As LeBron James' three-point attempt came up well short and grazed nothing more than the bottom of the net, the buzzer rang throughout the Air Canada Centre.
It signified more than just the conclusion of the Toronto Raptors' come-from-behind 99-97 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. As the sound permeated the arena, it also marked an end to the visiting No. 1 seed's feeling of comfort on its perch atop the Eastern Conference.
Cleveland (41-16) still has the best record in its half of the NBA, boasting a two-game cushion over the Raptors (39-18). But Toronto's comeback gave it a 2-1 win in the season series, which means it only has to finish tied with last year's NBA Finals representatives to boast home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Even more importantly, Kyle Lowry exposed a weakness while posting a career-high 43 points, highlighted by this game-winning step-back jumper—a strangely unique play in this affair, given the point guard's affinity for driving into the teeth of the defense:
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Lowry had one of the finest games of his career by exploding for that gaudy scoring total, five rebounds, nine assists and four steals. Someone should've handed him a bat to flip, since that's the only way he could've produced a more memorable show for his city.
Throughout the 2015-16 campaign, Lowry has asserted himself as a fringe MVP candidate, firing away from the perimeter and often refusing to miss.
But his game had a different feel to it on Friday night, as he sought out the hoop and penetrated a Cleveland defense that was often slow to rotate and provide the necessary help. Constantly on the attack, he probed Kyrie Irving's defensive weaknesses and proved Matthew Dellavedova wasn't a match for him.
Just look at how many of his points came from in and around the painted area, as shown by NBA.com/Stats:
Shot chart from Kyle Lowry's CAREER-HIGH 43-point performance (15/20 on FG's)! He also had 9A / 5R / 4S. #RTZ https://t.co/7VFDgMydIy2/27/2016, 3:32:15 AM
Making this performance even more impressive was the complete lack of impact from DeMar DeRozan, who drilled just one of his 11 attempts from the field while recording two assists and two turnovers. It's normally the two-headed nature of the Toronto backcourt that makes both players so difficult to stop, but this was undoubtedly a solo showing.
Cleveland won't be sleeping well when thinking back on a game it should've won. Blowing a double-digit lead against your top Eastern rival surely won't sit well. But it has to be even worse when the Cavaliers think about the Raptors pulling out their second win in three attempts despite a putrid effort from DeRozan.
"I think it does matter because they've won nine in a row at home and they're second in the East," head coach Tyronn Lue said before the contest, per Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes. "This is a big game for us tonight because we only play them three times. We're 1-1 right now."
They're 1-2 now.
Had the Cavs managed to win—whether by drawing up a play that didn't involve James' biggest weakness at the buzzer, James actually making the triple or the team never allowing the Raptors to storm back in the first place—they'd be sitting pretty with a four-game lead in the race for No. 1. It would be time to begin thinking about resting starters and gearing up for a grueling postseason run.
That's not the case now.
The East, already filled with ridiculous amounts of parity, is even more up for grabs. And should the Cavaliers successfully stave off Lowry and Co. throughout the rest of the campaign, they'll still have a nagging fear in the back of their collective mind.
In 2014-15, the Atlanta Hawks were the only Eastern team to win the regular-season series against Cleveland, and it wasn't a full-strength version the Cavs had the luxury of matching up against during the playoffs' penultimate round. This year, the Raptors are the lone Eastern Conference squad guaranteed to win more than they lose against James' team in the first 82 games.
Maybe history will repeat itself in the Eastern Conference Finals. Based on the strength of the Big Three and James' typically heroic postseason efforts, it probably will.
But the possibility of a different outcome has to feel a little more real after Friday night.
An Appreciation of Marvin Williams
We could focus on Paul George's heroics—32 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals that helped bring the Indiana Pacers back into the game, highlighted by his contested 40-footer at the end of the first half. Myles Turner is another deserving candidate for attention, since he's continued to prove himself as a starter.
Kemba Walker's game-winner with just 2.4 seconds remaining deserves some love as well:
But this night was about Marvin Williams, who has quietly become one of the most underrated players in the league. During the Charlotte Hornets' nail-biting 96-95 victory, the stretch 4 recorded 26 points, 13 rebounds, one assist, one steal and two blocks—the first time since 2012 that he'd broken past the 20/10 barrier, and just the ninth such game of his career.
The totality of that line also stands out, since only six other players this season have matched or exceeded each of the five relevant numbers: DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Kevin Durant, Marcin Gortat and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Even before this game, Williams had asserted himself as a valuable member of a resurgent Hornets squad. Head coach Steve Clifford hasn't just unlocked his defensive ability by slotting him in as a full-time power forward; he's also allowed him to stretch out defenses and has stopped wasting his athleticism in matchups against quicker players.
My total points added metric (TPA, which is explained in full here) can be broken down into offensive and defensive components, and, as you can see above, Williams is tracking toward some of his career-best two-way numbers on this revamped Charlotte squad.
Walker gets most of the credit for Buzz City. Behind him are Nicolas Batum, Al Jefferson and a host of other players.
But don't leave Williams out of the picture. His career has been a long and winding road, but it's led him to a spot perfectly suited to make the most of his specialized talents.
Balance in the Big Apple
When was the last time you saw a New York Knicks team boasting an offense this balanced?
Under the supervision of fan-favorite head coach Kurt Rambis, the Knicks stormed to a 108-95 victory over the Orlando Magic and featured seven double-digit scorers.
Carmelo Anthony put up the highest point total, which isn't surprising. But your jaw might hit the floor when you realize he paced the team with only 19. Behind him were Kristaps Porzingis (18), Robin Lopez (14), Jose Calderon (14), Arron Afflalo (14), Derrick Williams (11) and Lance Thomas (11).
Much to the chagrin of fans who chanted their desire for his presence late in the fourth quarter, Jimmer Fredette never got off the bench, so he was one of just four active players who didn't score. Kevin Seraphin and Sasha Vujacic also remained glued to the pine, while Kyle O'Quinn attempted zero shots in his five minutes of action—by the way, Rambis, you should play that man!
It's tough to apply much meaning to a late-February game against the struggling Magic, especially since Scott Skiles is trying to incorporate deadline acquisitions into his rotation and coaching a rather young bunch. But the Knicks still have to feel good about the distribution of their offensive efforts.
It's not every night that a 25-35 squad mired in an extended slump shares the rock like this.
Bad News for the Bulls
Losing to the Atlanta Hawks by a final margin of 103-88 is unfortunate enough for the Chicago Bulls, who put up a stinker during the nationally televised game. It's understandable, given the absences of Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah, but it's still not a good result for a team struggling to stay in the mix.
Heading into Friday night, the Bulls owned the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, marginally ahead of the Hawks. After the loss, they dropped into a deadlock for No. 7 with the Charlotte Hornets, only just ahead of the Detroit Pistons. Should they fail to get back on track, they could soon find themselves in the lottery picture.
But the Friday result and the Eastern standings aren't the only negatives for a squad decimated by injuries. This loss to the Hawks looked bad, as Atlanta struggled to hit open shots and still thoroughly outplayed the opposition.
As ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell explained, this was just tough to watch:
Nick Friedell @NickFriedell
To any Bulls fans still hanging on and watching this one -- praise to you guys. This is one of the worst played games of the season.2/27/2016, 2:37:15 AM
The Hawks knocked down only seven of their 34 attempts from beyond the arc, and it's not like they were too much better from two-point range. But it was still enough to get by the Bulls, who were even more putrid on the offensive end.
Relief in the form of healthy bodies isn't coming anytime soon in the Windy City.
Though Rose may return at any point, he hasn't consistently served as a positive while on the floor. In fact, the Bulls have been 7.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he plays. Meanwhile, Noah is out for the year, while Mirotic and Butler are both rehabbing without firm timetables.
Trouble could be brewing in Chicago.
It's Fun When the Additions Pay Off
If Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson ever needs to add a game to his resume, he may want to point to his team's comeback victory against the Denver Nuggets, one that finished at 122-116 after a dominant showing in overtime.
Every player Nelson has added in the last calendar year seemed to make a big impact, with Deron Williams and Zaza Pachulia, who played only eight minutes, serving as the lone exceptions.
Chandler Parsons was the star of the night, dropping 27 points, five rebounds and four assists. He was constantly on the attack, penetrating the Denver defense with plays like the one below and peppering the opposition with a barrage of long-range shots.
Wesley Matthews chipped in with 17 points and showed just how valuable he can be when his shot falls. The Mavericks outscored Denver by 15 points when the swingman played, and he knocked down four treys in just seven attempts.
Raymond Felton logged 16 points, four rebounds and six dimes while posting an insane plus/minus of 30. And perhaps most notably, David Lee came off the bench in just his second game as a Maverick to produce 14 points and 14 rebounds.
It took a collapse from the Nuggets and some strange decisions from head coach Mike Malone—playing Nikola Jokic only 11 minutes, not reinserting Emmanuel Mudiay into the game and allowing Will Barton to commandeer the offense in the second half—for the Mavericks to emerge with a victory, but these performances had to give a struggling team confidence it can hang tough in the Western playoff race.
Lakers Defense Still Doesn't Exist
Young teams are supposed to improve as the season progresses.
But lately, as you can see by the team's season-long trend in defensive rating, the Los Angeles Lakers are just getting worse. Friday night's 112-95 shellacking at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies was the most recent example, as the Grizz came into the contest averaging just 98.6 points per game but got to triple digits with 9:27 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers should be embarrassed by these numbers. They're entirely unacceptable for any NBA squad, reflective of an undisciplined unit that doesn't understand the schemes it's trying to execute against any opponent.
But let's not just look at defensive rating in a vacuum, even if the Lakers came into this latest outing allowing two more points per 100 possessions than any other team in the NBA. If we compare their mark to the league average of 105.8, we see that their adjusted defensive efficiency (explained here) is a disgusting 94.8.
My databases show that throughout the entire history of the Association, only 29 teams have ever been worse. And if the Lakers keep trending in this unfortunate direction, that number will only shrink.
Line of the Night: Chris Paul
How do you overshadow DeMarcus Cousins' 26 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists?
But Chris Paul's individual line was insanity in a nutshell: 40 points, eight rebounds, 13 assists and two steals with only two turnovers. Plus, he shot 13-of-20 from the field, 4-of-9 from three-point range and a perfect 10-of-10 from the charity stripe.
He dazzled on offense, once at the expense of poor Ben McLemore:
And he was pretty decent on the defensive end, locking down plenty of players throughout the proceedings:
Fred Katz @FredKatz
Chris Paul can still play amazing defense. https://t.co/c9l6uIi9Km2/27/2016, 4:11:27 AM
Just eight different players since 1983-84 have recorded at least 40 points, eight boards and 13 dimes in a single game, though Clyde Drexler and LeBron James were the only ones to do so with no more than two cough-ups. As for 40 points and 13 assists with no more than 20 shots from the field, this is Paul's second entry in a club that only includes himself, Russell Westbrook and Baron Davis.
Basically, Paul is good at this whole basketball thing.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@fromal09.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on Feb. 26.
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