No moment from the Los Angeles Clippers' 90-87 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies highlighted the importance of injured star Blake Griffin better than the one featuring Chris Paul, head down and hands on knees, gasping for air as the game slipped away in the final seconds.
Paul played brilliantly, totaling 30 points and 10 assists in 39 minutes. His eight points in a three-minute fourth-quarter span improbably pulled L.A. to within one.
But his critical turnover on what could have been a game-winning possession will go down as the contest's defining moment.
Carrying the Clippers throughout the game clearly taxed Paul, and as he tried to drive right on Courtney Lee from the top of the key, Mike Conley opportunistically darted in to steal the ball, sealing the game with seconds left.
It stung, per ESPN's J.A. Adande and Arash Markazi:
A lot of things went wrong on that decisive possession: Doc Rivers had squandered his timeouts, allowing for no stoppage in play; J.J. Redick inexplicably ran toward Paul, killing the Clippers' spacing and bringing Conley close enough to snatch the ball; and DeAndre Jordan ran right to the rim instead of setting a screen for CP3.
It's not hard to trace the real cause of Paul's turnover to Griffin's absence, though.
L.A.'s veteran point guard was gassed because he didn't have a superstar second option to take over when he needed a break. Without Griffin, Paul was tasked with creating everything for the Clips—a brutally tough undertaking against a defense as punishing as Memphis'.
In a way, this was foreseeable.
Winners of four straight (and four of five overall) since Griffin hit the pine following elbow surgery, the Clippers had been exceeding just about everybody's expectations. Griffin's loss was supposed to torpedo the Clips' chances at a top-four seed and, if the dourest predictions were to be believed, put them in jeopardy of missing the playoffs altogether.
These were the games we thought we'd see when Griffin got hurt.
And though this loss ended L.A.'s surprising streak, it also highlighted the team's overall resiliency.
The Clippers went 12-6 when Paul's shoulder injury sidelined him from Jan. 4 to Feb. 7 last season, led by Griffin in near-MVP fashion. This time around, it's Paul and DeAndre Jordan (who grabbed 17 rebounds and did a masterful job defending Zach Randolph) raising their games to cover for Blake's absence.
In many ways, the Clippers played well enough to beat the Grizzlies. But covering for Griffin left them, and, particularly, Paul too drained to finish the drill.
With Griffin expected back in a week or so, per Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times, L.A. won't have to push itself to the brink of collapse much longer—which is a good thing, because from the looks of it, Paul is running on empty.
Around the Association
When the league's leading scorer runs up against the worst defense in the Association, certain outcomes aren't tough to predict.
Which is why, despite the fact that he missed his first seven shots, James Harden's triple-double in a 113-102 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves is cause for precisely zero surprise.
Harden pumped in 31 points on 20 attempts, adding 10 assists, 11 rebounds and four blocks to round out a robust stat sheet. Though we've established surprise isn't appropriate, wonder certainly is. Per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, Harden's numbers were pretty rare:
Andrew Wiggins led the Wolves with 30, while Ricky Rubio chipped in 14 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals.
But neither was a match for Harden, who also got some help from Terrence Jones (15 points and 15 rebounds).
Houston has won two straight, and it'll head into a Feb. 25 matchup with the Clippers looking to avenge a 15-point loss on Feb. 11.
We know one thing: Harden will be ready.
The Butler Did It
You could point to the Milwaukee Bucks' frigid 33.7 percent shooting. Or you could emphasize the way the Chicago Bulls crushed said Bucks on the glass by a margin of 62-41 (Joakim Noah led everyone with 16 boards).
Really, there are lots of explanations for the Bulls' 87-71 asphyxiation of the Bucks.
But if we're all being honest here, Jimmy Butler was the reason the Bulls won this ugly affair. He produced 11 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two highlights that (probably) broke the Bucks' spirit.
By doing this:
And then this:
No actual bucks were harmed in the making of this takeaway. The same cannot be said for Jerryd Bayless or Ersan Ilyasova.
Now, let's all move on before anyone has a chance to mention Derrick Rose's worrisome 1-of-13 effort from the field. Nothing to see here, people.
Goran Dragic Is Already Paying Dividends
The Miami Heat used a 30-12 third-quarter run to put the Philadelphia 76ers to bed, coasting to a 119-108 victory.
Goran Dragic, playing his second game with the Heat, led the charge with 23 points and 10 assists. Per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, it's already clear the Dragon is happier in his new home:
And Dragic's teammates, who reaped the benefits of his quick pace and attacking style, were plenty happy, too. Luol Deng put up 29 points on just 14 shots, and Dwyane Wade contributed 18 points in just 23 minutes. As a whole, the Heat looked charged-up, which may be attributable to Dragic's influence, per Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post:
As Miami looks to solidify its playoff position down the stretch, Dragic will be as vital a piece as any. Two games into his Heat career, it looks like he's ready to roll.
The Pelicans Pulled Together
No Anthony Davis, no Ryan Anderson and the Toronto Raptors, ranked second in the Eastern Conference and fourth in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com, visiting from the North.
That's a recipe for a New Orleans Pelicans loss if ever I've heard one.
And yet, the Pellies prevailed, somehow fighting back from an 18-point deficit to steal a 100-97 victory against a stunned Raptors team.
It took teamwork and defense, as the Pelicans had six players score between 11 and 18 points, registered 27 team assists (more than double the Raptors' total) and held Toronto to 41.7 percent shooting.
With New Orleans unlikely to get Davis back for at least another week, every win in the interim is crucial. And going forward, the Pelicans may be able to use the collective spirit that won them this game as a blueprint for how to play with a fully healthy roster.
Clearly, significant figures in the organization—from Davis to Eric Gordon to head coach Monty Williams—were inspired by the victory:
Playoff hopes dimming, New Orleans can still build for the future. This game was an example of how to do that.
The Nets May Have Found Something
Thanks to an infusion of youth and athleticism, the Brooklyn Nets notched one of their more impressive wins of the year, springing past the reeling Denver Nuggets for a decisive 110-82 victory.
Markel Brown started in an ultra-small lineup for the injured Bojan Bogdanovic, and his bounce played a major role. He was on the floor a whopping 45 minutes, registering 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and four blocks—one of which was an eye-opener:
Suddenly, the Nets have an intriguing mix of increasingly healthy vets and hungry young players. Clinging to the eighth spot in the East by a single game, this surprising development has come at the right time for Brooklyn.
Isaiah Thomas Eclipses Suns
It had to feel good.
Isaiah Thomas, mere days after the Phoenix Suns dealt him to the Boston Celtics, authored an eight-point spurt in the final two minutes to bury his former team.
After a four-point play with 1:37 left in the game put Thomas' new squad up by five, he glared purposefully at his old one.
Thomas finished with 21 points, a 115-110 win and a whole lot of personal satisfaction, per Jay King of MassLive.com:
Meanwhile, the Suns lost their fifth in a row and have completely disappeared from the playoff picture. Alex Len (10 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks) looks like a player, though.
So there's that.
Rudy Gobert Is For Real
Enes Kanter can play like a star for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Utah Jazz will still have made the right decision in trading him.
That's because Rudy Gobert now gets all the playing time he wants.
He made the most of it in a 90-81 win over the San Antonio Spurs, scoring seven points, grabbing 14 rebounds and blocking three shots. He completely changed the game on both ends and was a huge reason the Spurs managed their weakest scoring effort of the season.
Utah's play-by-play man, David Locke, highlighted Gobert's impact:
Things are looking up in Utah.
The Spurs Had a Chat
The flip side of Gobert's big night was another Spurs loss, their third straight, which prompted a closed-door meeting and some subsequent sound bites.
Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News relayed the pertinent tidbits:
The "rodeo" road trip, which the Spurs are currently on, is usually when they band together and go on a run. This season, it's marked a low point. Ruling the Spurs out hasn't been a good idea for much of the past 20 years, and it's probably not wise to start now.
But San Antonio's big names are concerned. And that can't be ignored.