11 Takeaways from Monday Night's NBA Action

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2014

11 Takeaways from Monday Night's NBA Action

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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    Quantity doesn't always equal quality when it comes to the midseason doldrums of NBA basketball, but Monday' busy 11-game slate was absolutely loaded with phenomenal hoops action.

    Randy Foye and Brandon Knight nailed game-winning shots at the buzzer, sending the Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks to a pair of stunning defeats. Plus, both LeBron James and Kevin Durant flirted with triple-doubles, the Washington Wizards reached a (modest) milestone they hadn't seen since John Wall was at Kentucky and the Sacramento Kings put a serious hurt on the stunned Chicago Bulls.

    Toss in an Indiana Pacers bench performance that should strike fear into the hearts of every Eastern Conference team and yet another superb effort from feel-good story Shaun Livingston, and you've got yourself one of the best nights of ball this year.

    Monday's schedule spoiled NBA fans rotten. Here's how it all went down.

The Rest of the East Doesn't Need This

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    "This," as it's used above, refers to the Indiana Pacers getting progressively better performances from their bench, and Danny Granger in particular.

    Indy's centerpiece-turned-role player scored 16 points off the pine to lead a corps of Pacers reserves that totaled 49 points in the 98-79 win over the visiting Orlando Magic. Luis Scola added 10 points, four assists and four rebounds, while C.J. Watson contributed 12 points of his own.

    Last year, Indiana's bench was largely responsible for the team's undoing. Unable to maintain the consistent leads amassed by the starters, the Pacers' 2012-13 backups left an awful lot to be desired.

    All that's changed now, as a rebuilt bench no longer gives up advantages. Instead, it expands them.

    Thanks to such a strong effort from the reserves, head coach Frank Vogel got to rest his first unit against the Magic. Aside from Lance Stephenson, no Pacers starter logged more than 27 minutes in the game.

    The Pacers are sitting at an NBA-best 37-10 on the season, and now that they've shored up one of their biggest weaknesses, they're more dangerous than ever. And Granger, according to the Pacers' official Twitter account, may just be hitting his stride:

    "Granger (16pts): 'It was just a matter of me getting in rhythm. I'm finally healthy, and I'm making steps, and tonight is just another one.'"

    For low-end Eastern Conference opponents who have to deal with Indiana, this hardly seems fair.

It Finally Happened

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    John Wall, rejoicing.
    John Wall, rejoicing.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Right from the outset, you knew something strange was happening in the game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards.

    I mean, Nicolas Batum stole the ball from his own teammate in the first quarter. The signs of weirdness were obvious, but even the oddity of Batum's intra-team steal wasn't enough to warn us of the wholly unusual result in this contest.

    The Wizards, thanks to a team-high 22 points from John Wall (and probably some wacky lunar alignment that changed the gravitational pull in the Verizon Center), beat the Blazers by a final of 100-90. In doing so, the Wiz climbed over the .500 mark for the first time in more than four years.

    TNT's David Aldridge summed up the feat nicely: "Wiz finally go above .500 for first time since '09. Temp in hell: -41. Cats, dogs living together. Mass hysteria."

    It's hard to know what might happen next. Hold your loved ones close. Maybe stock up on canned goods. We're in uncharted territory here, people.

    For the Wizards' sake, let's hope they savor this taste of life above the median. They'll face the San Antonio Spurs in their next contest, a team they haven't beaten since Nov. 12, 2005.

Take What the Offense Gives You?

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Everyone has heard the cliche "take what the defense gives you." It's a sensible piece of advice designed to caution players against being overly aggressive or trying to do too much.

    But the Philadelphia 76ers put on a performance in their 108-102 loss to the Brooklyn Nets that might force a modification in the Sports Cliche Handbook. Thanks to a whopping 25 turnovers (and the resultant 32 points the Nets scored off them), the Sixers managed to lose a game in which they shot 52.1 percent from the field and posted a plus-eight rebound margin and a plus-14 advantage on points in the paint.

    The Nets took what the Sixers offense gave them. It just so happened the thing Philadelphia was most willing to give was the basketball.

    Credit the Nets for capitalizing. And we certainly shouldn't overlook Shaun Livingston's remarkable 13 points, eight assists, six rebounds and seven steals. The resurgent guard, starting alongside Deron Williams instead of ahead of him, snatched a key steal in the waning minutes that ultimately iced the contest.

    The Nets were already rising up the East standings in a hurry, due largely to improved defense and rotations that have been increasingly sensible. Now, we know they've added opportunism to their arsenal.

The Pistons Have the Cure for What Ails You

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    The narrative chronicling the Miami Heat's "problems"—fraught with concern about their health, defensive slippage and tendency to coast—has been overblown from the start. There are small issues with the Heat this season, but no team with a 33-13 record is in any kind of real trouble.

    And after gliding past the Detroit Pistons by a final margin of 102-96, it seems many of the mild maladies afflicting Miami have been cured.

    Dwyane Wade sprang to life, notching just his second 30-point game of the season and looking nothing like a guy who's missed more than a dozen games this year to rest his creaky knees. Thanks to a heavier dose of high pick-and-rolls, Wade was a real weapon in half-court sets.

    LeBron James also looked spry.

    The King flirted with a triple-double in 38 minutes but came up just short. He finished with 24 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. The stats were nice, but James looked even better on a ridiculous alley-oop in the second quarter.

    Rising to seemingly impossible heights, James corralled an overthrown lob from Mario Chalmers with one hand, crammed it home and ducked to avoid hitting his head on the backboard as he flew by. Afterward, all he could do was look down at his right hand in mock amazement.

    All that goes to show that the Pistons, now just 19-28 in an intensely disappointing season, have a real knack for making their opponents look good.

Daggers Hurt, but Reality Hurts More

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    Brandon Knight buried the New York Knicks by hitting a game-winning triple with just 1.4 ticks remaining in the fourth quarter on Monday. The devastating bomb gave the Milwaukee Bucks their first win since Jan. 22, erased a combined 66 points from Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith and, most importantly, highlighted a painful reality for New York.

    The Knicks' loss was their 29th on the season. They lost 28 times in total during the 2012-13 campaign.

    It's official now: This year's Knickerbockers are nothing like the team that wowed the league a year ago.

    And as has been the case all season long, Anthony did everything he could. His 36 points on 13-of-25 shooting was typical, both in its excellence and its futility. A dreadful Knicks season has overshadowed what has been—without any real doubt—the best season of 'Melo's career.

    He's shooting better from the field and the floor than he did a year ago, and he is also averaging a career high in rebounds. Appropriately, Knight's three-pointer came one possession after Anthony had drilled one of his own to tie the game.

    It's hard to know where the Knicks will go from here, but it's becoming easier and easier to imagine them making that journey without a justifiably frustrated 'Melo. Something will have to change in a hurry, or New York's only bright spot could finally burn out.

Newsflash: The Spurs Know How to Close

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    It would have been nice if I could have come up with something a little more insightful here, but the San Antonio Spurs handled their business against the New Orleans Pelicans so matter-of-factly that a straightforward takeaway seemed appropriate.

    The Pellies took a surprisingly comfortable lead into the fourth quarter, but the battle-tested Spurs simply assumed control of the game down the stretch. When the dust settled, the 14-point advantage New Orleans had at the 10:53 mark of the final period had disappeared, replaced by a final score of 102-95.

    San Antonio doubled down on the inexperienced Pelicans, crushing them by a margin of 38-19 in the fourth quarter.

    Tony Parker was in total control down the stretch, scoring and handing out dimes to Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner. In all, Parker tallied 32 points and nine assists.

    Duncan, not yet ready to bow to Anthony Davis—who had 17 points and 16 rebounds—totaled 21 points, seven rebounds and six blocks in just 29 minutes.

    We've seen this exact story play out countless times: The Spurs let a young team kindle a tiny spark of hope, only to snuff it out with ruthless veteran efficiency in the end.

    Nothing more to see here; let's move on.

The Jury Is Still Out

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Kevin Durant tossed up a final line of 31 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 86-77 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, but the typically solid performance in an impressive victory didn't really tell us anything new.

    That's because the Grizzlies were playing without both Tony Allen and Mike Conley.

    Had Memphis been at full strength, we might have finally gotten a chance to see if KD could take care of the Grizzlies on his own. He couldn't vanquish them during last year's playoffs, and he came up short just a couple of weeks ago as well.

    The Grizzlies are no joke. They've been one of the best teams in the league since getting Marc Gasol back. In fact, they posted a net rating of plus-8.2 points per 100 possessions in January, the second-highest mark in the league, per NBA.com.

    Of course, this might be a good time to mention that the Thunder narrowly edged Memphis out with a plus-8.3.

    Anyway, Memphis is going to be a playoff team in the West. It's a half-game out of the No. 8 spot right now and is surging up the standings with purpose. With OKC currently perched atop the West, a playoff meeting is a very strong possibility.

    By then, Westbrook will be back in the lineup for the Thunder. So we may never get a chance to see if Durant can take care of a full-strength Grizzlies team on his own.

    Something tells me the Thunder are OK with that.

Nobody Likes a Showboat

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    Derrick Williams isn't known for his passing.

    I'm guessing the book on him won't change after botching an uncontested breakaway by mistiming the off-the-backboard lob to himself. On the bright side, Williams' flashy failure was just about the only thing that went wrong for the Sacramento Kings as they thrashed the visiting Chicago Bulls by 29 points on Monday.

    Chicago set season lows for points (70) and field-goal percentage (a ghastly 28.2 percent) en route to one of the ugliest losses we've seen all year.

    The Kings got DeMarcus Cousins back from a six-game absence, and the big man looked as good as ever in his first action since spraining his ankle on Jan. 22. He totaled 25 points, 16 rebounds and four assists while brutalizing the Bulls' uncharacteristically soft interior defense.

    Cousins was a beast in the first quarter, and a frustrated Joakim Noah got himself tossed after just 19 minutes. From there, it was clear sailing for the Kings.

    Well, for everyone except Williams, of course.

The Nuggets Turned Back the Clock

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Denver Nuggets haven't been nearly as exciting as they were a year ago, but you wouldn't have known it on Monday.

    Thanks to a 30-foot heave from Randy Foye at the buzzer, Denver notched an improbable 116-115 win over the visiting Los Angeles Clippers. Matt Barnes had put the Clips up with a three of his own on the previous possession, but Foye's desperate fling provided an answer that was more than sufficient.

    Toss in a career-high 28 points from Kenneth Faried and the return to action of Ty Lawson, and suddenly, the Nuggets looked a little more like the fast-paced, high-flying outfit that secured the No. 3 seed in the West last year.

    With serious depth issues in the backcourt and a brutal hill to climb in the West, it'll be tough for Denver to replicate the success it had a year ago. In fact, it's going to be nearly impossible.

    At least the Nuggets are looking like a team that'll be entertaining while they try, though. You hear it all the time: If you can't be a great team, you might as well be a good one that ends games with celebratory dogpiles.

Toronto Got Good News and Bad News

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    Cameron Browne/Getty Images

    The good news: Jonas Valanciunas pretty much dominated his matchup with the Utah Jazz's center tandem of Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert.

    The Toronto Raptors' developing big man finished with 18 points and nine rebounds on 8-of-14 shooting, showing the kind of physicality and skill that continues to tantalize so many fans of the team. But while Valanciunas' encouraging performance in the Raps' 94-79 win represented a sign of hope, Kyle Lowry's sore right knee did the exact opposite.

    If you were wondering, the point guard's exit after just 25 minutes was the bad news.

    Toronto's media relations department is calling Lowry's injury "right knee pain," which is hardly specific.

    All season long, Lowry has been the Raptors' best player, and his exclusion from the Eastern Conference All-Star team was a massive snub. Hopefully, he'll be back in action soon.

    If Lowry's mysterious knee troubles worsen, though, the Raptors will be in serious trouble.

It's All a Matter of Perspective

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Nobody has been worse than the Cleveland Cavaliers lately. A 124-107 loss to the host Dallas Mavericks gave Kyrie Irving and Co. their fifth straight defeat and eighth loss in their last 10 contests.

    Irving's 27 points were for naught, Dion Waiters went scoreless in 11 lackadaisical minutes and nobody on the roster seemed remotely interested in defending.

    Well, almost nobody.

    Luol Deng only knows how to play one way, and he made a real effort in 42 minutes against Dallas. The midseason acquisition finished with 18 points, eight rebounds, three assists and four steals on 8-of-16 shooting. And of course, he was doing his best to plug the innumerable holes in Cleveland's D.

    But he didn't come close to making a real impact, mostly because his teammates had collectively dug too deep of a hole.

    For Deng, life as a man on an island is tough. He's a stranded winner, surrounded by an ocean of losing.

    Of course, it could have been worse for the gritty veteran. He could have still been with the Bulls, getting crushed by the bottom-feeding Kings.

    See? It's all a matter of perspective.

    Maybe the Cavs should adopt a similarly relativistic approach. That way, as they're muddling through a lost season marked by infighting and top-down ineptitude, they can say to each other, "Hey, at least we're not trapped in an abandoned mental hospital being hunted down by packs of genetically altered, super-intelligent zombie wolves—because that would be marginally worse."