7 Takeaways from Friday's NBA Action
With the playoffs just around the corner, some teams are gaining steam while others are left searching for answers.
The evening of Friday, March 14, saw some big-time contenders sputter while desperate playoff wannabes excelled.
The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers continued their recent stretch of sub-par play, though Indy was fortunate enough to be facing the historically inept Philadelphia 76ers.
Further down the playoff bracket, the race for the critical eighth seed is heating up, with both the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers notching crucial victories on the road.
The Miami Heat Are at a Crossroads
The two-time defending champion Miami Heat are not a team given easily to panic. But there is something wrong in South Beach, and even LeBron James is a bit concerned.
The Heat lost for the fifth time in their last six games on Friday night. This was no marquee matchup, like their losses to the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs. This was the 28-36 Denver Nuggets, who came into Miami's gym and spanked their hosts, 111-107. The Heat needed a furious rally to even make this game close.
After the loss, James stressed the importance of this stretch of games, per The Miami Herald's Joseph Goodman:
We’ve been here before. It has been a while, but we’ve been here before, and this moment will either define our season or end our season…We always have one defining moment, and this is it right here for us.
Indeed, the Heat have been here before. If LeBron James believes this to be the defining moment of their season, then we are about to see what both he and his team are made of.
Jonas Valanciunas Picked a Good Time to Raise His Game
The Toronto Raptors are in a fight with the Brooklyn Nets for the Atlantic Division title. They already have one of the league's most dynamic backcourt combos in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. What they really need is increased performance from their bigs.
They received just that from starting center Jonas Valanciunas in Friday's 99-86 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Facing off against Memphis' notoriously rugged frontcourt, Valanciunas scored a season-high 23 points in the win.
B/R's own Christopher Walder identified Valanciunas as a player the Raptors needed to step up his game down the stretch, especially given their relative lack of size up front:
I'm still taken back by the fact that Masai Ujiri didn't look to add more size to the roster before the NBA trade deadline came and went. Jonas Valanciunas is the only true center this team has.
Once the postseason begins, the style of play will gradually slow down into more of a halfcourt offense. That could spell trouble for Valanciunas as he goes up against some of the larger and more skilled frontcourt talents in the conference.
If Valanciunas can step up his game at this critical moment, the Raptors will be in a good position to hold on to the division.
Nicolas Batum Knows How to Step Up in a Pinch
But with the Blazers reeling from a season-high four-game losing streak and with star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge out with a bruised back, the team needed to rely on lesser known players on Friday night against the New Orleans Pelicans.
What they received was a masterful performance from small forward Nicolas Batum, who helped lead Portland to a 111-103 victory with 22 points, 18 rebounds and five assists.
This isn't the first time Batum has displayed the ability to pick up the slack when Aldridge is out of the lineup.
Per NBA.com (membership required), Batum has averaged an impressive 9.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes without Aldridge, compared to 6.8 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks with Aldridge on the court.
Batum provided his team exactly what they needed in the absence of Aldridge, and that proved the difference between victory and defeat.
The Indiana Pacers Can't Even Win Well These Days
A win is a win...right?
While they don't give out style points in the NBA, the Indiana Pacers' 101-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers didn't inspire a whole lot of confidence.
The Sixers have now lost 19 consecutive games—one short of their franchise record—but they gave the first-place Pacers all they could handle, cutting Indiana's lead all the way down to three in the waning minutes.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel admitted the pressure his team faced against a team saddled with such a historic streak of futility, per NBA.com's Andy Jasner: "Playing a team that's lost 18 straight, you don't want to be the team that breaks the streak."
The Pacers have been playing some lackluster basketball of late. Wins like this may count in the standings, but they don't mean the team has necessarily improved.
The Phoenix Suns Need Any Win They Can Get
Unlike the Indiana Pacers, who have already clinched a postseason berth and need to start displaying dominance for the stretch run, the Phoenix Suns are a team desperately trying to keep their playoff hopes alive.
That is why Friday's 87-80 win over the Boston Celtics was so critical. Phoenix may have won an ugly game against a bad team, but they also managed to pick up a game on the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies in the standings.
Point guard Goran Dragic led all scorers with 20 points, while backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe scored 17 to go along with 10 rebounds.
Phoenix is still on the outside of the playoff picture, but they are only one game behind Memphis and still legitimately in the hunt. At this point, every win is worth its weight in gold.
Bradley Beal Is More Than Just a Shooter
Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal is one of the NBA's most dynamic young snipers. But he showed off an important defensive skill at a critical moment by chasing down Jameer Nelson and blocking his shot with 1:06 left in overtime.
The sterling defensive play sealed a 105-101 victory for Washington who had come into the game losers of two straight.
Beal described the play as one of more than just instinct, per the Associated Press (via ESPN):
That was just hustle play, one that we definitely needed. John got a pass deflected, and my first instinct was to just go chase it down. He had a head start on me I guess I kind of baited him into it, and I was able to jump up and get it before it was (goaltending).
Beal injured his ankle during overtime but walked out of the locker room under his own power. The Wizards cannot afford to lose him for any extended period of time.
The Cleveland Cavaliers Have Hit Their Stride out West
The Cleveland Cavaliers looked dead in the water as recently as March 8. They had just lost to their nearest competitors in the Eastern Conference standings, the New York Knicks, and faced the daunting prospect of a three-game western road trip.
But whereas most Eastern Conference teams struggle out West, the Cavaliers have paradoxically put together an impressive week of play to save their season. First they beat the Suns in Phoenix and then they overcame a horrible start to defeat the Golden State Warriors, 103-94, on Friday night in Oakland.
Spencer Hawes had 22 points and 13 rebounds to help the Cavaliers erase an 18-point first-half deficit en route to the crucial win.
Cleveland is now tied with the Knicks for ninth place, 3.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks. They can not afford any slip-ups.
Their next game is Sunday at the Los Angeles Clippers. They will not be favored in that matchup, but that has hardly bothered them of late.