8 Takeaways from Sunday's NBA Action
It was a sentimental Sunday in the NBA, as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett made their long-awaited first return to Boston. The outpouring of emotion at the TD Garden was incredible to watch—a rare instance during the January doldrums when a regular-season game is undeniably meaningful.
Although that contest marked the day's high point, plenty of other action served as both buildup and comedown from that emotional apex.
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs predictably played it cool, the New York Knicks chipped in to help Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis added to his growing legend.
Elsewhere, things continued heading south in Cleveland and Detroit, the Golden State Warriors flashed the one thing that separates them from the Portland Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets avoided a trap.
Here's everything you need to know about Sunday's eight-game slate in the NBA.
Easy Like Sunday Morning
Dwyane Wade came off the bench for the first time in six years, Gregg Popovich left the tie at home and a rematch pitting last year's NBA Finals contestants against one another turned into a very casual affair.
The Miami Heat coasted (because that's their preferred method of travel) to a 113-101 home victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday, and the intensity was lacking from the opening tip. To be fair, Chris Bosh was into the game, hitting nine of 10 shots for 24 points. And LeBron James put up 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 28 minutes.
For brief spurts, we saw a few things that resembled genuine effort.
As an example, the highlight of the contest was probably Greg Oden (three points on the night) flushing a dunk with Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan sandwiching him in the lane.
But overall, these teams just went through the motions. Getting healthy and making sure not to tip their hands in case of a playoff meeting in a few months, both the Heat and Spurs took it easy in this one. As a result, we didn't learn much about either squad or how they'd match up with one another in a game they actually cared about.
After the game, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said, "Did that feel like The Finals? No, it did not feel like The Finals," per the Associated Press (via ESPN).
If the league ever seriously considers shortening the season to alleviate meaningless games and give players more recovery time between contests, the tape from this tilt might serve as Exhibit A in the case for a truncated campaign.
Way to keep it casual, guys.
Sometimes, 35 Is Plenty
Carmelo Anthony didn't come anywhere close to tossing up another 62 points in the New York Knicks' 110-103 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Fortunately, he didn't have to.
Los Angeles' seemingly irreversible slide (it has now lost 16 of its last 19 games) assured that 'Melo's 35 points on 14-of-31 shooting would be sufficient to notch a Knicks victory. Also helpful was the effort of New York's supporting players.
Raymond Felton scored 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting, Tim Hardaway Jr. added 18, and J.R. Smith made half of his shots to net an efficient 16 points.
The Lakers shot 52 percent from the field but took a beating on the glass. Thanks to 16 offensive boards, the Knicks attempted 15 more field goals than L.A. did. In the end, those extra opportunities went a long way toward deciding this contest.
Solid efforts from complementary players and a wretched defensive performance from a reeling Lakers team ensured that Anthony could enjoy a win without going supernova in the scoring department.
Anthony Davis: Destroyer of Worlds
Merciless, bloodthirsty, immune to compassion or pleas for leniency, Anthony Davis solidified his cutthroat reputation by dunking on a baby on Sunday.
Sorry, what's that? Big Baby? Not an actual baby?
Well, that makes more sense.
Davis is still a complete beast, though, regardless of the size of the baby on the receiving end of his one-handed smash. And for what it's worth, the rest of the league is getting more and more familiar with the fear he's engendering.
Russ Bengtson of Complex wondered, "Once the Pelicans make their mascot less scary will they do something about Anthony Davis?"
His ruthless posterization of Glen "Big Baby" Davis punctuated a remarkable night that saw the New Orleans Pelicans' budding superstar notch 22 points, a career-high 19 rebounds and seven blocks. It's probably worth mentioning that the Pelicans won by a final score of 100-92 over the Orlando Magic—not that anybody will remember anything from this game besides AD's epic performance.
Still little more than an NBA infant himself, the 20-year-old Davis is growing at an astronomical rate. If he doesn't wind up as an All-Star reserve, the coaches voting on backups had better watch out. We now know Davis spares no one.
Ice Cream Is a Poor Halftime Snack
Having not been inside the Cleveland Cavaliers' locker room during halftime of their 99-90 home loss to the Phoenix Suns, I can't officially confirm that Kyrie Irving and his mates spent the intermission shoveling handfuls of Rocky Road down their gullets.
But what else could explain Cleveland's sluggish 2-of-22 shooting effort in the third quarter?
The Cavs scored a season-low six points in the third period, a pitiful total that allowed the Suns to surge back into the contest. Phoenix sealed the deal with a 31-23 advantage in the fourth quarter.
On the year, the Cavaliers rank just 25th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, so it's not totally shocking that they'd go completely cold for an entire quarter. Mike Brown has never been much of a strategist, either. When defenses lock in against Cleveland, he's rarely the man in possession of answers.
Even for a Brown-coached team, though, this was an ugly effort.
If the 16-28 Cavaliers can't make better halftime adjustments overall—and especially on offense—there's little reason to believe this disappointing campaign will ever turn around.
Getting the tubs of ice cream out of the locker room might be a good place to start.
You Can Go Home Again...And It'll Be Awesome When You Do
Not every NBA homecoming is a pretty sight.
Ill will, failed expectations and burned bridges make returning to a former home arena difficult for many players who have moved on. There never seemed to be much danger of a rude reception ahead of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett's first return to the TD Garden since being traded away over the summer, however.
Pierce was admittedly unprepared before the game. The man who spent the first 15 years of his career in Beantown said, "It's going to be special. I don't know how I'll react, what emotions are going to be going through my head," per the Boston Globe's Baxter Holmes.
The Truth was wrong: What happened went way beyond "special." It was a transcendent expression of loyalty, gratitude and bittersweet appreciation.
It sounds silly and overly sentimental to gush about the moving tributes the Celtics paid to their returning heroes. After all, basketball is really just a job, and those two were just employees.
But if watching thousands of people pour their hearts out to honor Pierce and Garnett's contributions doesn't show you that sports are sometimes so much more than they seem, I'm not sure what to tell you.
You don't need any rooting interest in the Celtics to feel the raw emotion behind what happened in Boston on Sunday. The Brooklyn Nets won a low-scoring contest by a final score of 85-79, but really, who cares?
This was about so much more than a game. It was about two players going home.
Something's Gotta Give
There's enough wrong with the Detroit Pistons that it's impossible to pin their struggles entirely on any one source. It just wouldn't be fair.
Then again, Maurice Cheeks is starting to look like the guy who deserves most of the blame.
Cheeks' squad lost 116-106 to the Dallas Mavericks, a defeat that marked the team's fifth loss in six games and dropped its record against Western Conference foes to just 2-15 on the year. Everything that has marked this disappointing Pistons season was on display in this one.
Detroit couldn't defend the basket, couldn't space the floor and couldn't get on the same page on either end. To make matters worse, Cheeks pulled Andre Drummond from the game just 11 seconds into the third quarter for reasons unbeknownst to anyone.
There's talent on this team, with size up front and skillful scoring in the backcourt. It's not a perfect roster, but it's better than 17-27—especially in the East. Cheeks hasn't nailed down a sensible rotation and hasn't figured out how to organize a solid defensive scheme, however.
Based on what we saw with Drummond, it now seems like he's growing frustrated with those failures.
Hiring retreads to coach young, talented teams is almost never a good idea. We've seen it fail dozens of times in the past, and Cheeks isn't doing anything to break the mold now.
The situation in Detroit isn't getting better. Sooner than later, something's going to give. And if someone's going to go, it's going to be Cheeks.
Escaping Trap Games Is Difficult, Not Impossible
If "trap games" actually exist, the Denver Nuggets played one against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday.
Fresh off a stirring 109-96 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday, the Nugs flew into Sacramento to do battle with the beleaguered Kings. Without Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings were in a weakened state.
Toss in the quick travel, the overconfidence stemming from a win against Indy and the fatigue of a back-to-back set, and everything was perfectly in place for Denver to suffer a letdown loss.
But the Nuggets pulled through, notching a 125-117 victory over the Kings behind 27 points from Ty Lawson and a whopping 31 made free throws on the night.
Pity the Kings for having to fight through a tough stretch without their two best players, but credit the Nuggets for avoiding a pitfall. If Denver is serious about getting back into the playoff conversation, it has to continue taking advantage of situations like this one.
We Got a Postseason Hint
Even after suffering a 103-88 defeat, the Portland Trail Blazers are miles ahead of the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference standings. To be exact, the Blazers hold a six-game advantage on the Dubs.
Records aside, we might have gotten a glimpse into why many pundits still believe the Warriors to be a bigger playoff threat than the Blazers: defense.
Golden State held Portland to 34 percent shooting, quite an achievement considering the Blazers rank first in the league in offensive efficiency. To be fair, the Warriors are the NBA's fifth-best defensive team. So it's not entirely shocking that the Dubs put the clamps on the Blazers like they did on Sunday.
Stephen Curry obliterated Damian Lillard in the point guard matchup, too. The man who'll start the All-Star Game for the West ripped off 38 points, eight assists and seven rebounds on 13-of-23 shooting. Lillard could only counter with 16 points, four assists and three boards on 5-of-16 from the field.
Keep in mind that the Trail Blazers were playing their second game in as many days; fatigue has to be the grain of salt in this analysis.
Still, it's well established that an elite defense is more important than an elite offense when it comes to title pursuits. The Blazers check in at No. 23 in defensive efficiency, which means they not only lack a way to survive when their offense goes cold, but also they lack the key ingredient most legitimate contenders need.