The Boston Celtics found themselves during a shocking late-game surge that produced a 103-94 win over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday.
And it's that version of the Celtics, that collective, frenzied, defensively dialed-in iteration, that must show up more often if Brad Stevens' team is going to stabilize this up-and-down season.
In other words, the chaos needs to be consistent.
Boston stole the ball from Indiana—just flat-out took it away—four times in the final 2:33 of the fourth quarter, turning every one of the thefts into buckets on the other end. And when the Celtics weren't relieving Indiana of the rock, they were forcing hopeless shot attempts.
The truly unusual 12-0 run Boston used to close the game left observers like Bleacher Report contributor Brian Robb awestruck:
Brian Robb @CelticsHub
Wow. Celtics literally winning this game with their defense. Three straight steals and finishes.1/14/2016, 3:19:58 AM
Jae Crowder was right in the middle of it all, and he was pretty impressed, too:
Brian Robb @CelticsHub
Jae Crowder on the four steals by Cs to close out game: "I've never been a part of anything like that."1/14/2016, 4:28:25 AM
Paul George led the Pacers with 23 points, but he succumbed to some of his hero-ball tendencies against Crowder, which is rarely a good idea. George coughed the ball up to him at the one-minute mark, then forced up a panicked three-pointer 10 seconds later. He was just 7-of-20 on the night.
Boston doesn't have a player like George, and that's part of the reason it has lost a number of close games this season. Without a clear front-line scorer to lean on, the Celtics have no hierarchy, no "give me the ball" organizer when games get close and clean system looks are harder to come by.
Isaiah Thomas had 28 points, and he probably comes closest to being Boston's go-to threat. But there's a difference between scoring spark plugs and reliable finishers. Thomas is the former, and he's good at his job. But Boston's failure to execute late in games all year is direct evidence of Thomas' limitations.
Crowder is quite clearly the Celtics' defensive star, and he managed 25 points against Indiana. But some of his most impressive scores felt a bit like accidents, and it's a stretch to say he's become anything more than a good complementary offensive player.
The lack of an offensive leader good enough to put everyone else in line is a common problem in the NBA. There are only so many no-questions-asked No. 1 options.
Stevens, in highlighting the reasons for the four-game losing streak that ended Wednesday, cited the small margin for error his star-less team faces every night, per Yaron Weitzman of SB Nation: "If we don't improve in the details, then we don't have a chance. So either we will, or we'll be lucky to win games."
Boston may continue to struggle with offensive mistakes late in contests, and it may be that the lack of a star is only part of the problem. With a young roster whose most effective playing style is best described as frenetic, jittery fourth-quarter offense may just be unavoidable. Switching from swarming chaos on one end to regimented order on the other is tough.
It's possible the Celtics will just have to live with hard-fought, often unnecessarily sloppy losses. They may be inseparable from stirring wins like the one we saw against Indy.
Boston has the assets and draft picks to eventually find the star it needs to reach another level, but that's not going to happen this season. So in the meantime, it's probably best for the C's to embrace what they are and try to channel their best selves more often.
There'll be losses, but if the Celtics can more consistently dial up the D and make things ugly for both teams, they'll at least fail on their own terms. And if the offense (the kind not generated by steals and breakaway layups) ever comes around...watch out.
The Hornets Should Have Saved Some for Later
The Charlotte Hornets probably wish they could take a few points from their startling 107-84 win over the Atlanta Hawks and spread them out over the next couple of weeks.
It's been rough going for Charlotte lately, and its blowout victory against Atlanta on Wednesday felt more like a brief respite than any signifier of change going forward. The Hornets badly needed this win, though, having lost their last seven straight.
And while some of the result could be attributed to the Hawks playing some seriously inept offense, it's only fair to give the Hornets defense, which had been in free fall of late, an appreciative nod. At the very least, head coach Steve Clifford will be happy about holding the Hawks to 37 percent shooting.
Before the game, he explained the reason for the losing streak to reporters: "It's the defense, obviously. We've got to get back to, in the games 12 through 23, we were the second-best defensive team in the league against a good schedule so we're capable of much better."
Wednesday's desperately needed win notwithstanding, the Hornets have slipped to the periphery of the jumbled East playoff race. It'll take a few more efforts like this before anyone's willing to buy the Hornets as a serious threat again.
Bradley Beal Is (Mostly) Back
Bradley Beal returned in the Washington Wizards' 106-101 home win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, but it was clear he wasn't all the way back just yet, per a Vine from Wizards blogger Kyle Weidie:
Seeing his first action after a month off to recover from yet another stress reaction in his right fibula, Beal scored 11 points in 23 minutes off the bench. He hit a three, moved without any evident restriction and gave the Wizards the shooter and secondary playmaker they'd been missing.
With injuries continuing to cost the Wizards games up and down the roster, it can only help to have John Wall's best backcourt teammate on the floor again—especially with a sore right hip sending Otto Porter to the locker room for good in the third quarter. Porter joins Marcin Gortat, Kris Humphries and Alan Anderson on the list of banged-up Wizards. Even Wall, who scored a team-high 19 points and turned in a handful of highlights, isn't in great shape.
He underwent a precautionary MRI on his left leg Tuesday.
Washington is in a tricky spot now. It'll have to manage Beal's usage so as to avoid a recurrence of his injury, which might be tough considering the offensive boost he provides. The Bucks clearly treated the Wizards differently when Beal was out there, per J. Michael of CSNWashington.com:
With him on the floor late in the fourth, the defense didn't think twice about allowing Dudley to shoot. Multiple defenders were too concerned about running Beal off the three-point line. The result was wide-open threes for Dudley, who even had time to reset his feet with no one running at him.
File the Beal conundrum under "good problems" for Washington, which moved to within a game of .500 and has won three straight.
There's a New King in New York, And He Is Disappointing
Though no monarchy officially exists in New York, it was fair to assume Carmelo Anthony's absence (sore ankle) would provide an opportunity for someone else to occupy the headlines—if not the throne.
Maybe a certain forward playing far better than anyone expected this season?
Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal made it seem pretty obvious how things were going to go in the Melo-less battle between the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets:
Chris Herring @Herring_NBA
Porzingis, in the two games where Melo's sat out: *21.5 PPG on 51.6% from field (16-of-31) *13 rebs/gm *4-of-6 from 3 *39 mins/gm1/13/2016, 11:21:20 PM
But it didn't shake out that way, as Derrick Williams—not rookie sensation/phenom/savant/hero/sweet, sweet angel Kristaps Porzingis—who showed out. Williams had a career-high 31 points in the Knicks 110-104 loss to the Nets.
It feels a little like we were robbed, doesn't it? Porzingis only scored a dozen points on 5-of-17 shooting, squandering what could have been a shimmering ascent into the heavens, probably accompanied by a chorus of celestial trumpeters...or at least a breakout game.
Maybe next time.
Lesley McCaslin Is a Doggone Professional
Seriously, you try keeping your cool when a 6'10" leviathan looses a ritualistic roar mere inches from your head.
Kudos to you, intrepid Fox Sports sideline reporter Lesley McCaslin. You are made of sterner stuff than most.
If you expected much talk about the Oklahoma City Thunder's 108-89 win over the Dallas Mavericks (who played without five, count 'em, five starters), well...fine. Here's some.
Russell Westbrook got himself tossed from an extremely chippy game after a pair of technicals, but it didn't much matter in the final outcome. Kevin Durant scored 29 points on just 14 shots to secure the easy win.
We've already handed it to McCaslin, but maybe the Mavs deserve a shoutout as well. They've surprised everyone by inserting themselves into the midst of the West playoff race, and now they're acting very much like a squad expecting to stay there. You don't pile up DNP-CDs en masse if you're not thinking of a postseason run.
And it also doesn't hurt that the Mavs who played—human irritant J.J. Barea in particular—showed some serious fight.
That'll bode well going forward.
So It Turns Out Draymond Green Is Pretty Important
How else do you explain the Golden State Warriors' third loss of the season, a 112-110 slip on the road to the Denver Nuggets?
The Warriors rested Green (partially over his objection) and spent the evening highlighting his value.
Defensive lapses cropped up like crazy, Danilo Gallinari drew fouls often enough to shoot 19 free throws and there was an overriding sense of disorganization without the reliable facilitator attacking the lane and pushing the ball after defensive rebounds.
Green's absence showed more than the Warriors' severe dependence on him; anyone who watched more than a handful of games this season already knew his value. On a larger scale, though, it also underscored the team's terrifyingly slim margin for error, per Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports:
Dan Devine @YourManDevine
Rest Draymond for a night, Spurs get within 2.5. Cold-ass world up at the top of the West.1/14/2016, 4:32:37 AM
Stephen Curry had 20 points in the fourth quarter, and the Warriors were a play away from completing a comeback win. But on Golden State's last decent look, Curry over-dribbled and surrendered the ball to Gallinari. If Green had been on the floor, perhaps Curry wouldn't have felt compelled to do everything himself.
Not that it should have taken this game to finish it, but the debate's surely over now. Green is one of the league's 10 best players. And the Warriors are lost without him.
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Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Accurate through games played Jan. 13.