10 Takeaways from Friday's NBA Action

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 8, 2014

10 Takeaways from Friday's NBA Action

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    Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

    With 11 games taking place on Friday night, points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals were a flowin' in NBA arenas. 

    So too were highlights, unexpected brawls and outcomes sure to leave you scratching your head and wondering what in the world was going on. 

    The Los Angeles Lakers allowing points in bunches again? OK, maybe that wasn't too surprising.

    But how about the Houston Rockets blowing out a team with the best record in the NBA? Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett helping to make history for the visiting team in the Boston Garden? The Dallas Mavericks allowing a 30-point lead slip away? 

    Yep, it was a weird night in the Association. 

    Of course, it was also an entertaining one. What else would you expect with 22 of the NBA's 30 teams in action? 

    First of all, let me get a procedural note out of the way. My apologies to fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, though, as someone had to get snubbed with 11 games and 10 takeaways. 

    To make it up to you, I'll provide you with some quick-hitting thoughts for those two teams: 

    • Kevin Love is really good. We already knew this, but he confirmed it with another 28 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. 
    • Big changes are coming for the Pistons during the offseason, as this whole Josh Smith experiment continues to be a big disaster. 

    With that out of the way, let's get on with the biggest stories of the night. 

Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers Are Headed in Opposite Directions

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    This is what it looks like when a scorching hot team plays a struggling one. 

    No team has been more successful during 2014 than the Houston Rockets, and that was on full display during a spanking of the slipping Indiana Pacers.

    With the victory, James Harden, Dwight Howard and the rest of the NBA's hottest team move to 22-6 since the calendars flipped over to a new year, and they pull even closer to the top of the Western Conference standings. Meanwhile, the Pacers now have as many losses as the Miami Heat by losing their third game in a row. 

    The classic question applies here—did the Rockets win this game, or did the Pacers lose it? 

    Technically, both happened, but it's hard not to think the answers to both portions of the inquiry should be affirmative responses.

    The Pacers looked borderline incompetent on offense during long stretches of the game, and their defense was torn to smithereens by the Rockets. But at the same time, Houston was executing on both ends of the court en route to becoming the first team to beat Indiana and Miami in the same week of the 2013-14 season. 

    As ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said during the closing seconds of the broadcast, both the stats and the eye test point toward Houston being elite and one of the few teams actually capable of winning a championship. 

    It's too soon to eliminate Indiana from that category, but it's not too early to move Houston firmly into it. 

Memphis Grizzlies Reign Supreme Among Teams You Don't Want to Face

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Both the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls have vaulted into the "teams you really don't want to face during the playoffs" realm of NBA squads. 

    While the Grizz are still on the outside of the playoff picture and looking up at the top eight teams in the Western Conference, they've been en fuego during 2014. Though they've cooled off a little bit, they still went 7-5 in February and now begin March in 3-1 fashion after taking down the Bulls. 

    Speaking of Chicago, Tom Thibodeau's defense has been clamping down more than ever, leading to an ascent up the Eastern Conference standings and a 10-2 record heading into the showdown with Memphis. Joakim Noah in particular has been filling up the box score and submitting his name amongst the leading Defensive Player of the Year candidates. 

    This Friday night clash was sure to be a defensive battle, and it lived up to the billing. Sure, it was ugly at times, but it was beautiful if you appreciated two defenses making two mediocre offenses look like absolute you-no-what. 

    Memphis shot 44.9 percent from the field and held Chicago to only 41.3 percent. This wasn't a particularly sloppy game so much as an outing filled with plenty of contested shots, suffocating defense and non-stop effort. 

    Basically, it was exactly what you might have expected had you been watching these two teams over the last month. 

    Thing is, the Grizzlies beat the Bulls at their own game. As Sam Smith of Bulls.com tweeted:

    Doesn't happen often to Bulls, but Grizzlies outhustling Bulls to loose balls. Bulls players do appear a bit frightened of bear on jersey

    — Sam Smith (@SamSmithHoops) March 8, 2014

    So if Chicago is a team no one wants to face and the Grizzlies beat them, what does that make the victors? 

    Scary. That's what. 

Al Jefferson Continues All-Star Campaign

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    Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    Please don't tell Al Jefferson that the All-Star weekend already took place in New Orleans. 

    The Charlotte Bobcats big man was a snub from the proceedings, and he's playing like he's still campaigning for a spot on the Eastern Conference squad. Heading into the 'Cats game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Big Al was averaging 27.1 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game after the midseason break.

    Oh, and he was shooting 54.8 percent from the field. 

    Grantland's Zach Lowe has been particularly effusive with his praise, even putting the center on his team of the league's most watchable players: 

    Professor Al is having perhaps the best all-around season of his career, carrying a heavier burden than ever for a Charlotte offense that dies without him. He’s still holding court on the left block, tricking hopeless fools with Randolphian footwork and the league’s most unfair two-handed pump fake.

    Friday night was just another routine outing for Jefferson, who coolly posted 28 points, seven rebounds and two assists on 12-of-18 shooting. He embarrassed Cleveland's host of bigs, but that wasn't all. 

    Steel yourselves for this one. 

    Jefferson actually played good defense throughout the night. He was anchoring a solid Charlotte unit that didn't let any of the Cavs' interior players get going. 

    Again, please don't tell Big Al that the All-Star Game has come and gone. Watching him play this type of inspired basketball is something else, especially when he's committed to playing well on both ends of the court. 

    Going up against the Cavs helps, but Charlotte continues to look like a legitimate playoff team when Jefferson is suiting up. 

Jermaine O'Neal Can Still Get It Done

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    If you're looking for the surprising line of the night, it would have to belong to Jermaine O'Neal. 

    The veteran big man looked like he'd found the fountain of youth during a contest against the Atlanta Hawks, recording 17 points, eight rebounds and a block in 19 minutes off the pine. When you play well enough to earn the televised post-game interview after a victory, that's when you know you made a sizable contribution. 

    O'Neal hasn't exactly been the model of health during this season, so this was a pleasant development for a Golden State Warriors lineup that is suddenly catching fire and starting to utilize the second unit with increasing frequency. 

    If anything, though, it was the continuation of a development. 

    The former All-Star was averaging 12.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game over his last five outings, highlighted by a 23 and 10 outing against the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 22. This was still yet another step up from the average, but it's not quite as shocking as it would be otherwise. 

    Even more importantly, O'Neal was only one member of a bench that scored 50 points against Atlanta. For a team that's averaging only 25.6 points per game off the pine, according to Hoopsstats.com, that's not too shabby. 

    Don't look now but here come the Warriors. 

    Depth has been the team's biggest problem throughout the season, especially when it leads to the starters playing too many minutes and dealing with tired legs and bodies during the closing portion of a close game. If O'Neal and the rest of the second unit can continue making this a trend, the Dubs won't be easy outs once they lock up a playoff berth.

The Los Angeles Lakers Are Just Depressing

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    A lot of people love the Los Angels Lakers, and they obviously have good reason to feel depressed right now. A large crowd also hates the purple-and-gold-clad team but even they should feel sorry for this squad after yet another humiliating loss. 

    Yes, the Lakers have the back-to-back excuse working in their favor, as they were tasked with playing at altitude one night after being run to death by the Los Angeles Clippers. But after suffering a 48-point beat down, you'd think a group of proud professionals would still exert a bit more effort. 

    At least the lead never swelled to 50 points this time. 

    The Lakers actually kept things close against the Denver Nuggets, but they still let Ty Lawson lead his team to 134 points. The Nuggets had 77 points at halftime. With over two minutes left in the third quarter, they pushed past the triple-digit barrier, although it's not much of a barrier when playing against the Lakers. 

    Denver shot 54.5 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from the field en route to the offensive explosion. And the team could've posted an even bigger number, seeing as it turned the ball over a dozen times and shot only 12-of-21 from the charity stripe. 

    That's just embarrassing for the Lakers. 

    This is a Nuggets team that was absolutely reeling, coming off a 2-11 stretch that saw the Mile High residents reach triple digits in regulation only three times. It's one thing to allow an offensive juggernaut to rack up points, but this is different. 

    Ty Lawson (30 points and 17 assists) and Kenneth Faried (career-high 32 points and 13 rebounds) were the biggest Denver standouts, but Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Randy Foye and Evan Fournier all scored at least 10 points.

    Basketball-Reference shows that after the Friday night showing, 15 teams have now scored 130 points or more during the 2013-14 season. A third of those outings have come against the Lake Show, including the No. 1 (last game) and No. 6 (this game) scoring performances of the year. 

    This is just sad. And it might get even worse Sunday afternoon when the Oklahoma City Thunder come to town. 

The New York Knicks Are Back on Track...Maybe

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Back-to-back wins are rare commodities for the New York Knicks. 

    So far this season, the 'Bockers have managed to emerge victoriously from consecutive contests during only four stretches: a two-game string in early December, a five-game streak at the beginning of January, four games in a row to close the same month and these last two outings. 

    First, the Knicks overwhelmed the Minnesota Timberwolves with a 118-106 performance, then they provided fans with a rare encore on Friday night by completely dominating the Utah Jazz. This game was never in doubt, and the 27-point margin actually doesn't give New York enough credit. 

    Is this the spark the Knicks have been looking for? 

    Carmelo Anthony was excellent yet again, even recording a season-high eight assists. It wasn't that he was passing the ball more frequently so much as it was his teammates actually hitting shots. Everyone on the roster seemed to connect at some point during the game, with only Jeremy Tyler going scoreless. 

    Perhaps most impressively, the Knicks held the Jazz to only 81 points, putting the clamps down on Trey Burke and Marvin Williams in particular. 

    Unfortunately though, this was a game against Utah. Yes, the same Utah team that's in the midst of a losing streak that includes a shelling at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks, another blowout against the Cleveland Cavaliers and losses to the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards. 

    The Jazz seem to have moved firmly into tanking mode, and the Knicks were only the latest team to take advantage of that. 

    Knicks fans, I understand this has been a miserable season. Celebrate the rare victory to your heart's content, but remember that a 23-40 record and two-game win streak doesn't offer much hope for the rest of the season. 

    This may seem like the start of a turnaround, but you don't want to bet on that. 

    "The last two games we had no choice [but to win]. Time is somewhat running out and every game is important," Mike Woodson told the Associated Press via NBA.com's Adam Zagoria after the game. 

    That doesn't change after Friday night. 

Dallas Mavericks Show Some Serious Toughness

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    What. A. Game. 

    If you're looking for the NBA equivalent of a seesaw, look no further than the battle between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks. 

    Dallas led by 23 points after the third quarter and actually managed to blow a 30-point lead, letting Rip City storm back into the contest. Led by 30 points and 17 rebounds from LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland tied the game at 98 apiece with the clock ticking down toward triple zeros. 

    Unfortunately for the Blazers, a missed shot led to a transition bucket from Devin Harris, and then a turnover by Aldridge essentially sealed the deal. The Mavericks closed out a game they could've easily let slip away, and that's a big deal as they attempt to hold off the surging Memphis Grizzlies. 

    After all, a loss would have left them tied for the final seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. 

    It's hard to pick just one standout for the Mavs. 

    Dirk Nowitzki finished with 22 points, five rebounds and six assists. Jose Calderon cooled off after a torrid start and still ended up with 19 points and two dimes. We can't forget about Monta Ellis either, as his final line included 17 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals. 

    This was a team effort, and it's one that displayed the mental fortitude needed from a playoff team. The NBA is a game of runs (maybe not runs this big), and it's important for a quality team to be able to take punches and deliver counter-punches, no matter how tough the initial blow might've been to absorb. 

Toronto Raptors Not Taking Foot off the Gas Pedal

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    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

    When analyzing the playoff pictures in each conference, we've spent a lot of time going over a few different sections. 

    Which team will rise to the top of the Western Conference? Will the Indiana Pacers stave off the inevitable run for the No. 1 seed from the Miami Heat? Which deserving team will get left out of the postseason thanks to the strength of the West? Who can sneak into the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference? 

    Those are all important queries but let's not overlook the magnitude of the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. 

    The Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls have been battling it out for the first slot in the sub-elite portion of the NBA's weaker conference, as that will give them home-court advantage and an easier matchup in the opening round, then a supposedly easier opponent in the second. 

    At the very least, pride is on the line. 

    Friday night would've been an easy time for the Raptors to take their foot off the gas.

    Not only were they coming off an inspiring victory over the Golden State Warriors, but they'd enjoyed a four-day rest period and easily could've overlooked a game against the lackluster Sacramento Kings in favor of an upcoming road trip. After all, that two-game stretch away from home is comprised of games against the more potent Minnesota Timberwolves and Brooklyn Nets. 

    These Raptors aren't going to overlook anyone, though. Not with Rudy Gay coming back to town for a showdown in his old stomping ground—though I'd guess most of those stomps failed to connect with the earth. 

    Patrick Patterson basically confirmed that after the game while speaking to the Associated Press, via NBA.com's Scott Campsall

    I think the difference, in my opinion, is the just way we approached the game. I thought the way we approached the game last time was too friendly, too cool, too lackadaisical, too laid back. They jumped on us, they attacked us from the get go. I thought the roles were revered this time. I thought we came out the right way with the right amount of energy and intensity. Everybody all down the board did their job did what they had to do in that first half and that pretty much set the tone.

    Toronto played with tons of energy and nearly earned a wire-to-wire win, save a slow start in the game's opening minutes. And as Eric Koreen of the National Post pointed out on Twitter, this team was competing with talent and smarts, which has often been the downfall of this relatively young squad. 

    The Raptors have played motivated basketball all season and a weak opponent—particularly a weak opponent with a player sure to draw boos from the hometown faithful—isn't going to be overlooked. 

Brooklyn Nets Make History

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    It's time for...drum roll...the NBA's statistical anomaly of the night!

    At halftime of their game against the Boston Celtics, which was yet another emotional return to the Boston Garden for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Brooklyn Nets had taken 17 attempts from beyond the arc and failed to connect on any of them. 

    Being the stat nerd that I am, I couldn't help but look up the worst shooting performances of all time. 

    Basketball-Reference shows that only 10 teams have ever* finished a game with at least 15 three-point attempts and a goose egg in the makes column. The worst performance in NBA history was an 0-of-22 night by the Denver Nuggets during a 2012 contest against the Portland Trail Blazers. 

    Naturally, I started rooting for history. 

    One minute into the third quarter, Kris Humphries blocked a Pierce triple.

    0-of-18.

    The Nets were in virtually uncharted territory now, as only three teams had ever finished a game with that many attempts and zero makes. But alas, Deron Williams drilled a three-pointer just about a minute later, and that was the end of Brooklyn's shot at history. 

    Or was it?

    The team would go on to finish 4-of-30 from downtown, which is still a historically awful shooting performance. According to Basketball-Reference, 1,164 teams have ever taken at least 30 three-pointers (Brooklyn makes 1,165), and this was the absolute worst shooting percentage of any of them. 

    Thank you for making history, Brooklyn. 

     

    *"Ever," in this case, refers to 1985-86 through the present, as that's all the Play Finder can track. 

Frustrating Season for the Milwaukee Bucks

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    You can't blame the Milwaukee Bucks for being frustrated. 

    This season has been an unmitigated disaster for a team that was supposed to remain mired in mid-level mediocrity. General manager John Hammond had set up a roster filled with youngsters and veterans that should've been able to hang around in the fight for a playoff spot but injuries and ineptitude have taken their toll. 

    Owners of an NBA-worst 12-48 record heading into their showdown with the New Orleans Pelicans, the Bucks keep finding ways to sink to new lows. The latest low just happened to come during yet another loss, one that Milwaukee had a serious chance of avoiding before falling apart in the second half. 

    Being frustrated is OK. So too is vocalizing that frustration. 

    However, it's not acceptable to take out those rising feelings of rage in a physical manner, as O.J. Mayo did after running into a hard screen from Greg Stiemsma. While every player has a boiling point, it's part of a professional's job to ensure a passive reaction when that level of frustration is reached. 

    As NBC Sports' Brett Polakoff pointed out in the aftermath of the brief brawl (which still might be too strong a word), Milwaukee's own precedent indicates that a suspension will be forthcoming: 

    Ersan Ilyasova received a suspension for the punch-shove combo he delivered to Reggie Evans, and we can expect the same punishment to be handed down to O.J. Mayo, who was ejected in the first quarter Friday night after throwing a punch to the neck of Greg Stiemsma.

    Then again, a suspension might be a relief for Mayo. At least he won't be a central figure in the futile efforts. 

    It's hard to believe the 26-year-old thought this was what he was getting into when he signed on with Milwaukee. He can't have had any championship aspirations, but he presumably believed the playoffs were within reach. 

    Not anymore.