
The victory is nice, but the relief of seeing the promising young Beal back on the court with no ill effects is even sweeter for Washington fans.
The Brooklyn Nets Might Just Get a Win on Their Road Trip
The Brooklyn Nets finished the first game of perhaps the toughest three-game road trip any team will face this season, losing 105-91 to the Indiana Pacers. From Indy, the Nets will travel to San Antonio to face the Spurs on December 31 before finishing the trip in Oklahoma City on January 2.
Coming into Saturday, that looked like three guaranteed losses. But Brooklyn showed some moxie against Indiana, staying with the powerhouse Pacers through most of the game. Paul Pierce (18 points) and Mirza Teletovic (17 points) led the way for Brooklyn.
The Nets will be huge underdogs in their next two games, but if they play like they did in Indiana and find some way to avoid their nightly third-quarter-of-doom, they will have a chance.
Their best chance might be that third game in Oklahoma City. The Thunder have the league's best record, but they recently lost point guard Russell Westbrook to knee surgery. The Thunder might be ripe for the picking.
The Chicago Bulls Are Better off Playing the East
The Chicago Bulls were looking to build on back-to-back wins and climb back into the Eastern Conference eighth seed on Saturday night. But those two wins came a pair of Eastern Conference punching bags, Cleveland and Brooklyn.
On Saturday, the Bulls learned that wins are much harder to come by when facing the Western Conference, when they lost handily to the Dallas Mavericks in Chicago, 105-83.
The Bulls dug themselves a 32-point hole before making a late charge in the fourth. But a 32-point deficit is pretty much rally-proof, even for the best offenses. And the Bulls are far from that.
Dallas is by no means a power out West, but they were more than a match for the Bulls on Chicago's home court. The Bulls have one more Western Conference matchup, at Memphis, before returning to the East for three straight. That's probably for the best.
The Memphis Grizzlies Can (Occasionally) Score
Twenty-four NBA teams played on Saturday, and the highest scoring squad was...the Memphis Grizzlies?
Believe it. The Grizzlies torched the Denver Nuggets to earn the 120-99 victory. The Grizzlies' bench scored 62 points, with four reserves (Ed Davis, Jerryd Bayless, Mike Miller and James Johnson) scoring in double figures.
Over the past few seasons, Memphis has developed a reputation as a team reliant on defense to win ballgames. But the Grizzlies have struggled mightily on that side of the ball this season. Losing reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol to injury certainly didn't help.
Per Basketball Reference, Memphis came into Saturday ranked just 24th in the league in defensive efficiency. With that kind of defense, they'll need to have plenty of scoring if they want to get back into the Western Conference playoff race.
Philly Was November's Cinderella; Phoenix Is December's Cinderella
In the first few weeks of the season, the young Philadelphia 76ers captured the imagination of the basketball-viewing public with stunning upsets over Miami, Chicago and Houston.
But the Sixers have gone just 3-17 since then, confirming the preseason suspicion that they would be among the worst teams in the NBA. The Cinderella crown has passed to the Phoenix Suns, who came into Saturday with a shocking 17-11 record.
Make it 18-11. Phoenix easily brushed aside the Sixers on Saturday, 115-101. Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Miles Plumlee all scored at least 20 points for Phoenix.
Unlike the Sixers, the Suns don't appear ready to head down to the basement anytime soon.
The Atlanta Hawks Are Resilient
In their first game since hearing of teammate Al Horford's season-ending pectoral muscle injury, the Atlanta Hawks rallied for a much-needed overtime win over their divisional rivals, the Charlotte Bobcats.
Atlanta needed a last-second three from reserve Pero Antic to send the game into overtime, where they finally prevailed, 118-116. Paul Millsap led the Hawks with 33 points, while reserve Lou Williams chipped in 28 points off the bench.
Before Horford's injury, the Hawks looked like the clear-cut third-best team in the Eastern Conference. At 17-13, they are still only one of three Eastern teams over .500.
Washington and Charlotte look much improved in the Southeast Division, so the Hawks will need to find ways to scratch out more wins like this one.
It's Nice to Talk About Blake Griffin's Game Again
Few players in the NBA are as polarizing right now as Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin, which is surprising, given the fact that he never says anything controversial.
Griffin got caught up in a firestorm on Christmas night when he was ejected from a game against the Golden State Warriors. After the game, Griffin called the Warriors' tactics "cowardly," adding more fuel to the fire.
On Saturday night, however, Griffin simply played. He scored a season-high 40 points in the Clippers' 98-90 win over the Utah Jazz. Utah isn't an elite team by any means, but their frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter is formidable.
People like to dissect Griffin's game. Is he overrated? Underrated? Everyone has an opinion. But sometimes you just need to sit back and watch the guy work.
The Houston Rockets Are Cleaning House in the Southwest Division
Don't look now, but the Houston Rockets appear to be coming out of their December doldrums. The Rockets were just 5-6 for the month before Christmas, but since then they have won three straight over division opponents: San Antonio, Memphis and New Orleans. Houston finished off the Pelicans at home on Saturday, 107-85.
The Rockets led by just one going into the fourth quarter, but pulled away late thanks to the clutch scoring of James Harden (11 fourth-quarter points) and Jeremy Lin (10 fourth-quarter points).
Harden relished his part in the Rockets' fourth-quarter dominance. Per NBA.com's Matt Miller:
That's what I'm here for, just to be a playmaker and finish games off. ... Our first three quarters, we weren't great. We just stuck around. ... In the fourth quarter, when the time was right, we just did everything that we needed to do to win.
Houston is now 6-2 in the Southwest Division, with the only two losses coming to Dallas. They have beaten division leader San Antonio both times the two teams have played. The Spurs had better watch out.
Nikola Pekovic Is Having Himself Quite a Month
The Minnesota Timberwolves bullied their way to an easy 117-95 win over an overmatched Milwaukee Bucks squad on Saturday.
Kevin Love chipped in his usual 33 points and 15 rebounds. But his double-double buddy, Nikola Pekovic (19 points, 11 boards) has also been playing well of late.
The big man from Montenegro struggled a bit to start the season after signing a big contract in the offseason, but he is putting up some monster numbers in December.
According to NBA.com, Pekovic is averaging 20.9 points and 9.8 rebounds this month. More importantly, the Timberwolves have climbed back into ninth spot in the Western Conference, at 15-15. If they want to continue to rise in the West, they will need Pekovic to keep up his quality of play.