11 Takeaways from Wednesday Night's NBA Action

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2014

11 Takeaways from Wednesday Night's NBA Action

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Wednesday's NBA action featured a marquee matchup pitting LeBron James and Kevin Durant against one another for the first time this season.

    With both superstars at the height of their powers and eager to prove their superiority, it seemed reasonable to expect almost anything. And then, because the NBA gods have a sense of humor, it turned out to be Kendrick Perkins who made the biggest impact in the contest.

    Don't worry; I'll explain later.

    Elsewhere in the Association, Kyle Lowry continued to make things easy for the Toronto Raptors, the Minnesota Timberwolves reached a turning point and Dirk Nowitzki continued to act like he is living in 2006.

    Plus, Marc Gasol kept things simple for the Memphis Grizzlies, and Goran Dragic made one final push toward his first All-Star berth.

    It was a busy evening around the league, and much of what happened will have major repercussions throughout the rest of the season.

    Enough preamble! I'm sure you can't wait another second to learn how on Earth someone like Kendrick Perkins managed to actually matter in a high-stakes showdown. Although, if you think about it for a second, you might be able to guess...

Kendrick: Good Dude, B.A.A.D. Center

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    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    We can't start any conversation about the Oklahoma City Thunder's 112-95 defeat of the Miami Heat without touching on the obvious storyline first: Kevin Durant extended his scoring streak against the man he's trying to beat out for an MVP award, putting up more than 30 points for the 12th consecutive contest.

    KD had 33 points—including 23 on 9-of-17 shooting when guarded by LeBron James—and his current stretch of games with 30-plus points is the longest such run in more than a decade.

    Miami jumped out to an early lead, but OKC torched the Heat for the final three quarters, feasting on a team that went just 3-of-19 from long distance. James put up 34 points on 12-of-20 shooting but simply didn't get enough help from his teammates.

    But back to that surge after the first quarter...

    Anybody have any guesses as to why it happened?

    ESPN's Tom Haberstroh does: "Since Kendrick Perkins checked out: Thunder 96, Heat 60."

    It's not a revelation that the Thunder play better on both ends without Perkins. In fact, it's been true for years. Taking Perk off the floor for all but five minutes in the game allowed Perry Jones to log 30 minutes, many of which he spent harassing James into tough shots.

    Jeremy Lamb also saw plenty of playing time in smaller lineups, and he poured in 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting in support of Durant.

    In closing, I've been trying to be less snarky lately, so I'll let Haralabos Voulgaris close out this slide: "Only took Brooks 3 years to figure out that sitting Perk vs Miami might be a winning move."

    If OKC sticks to the Perkins-less strategy it employed against the Heat, this win could turn out to be a pivotal one.

Everything Is Going According to Plan

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    According to the latest reports from ESPN's Marc Stein, the Toronto Raptors are still more likely to trade Kyle Lowry than keep him. In some ways, that's surprising—especially given the Raps' current status as a playoff contender.

    At the same time, Masai Ujiri isn't one to simply let an asset walk away at the end of the season for nothing. Lowry can do precisely that as a free agent this summer, so seeing the point guard raise his value by playing so exceptionally well lately has to make Ujiri feel pretty good.

    Per Eric Koreen of the National Post: "Fans chanting 'MVP' as Lowry is at free-throw line. Ujiri smiles, then laughs maniacally: 'Imagine what the Knicks will offer me tomorrow!'"

    Those chants (and Ujiri's glee) were the result of 33 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds from Lowry in the Raptors' comfortable 98-83 drubbing of the visiting Orlando Magic. Thanks to five made triples and 17 points in the first quarter, the pit-bull point guard got into attack mode at an early juncture.

    His teammates followed suit, hitting a team-record eight triples in the opening period.

    From there, Lowry battered the Magic defense into submission with aggressive drives and relentless energy.

    Toronto now sits at 24-21 on the year, and Lowry is a likely All-Star whose trade value is reaching new heights every day. All Ujiri has to do is wait for the offers to roll in.

    Yep, everything's going according to plan.

Momentum Is a Powerful Thing

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    The Boston Celtics came into their Wednesday tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers with a full head of steam. Of course, it should probably be mentioned that the Celtics' momentum was of the downward variety.

    Boston continued its rapid descent to the bottom of the standings by dropping a 95-94 contest to Philly. The defeat was the 19th in the Celtics' last 22 games.

    Per Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe, Gerald Wallace said after the game: "We need a win more than anybody. We're starting to slide down the hill."

    It's really more plummeting than sliding. Don't you think, Gerald?

    Fittingly, nobody on Brad Stevens' reeling squad could halt the momentum of Evan Turner, who bolted up the floor to guide home the game-winning layup at the buzzer. As a result of Turner's heroics, the Celtics now sit all alone in the Atlantic Division cellar.

    Jared Sullinger led Boston with 24 points and 17 rebounds, but he was the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal game.

    Rajon Rondo sat this one out, something the Celtics will no doubt encourage him to do frequently as the second half of the season rolls on.

    After all, the tanking C's probably don't want to disrupt the momentum they've got going right now by introducing a capable star into the mix.

Every Little Bit Counts

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Goran Dragic is on the bubble.

    In the midst of a fantastic season, the Phoenix Suns point guard is one of a handful of players out West whose excellence might not yield an All-Star nod. With reserves set to be revealed on Thursday, Dragic did his best to persuade any coaches who still hadn't voted that he was deserving of a backup spot in New Orleans.

    Dragic scored 13 points in the final 4:01 of the Suns' surprisingly close 126-117 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. His trio of triples and four foul shots assured that the Suns would notch a road victory despite the best efforts of the suddenly engaged Bucks.

    How did he do it (other than by harnessing a slick jumper and the ability to draw contact)? Per The Associated Press (via ESPN), Dragic said: "Emotions. You are so much in the zone, the adrenaline keeps you going."

    On the year, the Slovenian star is averaging 19.7 points, 6.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds on 49.9 percent shooting from the field and 38.8 percent shooting from long range. Perhaps more importantly, he's guided the Suns to an impressive 8-7 record since Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury.

    Hopefully, a few coaches procrastinated long enough to be influenced by Dragic's last-ditch effort to earn a spot on the All-Star team. And while we're at it, let's hope the elbow he injured in the final moments won't keep him out for long.

    For my money, he's earned it.

It's Finally Happening

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    Nikola Pekovic remains sidelined with bursitis in his ankle, but the Minnesota Timberwolves managed to reach a modest milestone even without their hulking center.

    By beating the New Orleans Pelicans in a sloppy, brick-laden 88-77 contest, the Wolves moved above .500 for the first time in over two months.

    Kevin Love scored 30 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the contest. With Kevin Martin chipping in 18 points, the Wolves had just enough to take care of a Pelicans team that was missing Anthony Davis because of a dislocated finger.

    All year, the Wolves have underperformed their peripherals. They've got the fifth-best per-game differential in the West but are still mired in the 10th spot in the conference. Expect that to change, as the Wolves have enough offensive punch to eventually get their record in line with that excellent differential.

    For many teams, getting above .500 in the West would be an achievement on its own. But for the Timberwolves, it's an indicator that their luck is starting to even out. Before long, expect this team to be right in the thick of the playoff race.

You're Only as Old as You Feel

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    By that logic, Dirk Nowitzki is probably about 26.

    The Diggler went off for 38 points and 17 rebounds on 13-of-21 shooting in a 117-115 loss to the Houston Rockets. During the contest, Nowitzki became just the 13th player to surpass 26,000 points for his career.

    Per Bryan Gutierrez of MavsOutsider.com, it was a notable performance not just for its significance in NBA history, but also because of where it ranked on Nowitzki's personal resume: "Nowitzki recorded at least 38 points and 17 rebounds in a game for just the third time in his career (First since Feb. 5, 2002 at Indiana)."

    Alas, Dirk's youthful effort was for naught.

    His teammates abandoned him. Jose Calderon missed two clean looks from long distance that could have won the game in the final seconds, and he combined with Monta Ellis and Shawn Marion to shoot just 7-of-32 from the field.

    Dallas' defense was also nowhere to be found, allowing the Rockets to hit on 55.4 percent of their shots from the field while piling up 56 points in the paint.

    Dirk may be looking and playing like a much younger version of himself. But if the Mavs can't start giving him a little more help, frustration could start to make him feel more like a 35-year-old star who's wasting a vintage season.

Never Underestimate the Value of Good Health

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Al Jefferson has been on a tear lately, and he didn't show any signs of slowing down in the Charlotte Bobcats' 101-98 win over the host Denver Nuggets.

    Since missing nine games early in the year with a bad right ankle, the man on whom many believed the Kitties had grossly overspent has been playing exceptionally well. He dropped 35 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in a tight contest that saw him display his full arsenal of mid-range shots and devastating post moves.

    It was the 10th straight game in which Jefferson topped the 20-point mark, and he's now registered double-doubles in 14 of his last 22 contests.

    To what does the Bobcats' surging star attribute his terrific play? Health, of course.

    Per The Associated Press (via ESPN), Jefferson said: "It is all about staying healthy. I am 85 or 90 percent right now. If I were 100 percent, I could be very effective. I am working hard to get to 100 percent."

    At 20-27, Charlotte is a game ahead of the Detroit Pistons for the East's final playoff spot. If Jefferson manages to get all the way to 100 percent, that gap could get wider in a hurry.

It Was Too Cold to Play Basketball in Atlanta

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    Allen Einstein/Getty Images

    Not much of a takeaway, huh?

    Well, it's true: The NBA cancelled the game between the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks because of the snowstorm that has been battering the Atlanta area.

    It's a shame, really. I'm betting that all 3,000 fans who would have showed up are disappointed they won't get to watch Josh Smith fire up bricks for another team.

    Incidentally, Smith's jumpers are very much like snowflakes: Both float around aimlessly and no two are exactly the same.

Tony Parker Is Lonely

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Not personally, mind you. I suspect Tony Parker's still doing just fine with the ladies.

    But on a night when the San Antonio Spurs were missing four key rotation players (Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter) because of injury, the point guard couldn't find enough support to lead his team to a win over the Chicago Bulls.

    Joakim Noah totaled 10 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and four blocks in Chicago's 96-86 victory.

    Parker managed 20 points and six assists. But other than the ever-reliable Tim Duncan's 17 points and 12 rebounds, there just wasn't enough consistent production from anybody on the roster.

    How bare is San Antonio's cupboard? Othyus Jeffers and Jeff Ayres started the game, and neither scored in a combined 31 minutes.

    The Spurs have now lost three straight, and even Gregg Popovich's tried-and-true system isn't functioning very well with so many vital parts missing. It's too early to panic at this point, but San Antonio should probably be concerned about slipping too far down the West's brutal playoff ladder while its rotation recovers.

    An upcoming schedule that features games against the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards should prevent that from happening. But with the annual rodeo trip kicking off next month, the Spurs could be in for a rough ride.

There's Nothing Complicated About the Grizzlies

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Sometimes, basketball analysis is ridiculously easy.

    Take what's going on with the Memphis Grizzlies as an example: Since Marc Gasol returned from a strained MCL on Jan. 14, the Grizz have gone 7-1. The latest victory in that stretch was Wednesday's 99-89 road triumph against the floundering Kings.

    Mike Conley led the way with 27 points and 10 assists, and he should probably get most of the credit for keeping Memphis afloat without Gasol in the middle. But the big Spaniard's contributions were critical in this contest—just as they've been since his return.

    Gasol's not a stat-sheet stuffer. He makes subtler differences by playing genius-level position defense and creating space with his offensive game at the elbows. He only totaled two blocks and five assists against Sacramento, but he changed plenty more shots and set up plenty more scoring opportunities than those numbers might lead you to believe.

    It's simple: With Gasol back in the fold, the Grizzlies are a playoff team. Right now, they're just a half-game back of the Mavericks for the No. 8 spot.

    It doesn't take deep analysis to figure out what's coming next.

DeAndre Jordan Is Confusing

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    Doc Rivers has been on the campaign trail for DeAndre Jordan all year, trumpeting his overall growth and lauding him as an elite defender to anyone who'll listen.

    At first glance, you'd certainly think there was some substance to Rivers' claims. Jordan is an athletic freak who has a tendency to collect highlights on both ends. His blocked shots often feature a basketball, egged by the force of his palm, flying many rows deep into the crowd.

    And as a rebounder, Jordan's length and bounce make him capable of gaudy totals. On the year, he's leading the league in both rebounds per game and rebound percentage, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

    But it's not that simple when it comes to Jordan, and what he did in the Los Angeles Clippers' 110-103 win against the Wizards was a perfect example of why he's such an enigmatic player.

    Jordan grabbed a game-high 17 boards against Washington, including a dozen on the defensive end. I suppose we can consider that a solid piece of evidence in Rivers' case for his center as an elite defensive big. After all, cleaning the glass is part of completing a successful stop.

    But the Wiz totaled a ridiculous 62 points in the paint. If Jordan is so good inside, how did something like that happen? He played 42 minutes in the game, so we can't blame those paint points on anybody else.

    And on the year, the Clippers allow opponents to convert 62.9 percent of their attempts in the restricted area, a figure that ranks 26th in the league, per NBA.com. That's not something you'd associate with an elite defensive center.

    Quite the opposite, actually.

    Jordan's a difficult guy to analyze. But at the moment, it seems like the numbers are saying most of his purported growth is little more than a mirage. If the Clippers expect to do anything in the playoffs, Jordan's defense (and Rivers' words) will have to feature a little more substance.