2015 NBA MVP Race Tighter Than Ever and Wednesday NBA Takeaways

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 5, 2015

Mark D. Smith/USA Today

Remember when the race for the 2014-15 NBA MVP felt like a two-man competition between Stephen Curry and James Harden?

Things just got a lot more crowded.

Actually, this isn't an abrupt change, even if the ridiculous stat lines put up by some late-to-the-party candidates on Wednesday make it suddenly seem like the field is packed.

Russell Westbrook, sporting a mask in his first game back since suffering a facial fracture, looked every inch the superhero. He registered his fourth consecutive triple-double in an effort that was as brilliantly thorough as it was, incredibly, unsurprising.

He tallied 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 123-118 overtime win against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks was impressed, per Royce Young of ESPN:

This is what Westbrook is now: a fully realized basketball juggernaut bent on the destruction of everything in front of him. He plays harder, faster and angrier than anyone. And lately, his production has put him on a plane far above his peers.

The assembled fans at Chesapeake Energy Arena let their feelings be known, via Carson Cunningham of KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City:

And here's Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman on Westbrook setting himself apart from everyone since MJ:

That Westbrook stood out on Wednesday really says something, because LeBron James—now part of the conversation because he looks more like his old self than ever and because the Cleveland Cavaliers are on a steady march up the East standings—put up some nifty numbers of his own in a 120-112 win against the Toronto Raptors, via NBATV:

Harden couldn't get a late whistle (more on that later), but his stat-stuffing performance did nothing to diminish his case. He had 18 points, 13 assists and four rebounds in the Houston Rockets' tough loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Beard suffered an additional defeat as well, giving up the top spot in the scoring race to, you guessed it, Westbrook.

Curry, the best player on the league's best team, could probably coast home quietly and still have a great shot at securing the MVP award.

He didn't cruise in the Dubs' 102-93 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, by the way. Instead, his three straight triples ignited a fourth-quarter surge that decided the game. Curry was so hot by the time he fired off the third one that he didn't even need to watch it.

He finished with 19 points and 11 assists.

Maybe the New Orleans Pelicans will miss the playoffs, and maybe Anthony Davis has lost a few too many games to injury. But you can't watch the Brow, Anthony Davis, dominate both ends and put up 39 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks without saying to yourself, "Yeah, that guy looks like an MVP to me."

We haven't even gotten to Chris Paul, who scored a season-high 36 points and handed out a dozen dimes as his run of phenomenal play since Blake Griffin went down on Feb. 8 continued.

It's not his fault the Clips lost 98-93. Neither is he to blame for DeAndre Jordan going to sleep on the final play of regulation, stopping when the shot clock inadvertently went off when he could have had an uncontested dunk to win the game, via The Cauldron:

In an ordinary year, CP3's exploits might have him at the top of the MVP list.

This is clearly no ordinary year.

If you look at the entirety of the season, Curry and Harden still have the largest, most consistent bodies of work. They've missed the fewest games of the legitimate candidates, and their teams have the most wins.

But as Wednesday's simultaneous superstar outbursts proved, the race is far from over.

Around the Association

Anthony Davis Is Back, and Everything Is Wonderful

Mar 4, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) reacts after a basket by guard Tyreke Evans during the fourth quarter of a game against the Detroit Pistons at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Pistons 8
USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Davis must have been trying to make up for all the points, rebounds and blocks he missed out on during his five-game absence.

How else are we supposed to explain the absurd 39 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks he compiled in an 88-85 win against the Detroit Pistons?

According to ESPN Stats & Info, those totals put him in some rare company:

More important than the numbers, though, Davis got late-game touches. That's been an issue for the Pelicans all season, as Davis has consistently been among the most reliable clutch scorers in the Association, but he has frequently been ignored as a closer in favor of Tyreke Evans.

In this one, he converted a jumper with 1:14 remaining to give the Pellies a two-point advantage. Then, with 17 ticks left, he hit another one to expand the lead to four.

Davis is back, and the Pelicans have now won six of their last seven games. Impossible as it may seem, this group might make a playoff push yet.

Balance Boosts Cavaliers Past Feisty Raptors

Not even a 38-point fourth-quarter explosion could propel the Toronto Raptors past a well-oiled Cleveland Cavaliers machine.

The Raptors put forth a valiant effort in their third straight game sans Kyle Lowry (hand), but they couldn’t withstand 15 points from LeBron James (29 points, 14 assists) in the final frame.

According to ESPN Stats & Info: “James scored or assisted on 55 percent of the Cavaliers points Wednesday, including 21 of the Cavaliers' last 25 points.”

But LeBron wasn’t alone in his fourth-quarter dominance. Raptors sixth man Lou Williams poured in 21 of his 26 points during the game's final 12 minutes, which helped give Toronto a 96-95 lead with just over six minutes to play.

However, Cleveland was able to withstand Toronto’s counterpunch as all five starters finished in double figures en route to the win.

Kevin Love poured in 22 points (6-of-10 shooting, 4-of-7 from three) and grabbed 10 boards, while Kyrie Irving added 26 points (9-of-17 shooting) and eight dimes. James Jones even got in on the action, chipping in 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting from distance.

Big Spain Has a Runner

Marc Gasol used said runner to hit the game-winner in a 102-100 victory against the Houston Rockets with a tenth of a second remaining.

That play capped a 21-point night for Gasol, who also (of course, because he's awesome) tied for the team lead with six assists.

Of course, closing games is typically under James Harden's purview, and he might well have finished this one off if he'd been able to draw a foul on his final possession. According to Jonathan Feigen of Bleacher Report, Harden most certainly did draw a foul on a drive with six seconds left, only the whistle never blew:

That's a rough way to come back from a one-game suspension, though the no-call was the only rough thing about Harden's otherwise smooth night. He finished with 18 points, 13 assists and four rebounds. Terrence Jones, who's been on fire since joining the starting lineup on Feb. 23, offered up 21 points and nine rebounds on 10-of-14 shooting.

The Rockets may not have any desire to see the Grizzlies again, but if this is the kind of intensity we can expect from this matchup, let's just fast forward to a playoff series now.

Past and Future Collide as Spurs Roll

Perhaps you've heard: Tim Duncan has been really good for a really long time. We got a little context for that in the San Antonio Spurs' yawner of a 112-85 win over the Sacramento Kings, according to NBA on ESPN:

It's been a rough few weeks for Nate Thurmond. Kevin Garnett passed him earlier this year.

Timmy and KG have Robert Parish (14,715) next in their rebounding sights.

Enough history. Let's talk future—Kawhi Leonard, specifically, who showed off the gifts that'll make him the Spurs' cornerstone for years to come.

Don't look now, but San Antonio's mix of past and future has led to three straight wins. With five consecutive home games on the docket, the Spurs may be getting ready to put a dent in the present.

Is the Post-Shaw Boost Real?

The Denver Nuggets have won two straight since head coach Brian Shaw got the axe, and even though those wins have come against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday and, now, the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, it's worth asking.

Kenneth Faried, in particular has looked livelier. He grabbed 14 rebounds for the second game in a row. Ty Lawson, though, was 0-of-9 from the field and failed to score in the Nuggets' 100-85 win.

So maybe the post-Shaw boost isn't such a big deal.

Kevin Garnett, never one to sugarcoat the truth, admitted he was surprised by the Nuggets' effort level after what he viewed as their failure to preserve their former coach's job, per Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press:

This is a thorny issue, and frankly, I'd rather watch Andrew Wiggins, who had 20 points in defeat, catch alley-oops from Ricky Rubio.

There, that's better.

A Win-Win for Philly in a Thrilling Loss

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- March 4:  Isaiah Canaan #0 of the Philadelphia 76ers shoots the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game on March 4, 2015 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers couldn’t have asked for a better outcome against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Although they came away with a loss in the 123-118 overtime thriller, the Sixers fought gamely against the indomitable Westbrook, who logged his fourth straight triple-double (49 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists).

Not only did Philadelphia match Oklahoma City shot for shot in regulation, but newcomer Isaiah Canaan also blasted away from beyond the arc to the tune of 31 points (8-of-13 from three), seven rebounds and six assists.

Since arriving in Philadelphia, Canaan has drained 22 threes in seven games. That’s 12 fewer than Michael Carter-Williams made in 41 appearances before getting traded.

Jason Richardson also dipped his shooting hand into the fountain of youth, racking up a season-high 29 points (8-of-19 shooting, 4-of-9 from three), six rebounds and three assists in 36 minutes. It was his highest-scoring game since Feb. 11, 2012, per Basketball-Reference.com.

With the loss, Philadelphia maintained a grip on the No. 2 spot in the race for the No. 1 pick—1.5 games clear of the Timberwolves.

The New York Knicks and Progress: A Study in Relativism

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 4:  Andrea Bargnani #77 of the New York Knicks boxes out against Luis Scola #4 of the Indiana Pacers during the game on March 4, 2015 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

How could the New York Knicks' 105-82 loss to the Indiana Pacers count as a step in the right direction?

Easy: They lost by 38 to the Sacramento Kings the night before.

Progress!

Seriously, though, the Knicks are awful, and they have no incentive to be anything else for the rest of the season. Except for Andrea Bargnani who, if he wants to stay in the league after his contract expires this summer, will need a few more 25-point efforts like the one he hung on the Pacers.

Indy, by the way, is making actual progress.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Pacers have been on a tear:

Indiana has now won three straight, thanks to George Hill's season-high 21 points and looks more than capable of securing either the seventh or eighth seed in the East.

Brandon Knight Shows the Goods

Brandon Knight put together his best effort as a member of the Phoenix Suns in a 105-100 win against the Orlando Magic, scoring 28 points on just 15 shots and inhaling the game-deciding steal with 4.4 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Phoenix's big deadline acquisition needed to have that kind of impact because Magic guard Victor Oladipo erupted for a career-high 38. He was instrumental in a 7-0 fourth-quarter run that pulled Orlando to within a single point in the closing moments.

Of course, if the Magic hadn't rolled over in a third quarter that saw them outscored 34-17, no comeback would have been necessary.

At any rate, Phoenix avoided a three-game slide and got a good look at what Knight has to offer. The Suns will want all the evidence they can get going forward, as they'll face the tricky process of Knight's restricted free agency this summer.

Tyler Zeller? Tyler Zeller.

Down one with 1.7 seconds remaining in regulation, the Boston Celtics turned to…Tyler Zeller?

Thanks to a beautifully placed inbounds pass from reigning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month Marcus Smart, Zeller had room to pivot around the smaller Rodney Hood and sneak in a game-winning layup as time expired.

Boston escaped with the 85-84 win, despite shooting 37.5 percent from the field and surrendering a late 9-2 run. Isaiah Thomas was superb off the bench once again, tallying 21 points (6-of-12 shooting) and seven assists in 26 minutes.

Head coach Brad Stevens scolded his team following Tuesday night’s 110-79 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, via Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

No surprise, then, that the Celtics responded by snapping a two-game slide against the league’s top-rated defense since Feb. 1, according to NBA.com.

Derrick Favors and Trey Burke led the Jazz with 16 points apiece, but Utah shot a paltry 3-of-19 from three on a night characterized by offensive ineptitude.

Mo Williams Enjoyed His Time in Brooklyn

There were a lot of positives in the Charlotte Hornets' 115-91 walkover win against the Brooklyn Nets.

Al Jefferson dunked, which always delights the Charlotte bench.

Mo Williams tossed up 14 points and 14 assists, continuing his terrific recent run.

All five Charlotte starters scored in double figures, led by Jefferson and Gerald Henderson with 19, and the Hornets played phenomenally aggressive, intelligent defense throughout.

The same cannot be said of the Nets, who played some of the worst pick-and-roll defense imaginable, according to Nate Duncan of Basketball Insiders:

Let's not take anything away from Williams, who had been playing well coming into the contest. But let's also consider the fact that the Nets put together a scheme that was, well...let's call it accommodating.

The Heat Have a New Big Three

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 21:  Dwyane Wade #3, Goran Dragic #7 and Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on February 21, 2015 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Is the term cliched? Sure.

But after the way Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade and especially Hassan Whiteside carried their lackluster teammates to a 100-94 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, reviving the Big Three label seems less ridiculous than ever.

Wade and Dragic combined for 46 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds on 13-of-27 shooting. Whiteside (are you sitting down?) pummeled the Lakers for 18 points, 25 rebounds and four blocks in just 33 minutes.

The only thing better than Whiteside's stat line was his postgame zinger, directed at the Lakers, just one of many teams that had a shot to sign him and, much to their eternal chagrin, didn't, via Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post:

Slow clap. 

Wade, Dragic and Whiteside scored 20 of the Heat's 24 fourth-quarter points, with Wade setting up Whiteside for two crucial scores in the final minute.

When Chris Bosh returns next year and the Heat strike some serious fear into the Eastern Conference, maybe we can replace the tired Big Three moniker with a new one: Big Four.

*Alec Nathan contributed to this article. Shout-out to that dude.

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