1. Heat Edge Tough Spurs Team From Atlanta
MIAMI -- Bash the Eastern Conference all you want -- and most of it is deserved -- but the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks put on a 2013-NBA-Finals-like performance at the AmericanAirlines Arena on Monday night.
There's a fairly good reason it looked and felt similar to that classic Heat-Spurs clash -- about as similar as it could in a December game that also was missing Dwyane Wade, who sat out the game for rest.
"Take the names off the back of the jerseys and that's the San Antonio blueprint of how they play," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the Hawks after his Heat pulled out a 121-119 overtime win.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was with the Spurs since 1994, working his way from video coordinator to assistant coach (similar to Spoelstra's path with Miami) until this season. Now he's bringing the Spurs' way to Atlanta.
But there was even more than just styles that set off NBA Finals flashbacks. There was LeBron hitting critical jump shots, late-game strategy that basketball junkies had to admire and, of course, a three-point play from Ray Allen that sent this one to overtime just like Game 6. Well, not just like Game 6. This one came via free throws when Allen was fouled by DeMarre Carroll. And this play was intended to go to Allen, rather than the Game 6 scramble off the Chris Bosh offensive rebound.
There was an additional twist to Monday's play. It was essentially drawn up by LeBron James.
It wasn't enough that LeBron scored 38 points, including a furious stretch in the final 1:49 of regulation that saw him hit consecutive threes and finish a poster-worthy dunk over Paul Millsap to nearly erase a seven-point Atlanta lead.
No, it wasn't enough that LeBron took a season-high 28 shots (previous high was 20), grabbed eight rebounds, dished six assists, nabbed two steals and didn't commit a turnover. Or that he defended every position on the floor, from Kyle Korver to Al Horford to Paul Millsap to Lou Williams.
LeBron also adjusted a play Spoelstra had drawn up, knowing the Hawks weren't about to allow another thunderous finish at the rim.
So trailing 111-108, the Heat took an extra few moments in the timeout huddle, with official Steven Anderson having to break up the Miami discussion as LeBron was getting in several final words.
The result was a baseline drive from LeBron on the right side, only to find Allen sprinting open to the opposite corner, where he was fouled on the game-tying attempt.
"I was just able to turn the corner the previous play to get the dunk," James said. "I felt like they would pay some attention to me, if not all attention to me if I drove again. I had Ray sprint up the floor from the weak side, and when I drove I had [Mario Chalmers] set a back screen for him to the corner. He had a great look. I thought it was going in.
"Spo was drawing up something we've worked on. I just had a different vision in my head. He let me roll with it."
And why not? He was, after all, on a roll on the court. Might as well see if his hot hand would continue on the dry-erase board.
"It was a heady suggestion, and that's what that whole communication was about," Spoelstra said. "That's actually where we've gotten to, where we're actually coherent in huddles. We communicate. It's not everybody screaming and yelling."
Budenholzer followed with a unique play call of his own, tossing a lob pass to the rim from Pero Antic to sharpshooter Korver, who couldn't quite gather and get off a good shot (he thought Chalmers undercut him, but no foul was called).
"Obviously, no one ever expects Kyle Korver to go for a lob," James said. "So it was a pretty good play to draw up."
It took a do-it-all effort from LeBron because, well, the Hawks played Spurs basketball almost better than the Spurs.
The Jeff Teague-Horford pick-and-roll was incredibly efficient (they combined for 47 points). Korver was doing his normal part, hitting five 3-pointers, including what looked like a dagger from 26 feet to put the Hawks up 107-100.
And then there was the surprise floor spacer, Millsap.
Well, not necessarily a surprise to Miami. This is, after all, the same player who hit three 3-pointers while scoring 46 points for the Jazz on Nov. 9, 2010, bringing Utah back from 26 points down to win in this same building.
But it had to be something of a shocker, even to the Heat, when Millsap goes 7-of-10 from 3-point territory (he hit seven of his first eight from distance) to add another legitimate element to this Hawks offense.
"Millsap has redefined his game," James said. "Obviously, he can still go down there and make shots around the rim, but for the better of that team, he spreads the floor."
Millsap eventually fouled out with 25 points and 10 rebounds, his final foul coming on a Michael Beasley drive, with the ensuing free throws giving Miami the lead for good, 120-119, with 9.2 seconds remaining.
Beasley, who'd missed seven games with a hamstring strain, scored 10 critical points in 20 minutes -- all coming after halftime.
Without that contribution, or Allen's efficient 7-of-10 shooting night, or Chris Andersen's 12 points and nine boards, or Chris Bosh's four blocks (Both eventually left the game to receive eight stitches inside his upper lip from an inadvertent Millsap elbow), it's likely the Hawks would've left Miami with an impressive victory.
Regardless, Budenholzer and the Hawks certainly have the Heat's respect.
"He's brought that [Spurs] culture to the East," James said. "It's not a good thing for the East."
2. Around The Association
MVP: Lance Stephenson has become the renaissance man of sorts for Indiana, and he proved it yet again Monday night in his hometown. A performance of 26 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals on 10-for-16 shooting is hard to understate, especially coming from a former second-round benchwarmer.
X factor: Paul George exhibited his usual array of stifling defense and improved offense, finishing with a remarkably quiet 26 points, six rebounds and five dimes. Yet another strong outing from an budding superstar.
LVP: Paul Pierce was as negative a presence as possible on this night, shooting 0-for-7 from the field and finishing with zero points in 15 minutes. To add insult to injury, Pierce was ejected in the third quarter for a flagrant-2 foul on George Hill in the open court.
MVP: LeBron James scored 21 points in the second half and overtime to lead his team back to win the game. He finished the night with 38 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
X factor: Paul Millsap hit seven 3-pointers, his career high by far. The seven 3-pointers is what allowed the Hawks to build their lead in the third quarter. Millsap finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds.
Defining moment: Down one with possession of the ball with 2.8 seconds left in overtime, the Hawks ran a lob play for Kyle Korver. The play was great trickery and almost worked, but Korver missed the shot and Miami walked away with the victory.
MVP: Dirk Nowitzki was a man possessed. The Rockets tried everything, from Chandler Parsons to Terrence Jones all the way to an ill-equipped Jeremy Lin. Dirk and his unguardable fadeaway still burned the Rockets. He finished with 31 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter.
Defining moment: Midway through the third quarter, the Mavs flipped the game on its head with a 13-1 scoring run behind Monta Ellis and Vince Carter. Their offense was sizzling in the third. They shot 59 percent from the field and nailed five 3-pointers.
X factor: The Rockets' undoing, as has been the trend with Dwight Howard on the bench, was their defense. Once the Mavericks got into a rhythm, they couldn't be stopped. Howard was the only Rocket to finish with a positive +/- ranking as Houston's small-ball lineups got torched.
MVP: Zach Randolph. The big man posted 22 points, 10 boards and seven assists, as the Grizzlies ran their offense through him. This is the first time since the Grizzlies' 4-0 West Coast trip in November Z-Bo posted back-to-back 20-10 games. Not coincidentally, it's the first time since then that Memphis won two straight.
X factor: Jerryd Bayless scored 17 points off the bench for Memphis and turned the game back in the Grizzlies' favor with a pair of 3-pointers -- one near the end of the third quarter and one to open the fourth, to push a three-point lead to 9.
That was ... the future: Since returning from his preseason injury, Trey Burke has been mostly outstanding. He didn't have his best shooting night (going just 5-of-12, and 2-of-6 from beyond the arc), but still posted 18 points and 5 assists. Utah is a much more competitive team when he's playing, and playing well.
MVP: Tony Parker's production was somewhat quiet, perfectly fitting for the Spurs. Parker scored 26 points and had eight assists to win the point guard battle against Kyle Lowry.
X factor: Terrence Ross had 23 points, including a few timely triples. Every time it seemed like the Spurs were getting ready to pull away, Ross spurred the Raptors to close the gap -- until the end, anyway.
That was ... unusual: They got hot at the end, but the Spurs did not shoot well for most of the game. They led throughout, however, on the strength of their offensive rebounding, which isn't exactly a San Antonio hallmark.
MVP: Clearly the most physical presence on the floor, Miles Plumlee finished with 17 points, a career-high 20 rebounds, two blocks and a plus/minus rating of plus-35.
Defining moment: In the second half, Pau Gasol faced up Plumlee and began a maneuver to the hoop. But he butted his eye into Plumlee's cheekbone and opened up a gash that was a one-play microcosm of his entire evening.
That was ... fitting: With 5:04 left and the Suns leading by 21, Dionte Christmas got some holiday playing time. He blocked a Xavier Henry jump shot and hit a jumper on the ensuing possession.
MVP: Taking advantage of the Nuggets' depleted frontcourt from the opening tip, David Lee's play was instrumental in Golden State building an early double-digit lead. Just as important was his play down the stretch: Lee scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in a back-and-forth final quarter.
X factor: Finishing. Denver prides itself as one of the league's most potent teams at the rim, but just never got comfortable in the paint Monday night. The Nuggets connected on just 17 of their 32 attempts from the restricted area, a fact indicative of Andrew Bogut's awesome defensive impact.
That was ... ugly: This game looked like a rout early on, as Lee and Steph Curry had the Warriors out to a 24-9 lead late in the first quarter. Denver's arduous comeback was completed when they took a third-quarter lead, but was owed as much to Golden State's struggles as its own proficiency.
3. Monday's Best
LeBron James, Heat: His 38 points, eight rebounds and six assists tell part of the tale of rallying his team to a 121-119 overtime win over the determined Hawks, who have smartly unleashed Paul Millsap's 3-point potential this season.
4. Monday's Worst
Andrew Bynum, Cavaliers:
The good news is Bynum is back playing regular rotation minutes and contributing to the Cleveland effort. The bad news is he just went 0-for-11 from the field in a 115-92 loss to the Pistons, a feat of sorts for a guy taking shots from the paint.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"We are kind of getting comfortable with losing. And we got to make a stand with that because, when things get tough, do we just give in? And most of the time right now we do."
-- Nets coach Jason Kidd, after his team was routed by the Pacers.
8. Harden's Way
9. Stat Check
Tyreke Evans came off the bench to score 25 points, while also contributing 12 assists and six rebounds in the Pelicans' 113-100 win at Sacramento. No non-starter had recorded at least 25 points, 10 assists, and five rebounds in a regulation-length game since Magic Johnson on February 16, 1996. Johnson, playing in his seventh contest after coming out of retirement, scored 30 points (the last time he'd reach that milestone), 11 assists and eight rebounds in a home win over the Mavericks.
10. TrueHoop TV
Around the Association
MVP: Tyreke Evans had his best game as a Pelican in his return trip to Sacramento, scoring 25 points while dishing out 12 assists. He controlled the game offensively and even made an impact defensively with six defensive boards and three steals.
LVP: Rudy Gay went 2-for-12 and had six turnovers, compared to just two assists, in a game in which Sacramento really needed his scoring. Safe to say that he won't be looking at the stat sheet Monday night.
That was ... a false alarm: Eric Gordon went down hard in the third quarter and had to be taken to the Pelicans' locker room. With Gordon's injury history, many imagined the worst, but it was just a simple knee contusion and he should be good to go moving forward.
MVP: The two-headed left-handed monster of Josh Smith (25 points, eight rebounds) and Brandon Jennings (21 points, 13 assists) led the way for the Pistons. Jennings' passing and Smith's perimeter shooting gave the Cavaliers all sorts of problems.
LVP: The honors go to Andrew Bynum, who shot 0-for-11 from the floor and scored zero points in 22 minutes of playing time. Bynum was a vortex of despair every time he touched the ball.
X factor: A big reason why Detroit won by a huge margin is because Cleveland's interior defense had more holes than Swiss cheese. The Pistons pounded away inside all night long and the Cavaliers put up little resistance.
MVP: Kemba Walker (23 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds) outdueled Brandon Knight (26 points, 8 rebounds, 14 assists) in a hard-fought overtime game. Walker was responsible for nine of Charlottes 10 points in the extra period (seven points and an assist).
X factor: Anthony Tolliver's four triples played a huge role in a game where the Bobcats trailed for the vast majority. His final three at the 4:06 mark of the fourth quarter gave Charlotte the lead, which they would not relinquish again.
That was ... unfortunate: The Bucks had a chance to send the game into double overtime with 1.6 seconds remaining and down three. Khris Middleton received a great cross-court pass from Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he made a two-point shot just inside the line.
MVP: Ten points and 13 rebounds dont fully illustrate the degree to which Tyson Chandler is the linchpin to the Knicks' attack on both ends of the floor. He's a scowling, barking, mistake-covering force on defense and a serious threat rolling to the rim.
Defining moment: With New York clinging to a 95-91 advantage, Iman Shumpert, who converted six for his previous 42 shots coming into the game, stripped Jameer Nelson at midcourt for a breakaway layup.
That was ... Pyrrhic: Any pleasure the Knicks might derive from a much-needed win is subdued by the dark cloud surrounding Carmelo Anthony's ankle and Raymond Felton's strained groin. Nearly blowing a 25-point lead is one thing; losing both players long-term would be much worse.