Remember the old NBA slogan “I love this game!?” (It pre-dates “Where Amazing Happens”).
If you are in your early 20s, you may not. But that’s OK. Lots of people in their early 20s seem to believe the world began 10 years ago, and have no recollection of crappy cell phone reception, dial-up Internet or the fax machine.
But those who are a bit older certainly remember that ad campaign, and Sunday was one of those days when love for the game felt as fresh as the first warm day of early spring.
What was not to like?
_ Bulls vs. Heat in the type of finish everyone wanted to see, who would come through in the clutch and who would fail — and how they would feel about it afterward. And once again, there were watery eyes in Miami.
_ Wily old Spurs coach Gregg Popovich turning to his subs down 18 late in the third quarter, and sticking with them for the remaining 20 minutes — all of the fourth quarter and overtime — in a back-and-forth game that wasn’t decided until Danny Green’s long 3-poiner off an inbounds play was just a little wide left.
_ The Cleveland Cavaliers, one year removed from being in the midst of an NBA-record 26-game losing streak, scoring the final 12 points led by the hustle of Anderson Varejao and the determination of rookie Kyrie Irving, holding Boston scoreless over the final 4:24 of a one-point victory on the Celtics’ parquet floor.
_ The Lakers finally getting their bearings and finally scoring 100 points after a 13-game drought in a victory over the Timberwolves that quieted a rabid crowd that has fallen head over heels for Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.
_ The Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets battling into the final seconds, Chauncey Billups being the hero with six 3-pointers and a doing nice job of acting to draw a crucial offensive foul against Nene as his former team — the one that dealt him to New York last season along with Carmelo Anthony — lost for only the sixth time all season.
It was a day to have a comfortable ottoman and a quick trigger on the remote control, the NBA providing a riveting, entertaining diversion to those whose Sundays have been filled with football for the prior five months.
There was no clear winner for best game of the day/night, because there were just so many of them.
But clearly the one with the most cache was Bulls-Heat in Miami, a game in which we learned whether LeBron James had shaken off his fourth-quarter jitters (he hasn’t) and whether Derrick Rose could come through in the clutch and deliver a measure of revenge against the opponent who ended his MVP season last June (he didn’t).
From Chris Perkins of SheridanHoops.com: “In one locker room, Chicago’s Derrick Rose almost wept. The NBA’s reigning MVP had tears in his eyes. In the other, fancier home locker room, Miami’s LeBron James smiled and joked about making the 40-minute bike ride home on a rainy night in South Florida. It turns out James rode his bicycle to AmericanAirlines Arena before the game. “I do it all the time,” James said. Life in the NBA can be cruel and funny sometimes. The Heat’s 97-93 victory over the Bulls on Sunday was a prime example; Rose and James, two of the NBA’s biggest stars, played the leading roles — and flubbed their lines in the big show. … Rose uncharacteristically missed a pair of free throws with 22.7 seconds left and the Bulls trailing, 94-93. Understand something: Rose was 26-for-26 on fourth-quarter free throws heading into the game. He was also on a second-half tear, having scored 21 points, many by getting to the rim after carving up Miami’s defense in typical Rose fashion. Rose was on an even bigger free throw roll. He was a perfect 12-for-12 when he stepped to the line with the game in the balance and inexplicably bricked both shots. “Give me one of those,” Rose lamented. “I missed both of those (expletive). Come on.” James pulled a similar choke job on the line, missing a pair of free throws with 17.6 seconds left and the Heat clinging to that same 94-93 lead. He later called himself out on Twitter, saying in in part, “C’mon #6 make your d*mn free-throws!!” But James was able to make up for his blunder soon after his second errant free throw caromed off the rim. His second missed free throw resulted in a Bosh rebound. But an inadvertent whistle made it a jump ball. In that situation any player on the court can jump, and James, who defended everyone from Rose to center Omer Asik during the course of the game, insisted he handle the job. He did, and he won the jump against Taj Gibson. And in the end. James was smiling and Rose was dejected. That, too, makes it similar to last year’s conference finals, which saw the Heat win in five games after dropping Game 1.”
The Bulls-Heat game ended in time for everyone to grab a quick dinner before switching over to the late games, and what was transpiring on ESPN was surreal.
The Dallas Mavericks had welcomed back Dirk Nowitzki from a week of rest and were cruising past San Antonio when Pop seemingly threw in the towel, removing Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Richard Jefferson with the Spurs railing 67-51 late in the third quarter. Pity the gamblers who had the under (186) and were already counting their winnings. It was far from over. The Spurs’ reserves scored their team’s next 51 points, and Danny Green’s buzzer-beater at the end of regulation was disallowed upon review — the ball still touching the tips of his fingers as the clock hit 0:00.
From Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: “Even before Green pulled a Derek Fisher — swishing a turnaround jumper that appeared to give the Spurs a breathtaking buzzer-beating victory over Dallas — he had mapped his escape from the American Airlines Center. “I was going to run out of the gym, just like Derek did,” said Green. “I said, ‘Guys, let’s go. Let’s get the heck out of here.’ “Nobody wanted to follow my lead.” That was a stark contrast to what had happened for the previous quarter-plus, when the Spurs rode their young bench players to the brink of an improbable comeback victory against the defending NBA champs before falling in overtime 101-100. Officials reviewed, then disallowed Green’s shot, launched with 0.5 seconds left — more time than Fisher had for his 0.4 dagger for the L.A. Lakers in the 2004 playoffs. The game went to OT, where Dallas — ahead by 18 points in the third — dodged more bullets.”
In Boston, they were getting ready to do the “Gino” with 4:24 remaining in the game after Brandon Bass’s free throw gave the resurgent home team an 11-point lead. Little did everyone know, the Celtics were about to be as dead as disco.
From Tom Reed of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer: “Kyrie Irving stood patiently dribbling the basketball as the seconds ticked down, the Celtics’ crowd chanted “De-fense” and the moment grew ripe with opportunity. The 19-year-old rookie had been in a similar spot a month earlier in Indiana, the ball in his hands, a victory within reach, only to see his left-handed layup rim out. But the bad memory never entered his mind, Irving said, as he waited for a high screen from teammate Anderson Varejao and an open look at the basket. Beneath the Celtics’ 17 championship banners and in front of his father, Drederick, who sat at courtside, Irving drove the lane, spun between two defenders and grabbed a piece of Cavaliers lore. His spectacular left-handed layup with 2.6 seconds remaining capped an improbable comeback and delivered an 88-87 win before a stunned sellout crowd of 18,624 fans. As the ball went through the cylinder and the Celtics called timeout, Irving pointed to his dad, a former player who had attended Boston University. It was a remarkable family moment and a pretty nice one for all Cavaliers fans. They witnessed their shorthanded team, playing without two injured guards, score the game’s final 12 points in one of the nation’s basketball meccas. The celebration began in earnest seconds later as the jumper by Paul Pierce, who had one of Varejao’s long arms in his face, missed the mark.”
At about the same time, the Lakers were finally hitting the century mark for the first time since Jan. 3 — although they had let an 18-point lead turn into a one-point deficit along the way.
At the end, it was Kobe time.
From Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press: “It was Bryant who slammed the door, slithering through the holes in Minnesota’s zone to hit two clutch jumpers to seal the win. “I don’t know if he’s the best one or not, but in the last quarter, for sure,” said Wolves rookie point guard Ricky Rubio, who had eight assists but just five points on 2-for-13 shooting. “Maybe during 48 minutes, there are players like LeBron (James) and Derrick Rose who can be in that top position, but at the end of the game, he’s the best.” Kevin Love had 33 points and 13 rebounds and Michael Beasley added 18 points and 12 boards for the Wolves, who lost to the Lakers for the 16th straight time. The Wolves dominated many of the statistics, including offensive rebounds (24-7), turnovers (12-4), second-chance points (32-10) and fast-break points (16-0). But they shot just 38 percent and couldn’t find an answer for Bryant (35 points), who made 14 of 29 shots and 5 of 9 3-pointers.
All of Sunday’s games were over by that point, except for Nuggets-Clippers. And it was worth sticking around for dessert, which was as sinfully delicious as chocolate lava cake.
From Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post: “In his first game back since being traded, (Chauncey) Billups was every bit Mr. Big Shot as he and Chris Paul took over in the fourth quarter to outlast the Nuggets 109-105 at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets, who had been riding high on a six-game winning streak, saw that snapped in excruciating fashion. Down the stretch they simply didn’t make enough plays to get the job done. The Nuggets were outscored 15-6 to end the game. … A Nene bucket gave the Nuggets a 99-94 lead before the Clippers answered with five straight points, punctuated by a Billups 3-pointer with 3:01 left to tie it up. Billups then put the Clippers ahead 102-99 with a three-point play. Paul rolled in a free-throw line jumper with 1:26 and L.A. led 104-101. But two Nene buckets — both dunks — got the Nuggets in front 105-104. Two Paul free throws with 35.9 seconds left put the Clippers back on top 106-105. The Nuggets missed a layup on their ensuing possession and fouled DeAndre Jordan after the Clippers came away with the rebound. Jordan made 1-of-2 from the charity stripe with 23.4 seconds to extend L.A.’s lead to 107-105. After a timeout, Nene was called for an offensive foul with 18.1 seconds remaining, which was the biggest blow to the Nuggets’ rally hopes.”
Replays showed Billups intentionally locking arms with Nene and then flopping when the Brazilian tried to yank himself free. The victory moved the Clippers into a tie in the loss column for second place in the Western Conference, where it appears there will be an 11-team race for the eight playoff spots.
Elsewhere in the NBA Sunday:
- The sudden and surprising meltdown of the Orlando Magic (who dropped from 5th to 18th in my latest power rankings) continued with a 21-point loss to the Indiana Pacers. In the past week, Dwight Howard’s team managed just 56 points in a 31-point loss to Boston, lost by 26 to the woeful New Orleans Hornets and by 21 to a Pacers team that they had defeated by 19 just five days earlier.
- Jeff Teague, playing on a sprained ankle, tied a career high with 24 points as the Atlanta Hawks won for the fourth time in five games, 94-72 over the New Orleans Hornets. Willie Green added 16 points and Marvin Williams 14 for Atlanta, which can close its road trip with a 4-1 record by winning in Toronto on Tuesday night. The Hawks (15-6) have the league’s fourth-best record.
- DeMar DeRozan scored 19 of his 27 points in the second half, leading the Toronto Raptors to a 94-73 victory over the New Jersey Nets to finish 3-2 on a five-game road trip.