1. Reserves Lift Magic Past Nuggets
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The thing about depth is you never know when you'll need it. A few days ago, J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson seemed like bit players in the Magic's rotation. But after Mickael Pietrus sprained his ankle on Wednesday, and Vince Carter limped off the floor with a sprained toe just 95 seconds into Sunday's game against Denver, the reserves suddenly were forced into central roles.
And man, did they deliver. Each played arguably his best game in a Magic uniform, in fact, as Orlando topped Denver 103-97 in a Finals preview (according to Matt Barnes' Twitter account, at least) despite getting only 43 points from its four All-Stars.
Redick played the entire game after Carter left and racked up 23 points, 8 assists and 7 boards, while Anderson added 19 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes, missing only one of his eight shot attempts. It was the first time since April 19, 2006, that Orlando's top two scorers came off the bench.
"Obviously, you can't predict injuries," Redick said. "You just have to be ready."
"I thought the key to J.J.'s performance was that rest I gave him at the beginning of the game," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy joked. "He was tremendous. What you have to know, and what we see every day and appreciate, he is one of the best-conditioned guys in the league. He works his butt off year-round to be in great shape. He usually gets no more than 24-25 minutes, [but] you need him for 46, and he's able to do it."
With Carter and Pietrus both wounded, the Magic may need similar iron man performances from Redick for tough road games later this week against Dallas and San Antonio. Carter went down after a collision at the defensive end with Arron Afflalo and quickly limped off the court after the Magic got the ball and called timeout. The one saving grace for Orlando is that it has three days of before it will play again, giving him time to recover.
On this night, at least, his absence didn't matter, because Orlando's reserves could do no wrong. Two signature plays were emblematic of that fact. First, at the end of the third quarter, Orlando tried to run a play for Jameer Nelson at the top of the key. Anderson was supposed to come up top to set a pick but stayed on the low block; Van Gundy was so "baffled," in his words, that he threw up his hands and stormed away with his back turned to the other side of the bench. When he turned around, he was watching Anderson's 3-pointer go through the net to end the quarter, tying the game.
"He got to his spot eventually," Van Gundy said.
For Redick, the signature moment came with three minutes left and the Magic nursing a 95-90 lead. He dribbled to the right side of the key and pulled up for a midrange jumper that caught the side of the rim and spun all the way around, and around, and around, and around again before finally swirling around the inside of the net and down for a bucket.
"When was the last time you saw that in the NBA?" Redick asked.
The other piece of Orlando's success was another maestro defensive effort by reigning defensive player of the year Dwight Howard. Although he blocked only two shots, his help defense against Carmelo Anthony was tremendous, with Howard constantly meeting Anthony near the rim to thwart attempted drives. Anthony scored 25 points but needed 25 shots to do it and had only two assists against the league's top-ranked squad in defensive efficiency.
The Magic were helped by a laissez faire approach by the zebras as well, as Denver attempted only 11 free throws despite contact on several drives. Both Anthony and Chauncey Billups picked up technicals protesting the calls, and an increasingly frustrated Anthony was rung up for screaming "call that [stuff]" after getting bumped late in the first half.
(I should point out that it went both ways -- Howard endured similar physical treatment, while Billups answered one non-call late in the game by essentially throwing Nelson out of the way on the next trip and hitting a 3-pointer).
"We tried to get the refs to blow the whistle and the calls weren't going our way," said J.R. Smith, who scored 13 points off the bench. "We normally get Chauncey and Melo to the line 10 to 12 times a piece, and that usually helps us out a lot with some extra points, but it wasn't going the way we were playing."
Of course, the other reason Denver didn't get to the line was that it didn't get to the rim. Van Gundy said before the game that the key to limiting free throws by the Nuggets -- the league leader in free throw attempts with 31.1 per game, nearly four more than the next-closest team -- was to keep them away from the rim, and Denver attempted only 27 of its 80 shots in the paint.
"We've been doing an excellent job the last couple of games of being really aggressive on both ends, really trying to focus in on the defense," Howard said. "[Barnes] had a very tough matchup tonight. He kept his head up; he did an excellent job on Carmelo Anthony."
Add it all up, and it was another big win supplied by the Magic's bench, a unit that has carried the team at several key junctures this season -- most notably right out of the gate when it helped Orlando to a 7-3 start during Rashard Lewis' 10-game suspension. So although the Magic still count on Howard, Carter, Lewis and Nelson to carry them in May and June, it's comforting to know they have a solid Plan B in case things don't go according to plan. Few teams can say the same so confidently.
John Hollinger covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.
2. Thabeet A Reluctant Big Tipper
MILWAUKEE -- The Memphis Grizzlies' team bus pulled into the Bradley Center parking lot shortly after noon, and right behind it was a yellow cab carrying 7-foot center Hasheem Thabeet.
Oddly enough, Thabeet was wearing a Milwaukee Brewers baseball cap.
Even more odd was that Thabeet did not have any cash to pay his $6 fare.
"He tried to pay with a Visa card," the cab driver said incredulously, as your faithful correspondent climbed into that very same cab to loop back to his hotel and retrieve his computer power cord (the first time that has happened to me since the 2007 All-Star Game in Las Vegas).
A parking lot attendant was asked to keep an eye out for Thabeet and his $6 while we retrieved the missing power cord. (The cab driver was surprised to learn that his passenger spent 1985 through 1987 driving and dispatching for the same cab company.)
Upon our return to the Bradley Center parking lot, a $20 bill from Thabeet awaited the cabbie. Combined with the $10 fare from the absent-minded reporter, a $6 debacle had turned into a $30 bonanza.
"The cab driver appreciated that $14 tip," Thabeet was told before tipoff.
"Hey, I needed that change," Thabeet replied.
Just a guess, but it won't be a surprise if Thabeet starts stashing a couple of extra $10 and $20 bills in his wallet to prevent a repeat of this moment of unintended generosity.
3. Del Negro's Words Ring True
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Vinny Del Negro has a few expressions that he likes to use all the time.
Like many coaches, Del Negro always throws some variation of coachspeak into most answers while trying to explain a certain point.
When he's searching for the right word or phrase to back up what's he's saying, he'll reach for one of these verbal crutches. It's an understandable exercise, considering he generally answers a variation of the same question several times a day.
After Sunday night's 110-103 victory over the Pistons, though, there is one particular Del Negro quote that seems to be more apropos than the rest: "It's never easy."
Del Negro used that very quote on Sunday to describe his team's win over Detroit, particularly the team's second-half performance, when the Bulls had to withstand a late Pistons run.
Del Negro uses that quote frequently to describe his team's performance, but it was especially true against a lowly Pistons squad that has seemingly mailed it in for the rest of the season. The win, which was the Bulls' fourth in their past five games and pulled them to within just a half-game of Toronto for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, served as a microcosm for the Bulls' season in many ways.
Derrick Rose & Co. surged ahead early and appeared to be on their way to an easy victory, leading by 18 points at halftime. Then they let the Pistons crawl back into the contest by falling asleep for a while on defense and refusing to put the dagger into Detroit, which looked generally disinterested from the outset. Finally, when the Bulls needed it, they made a few shots (many by veteran Flip Murray, who led the team with 27 points) and closed out the Pistons before things got even more out of control.
In the end, though, with just nine games left in the season, Del Negro and his team don't really care how they got the win. They just care that they did.
"It's right here," Rose said of the playoff berth that is well within reach now. "Everybody is just coming and playing hard. We're playing defense right now, trying to rebound the ball and run. That's the way that we play."
Of course, the Bulls also play so up-and-down during most games that it could give you motion sickness. They are certainly playing much better than they did during the past month (which obviously has to do with the fact that a healthy Rose and Joakim Noah are back in the lineup), but there is no telling exactly what kind of team you'll see from night to night.
To borrow another Del Negro catchphrase, though, there are no easy games. And that's why he was just happy to get out of town with a win.
To read the entire blog entry, click here.
4. Randolph Excels In Defeat
5. Extreme Behavior
Beno Udrih, Kings: With Tyreke Evans sitting out, Udrih continues to put up big numbers, posting a triple-double of 18 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds in Sacramento's loss to Cleveland. He is averaging almost 12 assists in his past five games.
Darko Milicic, Wolves: The Timberwolves dropped their 16th game in a row, falling by six to the Suns. Milicic made just 3 of 13 shots from the floor, finishing with six points in 19 minutes.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"Me and Dwyane [Wade] have been together a long time, and he has trust in me that if I am going to be open, I'm going to knock down the shots. I just feel comfortable in those situations that I am going to knock down the shot."
-- Miami's Udonis Haslem after scoring 11 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter as the Heat rallied past the Raptors
6. Fitting Tribute
7. NBA Video Channel
8. Celtics Struggle Against Spurs
How the game was won: The Celtics were held to a season-low 73 points on a night they shot 37 percent from the floor and matched a season-low with a mere 30 second-half points. Manu Ginobili scored 28 points, while Richard Jefferson (16) and George Hill (15) helped pace the Spurs. Paul Pierce had a team-high 18 points despite 4-of-11 shooting. (He was 10-of-11 at the free throw line.)
Turning point: The Celtics limited San Antonio to 19 first-quarter points, but the Spurs scored 21 points in less than seven minutes in the second quarter to open a double-digit lead at 40-30 with 5 minutes, 10 seconds to go in the half. Ginobili did most of the damage, scoring 12 of his 16 first-half points in the period.
Turning point II: The Celtics were forced to play catch-up the rest of the game but rallied within a point at intermission. San Antonio promptly embarked on a 12-0 run to start the half, culminating with a 19-foot jumper by Antonio McDyess for a 56-43 lead a little more than two minutes in.
To read the entire blog, click here.
9. Don't Count Out San Antonio
The Spurs are securely entrenched in the canon of sports clichés: "Never count them out," "They have the heart of a champion" and "They win when it counts." Those are the first few token expressions and bar stool blather that applies to San Antonio.
It's too boring, and it's too easy.
But it's correct.
Just a few weeks back, shouts of "dead men walking" were heard whenever the Spurs rumbled through. The team is having -- in terms of record -- its worst season of the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich era. And its annual late-season surge turned the midseason corner with all the stride of a runner with badly blistered feet in a pair of ill-fitting shoes. Would this team make the playoffs?
The Spurs' strength of schedule over the most recent 25 percent of their games is .539, easily the most difficult of the league's playoff-bound teams. And that doesn't include Sunday night's game at Boston or upcoming games against Orlando, at Los Angeles, at Phoenix, at Denver or at Dallas. Three back-to-backs. Six contests against playoff teams. A remaining strength of schedule of .519.
The Spurs are suddenly playing their best basketball of the season, riding the brilliance of Manu Ginobili to a record of 7-3 in their past 10. Sunday's 94-73 drubbing of the Celtics snapped Boston's five-game home winning streak and continued the story of San Antonio's recent rise from the ashes.
Ginobili was a one-man wrecking crew against the Celtics, finishing with 28 points and seven assists. His game-high plus-36 isn't a bit misleading. As Ginobili goes, so go the Spurs.
And although it's not all sunny in San Antonio (Tony Parker is still out with injury, and Duncan looks increasingly tired), the Spurs are quietly emerging from the pack of playoff hopefuls into the smaller, more select group of potential postseason troublemakers. The Spurs are finding their form.
The early reviews complained that the casting and costuming were all wrong. But just as the theater was starting to thin, the Spurs have assumed the familiar feel of something we've seen before. Something worth watching.
To read more from Varner, check out his blog 48 Minutes of Hell.