Here is a hot take for you: The NBA season gets better the later it goes. The standings get tighter just as the postseason picture becomes more apparent. Races for the regular season awards become all the more competitive, just as it gets more difficult to decide each frontrunner. Overall, the games get more meaningful — for every team, depending on how you look at them. For some, winning becomes imperative for seeding purposes. For others, losing is almost ideal, given the prospect of improving lottery odds, in hopes that they can find a player that can one day lead them to the promised land.
Some teams have already found that player, or at least hope that they have, and find themselves currently immersed in the thick of the playoff race they long desired. The games involving those teams tend to excite me the most. Which brings us to the ultimate battle between two squads utilizing their almost-fully homegrown talents to their fullest potential.
The MVP chants that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander received on Sunday night in Oklahoma City won’t culminate with an actual trophy at the end of the season. But his performance against the Suns warranted any form of praise the crowd wanted to provide. He dropped 40 points — making 12 of his 24 field goals and 16 of his 19 free throws — and assured that the Thunder remained in the game after trailing by 15 in the first half. Luguentz Dort added 20 points for OKC, which has now won four of its last five and is now eighth in the Western Conference.
To make matters even more interesting, eighth is only three games out of fourth, right where the Suns currently find themselves. For Phoenix, which has lost four of its last five, Devin Booker scored 46 points while Chris Paul added 14 points and 13 assists.
Two things are true about the Denver Nuggets: they entered Sunday’s game against the Nets 1-5 in their last six, and are also four games clear of all competitors atop the Western Conference. But they looked much more like the latter against the Nets, led by Nikola Jokic’s 22 points, 17 rebounds, and 10 assists, good for his 28th triple-double of the season. Michael Porter Jr. led all scorers with 28, while Jamal Murray scored 25, 20 of which came in the first quarter. The Nets were at full strength, with Mikal Bridges scoring 23 points and Nic Claxton dropping 19 and pulling down eight boards, but dropped their third straight and looked paltry in comparison to the Nuggets.
After trailing by 24!!! And after having blown a 29-point lead against the Memphis Grizzlies a few nights ago!!! What a roller-coaster, one on which both Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell happened to drop 29 points apiece in between loop-the-loops.
It’s stunning how quickly the Heat can put together a run to drop a team on the road. I mean, literally, it happened within a matter of minutes. With 3:20 left in the game, Tyler Herro drained a three to give the Heat a lead they’d keep for good. Herro scored 10 of his 19 points in those final three-ish minutes, five of which came moments after that initial triple that gave Miami the advantage. Butler led the way with 26 points and 10 assists, and Bam Adebayo finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
With this 12-point win, the Heat won for the third time in four games, two of which by 10-plus. That makes seven wins by 10 or more on the season.
Having built a 64-44 lead by halftime, especially over the Rockets, the question wasn’t whether or not the Pelicans would win, but by how much. Jalen Green, however, did everything in his power to make that a trying task. He poured in 40 points to lead all scorers and eventually trimmed New Orleans’ lead to nine in the fourth quarter. Both Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum scored 26 points, as the Pelicans snapped a two-game losing streak to close the gap to a half-game behind the Jazz for the final spot in the play-in tournament. 11 games to go; once again, the NBA season gets better the later it goes.
Toronto had won three in a row entering Sunday’s tilt against the Bucks, who needed a win just as badly in order to stay clear atop the Eastern Conference standings. Having Giannis Antetokounmpo helps. He finished with a 22-point, 13-rebound, 10-assist triple-double to lead the Bucks, while Brook Lopez — on a heater if there ever was one — scored 26 points to lead all scorers. Milwaukee now finds itself with a two-and-a-half game advantage over the Sixers and the Celtics in the East, while the Raptors blew a chance to leapfrog the Hawks into the eighth seed.
Winning five of your last six games is a solid way to keep pace with the rest of the non-Denver West, as well as a perfect way to continue to control your own destiny. The Clippers trail the Suns by half a game for homecourt advantage in the playoffs, but given the pace they are on — and the absence of Kevin Durant — it almost seems like a formality that they’ll end up fourth in the West.
On Sunday, Paul George (29 points), Kawhi Leonard (24), and co. led by as many as 16 en route to the 15-point blowout result. Jusuf Nurkic finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds, and Damian Lillard added 21 points and nine assists for the Blazers, who have lost six in a row.
Need a late-game surge to inspire a comeback victory? Just call Austin Reaves, who managed to score the Lakers’ final 10 points in the final minute-and-a-half of action. Those 10 were part of a career night on which Reaves dropped a career-best 35 points to lead all scorers. Anthony Davis had 15 points and 11 rebounds and shot just six-for-15 from the field; for the Magic, both Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero scored a team-high 21 in defeat.
With the win, L.A. snaps a two-game losing streak and jumps back into ninth in the Western Conference, tied with Minnesota. And with the news that LeBron James is expected to return at some point this season, it should only be up from here for the Lakers.
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