After practicing with the Cleveland Cavaliers in Los Angeles on Saturday morning, LeBron James sounded like someone who, while concerned about his squad's intermittent issues, was confident in its standing within the bigger picture.
"I just think, as far as the consistency, we've played some really good ball," James said. "If you look at our record, we've played some really good ball. But I think consistently, we've had some ups and downs as far as how we prepare and how we go out and play, so that's one of the things I've kind of had my eye on."
Another thing he's probably had his eye on: The Toronto Raptors, who moved another step closer to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference standings Saturday with a 112-104 overtime win against the Miami Heat.
The Raptors got great ball from DeMar DeRozan. The All-Star swingman tied his season high, set last week against the Portland Trail Blazers, with 38 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
He scored 17 of those points over the final 17 minutes of the game, albeit while missing a turnaround jumper at the fourth-quarter buzzer that would've ended the contest. He made up for that misfire in a hurry, setting up Jonas Valanciunas for a dunk and Patrick Patterson for a pull-up three in transition before knocking down four straight free throws to put the Raptors ahead 106-101 in the extra period.
DeRozan got a bit of a break on the defensive end, courtesy of Dwyane Wade's day spent resting a bruised thigh. Nonetheless, he combined with Toronto's aggressive guards to hold rookie Justise Winslow, Wade's replacement, to 11 points and Goran Dragic to 13 on 5-of-18 shooting.
And the Raptors, for their part, needed every bit of DeRozan's scoring prowess to fend off a feisty Miami team. Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph, the only other guards to take the floor for Toronto, combined to hit just five of 23 field-goal attempts on the evening.
It's a testament to Toronto's tenacity and overall talent that the Raptors managed to beat the Heat, winners in six of their last seven coming in, without playing their best game. They still managed to hold Miami to 37.8 percent shooting behind a defense that, for all its improvement, has suffered through its fair share of lulls this season.
Fortunately for the Raptors, lengthy lapses aren't death to any team gunning for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers have suffered through far worse turmoil, from Kyrie Irving's recovery to Kevin Love's one-man roller-coaster ride to Tyronn Lue stepping in for the deposed David Blatt midseason, and they haven't relinquished the East's No. 1 seed.
Not yet, anyway. By beating the Heat while Cleveland (46-18) enjoyed an off day roughly 2,600 miles away, the Raptors (44-20) moved to within two games of the conference's season-long front-runner. Should the teams finish with identical records, Toronto would come out ahead by way of a 2-1 edge in the season series.
Pulling even with Cleveland won't be easy for the Raptors. According to NBA.com, their remaining schedule is significantly more treacherous than what's left on the Cavaliers' plate.
Then again, both teams will play 10 of their final 18 games on the road. And only the Raptors will welcome back DeMarre Carroll, who's been rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee since early January and is on track to return soon.
Carroll has been out since a Jan. 4 loss to the Cavaliers. Since then, the Raptors have ripped off 23 wins in 28 outings to put themselves within neck-breathing distance of the reigning Eastern Conference champs.
Carroll could give Toronto the extra push it needs to get over the remaining hump now and give LeBron James a tough time on the court later, should the Cavaliers and Raptors meet this spring.
If they do, and Toronto continues to take care of business until then, the Cavaliers may have to bring their really good ball north of the border—and, perhaps, up their game to fend off the rising Raptors.
Sum 41 for San Antonio
No NBA team has yet gone through a full regular season without losing a game at home. The San Antonio Spurs, though, have done the next best thing.
With a 93-85 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Spurs improved their record at the AT&T Center to a perfect 32-0 and extended their historic home winning streak to 41 games—on the one-year anniversary of their last regular-season loss the Alamo City, no less.
Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge combined for 50 of San Antonio's points, with Aldridge knocking down nine of 14 shots from the field. Leonard wasn't quite so efficient (10-of-24), but he did his part to put Kevin Durant on skates.
But Leonard and company did their best work at the defensive end against an OKC squad that ranks second in the league in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com. Though Durant (28 points on 11-of-25 shooting) got his fair share of solid scoring opportunities, Russell Westbrook missed 11 of his 16 tries and turned the ball over nine times with Leonard and Danny Green draped all over him most of the way.
Not that great defense is anything new for San Antonio. These Spurs have paced the Association in defensive efficiency for most of 2015-16 and have the single-game pelts to prove it.
The Spurs have now held their opponents to 85 points or fewer 20 times this season, double their total from 2014-15. pic.twitter.com/pgI3bboPhr— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 13, 2016
With more clampdown efforts like these, Gregg Popovich's group can continue its pursuit of home history, albeit while most eyes stay trained on the Golden State Warriors' excellence in Oakland.
Mavs' Bad Week Gets Worse
The Dallas Mavericks had gone three-and-a-half years without losing five games in a row or four straight at home.
That is, until Saturday afternoon, when Dallas dropped a 112-105 decision to the visiting Indiana Pacers. Dirk Nowitzki scored a game-high 30 points, including seven straight early in the fourth quarter to keep his team within striking distance. He was one of six Mavericks to finish with double figures in points.
But Rick Carlisle's crew could do little to stop the Pacers from scoring down the stretch. Paul George poured in 18 of his 20 points after halftime. And whenever the Mavs pulled within a point, George Hill (16 points, three rebounds, three assists) responded with a three.
"We're a .500 team," Wesley Matthews (15 points, five rebounds, six assists) said afterward of the 33-33 Mavericks, per the Associated Press' Schuyler Dixon. "We deserve to be a .500 team and we're at that crossroads. Where do we want to go? What do we want to do about it?"
Dallas had better answer those questions in a hurry. In the two weeks to come, it'll play the red-hot Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors twice and Portland Trail Blazers twice.
Should the Mavs stumble through this stretch, they'll find themselves in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13—which, as it happens, is the last time they dropped five straight.
Hornets Hound Houston with Bookend Effort
It's not about how you start; it's how you finish. Or, in the case of the Charlotte Hornets, you do both things well and reap twice the benefits.
The Hornets dominated the beginning and end of their 125-109 win over the Houston Rockets. They outscored the visitors 69-41 in the first and fourth quarters combined to secure their 11th win in their last 12 games at Time Warner Cable Arena.
In both cases, Charlotte built commanding leads on sharp three-point shooting and stifling defense. Marvin Williams scored 14 of his 25 points in the opening frame while the Hornets combined to hold Houston to 34.6 percent shooting, dragged down by James Harden's 0-of-6 showing in the quarter.
The Rockets fared a bit better in the fourth (44.4 percent from the field), though Harden (0-of-4) still couldn't scratch outside the free-throw line. Nor could the Rockets stop Kemba Walker, who racked up 11 of his game-high 26 points in the final period.
Charlotte's latest victory fit what's turned out to be a season-long pattern for Steve Clifford's squad.
For a team that ranks among the top 10 in the league on both sides of the floor, it's only right that the Hornets would excel at either end of the clock, as well.
Grizzlies Lose Mike Conley, Then Lose Steam
The Memphis Grizzlies went 9-4 in their first 13 games without Marc Gasol and seemed well on their way to another win without him Saturday, despite an ever-more-crowded training table. They rode a 17-1 run to a 12-point lead over the Atlanta Hawks on the road in the second quarter, all without the services of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Chris Andersen and, of course, Gasol.
From that point on, the Grizzlies' gaggle of injuries came home to roost. The Hawks erased Memphis’ advantage in five-and-a-half minutes, took a 49-41 lead into the half and stretched their edge to 16 points by the early fourth quarter.
Tony Allen scored more points (15 on 7-of-14 shooting) than Memphis’ other four starters combined (14 points on 6-of-33). If not for a stellar effort from the team’s bench, the Grizzlies would’ve been flattened at Philips Arena much sooner.
Lance Stephenson put together another noteworthy night, with team highs in points (18) and assists (six) along with eight rebounds and one shimmy shake.
Ray McCallum, another Grit-N-Grind neophyte, chipped in 13 points as Memphis’ second-string point guard. Jarell Martin (10 points) and P.J. Hairston (nine points) both helped to keep the Grizzlies afloat as well.
A sturdy corps of reserves won’t be enough for Memphis to make any hay during a stretch run that features 10 games against teams at .500 or better, including two apiece against the Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.
Then again, at 39-27 and well ahead of the sixth-place Portland Trail Blazers out West, the Grizzlies have some leeway to limp across the finish line on the way to the playoffs.
Philly Fails to Go Back-to-Back
Sixty-six games into the 2015-16 season, the Philadelphia 76ers still haven’t won consecutive contests.
After upending the Brooklyn Nets on Friday, the Sixers looked like they might keep the good times rolling at home against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday. Philly flew out to a 46-36 lead in the second quarter behind boosts from veteran big men Carl Landry (18 points, six rebounds) and Elton Brand (10 points, three rebounds, three assists, three steals).
The Pistons closed the gap to five at the break before they and the Sixers battled through a back-and-forth third quarter. Detroit took the lead for good on a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope three off a Sixers turnover that ended the period and extended what morphed into a 15-2 spurt for the visitors.
"We (have to) give them credit," Sixers coach Brett Brown said after his team’s 125-111 loss, per the Associated Press’ Anthony Sanfilippo (via NBA.com). "They're trying to make the playoffs. That period at the end of the third, that 35-second window when we go up two, they score, we throw it away, they hit a buzzer three to go into the fourth period. It's momentum-turning.”
Not that the Sixers have had any real momentum to hold on to this season. With Jahlil Okafor done for the year thanks to knee surgery and Robert Covington and Jerami Grant both battling head injuries, Philly may find it difficult to get the ball rolling in the right direction before the campaign closes in mid-April.
Wizards Whittle Down Margin for Error
The injury bug hasn't done the Washington Wizards any favors this season. No team has lost more games to health issues than D.C.'s disappointing squad.
The Wizards haven't done themselves any favors, either. They dropped their fifth straight game, this time on the always tough second night of a back-to-back on the Denver Nuggets' mile-high home floor, 116-100.
Washington had its chances to end its March skid. The Wizards built a 10-point lead in the third quarter and led by eight heading into the fourth, with John Wall, Otto Porter Jr. and Garrett Temple combining for 46 points up until then.
Those three managed just eight points more in the final frame while the Nuggets compiled a 41-17 advantage on the scoreboard. Marcin Gortat did even less, tallying two points and two rebounds in eight minutes amid foul trouble opposite Denver's deep, dynamic front line.
The Wizards can ill afford to give away more games if they're going to crack the Eastern Conference playoff picture for a third straight spring. They'll return to the nation's capital next week to host Detroit and Chicago, the two teams standing between Washington and the No. 8 seed.
Blazers Blow Past Magic on Back-to-Back
If you thought the Wizards had a rough go on a Western Conference back-to-back, just talk to the Orlando Magic.
A day after taking down the Kings in Sacramento, the Magic took their act to Rip City absent Elfrid Payton and Nikola Vucevic and got walloped by the Portland Trail Blazers, 121-84.
The Blazers weren't exactly well-rested themselves. The night before, they took a 16-point thumping in Oakland against the Warriors.
But Damian Lillard (19 points, 10 assists) and C.J. McCollum (18 points, three assists) brought back enough fuel from the Bay Area to blast an Orlando team that squeezed just five points combined out of C.J. Watson and Dewayne Dedmon, who started in place of Payton and Vucevic.
Four other Blazers bolstered the effort with double-figure scoring nights, with Allen Crabbe (18 points on 6-of-8 shooting) doing the most damage of any Portland reserve.
There won't be much time for the weary to rest. Come Monday, the Blazers will be in Oklahoma City to kick off a four-game road trip that's due to wind through San Antonio, New Orleans and Dallas.
Dubs Hang on at Home
While the Spurs were wrapping up a close win over OKC to preserve their home winning streak, the Golden State Warriors were fighting to preserve their own record-setting run at Oracle Arena.
The Phoenix Suns gave the Dubs all they could handle before flaming out in a 123-116 win for Golden State. In his second game back from a seven-week injury hiatus, Brandon Knight torched the Warriors for 30 points, six rebounds and seven assists while putting Stephen Curry (35 points, six assists) in foul trouble and Klay Thompson (20 points) on skates.
Marreese Speights did his part to keep Phoenix from taking full flight while Curry sat uncomfortably on the bench. The fan favorite from Florida erupted for a season-high 25 points and nine rebounds in a mere 18 minutes of reserve duty.
Come the fourth quarter, Speights handed the baton back to Curry. He dropped 15 points therein to bolster Golden State's 37-21 margin in the frame.
The Suns may not be happy to have seen Golden State extend its run to 48 straight in Oakland at their expense, but Phoenix needn't dig deep to find moral victories.
For one, Knight was healthy and effective after a nearly two-month absence while sharing the backcourt with Devin Booker (18 points, 11 assists). Alex Len pounded the Warriors inside for 26 points and 13 boards, looking every bit like a budding stud at center.
And interim coach Earl Watson got votes of confidence from his entire locker room, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears.
Regardless to Suns outcome, interim coach Earl Watson has gained strong respect from players. Two said consensus is players want him to stay— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) March 13, 2016
Some day, Knight, Booker and Len could be the cornerstones of a Pacific Division powerhouse in Arizona. For now, they'll have to look up at the Warriors in the standings, just like everyone else.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.