It's dangerous to draw any firm conclusions about the results of the final full slate of games before the NBA trade deadline. After all, we could see a massive shakeup in the next few hours that could render a number of the key takeaways from Wednesday night moot.
There's nothing we can do about the looming uncertainty, though, so it's probably best to simply take a cautious view of what we saw on the 11-game schedule of Feb. 19.
Speaking of cautious, that's exactly the kind of approach Cleveland Cavaliers fans should be taking toward their team's recent surge. The Cavs were at it again on Wednesday, but it might be too early to put real stock in their excellent results lately.
Elsewhere, the Charlotte Bobcats looked very much like a playoff team (weird, right?), and the rest of the East's second tier began to sort itself out.
Out West, Dwight Howard returned to face the Los Angeles Lakers, though he might not have recognized what he saw on the Staples Center floor. Plus, the San Antonio Spurs notched a suspicious win, the Golden State Warriors didn't satisfy anybody and Kevin Love went bonkers (by most human standards; not his own).
Oh, and one last thing before we get started: Let's all agree to lay off Carmelo Anthony for a while. The guy's trying his best.
Al Jefferson missed out on an All-Star nod this year, despite putting up numbers that probably should have had him on a flight to New Orleans last weekend.
But the extra break did wonders for Jefferson and the rest of his non-All-Star teammates, who blew away the Detroit Pistons 116-98 on Wednesday.
Per The Associated Press (via ESPN), Kemba Walker was happy Jefferson had time to rest up: "I'm glad he didn't make it either. He's fresh now. And you don't have to make the All-Star game to be an All-Star. I know he's a great player and unguardable in the post."
Walker might have been the only guy fresher than Jefferson. The emerging point guard piled up 24 points, a career-high 16 assists and five rebounds in 41 minutes. Jefferson led all scorers with 29 points on an efficient 12-of-20 night from the field.
Charlotte took advantage of a Pistons team that looked like it could use a break itself. No Detroit player made the All-Star team, and they all looked in need of a lengthy vacation. Brandon Jennings got himself ejected and seems to be coming apart at the seams lately.
Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer tweeted: "Brandon Jennings with back-to-back technical fouls the night after he fouled, down double-digits, with 7 seconds left. Knucklehead."
Josh Smith was 7-of-18 from the field, and the Pistons' atrocious defense allowed Charlotte to shoot a healthy 51.2 percent from the field.
Enough with the doom and gloom, though.
The Kitties have now won six of their last 10 games, have found some solid offensive production to complement a defense that has been darn good all year long and seem to be enjoying every minute of their success.
Rested and ready, these Bobcats look more and more like a team that'll stick in the playoff picture.
OK, let's be rational about this.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are now winners of six straight games. They blitzed the Orlando Magic early and held on through a massive third-quarter retort to notch the 101-93 win at home. That's good.
Kyrie Irving continued his All-Star MVP roll, piling up a team-leading 22 points and seven assists to go along with seven rebounds. Even Anthony Bennett, fresh off a modest surge before the break, contributed seven points and nine boards in 16 minutes.
There were smiles on the Cavs' faces. Smiles!
It's painfully tempting to say the Cavs have turned the corner, firing Chris Grant inexplicably galvanized the club and the three games separating Cleveland and the No. 8 seed is all but academic.
But none of the teams the Cavaliers have beaten in their six-game run are currently in playoff position, and their overall per-game margin is still in negative territory.
We can be happy for the Cavs; they've turned around a season that was headed in the wrong direction at about 600 miles per hour. But let's make sure we don't go buying up playoff tickets just yet. There's a lot of season left, and we still need to see Cleveland notch a quality victory before we get too carried away.
Chicago Bulls point guards combined to play 54 minutes in a narrow 94-92 win over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday. Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin were terrifically efficient, combining to hit 15 of their 24 shots from the field.
But they had just a single assist between them.
No problem; that's where Joakim Noah, offensive facilitator extraordinaire came in.
Noah amassed 13 dimes on the night, hitting cutters on backdoor bounce passes, setting up mid-range jumpers for Taj Gibson and keeping the ball hopping all over the floor all night. It was a career night for Noah in terms of assists, but he's been pretty darn good in that department for a while now.
And in his last five games, he's averaging 7.8 helpers per contest.
We can't credit Noah for Jimmy Butler's exceptional, game-saving block on DeMar DeRozan with two seconds left. But we should probably praise him for the good shooting nights enjoyed by Hinrich and Augustin, who both benefited from his setups.
The Bulls have proved time and again that they simply don't know how to die. It's becoming clear that Noah is the one keeping them alive.
For much of the season, the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Raptors and Bulls were jostling for position as the No. 3 team behind the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, better known as the Eastern Conference's dueling juggernauts.
After seeing the Wizards wreck shop all over the Hawks, it's probably safe to remove Atlanta from that mix for the foreseeable future.
The Hawks took a 114-97 beating and have now lost seven in a row.
John Wall totaled 21 points and 12 assists on the night to lead Washington, and although Paul Millsap countered with 21 points and 11 rebounds of his own, the Hawks just didn't provide enough defensive intensity or offensive support for their All-Star.
The reason for Atlanta's slide is no mystery; it has suffered a boatload of injuries to key players. Al Horford is done for the year, DeMarre Caroll's bad hamstring kept him out and Pero Antic's fractured ankle will keep him off the floor indefinitely.
You can't expect to climb up the playoff ladder with Cartier Martin and Elton Brand in the starting lineup (even though Brand was surprisingly effective against the Wizards in this one).
The Hawks aren't dead yet. Being merely "bad" isn't enough to rule out the postseason in the East. But they're now officially a notch below the group of second-tier teams to which they once belonged.
Most of the chatter about the Minnesota Timberwolves lately has focused on the injuries keeping Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic sidelined. Well, that and the potential for Kevin Love to skip town at the first opportunity.
But after Minnesota notched an impressive 104-91 victory at home over the Indiana Pacers, there'll be a few more positive things to discuss.
For example, Love is a complete statistical freak. I guess that's a short discussion, huh?
Well, to elaborate, Love pumped in 42 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and knocked down 5-of-10 from long range. Per ESPN Stats and Information, numbers like those don't come around too often: "Kevin Love now has 2 games with 40 points, 15 rebounds and 5 three-pointers. There has been 1 other such game EVER."
The box-score madness didn't stop with Love, either; Ricky Rubio tallied 17 assists, a franchise high.
It'd be easy to chalk this result up to a tired Pacers team failing to take a lottery club seriously. But Paul George had 35 points and looked fully invested in the game. He didn't get much help, but maybe we should credit the Wolves for limiting the rest of Indiana's roster so effectively.
Ultimately, the Timberwolves are a flawed team facing a steep climb to the playoffs. There's good reason for most of the negative chatter they've inspired lately. But it's not all bad in Minnesota—not as long as Love's around anyway.
Carmelo Anthony has come up empty in the clutch for most of this year, but his fortunes turned against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.
The Knicks squandered a 13-point advantage in the final period, forcing 'Melo into the hero role once again. Instead of falling flat like he had so many times before, Anthony responded with 13 points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of jumpers in the final two minutes that sealed the deal.
He finished with 42 points on the night, enough to avoid a fourth consecutive defeat for the Knicks.
This brings us to a broader point about Anthony.
Yes, he's been terrible in the clutch this season. Per NBA.com he's shooting just 28.5 percent in the last five minutes of games in which the two teams are separated by five points or less. And yes, his reputation as a one-dimensional gunner who can't help his team win is one he's earned through the years.
But it's time to cut him some slack.
He's probably been so awful in close-and-late situations this year because he's been exhausted. The guy is logging 38.9 minutes per night. Despite the heavy workload, he's averaging 27.5 points and 8.6 rebounds on a not-too-terrible 44.9 percent from the field. And he's at 40.9 percent from long range.
It's usually fair to criticize Anthony for his isolation-heavy game and seeming inability to play within an equal opportunity offense. But now is not one of those times.
He's not the problem on this Knicks team.
The Phoenix Suns managed to eke out a sloppy 100-94 victory over the Boston Celtics, but it wasn't the most encouraging performance.
And that's cause for concern because the Suns, still in the thick of the playoff race in the West, have now put together two straight shaky performances since the All-Star break.
They gave the ball away 18 times against Boston, and a trio of shooting fouls by P.J. Tucker in the final 1:08 nearly gave the Celtics a chance to steal the game. After needing a career night from Gerald Green and overtime to defeat a reeling Denver Nuggets club on Feb. 18, Phoenix barely survived another close contest against a weak opponent.
Overall, the Suns have won seven of their last 10 games, so it's hardly time to panic. A win's a win.
But as the stretch run draws near, Phoenix is going to have to iron out some of its kinks. The San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets are on deck next week, so we'll see if the Suns make their adjustments quickly.
Money doesn't matter to the Brooklyn Nets. We know that because they've basically ignored the luxury tax since Mikhail Prokhorov purchased the team in 2010. Thanks to their deal to acquire Marcus Thornton, they're slated to pay an extra $89 million in tax this year, according to Alex Raskin of The Wall Street Journal.
But the fact that Andray Blatche, playing for peanuts this year, managed to produce on a level commensurate with the wildly overpaid Joe Johnson in Brooklyn's 105-99 win at the Utah Jazz was proof that you don't always get what you pay for.
Blatche had 25 points off the bench, nearly equaling Johnson's 27. And his scoring was a huge key in a second-half comeback that turned the tide in Brooklyn's favor.
Strangely, many of the Nets' most important players this year have been their less expensive ones. Blatche has played well as a reserve, Mason Plumlee has been a pleasant surprise and Mirza Teletovic has been shooting the lights out on a reasonable deal.
Another of the Nets' high-priced players, Deron Williams, enjoyed this game a little extra. It was his first win in Utah since leaving the Jazz in 2011. For D-Will, a little revenge against a fanbase that roundly hates him was (terrible joke alert in three, two, one...) priceless.
Playing the back end of a back-to-back set without Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spurs should have been vulnerable. They should have buckled against a tough Portland Trail Blazers team. They should have packed it in and accepted defeat one night after taking care of the Los Angeles Clippers on the road.
Nobody would have faulted San Antonio for splitting those two contests.
But the Spurs won anyway, defeating the Blazers (who, admittedly, played without injured LaMarcus Aldridge) by a final score of 111-109. Patty Mills poured in 29 points off the bench, a nice encore to the 25 he dropped on the Clippers on Tuesday. And Marco Belinelli put the Spurs up for good with a triple at the 1:34 mark.
That result leads to only one possible conclusion: San Antonio is cheating.
I mean, that has to be it, right?
It can't be that the Spurs simply have a perfect offensive system, brilliant coaching and an inexhaustible work ethic that makes them dangerous, regardless of which players are wearing those black and silver jerseys. There's no way that's the explanation.
Somebody get Adam Silver to commission an investigation, pronto. The Spurs can't keep getting away with this.
The Golden State Warriors moved to 10 games above .500 with a shorthanded win over the similarly shorthanded Sacramento Kings on Wednesday.
The Dubs notched the road victory without Andrew Bogut, who missed his fifth straight game with a shoulder injury. They were also missing little-used Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks, both of whom were ineligible because, well...they play for the Los Angeles Lakers now.
Sacramento went without DeMarcus Cousins because of a strained hip flexor. Marcus Thornton was traded to the Nets before tipoff.
Anyway, Golden State rode a small-ball lineup to an ugly win and held onto its No. 7 spot out West by a half-game over the idle Dallas Mavericks. That's good, right?
Not if you're one of the many broader-thinking Warriors fans who aren't satisfied with the overall direction this team is going. The Dubs offense is increasingly bland, unable to make use of the talent on the roster and obsessed with trying (and failing) to exploit matchups.
The man behind the issues troubling so many Golden State supporters? Head coach Mark Jackson, who provided a perfect example of why so many Dubs loyalists have lost faith in him. Far too often, Jackson put Klay Thompson in isolation on the block against Isaiah Thomas.
Because of the size differential, that's a good theoretical play. But constant post-ups of exactly that type are responsible for bogging down a Warriors offense that should be far more free-flowing and dynamic. Thompson rewarded skeptics with a 6-of-14 shooting night and an air ball on one particularly ugly turnaround over Thomas.
That's a small, isolated example. But it's emblematic of the big-picture issues this team has yet to resolve.
Don't worry, though; Steve Blake is on the way. If Jackson tosses the ball down to him on the block, prepare for a riot in the Bay Area.
Well, that was sad.
Dwight Howard faced the Lakers for the first time since spurning them as a free agent last summer, and I'm guessing he'll leave L.A. more confident than ever in his decision to escape.
The Lakers fielded eight healthy bodies in the 134-108 blowout loss, none of whom were named Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash. With so little talent available, the heavy lifting was left up to Kendall Marshall (pretty darn good since taking over at the point), Wesley Johnson and Jodie Meeks, each of whom scored at least 19 points.
Howard totaled 20 points and 13 rebounds in 28 minutes, and he was clearly motivated to stick it to his old team when he was on the floor. He wasn't there long, though, as this one was out of hand early.
It was the Houston Rockets' eighth win in a row, and the result put them a full game up on the Clippers for the No. 3 seed in the West. Everything is going swimmingly for Howard in his new digs.
In fact, it's possible the contrast between the state of things in Los Angeles and Houston might have made him feel a little pity for his former franchise.
Just kidding! I'm sure he loved every second of it.