For the inhuman, unfathomable, still undefeated Golden State Warriors, this was supposed to be the one that got away.
The Jazz boast the league's biggest, baddest front line, and Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors figured to give the Warriors' small-ball lineup a real test. Or, at least they would have if the Warriors had gone into Salt Lake City with Harrison Barnes healthy—which they didn't.
Barnes missed the game with a sprained left ankle, but Golden State trotted out a tweaked version of its deadly small-ball lineup early on...and it featured little-used reserve Ian Clark. He, of course, canned four threes in six first-half minutes.
Because, well, things like that just work out for these Warriors.
For the most part, though, the Jazz got the game they wanted. It was slow, it was mostly messy and it saw the Warriors get a little sloppy as the combination of overconfidence, good defense and altitude-related fatigue led to 15 turnovers.
Gobert dominated in stretches, finishing high-wire lobs and changing just about every shot the Warriors attempted inside. He finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and one block, but his impact was far greater than the numbers suggest.
Favors was a monster as well, scoring 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting while bailing out a number of Jazz possessions with silky mid-rangers against a Warriors defense largely designed to concede such shots.
In the end, though, all things circled back to Curry and Green, who scored or assisted on 17 of the Warriors' 23 fourth-quarter points.
Curry, in particular, was up to his typical cold-blooded tricks, drilling a three to tie the game at 90-90, 16 seconds after entering the contest in the fourth. And his icy step-back triple over a lunging Rodney Hood put Golden State up three with less than a minute remaining.
It got the typical Curry reaction on Twitter:
Green, meanwhile, battled as he always does, securing key boards and relentlessly attacking the paint despite the heavy resistance inside. He finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists—a fine complement to Curry's game-high 26 points.
So, the Warriors snatched a brutally tough win on the road, without one of their starters, and against a team ideally equipped to give them matchup issues. This raises the question: Are we sure Golden State actually knows how to lose?
It's worth asking, because the Dubs have now run their record season-opening streak to 19 straight wins, and though they've dodged bullets along the way (Brooklyn, Toronto, Chicago and now Utah), they just don't seem to comprehend that a final score in which they have fewer points than whoever they're playing is possible.
And as the wins mount, the Warriors continue to find motivation to stave off whatever complacency might naturally arise; Brian Murphy of San Francisco's KNBR 680 shared an example:
The loss is going to come—maybe on the two-week road trip the Warriors just started by beating Utah or maybe afterward. But with the way this team just keeps beating everyone in front of it, it's become nearly impossible to imagine how that'll happen. Netw3rk via Twitter believes it will take "an act of God":
That's an option, sure.
But are we certain the man upstairs, the dude who's famous for being everywhere at once, could stay close enough to bother a Curry step-back?
The New Spurs Are Working Things Out
The San Antonio Spurs are trying some new things this year, and for the most part, they've led to the same old highly successful results.
Chicago, despite registering just one field goal in the final eight minutes of the contest, uglied things up and got enough surprising misses from San Antonio to carry the day. Relying on the Spurs to go 2-of-14 from long range is not a winning strategy, but the Bulls were dealing with problems of their own, according to what Jimmy Butler, whose heel has been an issue, told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
Kawhi Leonard got the best of a hobbled Butler, scoring a game-high 25 points and limiting the Bulls' best player to just nine shots.
San Antonio has been playing big, frequently featuring two of Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw and David West—an off-trend approach in a shrinking league. It has also relied more on Leonard to generate his own offense, which is another departure for a team that delivered a passing renaissance just a couple of years ago.
Leaning on a league-best defense and a slower pace has helped the Spurs stay among the league's elite, but the scoring attack fell short against Chicago. Gregg Popovich wasn't exactly surprised, per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:
You have to wonder whether this is just a bridging-eras thing. Are the Spurs playing like this because they have Aldridge and don't want to marginalize Duncan? Or are they setting themselves up to give the Warriors a hard time like Utah did with its big lineup?
Maybe they're just exploiting market inefficiencies by going large and relying more on mid-range jumpers from Aldridge and Leonard.
San Antonio's new approach didn't work against the Bulls, and it'll be fascinating to see what becomes of it as the year wears on.
The safest bet: Trust that the Spurs know what they're doing. They're still 14-4, after all.
The Rockets Can't Find the Switch
Plagued by all of the same demons that have afflicted them this year, the Rockets dozed their way through another brutal loss, standing around, refusing to move the ball and generally giving the offensively challenged Pistons whatever they wanted.
Detroit's a middle-of-the-pack outfit, as evidenced by its 9-9 record. But scoring has been a major issue for these Pistons. Coming in, they ranked dead last in effective field-goal percentage. Yet there they were peppering Houston's punchless D at a rate of 52.9 percent from the field and racking up 54 points in the paint.
Just as it's hard to call this a low point in a Rockets season that has been one long flatline, there was no single play that best encapsulated Houston's heartless effort...there were lots.
Corey Brewer took an atrocious, double-teamed turnaround from the elbow in the second quarter, ignoring a wide-open Ty Lawson above the arc. This was a play Houston ran after a timeout, by the way.
Earlier, Harden added to his bloated gag reel, somehow managing to not try two or three times on a single breakaway:
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It was hard to watch, as Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm observed in all caps:
Life arrived for Houston in the third quarter, complete with better ball movement and Lawson's helpful outside shooting (he was 3-of-3 from deep on the night). But it wasn't enough.
Houston had been seeking its third win in a row, but let's remember it needed 50 points from Harden to beat the woeful Philadelphia 76ers by two on Nov. 27 and got a little lucky in an overtime win against the New York Knicks on Nov. 29.
We talk a lot about great teams flipping the switch—shifting from cruise mode to full go. Outside of a quarter here and there, anyone expecting that from the Rockets this year has been disappointed. Now, the challenge for Houston becomes proving it can flip a different switch: the one that gets it from embarrassingly disinterested to respectably competitive.
Right now, the Rockets don't look like they care enough to find it.
Boston's Latest Big Win Was Different
The Boston Celtics moved to 10-8 with a 105-95 road victory over the Miami Heat on Monday, and the double-digit win fit right into Boston's strange trend of big-margin results, per Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com:
It came about differently than most, though, with all five starters logging at least 31 minutes and just one reserve, Evan Turner, seeing the court for more than 14.
This is a deep team laden with good-but-not-great talent. That's been a problem in some ways, as head coach Brad Stevens has struggled to find rotational continuity. With lots of deserving candidates but few standouts, it's tough to settle on the typical eight-man rotation.
Jae Crowder told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com:
We haven’t built our identity yet as a unit. Coaching staff hasn’t figured it out yet. We don’t have set rotations. A lot of guys don’t know where we’re going to play or what time we’re going to play. It’s affecting us a little bit. We’ve got to figure it out as a unit, figure it out as a coaching staff. We gotta build our identity in who we want to be. We’re a month into the season and we haven’t figured it out.
The upside to depth is lots of fresh bodies competing hard on defense, knowing lapses won't be tolerated.
Hence the 96.6 defensive rating, which is the league's fourth-best, per NBA.com.
The downside is complaints like Crowder's—complaints which, it seems, Stevens is looking to address. Maybe shorter rotations will mean just as many big victories, and it's probably best for the long haul, as postseason trends lean that way anyhow.
But don't overlook the significance of Boston trimming down. It fundamentally changes the team's identity going forward. Nobody will mind if it keeps leading to big wins.
Russ and KD Need Help
Russell Westbrook scored half of his game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter, and Kevin Durant pumped in 25 points on 18 shots, but the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn't get the role-player production or late-game stops they needed.
The Atlanta Hawks beat them, 106-100, on Monday.
Westbrook and Durant are accustomed to doing most of the heavy lifting, and Westbrook's personal assault on the Hawks in the fourth was a prime example. In order for OKC to get the most out of its iso-heavy, star-driven attack, it needs the supporting cast to do things like, say, stop Jeff Teague from slicing to the rim for two layups that turned a tied game into a four-point Hawks advantage in the final 1:09.
We've seen how the Thunder become mortal when either Westbrook or Durant wear down or miss time. So it's both unfair and unwise to ask them for more than they're already giving. This falls on Serge Ibaka (who, admittedly, was fine on Monday, scoring 17 points and blocking four shots) Enes Kanter (six points), Dion Waiters (0-of-7 from the field) and even Andre Roberson (whom Teague toasted to extend the lead to 100-96).
Those guys have to score efficiently against defenses that pay them scant attention, and those guys have to use all that energy they save watching Westbrook and Durant score on defense.
The Thunder can contend this season, but they'll need more than KD's and Russ' brilliance to do it.
DeAndre Jordan Got Some Reps
News that is less good: He needed 34 tries to get there.
DJ missed 22 freebies—the most since Wilt Chamberlain clanked that many in 1967, per Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated. And while we usually reserve this sort of thing for the playoffs, can we just get the ball rolling on changing the intentional-foul rules now?
Stats courtesy of NBA.com and accurate through games played Nov. 30.
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