The Miami Heat didn't have their full roster, but they might have played their best game of the year in Wednesday's 118-112 loss to the Golden State Warriors. And it wasn't enough because Stephen Curry, as he so often does, decided he felt like winning.
You might call what Curry does at the end of games divine intervention. ESPN.com's Ethan Strauss uses "deus ex machina," which refers to the literary device of an overwhelming, unexpected force salvaging a seemingly hopeless situation.
Both work to describe the way Curry so consistently removes the sense of fairness from games with finishing flurries and incomparably hot stretches. If we could read the minds of opponents while this is happening, we'd see thought-bubble questions like: "What's even the point?"
The reigning MVP finished with 42 points, seven rebounds and seven assists on 14-of-29 shooting. He also tied Kyle Korver's NBA record by making a three in his 127th consecutive game—probably the fifth- or sixth-most noteworthy event of the night.
Klay Thompson scored 33, and Draymond Green notched a 10-point, 11-rebound double-double.
In the aftermath, the Heat had to be wondering what the struggle was for, asking themselves what else they could have done.
Hassan Whiteside changed the game immediately upon his entry midway through the first quarter, injecting an ornery energy punctuated by an and-1 finish, a couple of incredible dunks and repeated shot alterations on the defensive interior.
He was fired up and would ultimately score 11 of his 21 points in that opening period. The Heat fed off the flames...until Curry doused them with a deep triple at the end of the first quarter that kept the margin manageable:
Dwyane Wade set a season high with 32 points, snaking his way into the lane after forcing more honest defense with a couple of early jumpers. The old-man bag of tricks was wide-open. Pump fakes, spin dribbles, hesitations, clever finishes in the post—they were all working.
Even rookie Josh Richardson had it rolling. Playing the best game of his career, beating Curry to a pulp off the ball and hitting three triples on the way to 15 points.
None of it mattered because Curry took a tight game, well-played throughout by Miami, and turned it into a personal exhibition. The Warriors specifically targeted Whiteside late, using his man to set screens high above the arc. And when Whiteside either hesitated or failed to jump out altogether, Curry punished him.
Curry dropped a bomb to put the Warriors up a point, 107-106, with under two minutes to play. And then did it again on the next possession following a Miami score, expanding the advantage to 110-108. It was expected absurdity. Predictable nonsense. A reliable miracle.
It was Curry, the most dominant program-override software in existence, executing his kill code.
Nobody has made more than Curry's 13 threes in close and late situations (score within five points, final five minutes), per B/R Insights. And even though every opponent knows what's coming, Curry still shoots an obscene 52 percent on such attempts.
Back on Feb. 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Warriors found themselves in a rare competitive contest down the stretch. Head coach Steve Kerr happily remarked to his team, "About time we got a close game to play in. This is fun." Curry would score three buckets and assist on two others in a 12-4 closing run that sank the Thunder.
Then, after more Curry heroics against the Atlanta Hawks this past Monday, Kerr told Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Steve Kerr on Steph Curry's fourth quarter: "He senses when he needs to take over and when not … I mean, that’s what Steph does, right?”— Rusty Simmons (@Rusty_SFChron) February 23, 2016
This time, Kerr admitted the Heat probably deserved to beat Golden State, per Strauss:
Kerr said the Heat outplayed the Warriors for much of the game— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) February 25, 2016
Maybe it's Kerr's right to relish a little drama late in games. Maybe it makes sense that the Warriors need the occasional test to stay sharp for what everyone expects will be a deep run to and through the Finals. But it seems like the only thing Golden State ever learns in these situations is that Curry will rise up and save them.
Counting on supernatural salvation might seem crazy. But when the miracles just keep coming, it's hard not to believe.
This Is What We Were Afraid Of
Al Jefferson's return from injury last Friday brought questions for the Charlotte Hornets, with the most significant being: How do they reintegrate a post-up scorer into the spaced-out, three-point shooting offense that developed in his absence?
Jefferson pumped in 18 points off the bench in his second game back Sunday, and he had a dozen in Wednesday's 114-103 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But some of the issues regarding his fit came to the fore in the process, per NBA analyst Nate Duncan:
Al Jefferson has not really helped Hornets offense so far. Not a great PNR guy, ball sticking as they try to enter ball into post.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) February 25, 2016
It's not entirely fair to isolate a game against a pretty dialed-in Cavaliers squad as evidence Jefferson's return might not be a smooth one. But it's a situation that bears watching over the season's final two months. The Hornets are in the thick of the East playoff race, and they've proved a more dynamic offense works better for them than some of the older, dump-it-in sets they used to run.
Jefferson is still an asset if used in the right situations. But at this point, it's unclear how he figures into Charlotte's plans.
The Knicks Need To Manage Expectations
It seems nobody told New York Knicks owner James Dolan that crawling comes before walking. This is understandable, as Dolan's Knicks have spent most of the past few seasons struggling to sit upright. Even crawling seemed a long way off in the developmental roadmap.
Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported Dolan was "visibly agitated after the Knicks lost to the Toronto Raptors (who happen to be really good) on Monday." And then interim coach Kurt Rambis tossed this out in response to New York's 2-12 stretch: "We’re all frustrated. We can’t accept this. For the organization, for our team, ourselves as individuals, the coaching staff. We can’t accept losing. I want players to be angry. I want players to be frustrated."
Here's the thing: The Knicks are about as good as they're supposed to be this year.
They won 17 games in 2014-15. Seventeen!
When a team's that bad, big turnarounds almost never happen right away, per Bleacher Report's Jared Dubin, who crunched the numbers and determined the collective winning percentage for teams coming off a 17-win season was about 33 percent. That's roughly 27 wins over an 82-game season.
Kristaps Porzingis' potential game-winning three was just a touch long, so the Knicks fell to the Indiana Pacers by a final of 108-105 on Wednesday. But KP had a team-high 22 points, and New York still has 24 wins on the year. This team is right where it should be.
With some patience, it'll get where it wants to go.
And how mad can anyone (Dolan or otherwise) get when Clyde Frazier peppers in delightfully silly analysis on every broadcast, per Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports:
“Boy, we’ve seen some folly tonight,” says Clyde Frazier, the sole light at the heart of the entire Knicks enterprise— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) February 25, 2016
Everyone Likes Bright Sides
Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer laid it on the Sixers after a horrible first two quarters:
I must say that his perhaps one of the worst first-half efforts by the Sixers I witnessed. They look sluggish and disinterested.— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) February 25, 2016
It didn't get any better from there, as the Pistons won their second straight game behind Tobias Harris' 22 points and Andre Drummond's 12-point, 18-rebound night.
But, hey, Jahlil Okafor hit his first career triple—a banked-in heave with the shot clock winding down. So that's fun! And so was Robert Covington's casual 60-footer at the end of the first quarter:
At 8-49, the Sixers need reasons to stay positive. Hopefully they'll get a circus shot or two in every game the rest of the way. It'll help take the sting out of what's looking like at least a 65-loss season.
There’s Always A Reason To Watch The Grizzlies
Though sporadic check-ins are all you really need when it comes to this season’s Los Angeles Lakers, it’s now important to keep an eye on every second of the Memphis Grizzlies’ remaining games. Because you really never know when Lance Stephenson might start feeling himself.
A great example from Memphis’ 128-119 runover win against the Lakers on Wednesday: L.A. falls behind by a massive margin early, prompting Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times to offer this par-for-the-course update:
Lakers trail Memphis, 18-4. The game is four minutes old.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) February 25, 2016
Time to ignore that one for the rest of the evening, right?
No. Wrong. False.
Because the Lance Signal illuminated the night sky shortly afterward, thanks to Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com:
Lance Stephenson running PG for the Grizzlies. #LeaguePassAlert— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) February 25, 2016
Behold this discordant ball-handling symphony:
Yes. One thousand times: Yes!
Stephenson was 3-of-7 for eight points in 23 minutes off the bench, somehow finding a way to make the Lakers’ league-worst defense look effective.
We’re entering the stretch run of the season, and there are going to be lots of games between uninteresting, irrelevant teams you’ll want to skip. Don’t make the mistake of counting any Grizzlies contest in that category.
You might miss the magic.
The Universe Makes Sense
The Oklahoma City Thunder badly needed a win Wednesday after dropping their first two post-break tilts to the Pacers and Cavaliers. Behind Russell Westbrook's 24 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds, they got it, notching a 116-103 win over the Dallas Mavericks.
It was a result that made sense. OKC is at least a fringe contender, and there was no way a team with this much talent was going to lose three in a row.
Also cosmically sensible: David Lee and Dirk Nowitzki having issues as a defensive frontcourt tandem. Lee, recently signed after a buyout from the Boston Celtics, was the first Mavs big man off the bench. He scored four points in 15 minutes, just a hair behind Nowitzki’s 33 on 10-of-16 shooting, and his impact on D was as expected, per Tim Cato of MavsMoneyball.com:
a Dirk-Lee front court ~immediately~ give up an open dunk and you're seriously tryna tell me there's isn't order in this world?— Tim Cato (@tim_cato) February 25, 2016
Dallas tends to get the most out of its assets. Deron Williams and Wes Matthews have both outperformed expectations this season, and Zaza Pachulia has quietly been one of the league's better centers. But Lee is a special case. He may help with some facilitation as a roll man on offense, but it’s going to be almost impossible for Dallas to capably defend with him on the floor.
We’ve Seen This Before
The ridiculously short-handed Chicago Bulls gutted out a 109-104 win over the Washington Wizards, and Taj Gibson was digging the familiarity, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: “Without a doubt, it just felt like (recent seasons), knowing we were down,” Gibson said. “Everybody is believing in one another. We’re playing with a little bit of grit. We have a chance to do something special.”
Settle down there, Taj. That last part’s not true. Fully healthy, this Bulls team tops out well short of title contention. But we’ll forgive the exuberance after three straight wins.
Without Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic, seven Bulls scored in double figures, and Chicago’s defense held the Wizards to 42.2 percent shooting from the field while also winning the rebounding battle, 50-42. Pau Gasol fought through illness to finish with 10 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.
On a night when so many things seemed familiar for the Bulls, Doug McDermott’s highlight-reel efforts were a pleasant surprise:
Per B/R Insights, this is the first time in McDermott’s career he’s scored at least 14 points in three straight games.
Chicago will need elements of old and new to push up toward one of the top four seeds in the East, and even if the grit sticks around as the high-profile names get healthy, that may be too lofty a goal. But Wednesday at least signaled some of the Bulls’ best old qualities are still around.
Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.