For the second night in a row, there was a "measuring stick" game between the No. 1 and No. 3 teams at the top of a conference. On Tuesday, the top-seeded Houston Rockets faced the scorching-hot third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers on the road and handled them for the win. On Wednesday, the story was a bit different.
The top-seeded and scorching-hot Toronto Raptors faced the somewhat struggling Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland was playing the second game since their second-best player returned from injury, but also with their head coach sitting out for health reasons. Toronto went out and tied a franchise record by scoring 79 points in the first half. They rushed out to a 15-point lead at the half, only to see the Cavaliers blow by them in the second half on their way to a 132-129 win.
Of course, we have to start at the top. While every metric based upon how the teams have played this season suggest that the Raptors are (by far) the better team, the Cavaliers still have (by far) the best player in the matchup. And he played like it on Wednesday:
LeBron James: 35 points (11-19 FG, 12-14 FT), 17 assists, 7 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 3-pointer, 0 TO
Here is one historic take on what he accomplished on Wednesday:
LeBron James is the third player in past 10 seasons to record 17 (or more) assists without a turnover in a game.
Chris Paul did it twice during the 2016-17 season.
Rajon Rondo did it twice (once in 2010, once in 2014). pic.twitter.com/vGJQg1QdXl
- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2018
James is also the only player in NBA history to score 35-plus points with 17-plus assists and zero turnovers in a game. Not a bad night at the office. Of course, he didn't do it alone, as the other Cavaliers stepped up and knocked down the shots.
All four other starters -- and JR Smith off the bench -- scored in double-figures for Cleveland. Kevin Love scored 23 points (8-15 FG, 3-4 FT) with 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 3-pointers, 1 steal and 1 TO. George Hill (78 percent available) scored 22 points (10-11 FG) with 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 3-pointers and 1 block. Jeff Green (94 percent available) went for 15 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block and 2 3-pointers. Jose Calderon and Smith both went for double-figure points with a combined 6 3-pointers. The Cavaliers were missing five rotation players on Wednesday, and 11 of James' assists resulted in 3-pointers, so he was absolutely spoon-feeding his teammates for big buckets.
Meanwhile, the Raptors actually had an outstanding offensive game as well. They actually notched the eighth-best offensive rating (139.3) in the NBA this season. The problem was that Cleveland chose the same night to have the third-best night at 142.5.
This game was another example of good fantasy production down the stretch from a pair of motivated playoff teams, with 261 total points scored without any overtimes. The Raptors are still trying to prove that their record reflects who they are, and that they are a legitimate threat to come out of the East. The Cavaliers still have to prove that their tumultuous season won't preclude them from returning to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Or, as James answered when asked about motivation:
LeBron was asked what his motivation was in Year 15 of his career.
His response? pic.twitter.com/W7ePYrgls3
- ESPN (@espn) March 22, 2018
Rajon Rondo, New Orleans Pelicans: 2 points (1-6 FG), 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 TO
Marvin Williams, Charlotte Hornets: 0 points (0-6 FG), 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal
Howard turned back the clock in a big way on Wednesday, notching only the second 30-30 game of the past 36 years (Kevin Love has the other). It's been a very productive, bounce-back season for the former MVP candidate.
While Howard one-upped him with the 30-30, Jordan's 20-20 performance shouldn't be overlooked because it happened with much higher stakes. The Clippers are fighting for their playoff lives -- and so are the Milwaukee Bucks -- so Jordan's dominance had an edge to it that Howard's explosion, in the "garbage time" of his team's season, lacked.
Kelly Olynyk had another monster game for Miami on Wednesday, scoring 22 points with a career-high 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 3-pointers and 1 steal. He's somehow still available in 54.7 percent of leagues, despite having averaged 26.0 points, 8.0 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 3-pointers and 3.0 combined blocks/steals during his last two games, right in the heart of the fantasy basketball playoffs.
Injuries of note
Giannis Antetokounmpo had his right ankle stepped on by a Clippers player on Wednesday, and he left the game without returning. No specifics regarding the severity of the injury have been released, but for now consider him questionable for Friday's game against the Chicago Bulls. In Antetokounmpo's absence on Wednesday, Jabari Parker (46.6 percent available) stepped up with 20 points (9-15 FG, 2-2 FT), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block and 3 TO in 30 minutes off the bench. This bodes well for Parker if Antetokounmpo has to miss any action.
It was revealed on Wednesday that Tyson Chandler could miss the rest of the season with neck and shoulder issues. That hasn't been officially confirmed by Phoenix, but his absence would suggest that Alex Len (91.2 percent available) could be very fantasy-viable moving forward, with Dragan Bender and even Alan Williams getting into the action as well.
Analytics advantage for Thursday
Thursday doesn't have any matchups between two teams both currently in the playoffs hunt -- unless you stretch to include the Detroit Pistons as a playoff contender, which at this point I really don't. However, there are two games between a pair of lottery-bound teams, including the Grizzlies-Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks-Sacramento Kings.
The Hawks-Kings game is the more interesting pairing from a fantasy perspective. Both the Hawks (110.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, T24th) and the Kings (112.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, 28th) are among the worst defenses in the NBA, which suggests that both offenses could overachieve tonight. In addition, Dennis Schroder just led the Hawks on an inexplicable demolition of the dominant Utah Jazz defense in their last outing. If he's still channeling that level of play, Atlanta could put a big number up against the Kings.
Top players to watch tonight
I'm very curious to see what the Pelicans look like tonight in their third game in three nights, and their fifth in six nights overall. They made up a game on Wednesday that had been missed earlier in the season due to water leakage on the court, which helped make this a brutal week for New Orleans. They've been playing well as a team, led by Anthony Davis, but can they pull out yet another big effort on Thursday? I'll be watching to see.