10 Takeaways from Wednesday Night's NBA Action

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2014

10 Takeaways from Wednesday Night's NBA Action

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Wednesday night's 10-game slate featured plenty of explosive NBA action.

    The Portland Trail Blazers detonated against the Brooklyn Nets, amassing a humongous margin of victory that very much fit the term "blowout." Elsewhere, the Cleveland Cavaliers got a huge effort from Kyrie Irving in the evening's most surprising upset.

    And in San Antonio, there was en explosion of the literal variety. Don't worry; nobody was hurt. Well, nobody except whoever has stock in Manu Ginobili's shoe company.

    Many of the Los Angeles Lakers continued to seek their own chances to blow up. Unfortunately, those efforts are coming at the expense of L.A.'s ability to play sound basketball.

    Finally, the result of the marquee matchup between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers sent a clear message to Dwight Howard and his teammates: Either ignite a late-season surge or fizzle out and slip down the playoff ladder. Houston's current playoff positioning could cause their postseason hopes to go up in smoke as soon as the first round.

    Let's light the fuse on Wednesday's takeaways.

Always Believe in Yourself

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    We begin with an inspiring story of a frontcourt gunner who refused to acknowledge the signs telling him to stop shooting.

    Byron Mullens, condemned to life with the tanking Philadelphia 76ers after being unceremoniously swapped by the Los Angeles Clippers for next to nothing, made the most of his limited playing time in Philly's 101-90 loss to the Orlando Magic.

    In 17 minutes, the trigger-happy center loosed 11 shots, including four from long distance. He made just three of his attempts.

    If Mullens were a lesser man, he might have been discouraged by his numbers with the Clippers this year. He made just 40.6 percent of his shots with L.A., including a paltry 33 percent from long distance. But Mullens persevered, trusting his steady right arm and hoisting away with delightfully irrational confidence.

    Really, it shouldn't be so stunning that Mullens' entire vision consists of green lights right now. He's on a go-nowhere team, and his only real aim is putting on a good show for whichever club might want to sign him this summer.

    Then again, if he keeps tossing up nights like this, nobody's going to want him. He'll have to exercise his player option and stick around in Philly for another season for a little over $1 million.

    As worst-case scenarios go, I guess that's not so bad. Fire away, Byron!

Cavaliers Fans Should Be Getting Excited

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    We'll get to the real reason Cavs fans should be licking their chops in a minute. There was another surprising development on Wednesday that probably sent tremors through the entire state of Ohio, but we'll address an auxiliary source of excitement first.

    The Atlanta Hawks are falling apart.

    As evidence of that blunt assessment, consider their 115-104 loss to the Boston Celtics. The Hawks allowed Jerryd Bayless to erupt for a season-high 29 points, got absolutely crushed on the boards and lost a game by double digits in which they shot 50 percent from the field.

    It was the Hawks' 10th loss in their last 11 games.

    Injuries, malaise and bad luck are all conspiring to sink Atlanta, and that's great news for the Cavaliers, who are starting to look like the team that will overtake the Hawks for the No. 8 spot in the East.

    Brian Geltzeiler of HoopsCritic.com tweeted: "With the Hawks crashing hard, there's an East playoff spot up for grabs. CLE is the only team as of now playing well enough to grab it."

    It's no great prize to earn a sure first-round out against either the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers, but the Cavs will certainly take that over another lottery trip. Apparently, the Hawks are going to do everything possible to make Cleveland's dreams come true.

The Book Is out on Stephen Curry

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    And the Chicago Bulls are avid readers.

    Tom Thibodeau knew the key to beating the Golden State Warriors was throwing Stephen Curry off his game. That's no easy task under any circumstances, but Chicago's rugged approach to, well, everything made executing a Curry-stifling game plan surprisingly simple.

    See, everyone knows the best way to slow Curry down is to be extremely physical with him, initiate traps well beyond the three-point line and dare somebody else on the Warriors to make a play. With David Lee coming off the bench and still ailing from a nasty bout of the flu, there was no one capable of initiating the offense once Curry was forced to relinquish possession.

    Basically, the Bulls did exactly what opponents in the playoffs will do to the Warriors if no clear secondary facilitator emerges on the roster.

    Curry shot just 2-of-10 from the field, turned the ball over five times and failed to get to the line even once. Nobody else on the Warriors could do anything to compensate when the Bulls eliminated the All-Star point guard from the equation.

    So the Dubs got stomped, dropping a 103-83 contest to snap a four-game winning streak.

    Per Steve Berman of BayAreaSportsGuy.com, Jermaine O'Neal cited effort as the real reason for Golden State's defeat: “If you don’t come out and play to the same level as these teams are playing at, you’re going to get beat."

    That's certainly true, but it's troublesome that the Warriors talk about things like effort when the real failing was strategic. Golden State routinely fails to find an answer when Curry's contributions are minimized by good defensive planning.

    That has to change if the Dubs want to make any postseason noise.

The Basketball Gods Are Cruel

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    The New Orleans Pelicans are clearly being punished.

    After exposing the unprepared masses to the horrifying combination of Pierre the Pelican and King Cake Baby, the Pellies should have been expecting some cosmic retribution. You don't get away with terrorizing hoop fans like that without reprisal.

    The basketball gods struck back harshly for New Orleans' use of such twisted idols, smiting Anthony Davis with a shoulder injury.

    I'm all for justice, and the Pelicans had to be punished for what they'd done. But taking Davis away from basketball lovers everywhere is a little extreme.

    It's unclear how long Davis will be out, but he didn't look comfortable as he left the court in the second quarter clutching his left shoulder.

    Per The Associated Press (via ESPN), Pelicans head coach Monty Williams said after the game: "When you play as hard as AD and these guys who go after it every single night, they're going to have bumps and bruises. It could be nothing. It could be a day-to-day thing. We've got to let the doctors do their deal."

    Forget doctors. It's time to purge the franchise of its horrifying mascots. That's the only way to appease the vengeful basketball gods. Doesn't Williams know anything?

    Oh, and the Dallas Mavericks knocked off New Orleans by a final score of 108-89—as if anybody cared more about that than Davis' injury.

You Gotta Get Yours

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    Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

    It's hard to blame the Lakers for playing like a collection of individuals instead of an actual team. After all, the roster features 11 players on expiring contracts, many of whom are concerned with proving they deserve to remain in the NBA after this season.

    Of course there are some selfish agendas in play.

    Acknowledging the main reason behind L.A.'s porous defense, disjointed offense and me-first mentality doesn't make the end product any easier to watch, though. And that's coming after a game in which the Lakers put on a pretty entertaining show that included 15 made triples.

    The long-range assault wasn't enough to avoid a 108-103 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies who, by the way, are now just a half-game out of the No. 8 spot in the West.

    L.A. is in a rough transitional phase. Kobe Bryant's not around to keep the rest of the troops in order, and Mike D'Antoni's basic disinterest in defense makes a pervasive lack of effort on that end something the players know they can get away with.

    There's a weird bright side to all of this, as we're getting to see guys like Kent Bazemore and Kendall Marshall shine in big roles. But what we're seeing from the Lakers isn't really basketball; it's a dozen or so guys trying to "get theirs."

     

    (h/t to B/R's Ethan Norof, who provided both the emotional tenor and salient points used in this takeaway.)

You Can't Spell Dysfunction Without Function

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    And function the Cavs did, improbably toppling the West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder in Chesapeake Energy Arena by a final score of 114-104.

    I know, I know; I'm as stunned as you are.

    On it's face, the result of this contest doesn't make any sense. The Thunder seemed like a team certain to bounce back after suffering two straight defeats, and the Cavs looked like they'd reverted to their old ways after a nice win streak that bridged the All-Star break.

    All signs pointed to a comfortable OKC win.

    And it's not like the Thunder got uncharacteristically poor efforts from their key players, either. Kevin Durant was fantastic, hitting 10-of-16 shots and missing out on a triple-double by a single assist. Russell Westbrook played his best game since returning, chipping in 24 points and nine assists in 30 minutes.

    As a team, the Thunder shot 48.8 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from long range.

    So, uh, how exactly did this happen?

    Well, Kyrie Irving was a beast, leading all scorers with 31 points. He clearly relished the challenge of taking on Westbrook and was aggressive from the outset. He made all seven of his foul shots, leading the charge for a Cavs team that hit 23-of-24 from the charity stripe on the night.

    Every other Cavaliers starter cracked double figures in support of Irving, with Jarrett Jack offering up 21 points and Spencer Hawes contributing 19.

    It wasn't that OKC was bad; the Cavs were just better.

    It was an odd game and probably not one we should view as indicative of any significant trend for either team. But Cleveland could use the momentum from this signature win to cruise into a playoff spot (told you we'd come back to that).

    At present, the Cavs are a mere three-and-a-half games behind the Hawks in the race for the No. 8 seed in the East. That qualifies as striking distance, especially with Atlanta slumping so badly.

    Don't look now, Cavs fans; after looking like a dysfunctional mess for much of the season, your boys are getting it together at the right time.

Some Blowouts Are Literal

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    If anybody's shoes could hold up to a little stress, you'd think they'd be the ones belonging to a laterally unpredictable, Euro-stepping Argentine.

    But Manu Ginobili's kicks couldn't take the pressure of defending Rodney Stuckey on Wednesday night, and his left one blew out in spectacular, never-before-seen fashion in the second quarter.

    Fortunately, he got better support from his teammates than his footwear. Ginobili finished the game with 16 points and nine assists, and the San Antonio Spurs had seven players reach double figures in their 120-110 win over the Detroit Pistons.

    San Antonio should be pleased with the win, especially because it got them to within one-and-a-half games of the Thunder for the top spot out West. But I'm guessing Ginobili is less than happy with his footwear sponsors.

    Unrelated note: Kawhi Leonard made it back onto the floor after missing 14 games with a broken finger. As the Spurs continue to get healthier, they'll quickly round into prime form for another postseason run. Assuming exploding shoes don't become an epidemic, of course.

    The Spurs are good, but I'm not sure they'll be able to contend for a title in socks.

Goran Dragic Looks Good When He Plays, Maybe Even Better When He Doesn't

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    It's always a little dangerous to judge a player's value by the way his team performs without him on the court, but it's pretty safe to argue the Phoenix Suns aren't quite the same when Goran Dragic is on the sidelines.

    The All-Star snub missed Wednesday's 109-86 loss to the host Utah Jazz because of a sprained ankle he suffered in the third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night. With their best player sidelined, the Suns struggled to create good looks and weren't quite as dangerous in transition (just 15 fast-break points) as they might otherwise have been.

    Credit the Jazz, who fielded a starting quintet of Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward, Richard Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Marvin Williams that has posted an 18-9 record on the year, per ESPN Stats and Information. Hayward was especially effective, piling up 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.

    That's some admittedly selective sampling, but success of that nature is hard to ignore. Clearly, with the Jazz trotting out their most effective squad, the Suns needed Dragic especially badly.

    On the year, Phoenix is now 2-2 in games Dragic misses and 31-22 in games he plays. That's a larger sampling than the one relating to Utah's stellar five-man unit and drives home a point we should have already known for certain: Dragic is really, really good.

You Don't Always Get What You Pay For

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    A lot has been made of the Brooklyn Nets' massive payroll. They're doling out nearly $102 million in player salaries this year, and their tax bill is going to be nearly that much this summer.

    All that money wasn't enough to keep the shorthanded Portland Trail Blazers from hanging a 44-point beating on them, though.

    Brooklyn started slowly and surrendered a 13-1 run at the end of the second quarter that sent it into halftime facing a 24-point disadvantage. Seeing as I've already told you what the final score was, I probably don't have to explain things didn't get any better after the break.

    But back to the money.

    Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated offered up this financially themed nugget on the Blazers' dominant win via Twitter: "Will Barton and Mo Williams (combined $3.5 million salary) have outscored Nets starters (combined $68.6 million salary), 37-35."

    Yikes.

    Brooklyn's sluggish start and general ineptitude was rather surprising, money aside. The Nets had been idle since a Feb. 23 win over the Lakers, giving them two full days off. The Blazers, meanwhile, were playing the second night of a back-to-back set after beating the Denver Nuggets at altitude on Tuesday.

    Even Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was a little surprised at the result, via Joe Freeman of the Oregonian"I didn't see that coming," Stotts said.

    Neither did anybody else—least of all Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who probably expected a little better return on his massive investment.

Houston Should Think Very Carefully About Playoff Seeding

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    With its 101-93 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, the Houston Rockets dropped to 0-3 against Chris Paul and Co. on the season. Too many turnovers (20) and second-chance points surrendered (19) made life easy for the Clips, and Houston couldn't muster its own high-scoring attack to offset its mistakes.

    On the year, the Rockets are now just 5-6 in games against the top four teams in the West. So it's not as though they'll assure themselves a favorable first-round matchup by checking in as the sixth or seventh seed. But they dropped into the No. 5 slot with their loss Wednesday night, and if that spot holds, they'll face the No. 4 Clips in the first round.

    I think we know how that series would end for the Rockets.

    Though we've spent some time wringing our hands over Houston's struggles, it's important to credit the Clippers for an excellent win.

    Paul has been on another planet lately, piling up 48 assists against just three turnovers in his past four games. He tallied 14 points and nine helpers in this one. Plus, Blake Griffin filled up the stat sheet with 23 points and 16 rebounds.

    Individual performances aside, the Clippers essentially took what the Rockets gave them. If Houston's not careful, it could set itself up to give L.A. an easy first-round win.