Thursday, January 2, was a tough day for the league's elite. The last three teams to make the NBA Finals (Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City) all lost on their home court.
At least the Heat can hold their heads high; losing to the Warriors and their powerful scoring duo of Stephen Curry and David Lee is nothing to be ashamed of. The Thunder and Spurs, on the other hand, lost to a pair of bumbling New York teams.
That's right, it's a brand new day in the Big Apple. There's a new mayor in town, and the Knicks (105-101, over San Antonio) and Nets (95-93, over Oklahoma City) both walked away with a pair of season-defining victories.
Let's get to it!
Beating a 10-21 Orlando Magic team at home usually isn't much to feel excited about, but when you're 10-21 and missing your best player, like the Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers were on Thursday night, it can be the biggest win of the season.
Without the services of Irving, Anderson Varejao scored 18 points and tied a franchise high with 25 rebounds as the Cavaliers rallied for the 87-81 overtime win.
Cleveland caught a break when it was announced that the MRI on Irving's knee came up negative. The Cavaliers are already a long shot to make the Eastern Conference playoffs, so they cannot afford to lose winnable games with Irving on the shelf. On Thursday, Varejao made sure they didn't.
Who was the star of the Golden State Warriors' impressive 123-114 win in Miami against the Heat? Was it point guard Stephen Curry, with his 36 points and 12 assists, or was it power forward David Lee, with his 32 points and 14 rebounds?
Either way, the Warriors demonstrated the potency of their inside-outside scoring duo...against the defending champs, no less.
It would seem Golden State is developing a knack for beating the Heat on the road. Per ESPN Stats:
Heat have lost 2 home games to West teams since start of last season - both to Warriors. They are 19-0 against all others in that span— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 3, 2014
Clearly, Curry is their best player, but Lee is incredibly valuable to a Golden State team that sometimes becomes too reliant on the jump shot. When both players are on, the Warriors are impossible to stop.
The Brooklyn Nets are not winning many games this season, but they have established one positive trend: If they can keep the game close and get the ball to Joe Johnson at the end, they have a shot to win.
Johnson's buzzer-beater capped a 16-point rally and gave the Nets their most impressive win of the year, 95-93, over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Here is a clip of the shot.
Johnson also hit a clutch jumper to help the Nets beat the Phoenix Suns in overtime on November 15. That's two of their 11 wins!
Johnson has always been known as a clutch shooter, and even though his team has struggled this season, he clearly hasn't lost the knack. It's now up to the Nets to make sure he gets more chances to shoot Brooklyn to victory in the fourth quarter.
Few players had a more difficult end to the 2013 year than New York Knicks swingman Iman Shumpert. The trade talk, as noted by B/R's Alex Kay, the problems with the Knicks brass, all culminated in perhaps the worst month of Shumpert's three-year career. He averaged just 5.1 points per game on 31.4 percent shooting in December.
Well it's a new year, and so far it looks like a new Shumpert. Shumpert scored a career-high 27 points in New York's 105-101 win against the San Antonio Spurs. More than the points, it was the clutch play down the stretch, including a go-ahead tip-in with 24 seconds left, that propelled New York to victory.
With the Knicks getting virtually nothing out of reigning Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith, they could certainly use more games like this out of Shumpert if they intend to climb out of the bowels of the Eastern Conference.
The Boston Celtics turned in another dismal effort on Thursday, losing 94-82 to the Chicago Bulls. With the win, Chicago pulled ahead of Boston for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Despite the win, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was pleased with his team, according to Kent McDill at NBA.com: "I was actually very encouraged and the reason why is we played very physical."
Encouraging or not, this was the second loss in a row for Boston. Until recently, two straight losses wasn't exactly cause for panic in the weak Atlantic Division. But the first-place Toronto Raptors have won four in a row and are now four games ahead of Boston in the loss column.
The Celtics look like the only real challenger to Toronto in the Atlantic at the moment, but they'll need to not only encourage their coach, but actually win some games.
Everyone knows the Western Conference is far superior to the East overall, but what we didn't know is whether or not the worst team in the West could beat the worst team in the East.
Well, now we know. The last-place Utah Jazz had little trouble with the last-place Milwaukee Bucks, racing out to a double-digit lead and holding on for the 96-87 win. Gordon Hayward (22 points) and Derrick Favors (21 points, 11 rebounds) led the charge for Utah.
With the win, Utah has once again demonstrated the top-to-bottom superiority of the West. Five of Utah's six wins have come against the East, while only one of Milwaukee's seven victories have come against the West (December 31, at Los Angeles Lakers).
The 13-17 Memphis Grizzlies knew they didn't stand a chance against the 19-11 Phoenix Suns unless they slowed down the tempo. Per Basketball Reference, the Grizzlies rank 30th in the league in pace of play, while the Suns rank eighth.
So the Grizzlies played the Grizzlies' way, slowly and methodically, milking the shot clock for all it's worth. And the Suns played right into their hands.
The Suns usually average 103.7 points per game, but the Grizzlies held them 12 points below that mark in their 99-91 win. When a fast team plays a slow team, it's usually the team that dictates tempo that walks away with the victory. On Thursday, that team was Memphis.
If you live on the East Coast and want to see some serious three-point shooting, you might have to stay up well past your bedtime.
The Portland Trail Blazers are putting on a three-point shooting clinic on a nightly basis. On Thursday, they made a bit of history in their 134-104 win over the Charlotte Bobcats.
Per ESPN Stats:
Trail Blazers: tied franchise record with 21 3-pt FG; 1st team in history w/ 2 games of at least 20 3-pt FG in season (via @EliasSports)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 3, 2014
The Blazers spread the three-point wealth, with six players making at least two from behind the arc. They might not have the famous shooters, like Golden State, but they can shoot the ball with anyone in the league.
The Sacramento Kings just can't quite get over the hump. They had scored two huge victories over Miami and Houston in the past seven days, but they failed to take advantage of a beatable opponent at home, losing 113-104 to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 10-21 Sixers should have been easy pickings, playing on the West Coast. But the Kings' lack of scoring depth caused them problems yet again.
Eleven players saw time for the Kings on Thursday. Five of them—Rudy Gay, Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmer Fredette and Derrick Williams—combined for 100 of Sacramento's 104 points. The other six players finished with four points on 2-of-16 shooting.
Even against the very worst of the league, that kind of severe scoring imbalance will not lead to many victories.