1. Celtics, Knicks Enliven Atlantic Chase
NEW YORK -- With their bruising 102-96 victory against the Atlantic Division-leading New York Knicks, Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics conjured memories of the Celtics teams that lorded over this division since Garnett came to Boston six seasons ago.
The Knicks still held a seven-game lead in the standings coming into the game and, though both teams were without their starting point guards, the absence of Rajon Rondo, who was serving a one-game suspension for bumping an official Saturday night against Atlanta, hung heavily over the game.
But as Knicks coach Mike Woodson put it before the game, "Anytime Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are in uniform, that's a problem."
Woodson's pregame speech would become heartbreaking reality when Pierce drilled a fading 21-foot stepback over the outstretched hand of Tyson Chandler to all but seal the game with 45 seconds left. It wasn't the first time Pierce has done in the Knicks on their home floor, having also hit a jumper to bury the Knicks in December 2010. Monday's shot was like a herky-jerky nightmare come back to haunt the New York crowd; a reminder that it's a long season and the 17-17 Celtics aren't dead yet.
Pierce scored eight of his 23 points in the final quarter of a game that turned physical in the second half when Carmelo Anthony, who scored 20 points on just 6-for-26 shooting, and Garnett were both given technical fouls for excessive trash-talking. Perhaps seeking to continue their discussion, Anthony went to the Celtics' locker room after the game. The two stars clashed repeatedly in the fourth quarter as both teams alternated shoving and grabbing each other all over the court.
It was a vintage display of what Celtics coach Doc Rivers dubbed before the game "that old New York 'D,'" in reference to the Pat Riley Knicks of the 1990s. "I like that," Rivers added with a smile.
Rivers, however, had to wait for the second half to see his team's brand of basketball. After a sluggish start, the game picked up in the second quarter when the Knicks went to their "four wings and Tyson Chandler" lineup and starting raining 3-pointers. Both teams scored more than 30 points in the period, and the Knicks dumped in eight triples as the pace quickened and the game swung toward New York's style.
But the second half, and ultimately the game, belonged to Boston. Toward the end of the third quarter, guards Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee combined to administer sweltering ball pressure to the Knicks' aging point guards, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni, who are playing more minutes while starting point guard Raymond Felton's hand heals. As the Knicks' pick-and-roll attack fell apart, the Celtics kept grinding away with their steady diet of midrange jumpers and isolation attacks.
"They did everything in terms of applying pressure up the floor," Woodson said. "We couldn't really get into our stuff."
J.R. Smith, who led the Knicks with 24 points and was especially productive during the first half when he often acted as the de facto point guard, noted the difference. "[They] made us start the ball pretty much at half court," Smith admitted.
Over the past two seasons, that disruptive ball pressure has been the calling card of the Celtics' defense when Bradley has been healthy. In three games this season coming into the game against the Knicks, Boston has starved opposing offenses when Bradley is on the court, allowing just 86.5 points per 100 possessions. How good is that? Indiana has the best defensive rating in the NBA this season at 98.9 points per 100 possessions.
Though New York has unexpectedly been the class of the division thus far, this was just the type of game one might have expected from the two teams before the season started.
Back then, Jeff Green and the revamped Boston bench looked ready to give the Celtics' aging starters more cushion than in previous seasons. Though Green and fellow sub Lee have struggled this season, both came through with Rondo out. Green contributed 16 points, attacking Steve Novak one-on-one when the Knicks tried to go small and Lee was the kind of disruptive athletic force that Boston has been sorely missing in recent seasons.
Meanwhile, Anthony appeared to let his emotions get the better of him and took a number of very difficult jump shots during the fourth quarter, going just 2-for-10 in the final period. Those two makes, a pair of 3-pointers that sent Madison Square Garden into a frothing frenzy midway through the fourth quarter could not rattle the Celtics' cool execution down the stretch. All told, the Celtics accumulated 26 assists on their 39 made field goals.
Because Garnett, Pierce and Rondo remain from Boston's glory days, it's easy to forget that this current Celtics team includes only five players who played real minutes last season and that it would take time for the new group to take on the physical, disciplined identity that has so defined the Garnett-era Celtics.
Now, in just four nights, Boston has beaten three of the East's top four teams. Far from the aging, toothless squad we saw in the season's first couple months, more and more Boston looks like the team many predicted it would be, one capable of another deep run into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Beckley Mason's work appears regularly on Hoopspeak
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Bradley Beal. I was going to nominate the Wizards' defense for being so tenacious Monday night, but the rookie hit the game-winner over the defending Western Conference champs. The Wizards and Beal needed that shot of confidence.
Turning point: Kevin Durant's game-tying 3 pointer. The Thunder were chipping away at Washington's lead all night, and they finally tied it up with less than a minute to go. Everyone was out of their seats waiting for something, and Beal delivered in a big way.
That was exciting: This game had everything you'd want: blocks, dunks, 3-pointers, even four-point plays! I don't think the Thunder expected the fight they got, and it was great to see this kind of fire from the Wizards, and even better to see growing confidence in Brad Beal.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Luol Deng filled the stat sheet with 19 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 4 steals. He also dominated the third quarter with a series of successful post-ups against smaller Cavaliers guards.
X factor: Carlos Boozer continued his recent string of stellar play, posting 24 points on 8-for-16 shooting and 11 boards. He was also a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line.
L east valuable player: Tyler Zeller can't tussle with the bruising type of big men the Bulls employ. The overmatched rookie finished with six points on 2-for-8 shooting and only six rebounds in 35 minutes.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Anthony Davis. The No. 1 overall pick scored 17 points on 8-of-13 shooting, pulled down nine rebounds and was everywhere on defense. Davis took two charges, had three steals and blocked a shot. Davis was everywhere and his defensive activity was a big reason the Spurs struggled to score so much.
Defining moment: The Spurs went into the fourth quarter down five points after finishing the third on an 8-0 run. They seemed to be back in the game. But to start the fourth, New Orleans hit back-to-back 3-pointers and pushed its lead to 11 points. The Spurs closed to within three points later in the fourth, but six straight from the Hornets' Eric Gordon again kept San Antonio at bay.
X factor: Turnovers really hindered the Spurs' offense in this game. San Antonio committed seven giveaways in the first quarter and ended the night with 19. Whenever the Spurs seemed to gain some momentum offensively, a turnover or two would make it all disappear. New Orleans' defense deserves plenty of credit for that, though.
Recap (OT) | Box
MVP: Damian Lillard ended up stealing the show in overtime for Portland, but LaMarcus Aldridge's steady hand produced 27 points, 10 boards and 5 assists on 12-22 shooting. Aldridge is shaking off a rough start to the season to provide Portland with a solid, dependable anchor.
X factor: J.J. Redick struck fear into the heart of the Rose Garden on Monday night. The marksman finished with 26 points and 5 assists, at one point singlehandedly keeping the Magic in the game with his shooting and clever cuts to the basket.
Defining moment: After Damian Lillard conceded a 3-pointer with shoddy defense and missed his own poor look in isolation to end the game, the rookie's "clutch" myth was taking on water. But in the extra frame, he left the hero ball behind, penetrated offensively and produced a major steal to lead the Blazers to victory.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Gordon Hayward finished with 27 points (4-for-5 on 3-pointers), 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 big Signature Chasedown Blocks™ on Jae Crowder and Roddy Beaubois. Hayward's 15-point second quarter was one of his best ever.
Defining moment: Derrick Favors stood his ground in a little skirmish with Dirk Nowitski -- unlike last season when a similar encounter required Earl Watson to intervene on Favors' behalf. The chippy moment seemed to spark the Jazz.
That was fun to see: Antoine Walker was sitting courtside on the baseline by the Jazz's bench, for some reason. He was attending as a fan, not as a guest of either team.
3. Monday's Best
Those fighting Washington Wizards: The NBA's cellar-dwellars sent the defending Western Conference champs home with an L. Who expected Martell Webster to drop a season-high four 3-pointers on 'em? Probably not the Oklahoma City Thunder.
4. Monday's Worst
Kevin Martin, Thunder: He had his worst 3-point shooting night in a Thunder uniform, one big reason for their loss in D.C. Martin missed all six 3 attempts in the loss, which leaves the Clippers with the NBA's best record heading into Tuesday.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I've been tuning Spike Lee out for years. That's just common noise now."
-- Celtics forward Paul Pierce, taking note of a particularly vociferous Knicks courtside fixture.
8. Back In Closing Form
9. Stat Check
Wayne Ellington made 10 of 11 field-goal attempts, including six of seven from 3-point range, in the Memphis Grizzlies' 113-81 win at the Sacramento Kings. Since the NBA instituted the 3-point line for the 1979-80 season, more than 300 players have shot better than 90 percent from the floor while making at least 10 shots. But only two others have done that while sinking at least six 3-pointers. Seattle's Richie Frahm (Dec. 20, 2003) and Philadelphia's Jodie Meeks (Jan. 13, 2012) were, like Ellington, 10-for-11 overall and 6-for-7 from downtown.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Most valuable player: His 13-6-3-2 line doesn't shock, but Marc Gasol did just about everything right. Perfect defensive positioning, pinpoint passing, and the steadying hand to an offense that needs to be stirred just-right to show its mettle.
X factor: The Kings stuck with the Grizzlies for most of the early going, but Memphis took care of business in the third quarter in a big way. The Griz mucked up the Kings with their half-court defense and completely cut off the transition baskets that kept the game close for the first half. Their reward was a 20-4 run that put the game completely out of reach for Sacramento.
That was empty: While Memphis is never a huge draw, there was something particularly barren about Monday night's crowd. Particularly one area: In the semi-corner section directly behind the Memphis bench, I counted 22 TV-visible lower-bowl seats that were empty from halftime onward.