8 Takeaways from Sunday Night's NBA Action

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2014

8 Takeaways from Sunday Night's NBA Action

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    NBA Sundays in late February don't often produce legitimately historical events, but we certainly saw one take place when Jason Collins suited up for the Brooklyn Nets in Los Angeles.

    When he checked in for Mason Plumlee at the 10:27 mark in the second quarter, Collins became the first openly gay athlete to compete in the NBA. And while he'll now forever be known as a symbol for important social progress, Collins quickly reassured everybody watching that his place in history wouldn't alter his game.

    He piled up five fouls in 11 minutes. Welcome back, Jason! Keep doing what you do.

    There's no deft way to transition from a genuinely meaningful moment like that one to run-of-the-mill NBA takeaways, so please accept this clumsy transition for what it is.

    Elsewhere in the league (told you it'd be clumsy), the Miami Heat showed off remarkable consistency without their biggest star, Jamal Crawford expanded his range and the Toronto Raptors played 12 really good minutes.

    Plus, Thomas Robinson helped the Portland Trail Blazers make a statement, the Sacramento Kings saw their foundation solidify and the Cleveland Cavaliers took yet another step backward.

    It was a big night in the NBA, one that would have qualified as exciting and intriguing even without Collins' big moment. But with his contributions to the cause, this particular Sunday was one most NBA fans will remember forever.

And on the Seventh Day, the Defense Rested

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    And it was good.

    The Los Angeles Clippers handed the Oklahoma City Thunder a second straight home loss, knocking off Kevin Durant and Co. by a final score of 125-117 in a fantastically entertaining bucket-fest. It was the kind of Sunday matinee fans crave.

    You know, where it looks like both teams' defenses overslept.

    Crawford piled up 36 points and buried five triples to lead the Clips, while Durant countered with 42 points and 10 assists in 46 minutes. 

    On the whole, the two teams combined to drill 25 threes while handing out a ridiculous 52 assists on 85 field goals. OKC and Los Angeles both have stellar defenses—the Thunder rank fourth, and the Clippers check in at No. 11, per NBA.com—but there wasn't much either squad could do to slow each other down in this one.

    Maybe that was because guys like Crawford were taking shots from places most defenses would happily concede. Per The Associated Press (via ESPN), Durant said after the game: "Jamal Crawford comes across halfcourt shooting."

    That's hardly an exaggeration, as the trigger-happy chucker fired off more than a few off-the-dribble threes from about 30 feet.

    Stepping back a bit, it might seem tempting to worry about the Thunder's recent struggles since Russell Westbrook's return. And while OKC's point guard knocked down just three of his 13 attempts against the Clippers, it'd be silly to sound the alarm.

    Losing to a clearly inspired LeBron James on Feb. 20 and then dropping a high-scoring affair to a Clippers squad that couldn't miss isn't cause to slam the panic button.

    Besides, we got a real treat of a game to kick off Sunday's action. Let's not ruin the vibe by going all "doom and gloom" right off the bat.

Death and Taxes Have Nothing on the Miami Heat

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    When it comes to dependability, death and taxes are always the benchmarks. But the Miami Heat are nearly as reliable as those age-old mainstays.

    The Heat came into their Sunday tilt with the Chicago Bulls boasting a record of 39 wins and 14 losses, making this the fourth straight season in which that was exactly their 53-game win-loss tally.

    Now that's dependable.

    James is the main reason for that consistency, which is why it was so impressive to see the Heat take care of business against a worthy opponent without him. Sidelined by a broken nose (thanks, Serge Ibaka), James could only encourage his teammates as they did battle with the Bulls.

    Miami held Chicago to 35.8 percent shooting overall and took advantage of the Bulls' 12-point third quarter to build a comfortable lead. Mario Chalmers ran a handful of surprisingly effective pick-and-roll sets in the second half, Dwyane Wade finished just three assists shy of a triple-double (23 points, 10 rebounds and seven dimes) and Greg Oden started his first game since 2009.

    You don't always think of "consistent" as a way to describe the Heat. After all, their chaos-inducing defensive scheme and reliance on the three-point shot sometimes makes them vulnerable against even the weakest opponents.

    But thanks to star power, the continuity of four years in the same system and timely contributions from less-heralded players, this Heat team is right where it always is: on the very short list of championship contenders.

Mixed Results Aren't Enough

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers are running out of time.

    After stumbling to a 96-83 home loss to the Washington Wizards, Mike Brown's boys are now five games out of the No. 8 spot in a historically flaccid Eastern Conference. So while it'd be nice to credit Anthony Bennett for dunking on the unsuspecting dome of Kevin Seraphin, we can't.

    And while Spencer Hawes would otherwise deserve praise for tallying 16 points and 12 rebounds in his second game with the team, he won't get any here.

    That's because the Cavs are now well past the point where moral victories or "atta boy" moments actually matter.

    Jarrett Jack continued his horrible season by hitting just three of his 11 attempts, Kyrie Irving needed 17 shots to score 15 points and Alonzo Gee politely stepped out of the way whenever he should have been playing help defense.

    Cleveland shot 38.5 percent from the field and mustered absolutely no intensity on the defensive end. And it basically quit down the stretch, scoring just 11 points in the final period.

    After winning six straight contests, the Cavs have now lost two in a row. With only 25 games remaining, they can't survive by taking two steps forward and one step back.

    For Cleveland, incremental progress is really just a slow death.

Dwane Casey Is a Genius

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    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Spo

    All that stuff about "playing hard for 48 minutes" and "giving maximum effort for four quarters" is a bunch of nonsense. Dwane Casey's Toronto Raptors proved that by snuffing out the Orlando Magic on the strength of a single quarter.

    After playing the Orlando Magic to a near deadlock in the first half, the Raps completely dominated in the third period. Kyle Lowry erupted for 17 points, and the rest of the Raptors more than pulled their weight in support.

    Toronto hit an incredible 12 of its 14 third-quarter shots, expanding a three-point halftime lead to a 15-point advantage heading into the final period. From there, the Raptors traded baskets down the stretch to preserve a 105-90 victory.

    Orlando has now lost 15 road games in a row, so it's easy to understand why the Raps might have assumed they could simply flip the switch for 12 minutes in order to secure a win.

    Per Josh Lewenberg of TSN, Toronto has now made it two straight games with epic performances after halftime: "Raptors last two third quarters: 28/37 FG (76%), outscoring opponents 73-45."

    Clearly, Casey is one heck of a halftime motivator.

    Either that or it's easy to win games in which you dominate only a single quarter when the opposition is merely counting the seconds until the draft lottery. It's hard to say which.

Three Really Is a Magic Number

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Sacramento Kings used 12 different players in their 109-95 road conquest of the Denver Nuggets, and nine of them combined to score a paltry 17 points on 5-of-23 shooting. Fortunately, the other three performed a little better.

    Rudy Gay torched Wilson Chandler for 32 points, 11 rebounds and three assists on 12-of-23 shooting. DeMarcus Cousins dominated both ends with 27 points, nine rebounds, five assists and five blocks. Isaiah Thomas made 12 of his 16 attempts en route to 33 points and six assists.

    Altogether, the Kings' marquee trio accounted for 92 points on 32-of-55 shooting. Digest that for a second: Three of Sacramento's players came within a single three-point shot of tying the output of Denver's entire team.

    While this is terrifying news for the Nuggets, it's a pretty darn encouraging sign for the Kings. After all, the hardest part of building an NBA winner is finding the talent necessary for a stable foundation. It appeared—for one night anyway—that the Kings have that talent.

    Keep in mind, the Nuggets have lost seven of their past 10 games and were playing without Ty Lawson. In other words, they're not a great measuring stick right now.

    Still, though, Sacramento has to be pleased with its core going forward. The next task is finding the right pieces to fill in around the margins.

The Goran Dragic Friendship Test Is Helpful

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    When presented with the question "What else could Goran Dragic have done?," a real jerk might respond with something like: "Make the game-tying three when he's open."

    Don't be friends with that guy. He's a pessimist and clearly doesn't understand the concept of rhetorical questions. Also, don't be friends with him because he wasn't impressed by Dragic's incredible game, and anyone who isn't consistently impressed by Dragic isn't someone worth befriending.

    Despite coming up short on a clean look at a potential game-tying triple, Dragic was an absolute beast in the Phoenix Suns' 115-112 loss to the Houston Rockets on Sunday. He piled up 35 points on 14-of-20 shooting.

    His efforts weren't enough to offset a balanced attack from the Rockets, who shot 52.6 percent from the field as a team and got double-figure scoring from all five starters. Dwight Howard led Houston with 25 points and nine rebounds on a cartoonish 10-of-12 from the floor.

    The loss dumped the Suns into the No. 7 position out West, and they're now just percentage points ahead of the Dallas Mavericks. Dragic has been brilliant all season, and Phoenix is still 33-22 on the year. But the Western Conference is one small step up from a march through hell.

    If the rest of the Suns can't help out their criminally underrated star, it might not be long until Phoenix finds itself outside the playoff picture.

Jason Collins Made History

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    I guess we could pretend it matters that Kent Bazemore has already earned a starting spot for the Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe Deron Williams' 30 points and career-high six steals warrant mention.

    From a purely practical perspective, it'd probably also be worth noting the Brooklyn Nets edged a little closer to .500 by notching a 108-102 win over the Lakers at the Staples Center. They're now 26-28 on the year.

    But let's be serious. Nothing about this game mattered more than Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay athlete to compete in any of the four major American professional sports.

    Collins' historic achievement shouldn't matter, though. After all, as Williams told Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: "It’s 2014. Michael Sam just came out, and his teammates welcomed him, and they’re in college. It’s time for the NBA, as well."

    For his part, Collins spent a good portion of the pregame press conference showcasing as much perspective as bravery (which is to say, a lot).

    Per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, he said"I need to be a solid basketball player... that's enough pressure right there."

    Collins logged just 11 minutes, committed five fouls (proving his game hasn't changed since he last played) and pulled down two rebounds. It's safe to say we'll never see another scoreless, five-foul game be so meaningful.

The Blazers Made a Statement

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    The Portland Trail Blazers found themselves down a whopping 18 points in the second quarter, and LaMarcus Aldridge wasn't there to save them. With the game slipping away, things looked pretty bleak.

    But Damian Lillard and, improbably, Thomas Robinson contributed to a total-team effort that erased the deficit, buried the Minnesota Timberwolves and made a serious statement to the rest of the league. In the end, Portland notched a 108-97 win.

    If we're honest, we can all admit to believing the Blazers' recent mediocrity was a sign they'd begun the inevitable regression to the mean. Their defensive generosity and gimmicky offense had taken them far, but it was time for the high-flying Trail Blazers to descend back toward reality.

    Not so fast.

    Lillard battled through early foul trouble to lead the charge. He finished with 32 points on just 17 shots. And Robinson played solid defense on Kevin Love while posting a game-high 18 rebounds. T-Rob was so impressive toward the end of the first half that he found himself in the starting lineup in the third quarter.

    Wesley Matthews contributed 17 points, while Nicolas Batum chipped in 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. More than anything, the Blazers simply refused to submit.

    This was a huge win for Portland, one that could help reverse the course it had been on for a couple of ho-hum weeks. Maybe the Blazers will eventually slip down into the seventh or eighth seed. Frankly, that fate might be hard to avoid with a defense that surrenders so many looks at the rim.

    But we now know this is a team with some fight. If there's any slippage, it won't be because the Blazers have given in.