7 Takeaways from Monday Night's NBA Action
Much like the continually surprising Phoenix Suns, Monday night's seven-game slate of NBA action got off to a hot start and kept right on rolling.
John Wall nudged the Washington Wizards nearer to history, Tyreke Evans stunned the Portland Trail Blazers and Jimmy Butler showed up when the Chicago Bulls needed him most.
Plus, Shawn Marion turned back the clock against the Minnesota Timberwolves, completing his throwback night by somehow avoiding a game-changing foul call.
LeBron James proved that a man can live by jumpers alone, Goran Dragic made a Pacific Division statement and the Suns showed us all how wrong we were two months ago.
They say the second-to-last episode of any good TV series is always the best one. I like to think the penultimate edition of takeaways for the 2013 calendar year works the same way.
John Wall Has Dragged Washington to the Cusp of History
Thanks to John Wall's 29 points, seven assists and 14 made foul shots, the Washington Wizards defeated the Detroit Pistons by a final score of 106-99 on Monday. The victory moved the Wizards back to .500 for just the second time this season.
When the Wizards hit the 9-9 mark on Dec. 2, they promptly dropped four straight games, proving that success can be a little scary for a franchise that has enjoyed so little of it in recent years.
But Washington has now won five of its last six games and has a chance to make some serious history when it takes on the Dallas Mavericks on New Year's Day. If the Wizards win that game, they'll creep over the .500 mark for the first time since Oct. 31, 2009.
On that date, Gilbert Arenas led the Wizards to a 123-104 win over the New Jersey Nets to push their record to a modest 2-1 on the year. We've flipped the calendar four times since that fateful October night, and we'll do it one more time before Washington gets a chance to have a record with more wins than losses.
If Wall retains the aggression he showed against Detroit and the team defends like it did in a furious fourth-quarter clampdown that held the Pistons to just 12 points in the final period, there's a good chance we'll witness Wizards history on Jan. 1.
And if not, well...at least Washington will start 2014 in familiar territory.
It's Always Nice to See Old Friends
It had been so long since Jimmy Butler looked like himself that the Chicago Bulls were probably starting to wonder if the dynamic, aggressive, defensively dominant stud they saw last year was just a mirage.
Fortunately for Chicago, Butler looked more like his old self than he has at any point this year in Monday's 95-91 road win against the Memphis Grizzlies. The 24-year-old wing piled up a season-high 26 points on just 10 shots, nailed a couple of threes and got to the line 14 times in 41 gritty minutes.
Basically, Butler looked like Butler again.
With Derrick Rose going down earlier this year, Butler's ugly start didn't get the ink it otherwise would have. The fact that he also missed 11 straight games with a wicked case of turf toe further contributed to the anonymity of his poor beginning to the 2013-14 campaign. But with Chicago missing Luol Deng, Butler stepped up.
The effort against Memphis followed a 46-minute debacle on Dec. 28 that saw Butler score just 11 points on 10 shots while turning the ball over a career-high seven times. That sort of resiliency bodes very well for a Bulls team that will need all hands on deck for the rest of the season in order to compete.
Welcome back, Jimmy.
The Matrix Ages Well
I'm not sure how the Keanu Reeves sci-fi staple holds up some 16 years after it's box-office debut, but the man who earned his nickname from The Matrix looked pretty darn good on Monday night.
Shawn Marion is in his 15th NBA season, but you wouldn't have known it from how he played in the Dallas Mavericks' 100-98 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Matrix poured in 32 points on 14-of-19 shooting in 32 turn-back-the-clock minutes. Not only was the scoring total Marion's season high, but it was also the most points he'd scored in any season since joining the Mavericks in 2009.
He buried a pair of critical threes in the fourth quarter, and if there were any doubt about his night being charmed, Marion also got away with a highly questionable swipe at Kevin Love's deep jumper as time expired.
The play went into the box score as a block, but from certain angles, it certainly looked like Marion got a healthy portion of Love's arm. Regardless, the Mavericks got the result they were looking for on the road.
Per Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com, Marion didn't care about the controversy, saying after the game: "I'm more about winning games, whatever it boils down to."
If his calm demeanor after such a fantastic all-around effort made it sound like Marion had been there before, it's because he has been. It's just been a long time since he's been back.
Dallas can't expect its 35-year-old forward to step up like this on a regular basis. But it's nice for the Mavs to know they can count on some throwback magic every once in a while.
Portland Has a Problem
Everyone will be talking about the clutch late-game exchange between Damian Lillard and Tyreke Evans (rightfully so), but the real story behind the New Orleans Pelicans' 110-108 win over the Portland Trail Blazers was the atrocious interior defense Terry Stotts' bunch played.
New Orleans piled up an incredible 68 points in the paint as the Blazers simply refused to protect the rim. Evans got to the hole at will, scoring 12 points on a series of layups and runouts in his first five minutes off the bench.
On inbounds plays, in transition and even in pedestrian half-court sets, Portland surrendered easy looks at the rim.
Jrue Holiday exploded for 31 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds, and Anthony Davis outplayed LaMarcus Aldridge by a narrow margin, amassing 27 points, 12 boards and five blocks to Aldridge's 28 points and eight rebounds.
Perhaps ironically, it was Evans' 14-footer from outside the lane that sealed the deal with 1.2 ticks left.
A failure to defend the paint is no longer a small-time issue for the otherwise excellent Blazers. Per NBA.com, Portland now ranks 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency, a figure that will absolutely come back to bite it in the postseason.
All of the pace, triples and Lillard heroics are great to watch, but if Portland can't get its defense up to respectable levels, it's going to be in serious trouble come playoff time.
LeBron James Is Like an All-Female Dinosaur Population
I suspect you're wondering how I'm going to tie that slide title to a coherent point about LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Easily, that's how.
As Jeff Goldblum so famously intoned in Jurassic Park, "life finds a way." Sure, he used the statement to highlight the risk of dinosaurs reproducing at out-of-control rates within the ill-fated theme park despite the fact that scientists had engineered an all-female population.
But the point is relevant to James as well.
You see, LBJ suited up against the Denver Nuggets on Monday with a sore right groin that very nearly kept him sidelined entirely. Clearly hobbled, the King couldn't get to the hole at will, a limitation that removed the threat of his league-best restricted-area scoring.
Per Couper Moorhead of NBA.com: "LeBron attempted just one shot in the restricted area tonight, just the fourth time he's taken less than two as a member of the Heat."
But like those angry velociraptors, James found a way.
The King resorted to jumpers in his 40 minutes against Denver, and the results were eye-popping. LBJ scored 26 points on 8-of-15 shooting, including five triples on nine attempts. In addition, he handed out 10 assists and grabbed six boards.
Thanks to his ability to find a way, the Heat notched a 97-94 win at the Pepsi Center.
The lesson? In matters of dinosaurs and LeBron James, Jeff Goldblum is a pretty wise dude.
The Bobcats Are Halfway There
Al Jefferson didn't get the satisfaction of notching a win in his first return to Salt Lake City, but he came out of the Charlotte Bobcats' 83-80 loss to the Utah Jazz secure in the knowledge that his team has 50 percent of the necessary ingredients for winning basketball.
Charlotte can flat out defend, and it did so against the Jazz.
Utah managed to connect on just 42.5 percent of its field goals on the night, and if not for a sweet floater from Trey Burke in the waning seconds, the Bobcats defense nearly did enough to steal the contest.
This is nothing new for Charlotte, a team that currently ranks third in the league in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com. New head coach Steve Clifford has the Kitties defending the paint, running opponents off the three-point line and fighting like crazy on the glass.
Basically, the Bobcats defend like a legitimate title contender. Digest that for a second.
Of course, they can't score to save their lives, which is precisely why they're just 14-18 in a historically awful Eastern Conference. Still, it's impressive that the Bobcats have made such incredible strides in building a defensive system from scratch.
The Suns Have Made Fools of Us All
The Phoenix Suns' game-opening 9-0 run was more than a hot start. It was more than a message to the Los Angeles Clippers that the Western Conference's most defiant upstart was ready to play.
It was a signal—loud and clear—to every one of us who pegged Jeff Hornacek's team to do little more than contend for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
The Suns absolutely crushed Los Angeles, running their lead to as many as 29 points in a 107-88 victory that saw Eric Bledsoe play Chris Paul to an ugly draw while Goran Dragic completely dominated the game. Phoenix's shooting guard hit 10 of 15 field goals, scoring 26 points in 32 minutes while snatching five steals and handing out eight assists.
B/R's D.J. Foster tweeted: "This game was supposed to be all about CP3 and Bled, but Dragic is absolutely stealing the show. Been the best player on the floor by far."
Gerald Green threw down a wicked reverse jam in the second quarter, then went on to nail five triples on the way to 21 points off the bench. Markieff Morris notched a double-double, Miles Plumlee blocked three shots and Channing Frye buried four threes.
All that amounted to the Suns' 19th win of the year, a number that was supposed to represent Phoenix's win total for the entire season, per Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic.
You'll note that the players who contributed to the victory all had something in common: Nobody expected much from them this year. Perhaps that collective skepticism fueled the Suns.
Or, maybe Phoenix is just a hell of a lot better than any of us idiots ever dreamed.