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Beast in the East

There was a decided buzz in the air at the TD Garden long before opening tip yesterday, and not simply because the East-leading Raptors were on tap. In recent memory, the Celtics had been plagued by inconsistent play that led to off-court concerns on the unity, or lack thereof, of their stalwarts. Considering all that was said -- and not said -- on record, the 18,624-strong crowd was on edge and hoping that the prospect of doing well, if not winning, against highly regarded opponents would goad the hosts into performing to potential.

Simple pleasures

To argue that the Thunder were heavily favored in their match against the Hawks yesterday would be to understate the obvious. It wasn’t simply that they had three days’ worth of rest following an emphatic victory over the highly regarded Spurs. It was also because their opponents were slated to host them after having lost six of the last eight outings. They were third in the competitive West, while the hosts were fourth to last in the bottom-heavy East. Most importantly, the latter were undermanned, with rotation regulars Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Lin, and Dewayne Dedmon decommissioned and starter Taurean Prince still ailing.

On the upswing

It would be an understatement to argue that the Nets continue to smart from the 2013 trade that gave them immediate prosperity and subsequent subsistence. They went for instant gratification at the expense of their horizon, getting two marquee names who had seen better days vice three first-round draft picks. And after netting on-the-downside Paul Pierce and The Player Formerly Known As Kevin Garnett, they managed to win one series in the 2014 Playoffs and go one and done off a losing record the next year. Since then, they’ve scraped the bottom of the barrel, the effects of the their poor choice in retrospect continuing to haunt them.

Rockets is Harden

If there’s anything the Rockets’ match yesterday showed, it’s that their fortunes are tired to top dog James Harden’s. They go where he goes. It’s true of all high-usage players in the National Basketball Association, to be sure; not for nothing have marquee names become, well, marquee names. In the case of the red and white, however, the relationship with the reigning Most Valuable Player is taken to extreme. Everything revolves around him. Everything. And it has been especially apparent of late in light of injuries to the supporting cast.

Motivated Griffin

Blake Griffin was empathic in his denial. Asked about his sprint off the court after warmups yesterday, he waxed angry and argued that it was simply part of his pregame routine over the last nine years. Never mind that Clippers owner Steve Ballmer stood waiting for him in the sidelines ready for a handshake, and that he, in turn, appeared to veer away and head straight to the tunnel. In retrospect, he may well have been right -- which is not to contest he wasn’t being disingenuous as well; not for nothing had they not spoken at all since he was traded to the Pistons in late January.

Overmatched

Considering how the Sixers lost yesterday, it’s fair to argue that the Wizards have their number -- at the Capital One Arena, that is, where, for some reason or another, they’ve failed to taste victory in five years. It didn’t matter that the hosts were missing John Wall, out for the rest of the season due to a left heel injury, or that they just came off a rousing triumph against the very same opponents at the Wells Fargo Center. Apparently, there’s something in the Washington air that makes them forget they’re supposed to be crowding the top of the East and not the bottom.

Off the court tussle

The Warriors and Cavaliers are going at it again, but this time off the court. The subject of their conflict: Patrick McCaw, who, in two full seasons with the defending champions, averaged a whopping four, one, and one in 16 minutes of exposure. Including even more anemic numbers in the playoffs, he proved as crucial to their title runs as just about any other player riding the pine for them. Still, they wanted him back, and offered him a two-year contract worth $5.2 million that he subsequently declined because the second year wasn’t guaranteed. Enter the 2018 runners-up, with whom he signed a deal that his previous employers couldn’t match, and for whom he then wound up playing only three games.

Harden lifts Rockets

For a while there, it looked as if James Harden’s bid for a second straight Most Valuable Player award would be dead in the water. It wasn’t just that he appeared, well, mortal to start his 2018-19 campaign. More importantly, it was that his exertions, however much, amounted to squat in the grand scheme of things. The Rockets, whom he led to within two quarters of a Finals berth last May, were sputtering off the gate; they seemed to alternate wins with losses, racked as much by offseason changes in the roster as by injuries to key players in the updated rotation.

Timing

The timing of the firing came as a surprise -- a shock, even -- to many, including Tom Thibodeau himself. His fate as head coach of the Timberwolves was sealed when heralded acquisition of Jimmy Butler, supposedly the last piece they needed to compete with the best of the best, instead left in bad terms after a single year. Yet, even then, not a few quarters believed he would last the season, especially in light of the improvement, however incremental, they showed in the wake of the disgruntled All-Star’s departure.

Moving on

A more conciliatory Gregg Popovich greeted the Spurs’ first match against the Raptors in their 2018-19 campaign. For those from the outside looking in, it was a contest made all the more significant because of the offseason exchange of vital cogs between the two sides. The trade was met with varied reactions, and especially from the concerned parties. And for all his protestations heading into and after the deal, he was himself affected greatly; at one point, he made an unprompted contention that Kawhi Leonard -- who, prior to a shocking falling out, spearheaded his last title run and whom he figured would continue anchoring the cause of the black -- was “not a leader.”

Greatest

LeBron James does not have a filter. He says what’s on his mind, a reflection as much of his intelligence and knowledge of the topics he chooses to dissect as of his confidence in his words. He’s not always right, of course; no one is. Nonetheless, his capacity to speak his mind and willingness -- desire, even -- to be challenged informs his actions. He dares all and sundry to prove him wrong, and, in their subsequent failure, basks in the validation it brings. Meanwhile, he uses their doubts as fuel for his fire; in his relentless pursuit of excellence and, by extension, approbation, he first courts criticism.

Lakers to LeBron

“We are not just one player,” second-year forward Kyle Kuzma declared in the aftermath of the Lakers’ victory over the weekend. It was a significant development, to be sure, and not simply because they prevailed against the very Kings who tormented them just three days earlier with an emphatic comeback. Consider: It marked the first time in three tries that they won without top dog LeBron James in the lineup, as good an indication as any of their growth. It’s especially noteworthy in light of the fact that his teams hadn’t triumphed in the last 16 matches he missed.

Solid guidance

Yesterday’s match between the Spurs and Celtics highlighted plenty of similarities between the protagonists. Both encountered adversity early in the season, and both appeared to have overcome it heading into the new year. Both faced roster and rotation changes that required systemic adjustments, albeit not to the point of loss of identity. Both bucked modern-era trends prompted by advanced metrics in allowing for seemingly unhealthy doses of midrange shots. And both, most importantly, leaned on outstanding mentorship to stay competitive regardless of circumstance.

Blip on the radar

It was supposed to be a perfect scenario for the Warriors to stamp their class: A Christmas Day match on national television and in front of the home crowd, with LeBron James as an opponent. And they were complete, too. Everybody was healthy, offensive fulcrum Steph Curry just had an outstanding shooting game to continue a hot streak, and Kevin Durant and Draymond Green appeared to be getting along well anew. In short, yet another triumph over the reeling Lakers looked to be in the offing.

Lakers sans James

LeBron James was angling to make a good impression yesterday, and not simply because of his status as the National Basketball Association’s all-time leader in points scored on Christmas matches. For the fourth consecutive year, he faced the Warriors as the holiday’s marquee matchup. And while he was slated to trek to the court wearing a different uniform than those for the previous three, he relished the opportunity to show that he’s the only constant necessary for success.

Spurs’ reality

For a while there, it looked as if the Spurs would prove preseason prognoses right. Rocked by a heavy roster turnover that included the departure of key figures to their protracted streak of success, they were pegged by not a few quarters to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Following an auspicious 6-2 start that saw them bent on bucking conventional wisdom, they went an abhorring 5-12 through the next month; from the outside looking in, their failure to register back-to-back wins over the period underscored a talent deficiency that exposed their relative lack of competitiveness.

Making strides

The Suns were heavy underdogs heading into their match against the Celtics yesterday, and with reason. They held the league’s second-worst road record and the second-worst overall slate, and faced a hostile crowd cheering for the hosts who, in stark contrast, boasted of the second-lowest number of home losses. Yet, they were confident of their capacity to compete, and not simply because they hitherto appeared to be on a roll. As far as they were concerned, they possessed both talent and resolve to claim their first four-game winning run in nearly four years.

Davis situation

LeBron James was, needless to say, stating the obvious when he told ESPN that pairing up with Anthony Davis “would be amazing.” And he knew it, too. “Duh,” he added. “That would be incredible.” Certainly, it’s the ideal scenario for the Lakers, who have set aside salary cap space and made personnel decisions precisely with an eye towards claiming one or two superstars in the near term. Should that happen, they’ll be ensuring their competitiveness even as their biggest offseason acquisition will be getting ahead in age through his four-year contract.

Vote of confidence

Per ESPN, the Thunder have picked up their option on the last year of head coach Billy Donovan’s contract. Needless to say, it’s a vote of confidence on the way the former Gators mentor has steered their campaigns since he arrived on the scene in 2015. There were plenty of rough moments, but more highs than lows, and not simply because he had at his disposal a roster deep in talent. Once he got the hang of the tendencies of his charges, he went about instituting a system designed to maximize their specific skill sets, to significant success.

Better days lie ahead

Will Trevor Ariza give the Wizards exactly what they need? It’s a big question mark that they’re confident he will answer in the positive -- confident enough, at least, to give up two rotation players in Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers for him. Never mind that he’s a $15-million rental and, based on the little time that he toiled for the Suns, seemingly showing his age. As far as they’re concerned, he’s still capable of making at 33 as much of the on- and off-court impact that he did at 28, when he last played for them.

Effusive compliments

Facing members of the media on the eve of the Lakers’ tiff against the Hornets, LeBron James was asked the inevitable queries about how he felt his career stacked up vis-a-vis that of host franchise owner Michael Jordan. Needless to say, he was effusive in his praise of the all-time great, whom he considered his childhood idol and whose trajectory he continues to follow. Growing up under challenging circumstances, he said, His Airness served as one of his few inspirations. Which, no doubt, was why he wound up hitting the ground running in yesterday’s match; he sought approbation from the single most important spectator apart from the record 19,461 on hand at the Spectrum Center.

Hero-ball

Kyrie Irving surveyed the situation close to the centercourt logo of the Capital One Arena. With 22 ticks left in a tied game, the ball was in his hands anew. All and sundry, including the 20,409 fans on the edge of seats, figured they knew what he would do: milk the clock a bit more to add to the eight seconds already spent on the Celtics’ potentially final possession and then make a play. The formation indicated a drive, with three on the strong side and another in the corner. And, as for most of the contest, John Wall was on his case, but sagging just below the three-point line to best cover for the likely run to the basket.

Wade’s star shines

There was a time when Dwyane Wade could not be stopped, when defenses bent precisely to contain him wound up being veritable instruments to his greatness. Just ask the Mavericks, who, in 1996, finished first in the regular season, breezed through to the Finals, took a two-games-to-none lead, and then finished bridesmaids. It wasn’t because Heat head coach Pat Riley suddenly found a complex solution off a Eureka moment. On the contrary, it was because of a keen understanding that the only one that could, and would, work involved handing the entire offense to the All-Star guard.

Internal turmoil

For a while yesterday, it looked as if the Bulls were on their way to victory. Such an outcome would have been remarkable, representing a turnaround from a weekend that saw them absorb an all-time-downer 56-point setback and thereafter come close to experiencing a mutiny. Unfortunately, the surge didn’t last; the 11-point lead they built through the first half turned into a seven-point disadvantage by the time the third quarter ended. And considering their swoon, the payoff period became a veritable cakewalk for the visiting Kings.

Laker James strives

LeBron James is a great many things, and among those great many things, he can also be an egotist, a blowhard, a whiner, and a fool. Yet, he continues to lord the National Basketball Association precisely because those are the worst that can be said of him. In two and a half weeks, he will turn 34, an age where countless other superstars before him have been compelled to greet with a rocking chair in the horizon. In his case, it’s simply a number that reinforces his status as the most singular presence in the sport’s highest echelon.

Struggling Rockets

The Rockets lost by three points in their latest match, coincidentally the same small margin by which they also absorbed their 14th setback last season. That said, the difference between their current campaign and that of their immediate past is vast, and not simply because it would take them another four months to the day before reaching the negative number. The quality of the opposition is telling; whereas they succumbed to the overachieving but still wanting Mavericks yesterday, it was against the East-leading Raptors that they suffered the same fate the last time around.

Lowry’s job

Kyle Lowry didn’t have a good game yesterday. It wasn’t even anywhere near adequate. In 33 minutes on the court, he posted a mere seven points on two-of-eight shooting from the field. He’s the National Basketball Association leader in assists, but he wound up with just four, the same number of turnovers to his name. For all the negatives, however, it’s doubtful whether he would want a do-over; after all, the Raptors won, and against the highly regarded Sixers to boot. And, if nothing else, he was his usual solid self on defense, coming up with three steals en route to a starter-best plus-five rating.

Diehard insider

Kobe Bryant was his usual ebullient self at the Lakers’ All-Access event last Monday. The much-anticipated annual program, hosted by the franchise for sponsors and longtime fans, featured a tour of the Staples Center’s innards, the locker rooms included, but his talk was, by far, the highlight of the day. And, needless to say, he bled purple and gold to the delight of his captive and captivated audience. He spoke of roses and rainbows, cognizant of the change in outlook following the arrival of All-World LeBron James, and noted that “we’ll be champions before you know it.”

Mixed signals

Fred Hoiberg was doomed to fail from the start. It certainly didn’t help that he latched on to the Bulls’ head coaching position under the weight of great expectations. The previous occupant of the hot seat was no less than the highly regarded Tom Thibodeau, and president of hoops operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Heard, who handpicked him for the job, expected him to do better. They plucked him from Iowa State, impressed with the success of his pace-and-space system and figured he could make it work for the red and white.

Wade delivers

It was a situation with which Dwyane Wade had extremely familiarity. With the game tied and the Heat gaining possession of the ball for one final play, he proceeded to dribble to the frontcourt and organize the offense. Isolated against the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, he made his move with six ticks left on the clock, seeming to head to a screen set by Kelly Olynyk, only to move away with a deft crossover that gave him an open lane. There was one problem; Rudy Gobert, arguably the National Basketball Association’s premier rim protector, lay in wait. Still, he didn’t hesitate; confident he could again do what he did a minute and a half earlier, he drove straight to the rim.

Getting better

Enes Kanter has never been known for his defense. In fact, any mention of him regarding his work on the aforesaid end of the court would invariably concern his glaring lack thereof. Still, let it not be said he isn’t trying; he is, hard, and to the point where, over the last two years, advanced metrics have painted him to be a wash at the slot. No doubt, it’s a reflection of his increased importance to the Knicks. Whereas he used to be counted on as an offensive spark plus during his days with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he’s now required to start games.

Upsets

If there’s anything the National Basketball Association has been of late, it’s unpredictable. Games which are supposed to lean heavily one way wind up in the opposite direction. Teams otherwise in the fringes are making significant strides. And league standings look, well, more scrambled than friendly neighborhood fantasy affairs. Even the top-heavy Warriors, defending titleholders boasting of historically outstanding numbers in recent memory, have faltered out of the gate. Nothing is etched in stone. Everything is open to question.

Fruitful season

To contend that Tiger Woods has had a fruitful season would be an understatement. True, he was next to atrocious in his immediate past performances; he laid an egg at the Ryder Cup and failed to tame both Phil Mickelson and softened-up Shadow Creek in a made-for-television affair. On the other hand, he did wear himself thin heading into his unlikely triumph at the Tour Championship. And were his 80th PGA Tour triumph his only achievement for 2018, the year would still be deemed a resounding success. As things turned out, he contended in, among other tournaments, two major championships and managed to move up a whopping 655 spots to 13th in world rankings.

Beating elites

Have the Washington Wizards turned the corner? It’s a fair question in light of their gains of late, with the small sample size offset by the quality of the opposition. Yesterday, they managed to overcome their biggest challenge yet; there can be no discounting their gritty homestand against the vaunted Rockets, never mind that it took them an extra period to do so. The bottom line: They got the job done, just as they did versus the West-leading Los Angeles Clippers last week.

Roller-coaster ride

Patterns aren’t easy to spot when it comes to the Los Angeles Lakers. For all their seeming success with LeBron James headlining their cause relative to their evidently rudderless campaign last season, they remain very much a work in progress. They’re capable of putting up points as quickly as of giving them up -- buoyed by bursts of inspiration that enable them to forge ahead, and then deflated by boneheaded plays that have them backpedaling. They perform to potential, until, that is, their Hyde side takes over for all the wrong reasons.

Pride

When J.R. Smith opted to make public his spat with the Cavaliers, he took pains to note that he no longer believed the franchise to be interested in winning. He struggled with management’s decision to cut his playing time in favor of a youth movement, and he sought -- and received -- permission to stay away from the team while options were being explored in regard to his employment. The target was to find new digs for him and, in the process, formalize the divorce.

James feasted in Q

Yesterday proved to be a successful homecoming for LeBron James. Returning to the Q for the first time since losing in Game Four of the 2018 Finals last June, he responded to the warm reception with a solid 32, 14, and seven line in 36 minutes of play. Most importantly, he led the Lakers to victory, an outcome that remained in doubt until the final buzzer. Had they lost to the Cavaliers, who sported the worst record in the National Basketball Association heading into the match, he would have rightly deemed his visit far from a success.

Wizards woes

Such was the state of turmoil within the Washington Wizards that only 14,499 fans bothered to show up at the Capital One Arena last night. It wasn’t simply that they had lost their last two contests, and, up against the surging Los Angeles Clippers, looked ready to claim their 12th in 17 since the start of the season. It was why: Their last practice session had players barking at each other and head coach Scott Brooks, a reflection of the disarray that had hitherto marked their gross underachievement.

Reliable James

Unless you lived under a rock in recent memory, you couldn’t have missed LeBron James’ outstanding showing in two of the Los Angeles Lakers’ three most recent matches. Last week, he put up an eye-popping 44 (on 13-of-19 shooting) and finished an assist shy of a triple-double in an emphatic victory against the conference-leading Trailblazers. The other day, he crossed the half-century mark en route to his first triumph against the Heat since he left them in 2014. Both were fine examples of his transcendent play, and, certainly, proof that, even at 34, he remains capable of posting significant numbers.

Disrupted Warriors

There’s no doubt about it now. These Warriors are broken. Outwardly, they’re exhibiting all the signs of togetherness that marked their championship runs in three of the last four seasons. They have no choice but to, of course, if only to try to convince others -- and, most importantly, themselves -- that they’ve moved on from their very public infighting. There was the show of friendship between central figures Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. There were the on-record pronouncements of head coach Steve Kerr, fellow All-Star Steph Curry, and even owner Joe Lacob indicating the tiff was already in the past. Yesterday’s setback to the Spurs, along with the two others right before it, prove otherwise, however.

Bad timing

There’s only one reason Carmelo Anthony doesn’t have a team right now. It’s timing. He’s bad at it, and, sometimes, he has only himself to blame. After all, his talent isn’t a question; for all his deficiencies, he remains a gifted scorer who figures to be an asset in the midst of the National Basketball Association’s historic offensive explosion. Unfortunately, he has failed to read his options well, with his judgments clouded as much by competitiveness as by pride.

Coach of the Year

Yesterday was a veritable roller-coaster ride for Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey. As expected, his first visit to the Scotiabank Arena since he was booted out of Toronto Raptors territory produced mixed emotions. For five years, The North was his home, and he led it -- and, just as crucially, its charges -- to improvements season after season. For all the strides he made, however, he couldn’t solve the LeBron James puzzle in the playoffs, where the triumphs truly counted, and the perceived ceiling under this watch sent him packing.

Infighting

Even from the outside looking in, this much is clear: The Warriors‘ decision to suspend Green was all about Kevin Durant’s impending free agency. Sure, the sight of two All-Stars bickering in front of 19,068 fans at the Staples Center and on live broadcast made for terrible optics, especially for the defending champions. And, sure, the subsequent loss and spillover of the dispute to the locker room compounded the situation and enabled the bad blood to fester. On the other hand, it was nothing they hadn’t already seen from two strong personalities. The only difference was the timing.

Sixers gamble

Nope, Jimmy Butler was not on the roster for the Sixers’ visit to the American Airlines Arena yesterday. Even as the deal sending the four-time All-Star their way had already been approved by the National Basketball Association, a number of legitimate reasons prevented him from suiting up in their match against the Heat. Not coincidentally, the latter had also tried to pry him away from the Timberwolves, but sheer timing found him headed to the City of Brotherly Love instead of South Beach.

On the way out?

Has Carmelo Anthony played his last game as a Rocket? That’s the question on everybody’s minds following a tumultuous weekend in which he found himself in the crosshairs of critics and fans alike. If so, it will signify a new low for the 10-time All-Star. After posting his worst numbers since being chosen third overall in the 2003 draft, he agreed to be traded to the lowly Hawks and then waived in a classic “one step back, two steps forward” move. He then joined the Houston Rockets for their 2018-19 campaign in an bid to ride a wave that hitherto had them two quarters away from a Finals stint. Instead, they regressed, and how, and fingers are being pointed in his direction.