7 Takeaways from Monday Night's NBA Action

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2014

7 Takeaways from Monday Night's NBA Action

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    You're probably wondering what Carmelo Anthony is so happy about.

    Well, on the surface, the above photo clearly depicts a satisfied 'Melo celebrating a made three-pointer against the Phoenix Suns. But Anthony's mirth probably also has something to do with the fact that his New York Knicks are somehow back in playoff position.

    That's right; after stumbling around for half a season as a dysfunctional circus, the 15-22 Knickerbockers have a ticket to the postseason dance...for now.

    Elsewhere, the Toronto Raptors improved their own postseason lot, Dwight Howard entered uncharted territory and the Dallas Mavericks did something they haven't done in three years.

    Intrigued?

    Good, that means you're primed to digest Alec Burks' cameo as a No. 1 option and Tim Duncan's bizarre effect on the San Antonio Spurs' defensive performance.

    All that and more awaits in Monday's NBA takeaways.

There's a New Third Wheel in the East

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    No Eastern Conference team came into Monday's action hotter than the Toronto Raptors, who have the best record in the East (13-5) since trading Rudy Gay. And as everyone knows, the best way to stay scorching is to square off with the Milwaukee Bucks.

    The Raps soundly thumped the Bucks by a final score of 116-94 in a game that was virtually never in doubt. That victory gave Toronto 10 wins in its past 13 contests. More importantly, it vaulted the Raptors into the No. 3 spot in the East.

    Technically, Toronto is tied with the Atlanta Hawks, trailing the Indiana Pacers by 10 games in the conference. But by virtue of an Atlantic Division lead and a fractional lead in winning percentage, the Raps are now the No. 3 seed.

    Kyle Lowry, now more likely to finish the season in Toronto than ever, led his team with 23 points on just eight shots. Jonas Valanciunas chipped in with a double-double, and DeMar DeRozan continued his brilliant run since Gay's departure.

    Look, it's no great achievement to knock off the Bucks, who are easily the worst team in the East this year, a distinction that puts them in the running for worst team in the history of the universe.

    But good teams take care of business, and the Raptors did exactly that.

    The rest of January is shaping up nicely for Toronto, too. Of its 10 remaining games this month, just three will come against teams currently in playoff position.

    Neither the Pacers nor Miami Heat are in any danger of slipping out of the top two spots in the East. But the Raptors are in position to put a choke hold on that third spot, which virtually assures them of a cupcake matchup in the first round of the playoffs.

    So much for tanking.

New Season, New Team, New Dwight

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    Ever since Dwight Howard spurned the Los Angeles Lakers' max offer this past summer, fans of the Purple and Gold have collectively convinced themselves that they never wanted D12 to return in the first place.

    So strong is that shared sentiment that there's almost no statistic that could make Lakers loyalists miss the big man.

    But it probably doesn't feel good when Howard is surpassing last year's personal milestones before the midseason mark of the 2013-14 campaign.

    The big man ate the Boston Celtics alive in the Rockets' 104-92 road victory, piling up 32 points and 11 boards on 11-of-17 shooting in 37 minutes. Remember that stuff about personal milestones?

    Check this out, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info: "Dwight Howard: 4th 30-point, 10-rebound game this season (had 3 such games all of last season)."

    Maybe it's improved health. Or perhaps Howard is just enjoying life in a new city where nobody's totally hip to his childish, look-at-me schtick. Either way, he's giving the Rockets the kind of effort the Lakers wish they could have had.

New York Knicks: Playoff Bound

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Don't read too much into the headline here; the Knicks are technically the East's No. 8 seed after notching a 98-96 overtime victory against the Phoenix Suns.

    But a lot can happen between now and when those seeds actually mean something in April.

    Granted, New York's porous defense allowed Goran Dragic to amass 28 points and even surrendered 21 to the recently resurrected Leandro Barbosa. It was also less than encouraging to see the Knicks surrender a seven-point fourth-quarter lead, forcing the game into overtime.

    Still, for a Knicks squad that was floundering at 9-21 on Dec. 28, a five-game winning streak punctuated by a gutsy finish against Phoenix has to count for something.

    Carmelo Anthony led the way with a workmanlike 29 points and 16 rebounds, and his desperate crunch-time assist to Raymond Felton in the corner was critical late against the Suns.

    It's hard to know whether this recent Knicks surge is sustainable, but right now, at this very moment, a solid streak of basketball has New York in playoff position.

    This is something to treasure whether you're a Knicks fan or not, mostly because it means the world is mere seconds away from collapsing in on itself.

The Chicago Bulls Are Doing Their Best

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    The Chicago Bulls' modest five-game winning streak came to a halt on Monday as Joakim Noah and Co. fell 102-88 at home to the Washington Wizards. But it wasn't for lack of effort.

    Kirk Hinrich did all he could to stay with John Wall, but the Wizards' lightning-quick guard got wherever he wanted all night long. Wall sped up the floor in transition, drove the lane and whizzed around picks en route to 19 points, seven assists and five boards.

    Noah and Taj Gibson made an effort to slow Wall down when he made it into the paint, but the Wizards were able to take advantage of a collapsing defense by knocking down shots and cutting into space. The ball was hopping, and try as they might, the Bulls just couldn't keep up.

    Such is life for a team now adjusting to a world without both Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.

    Don't expect Chicago to give in, though. If we learned anything over the past few days, it's that the Bulls don't know how to quit.

    Per The Associated Press (via ESPN), Gibson is already using the Bulls' first defeat of 2014 as fuel: "Games like this humble you. Right when you're feeling too good about yourself, you're feeling invincible, a team comes in there and smacks you, wakes you up to reality."

    There will be plenty more games in which the Bulls are outmanned and outgunned. If Gibson's sentiments are any indication, Chicago will keep fighting.

Even Robots Break Down Eventually

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Something strange is happening with the San Antonio Spurs this season: They're playing substantially better defense with ageless icon Tim Duncan on the bench.

    Coming into their tilt with the New Orleans Pelicans, the Spurs' defensive rating improved by nearly six points per 100 possessions with Duncan on the pine, per NBA.com.

    No word yet on whether pigs are flying.

    In a 101-95 win over said Pelicans, that bizarre trend continued. Duncan fouled out at the 6:01 mark in the fourth quarter after contributing 18 points and nine rebounds in 26 minutes. When the big man sauntered to the bench, Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News tweeted: "One thing to note: On/Off numbers indicate Spurs are much better on D without Duncan. We'll see."

    Also of note: This was the first time Duncan had fouled out since 2010.

    When Duncan sat down, San Antonio had an 89-87 advantage. From that point on, the Spurs expanded their lead gradually, snatching steals and forcing tough shots from the inexperienced Pelicans.

    It's hard to know whether this is something the Spurs need to be worried about. Duncan always seems to be slowing down by degrees, but he's still been a productive, valuable contributor this year. In other words, we've been looking for the beginning of the end for this guy since sometime in 2005.

    The defensive splits are unusual. But let's not send Duncan back to the factory just yet.

The Mavs Are in Championship Form...In a Manner of Speaking

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    According to the AP (via ESPN), the Dallas Mavericks are playing better than they have in a very long time: "The Mavericks (23-16) moved seven games over .500 for the first time since the end of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season—the year after they won the franchise's first championship."

    Yeah, maybe it's a little misleading to say a 23-16 record constitutes "championship form," but there's no getting around the fact that Dallas hasn't been this good since it was technically a defending champion.

    At any rate, the Mavs dispatched the reeling Orlando Magic at home by a final score of 107-88, getting double-figure scoring from six players and hitting 50.6 percent of their shots as a team. With Dirk Nowitzki playing efficiently but lacking high-volume production, it's critical for Dallas to get a balanced effort like that.

    According to Bryan Gutierrez of Mavs Outsider, Dallas has won all six games in which at least six players have cracked double digits.

    With their next three games coming against teams currently in playoff position in the West, the Mavericks are going to need all hands on deck. Beating the Magic is one thing, but with the Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers on the docket, things are going to get much tougher for Dallas in the immediate future.

    Championship form or not.

Alec Burks: No. 1 Option?

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    It's probably a little early to start asking whether Gordon Hayward's role as the Utah Jazz's top dog is in jeopardy, but Alec Burks certainly played like a guy looking to assume a bigger share of offensive responsibility on Monday.

    Despite having just four previous NBA starts to his name, Burks stepped in for an injured Hayward to lead the Jazz to a surprising 118-103 victory over the streaking Denver Nuggets. Winners of five straight coming in, Brian Shaw's boys had no answer for Utah's shooting guard.

    Burks piled up a career-best 34 points on 13-of-19 shooting in 38 minutes. He barreled into the lane relentlessly, forcing Denver's defense to collapse. When the Nuggets bigs came to help, Burks drew contact, found open teammates or said "screw it" and finished anyway.

    Just two of Burks' made field goals came outside the lane, and he amassed eight free-throw attempts on the night.

    It was only one game, but you're sorely mistaken if you think the Jazz are looking past it. Utah is evaluating everyone on its roster carefully as it seeks to rebuild. Burks' role has always been that of a slashing scorer, but if he builds on this performance, you can bet Utah will think harder about making him a bigger part of its long-term plans.