1. Surprise First Date: Blazers Edge Pacers
Monday night, especially during football season, is usually a lull night in the NBA. The league purposely avoids scheduling major matchups because none of the national networks are showcasing games.
That's what the Indiana Pacers at Portland Trail Blazers game was back in the summer when the schedule was put together, a generic matchup on a night when most of the Pacific Northwest was going to be glued to the Seattle Seahawks on "Monday Night Football."
Yet it turned into perhaps the defining game of the first six weeks of the season, not only because it ended up pitting the teams with the top records in each conference against each other (Portland is tied for first with the San Antonio Spurs), but it signified just how unexpectedly this season has continued to play out.
By the time it was over, not only had both teams proven their worth and displayed their star power, they'd left those that had the opportunity to see it craving more. While the big-market teams with the huge payrolls and the banged-up big names continue to wheeze along, these two small-market teams made up of mostly homegrown players staged a beautiful display of playmaking.
The Blazers ended up with the 106-102 win, giving themselves a statement victory and showing off the offensive firepower that has carried them to a 15-3 record as probably the biggest surprise team of the young season.
The Pacers (16-2) had their seven-game win streak snapped on a night when they were at times frustrated with officials, seemed to run out of energy in the second half and saw their top-ranked defense succumb to the Blazers' smart game plan. But they also got a career-best showing from Paul George, whose 43-point output that was loaded with clutch shots in the fourth quarter, instantly qualifying it for one the performances of the season.
The individual details aside, both these teams entered fighting a bit of a perception that they were a little overrated because they'd enjoyed favorable schedules over the first month. Yet there was simply no way you could take in that game and not believe they are among the class of the league.
The final five minutes were a clinic in counterpunching, with George nailing contested 3-pointer after contested 3-pointer to keep the Pacers in it. At one point Wes Matthews, who spent most of the fourth quarter trying to defend George, fell to his knees in surrender after George used his lanky frame and now more polished release to fire in a triple with Matthews in his lap.
A season ago when the Pacers struggled coming out of the gates it was partially because George was not ready to lead an offense. That is a dead issue now as his summer work aimed at learning to use his size to create space for the type of shots a star is expected to make at the end of close games is paying off.
The Blazers, though, survived it. They came in with the third-best offense in the league because of their scoring balance and their terrific teamwide 3-point shooting led by Matthews, who is having the best season of his career and started the week with the league's best shooting numbers across the board. Same with LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging career bests of 22 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game.
The Pacers have the league's best defense and have excelled over the past few seasons at defending the 3-pointer by keeping their perimeter players on the outside and letting defensive ace Roy Hibbert take care of the middle. The Blazers have even mimicked the strategy, and both teams are in the top five so far this season in defending the 3-pointer.
To combat that, Blazers coach Terry Stotts had his quick guards, Damian Lillard and Mo Williams, go to work in the midrange, taking advantage of the space the Pacers are willing to give up because they are not typically efficient shots. But Williams, who had 13 points, and Lillard, who had 26, are both experts from that area and their strong nights contributed to the Pacers suffering just their second loss in 18 games.
Then Aldridge went to work on Pacers big men David West and Hibbert, attacking Hibbert in the rim area and picking up fouls. The Pacers were furious that officials let Aldridge, who had 28 points, get away with using his knee repeatedly to create space when battling Hibbert but it certainly was effective (Hibbert took exception on Twitter). An Aldridge fallaway shot over the top of West and a Lillard 3-pointer as he peeled off a screen in the final two minutes ended up breaking the Pacers' usually stout defense.
The Pacers have another three games on this West road trip, with visits to San Antonio and Oklahoma City coming up followed by their first meeting of the season with the Miami Heat next week. The Blazers have gotten fat early on by going 8-0 against the woefully weaker Eastern Conference, the most of any Western Conference team to this point. Portland has 11 games against the tougher West coming up in December.
So it's hard to predict how long either will stay on top of their respective conferences. One thing that is not in doubt, though, is the next meeting will not sneak up on anyone. Its Feb. 7 in Indianapolis. After Monday's showing, that has already morphed into a schedule highlight.
2. Around The Association
MVP: While Paul George's seven 3-pointers en route to a career-high 43 points shall not go unmentioned, the MVP goes to a player on the winning team, and that's Damian Lillard, who hit critical buckets, scoring 14 of his 26 points in the final period.
Defining moment: After trailing for the most of two and a half quarters, the Blazers went on a 20-6 run that afforded them a cushion to withstand George's late-game heroics.
That was .... a playoff atmosphere: While it might sound silly in December, the meeting of teams with the best records in their respective conferences truly lived up to the hype. A highly competitive, hotly contested slugfest with an explosive ending.
MVP: It was the 2009 NBA Finals all over again for Trevor Ariza, who burned the Magic from behind the 3-point line (just like in that playoff series) and finished with 24 points on 8-for-9 shooting.
X factor: John Wall (16 points and 13 assists) did a great job of attacking Orlando's defense and setting up his teammates. The lone complaint is that Wall settled for way too many jumpers.
Defining moment: After letting a 13-point lead evaporate and trailing 31-28 early in the second quarter, the Wizards regained their footing by going on a 19-6 run to re-establish a double-digit lead. Washington never looked back.
MVP: Tim Duncan still has it at 37 years old. Duncan finished the night with 23 points, 21 rebounds, two blocks, and a game-winning jumper with 0.4 seconds remaining.
X factor: Any player on the Spurs' bench has the capability of putting a major impact on the game. This time it was Boris Diaw, who had 16 points and three assists in 30 minutes.
That was ... so San Antonio: With Mike Budenholzer at the helm of the Hawks, both teams had similar strategies: passing and spacing were at their peak, and the game was just beautiful to watch.
MVP: Ryan Anderson was amazing for the second night in a row, scoring 36 points on just 20 shots, including some big ones down the stretch that had the Bulls commentators comparing him to some guy named Larry Bird.
Co-MVP: Luol Deng was on the losing team, but it seems unfair to ignore his outstanding effort. He was the Bulls' leading scorer with 37 points, he was their facilitator, and he played his usual stellar defense. Deng played 56 minutes on Monday night, but he carried the Bulls from beginning to end and his effort never waned.
That was ... exhausting: Six guys in this game played 48 minutes or more, and the Pelicans had it especially rough because they were on the second night of a back-to-back. As entertaining as this game was, nobody was rooting for a fourth overtime.
MVP: Gordon Hayward broke out of his shooting slump with 29 points on 12-for-18 shooting for the Jazz, displaying some crafty quickness in accumulating his points. James Harden finished with 37 points in the loss.
Defining moment: Marvin Williams, playing with a face mask to protect his broken nose, acted the part of the masked bandit when he got the breakaway steal and dunk that gave Utah the winning margin.
X factor: Rookie PG Trey Burke looked like a future star, scoring 21 points and gathering six assists in Utah's win. Maybe all Utah needed was a point guard, as theyre 3-4 since Burke's return.
3. Monday's Best
Tim Duncan, Spurs:
With the game on the line, of course you call the play for the 37-year-old guy. Duncan made a jumper with 0.4 seconds left to lift the Spurs to a 102-100 win over the whippersnapper Hawks.
4. Monday's Worst
Glen Davis, Magic: Less than a week after torching the Sixers for 19 points, Big Baby went 1-for-8 from the floor with two rebounds in the 98-80 loss to the Wizards. Performances like this just might be what the lottery-driven Magic need.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"We are playing basketball the right way, trusting our teammates and trusting our defensive concepts."
-- John Wall, whose Wizards (9-9) reached the .500 mark for the first time since four games into the 2009-10 season.
8. Way Over The Top
9. Stat Check
Tim Duncan scored 23 points, recorded 21 rebounds, and made the game-winning basket with less than a second to play in the San Antonio Spurs' win over the Atlanta Hawks. At 37 years, 221 days old, Duncan is the oldest player in NBA history to record a game of at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. He's almost two months older than Robert Parish was for his final 20/20 game, in 1991.
10. TrueHoop TV