1. Indiana Keeps Getting The Best Of West
OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Eastern Conference is a joke few NBA fans grow tired of telling, but it should be known that one team out of the East condescends to the West. It isn't the coasting Miami Heat, whose laurels have little to do with this NBA season. It's the exuberant Indiana Pacers, who with a 102-94 victory over the Golden State Warriors now claim the NBA's best record against Western teams (11-2).
True, they "haven't won anything," if a championship is literally all that matters. Perhaps they shouldn't be considered better than teams that have won it all before. But if you're not into holding teams to impossible standards, what more does this squad have to do in the regular season to gain title-favorite status? They've got the best record, point differential, and defense.
The Pacers can also play a little offense, as they showed when they blasted the Warriors for 35 first-quarter points. Paul George scored 14 of his 23 points in that quarter, doing so on silky jumpers and slithery drives. It was a vast improvement over his previous game in Oakland, in December 2012, when he ignominiously failed to score a single point.
"I just was thinking of how can I make myself better, how can I eliminate nights like that night," George said as he recalled a game so bad that he changed his "whole approach" because of it. Back then, Indiana's superstar used to get on "the late bus" and just wait for game time.
"Now, I come on the early bus, I get my treatment done, I go in the weight room, get a good lift in, and then I go on the court and get a lot of shots in. And then after shots, I go and get my massage," he said.
Quite a few Pacers players speak about growth and about how they've taken on greater responsibilities in a short amount of time. Lance Stephenson had a rough shooting night until he hit a contested fourth-quarter 26-footer that effectively pushed the game past the reach of a tired Warriors team.
"Man, I was off the whole game. I ain't hit no jump shots until that point," Stephenson said. "I work on my jump shot all the time. I knew I was missing, so I just hit a big, clutch 3."
Stephenson was quick to note that it wasn't just 3-pointers that sealed this victory. After declaring offensive rebounds to be the factor that swung this tilt, he said: "Sometimes when I'm missing, I just try and do other things, like get offensive rebounds or push the rock, get easy points. Last year I would have just gave up, I would have lost confidence. But now my teammates got my back and they keep me aggressive, helped me out tonight."
Golden State tried to match Indiana's aggression but never could close the gap. The Pacers were just too physical in the paint, most especially when knee pain forced Andrew Bogut from the floor.
Going small is a tall order against perhaps the NBA's most physically imposing opponent. "You can't go small against us!" Ian Mahinmi crowed to fellow Pacers center Roy Hibbert. The massive starting center responded, "David Lee nearly had me on skates."
Nearly, but not quite. Warriors lineups that featured Lee at center hit one out of 13 shots, allowing the Pacers to keep the home team at bay.
In describing how he felt about Golden State's small approach, Hibbert said, "We've seen that before and after last year in the playoffs. [Frank Vogel's] going to leave me in to guard the smaller, quicker big men. He's going to trust that I'm going to do my job."
Hibbert literally looks down on the competition while often bristling at how too few look up to him. In his off time, he wears high-tech glasses that allow fans to see the world from his perch of a perspective.
Perhaps the days of Hibbert talking about how his team and his play are overlooked have come to an end, though. When asked if people now respect his team properly, Hibbert acknowledged, "Ya, they do," before adding, "We don't expect to surprise anybody."
The vaunted Western Conference has been warned, and loudly so.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss writes for TrueHoop. Follow him @SherwoodStrauss
MVP: Paul George was transcendent yet again, setting the tone with a 14-point first quarter to give Indiana the early edge. Subsequently, George was quiet until the closing minutes when big buckets helped him finish with 23 points on 9-for-20 shooting and a crunch- time victory.
LVP: Tonight was Jordan Crawford's first home game as a Golden State Warrior following his trade from the Boston Celtics, but Crawford did not please the Oracle crowd in his showing. His final stat line was 1-for-5 from the field and three turnovers in 13 minutes.
X factor: Lance Stephenson has been a quiet co-star to Indiana's George. Even in a poor shooting night, "Born Ready" contributed big with 10 rebounds, 7 assists and just one turnover in a whopping 43 minutes of action -- including a huge three in the closing minutes to seal the win.
MVP: Anthony Davis carried the Pelicans in the second half, scoring 15 points in the third quarter and hitting the big baskets down the stretch on his way to 27 points and 10 rebounds. He also wasn't a slouch on defense, with a game-leading four steals and four blocks.
X factor: With Ryan Anderson out, the Pelicans have gone to a center-by-committee approach as Davis shifts back permanently to power forward. Today, Alexis Ajinca stepped up and added a much-needed spark from the frontcourt, scoring 10 points and grabbing six rebounds in 22 minutes, while also changing numerous shots on the other end.
That was ... a valiant effort: Zach Randolph's team came up short, but Z-Bo left it all on the floor. He recorded a triple-double of sorts as he had 23 points, 10 offensive rebounds and 10 defensive rebounds in the loss. In a sea of 7-footers, the undersized Randolph always seemed to come away with the ball.
MVP: Paul Millsap, who had 26 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in the victory. Much of Millsap's work came down low, where he was awarded 11 free throws, of which he made 10.
X factor: Atlanta backup point guard Shelvin Mack, who replaced the ineffective Jeff Teague and played almost the entire fourth quarter. Mack wound up with 13 points and seven assists with only one turnover.
That was ... extremely exciting: The score was close throughout the whole game and the seemingly half-and-half Atlanta crowd meant loud cheers for everything that happened in the fourth quarter. It was simply an exciting game in an exciting atmosphere.
MVP: Joe Johnson continued his scorching play of late, shredding the Knicks for 20 first-half points on the way to 25 on 8-for-15 shooting, with many of his looks coming via the Nets' sterling, unselfish passing and pristine ball movement.
LVP: New York is 3.1 points per 100 possessions worse on offense this season with Raymond Felton on the court. This afternoon, we saw why: terrible, unforced turnovers, 2-for-11 from the field and 4-for-8 from the line. And that's before we get to his non-existent defense. He's the worst starting PG in the league.
That was ... not even close: The Nets looked great, but they faced an enervated, sloppy Knicks team that has lost the past four games by an average of nearly 19 points, leading to cringe-worthy (if well-earned) chants of "Brooklyn, Brooklyn" raining down from the rafters at Madison Square Garden.
MVP: Blake Griffin (25 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal). Why do people still believe Griffin doesn't play defense and hasn't expanded his offensive game? He scored inside and out, passed well and shut down Greg Monroe.
X factor: DeAndre Jordan. (16 points on 11 shots, 21 rebounds, 4 blocks ... and 0-for-6 free throw shooting). Jordan set the tone early, getting four dunks in the game's opening minutes. In a matchup with similarly intriguing Andre Drummond, Jordan showed how much more advanced he is -- thanks, certainly, to being 5 years older than the Detroit center.
That was ... a dunk-a-thon: Jordan (seven) and Griffin (five) abused the Pistons inside for dunk after dunk. Even Ryan Hollins had two. The Clippers did what they do best all over Detroit's pathetic interior defense.
MVP: Ramon Sessions filled in admirably for the hampered Kemba Walker. Sessions attacked the basket and hit 10 of 11 free throws. He didn't provide much in the way of passing or rebounding, but 23 points on 10 field goal attempts is nothing to scoff at.
LVP: The Raptors' starting frontcourt. Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas combined for four points and nine rebounds in 35 total minutes of play. What was once a strength for this team has turned into a glaring weakness. Both players were benched for most of the second half.
X factor: Big Al Jefferson lived up to his moniker and then some. He torched the Raptors for 22 points, 19 rebounds and 7 assists. He caused mismatches all game and forced the Raptors into double-teaming him, which created open lanes for cutters.
MVP: Monta Ellis. Despite failing to ice the game at the line, Ellis was a steady presence in an otherwise up-and-down game. He finished with 22 points, 8 assists and 2 steals.
X factor: Bench play. DeJuan Blair and Brandan Wright led a Mavericks bench that finished with 33 points, 19 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and only 1 turnover. Contrast that production with the Cavaliers' bench, which finished with a paltry 8 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 turnovers.
Defining moment: With three minutes left in the game and the Cavs in the midst of a 16-2 run, Kyrie Irving missed a pull-up jumper in transition, the Cavaliers fought for the offensive board and Irving found himself with a wide-open spot-up 3 out of the scrum. This would have given the Cavs their first lead since early in the first quarter. The crowd swelled, but he missed again, and the Cavaliers never got over the hump.
MVP: Marcin Gortat was his quintessential self, jack-hammering the Sixers inside to the tune of an 19-11 line, blocking four shots on the other end and looking like an amalgam of a terrifying night-club bouncer and a London tough from a Guy Richie movie. All that in 23 minutes.
X factor: Bradley Beal. The second-year marksmen isn't exactly known for stuffing the box score, but he came within spitting distance of a triple-double in Monday's matinee, scoring 22 points to go along with 8 assists and 9 rebounds. Oh, and he hit 3 triples, too. He is known for that.
That was ... a silver lining: Though the Wiz rolled the visiting Sixers, rookie Michael Carter-Williams got the best of his counterpoint at the point, John Wall. The rookie outscored Wall 31 to 14, bettered or tied him in assists and rebounds and racked up three steals to the veteran's one. Scoreboard, though.
3. Monday's Best
Chandler Parsons, Rockets: Parsons sank 12 of 19 shots en route to a season-high 31 points in leading the Rockets to a 126-113 win over Portland. Parsons added 10 rebounds and seven assists while finishing one point shy of his career high.
4. Monday's Worst
Brandon Jennings, Pistons:
Detroit's point man went scoreless in 28 minutes, missing all seven shots but connecting on five fouls in a 112-103 loss to the Clippers. It was only the second time in 330 NBA games that Jennings did not register a single point.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"Some of the flagrant fouls that I see called nowadays, it makes me nauseous. You can't touch a guy without it being a flagrant foul."
-- Kobe Bryant, who is not enjoying watching the current "finesse" brand of NBA basketball while he rehabilitates.
8. Rare Bird Win
9. Stat Check
Paul Millsap scored 26 points, leading seven Hawks players who were good for at least a dozen points each as the Hawks captured an unusual 121-114 victory from the visiting Heat. Atlanta led at halftime 71-70 in the first NBA game in more than four years in which each team reached the 70-point plateau over the first 24 minutes. (The last NBA game like that was a Suns-Warriors game the day after Christmas 2009, in which Phoenix led at the half by the same 71-70 score.)
Furthermore, Mondays Heat-Hawks contest was only the third in the history of the NBA in which each team scored 70-plus points in the first half, but neither team scored more than 50 points in the second half. The last such game was played on Dec. 27, 1980, when the Nuggets defeated the 76ers 125-121 after the score had been tied 75-75 at the half.
For the Heat, Monday's loss represented the second straight time that 114 points were not enough for Miami to win. The last time that Eric Spoelstra's team scored that many points, at home on Jan. 2, it lost to the Warriors 123-114. Prior to that loss to Golden State, the Heat had been 41-0 when scoring more than 110 points in regulation-length games since LeBron James joined the team in 2010.
10. Top 3 Plays
Around the Association
MVP: D.J. Augustin. His season-high 27 points on 10-for-16 shooting (5-7 from three) led the way through the fourth quarter and overtime. He also had four assists in relief of the injured Kirk Hinrich.
Defining moment: Taj Gibson's buzzer-beating layup. In a game of many spectacularly dramatic scores, it'll be the one that finally ended things that will make most of the night's highlight reels.
That was ... exciting. A jolt of unexpected climax in the dog days of January saw more than 20 lead changes and an unlikely shootout between Augustin and Nick Young, who finished with a game-leading 31 points.
MVP: Chandler Parsons scored early and often. He was efficient -- 12-of-19 from the field, 3-of-5 from 3 -- on his way to a game-high 31 points and 10 rebounds.
That was ... a shooting clinic: The Rockets seemingly couldn't miss. They finished shooting 52 percent from the field and 48.5 percent (16-of-33) from downtown. Credit goes to great ball movement as well as hot hands.
Turning point: After falling behind by as many as 22, the Blazers cut the Rockets' lead to just six midway through the third quarter. Houston responded with a 7-0 run, putting the Blazers away for good.