A month from now when we’re forced to endure an Indiana Pacers or Atlanta Hawks playoff game and we’re looking back fondly on what has been smorgasbord of a regular season, we shall long for nights like the one we had Wednesday.
Heat-Thunder. Lakers-Clippers. Spurs-Celtics. And perhaps best of all, because I am biased here by virtue of touting this one and watching the thrilling finish from the edge of my office chair, Suns-Jazz.
Great game in Miami, won by the Heat as they extended their home winning streak to 16 games with a 98-93 victory over the team with the best record in the West. Great game at Staples, with Kobe Bryant delivering in the clutch with a jumper over Randy Foye for a four-point lead with 26 seconds left (on the day when I endured endless grief for having the temerity to include Bryant among the Top 5 MVP candidate, incurring the wrath of Kobe-haters and Hollinger disciples on Twitter). Great game at the Gahden, too, with the Celtics getting the ball into the hands of Paul Pierce for the final shot, only to see it rim out when Pierce has to take more of a fadeaway than he would have preferred due to the imposing defensive presence of Tim Duncan.
And then there was the game in Salt Lake City, perhaps the most intense one of the night because of the stakes involved. And when it came down to a tie game with 10 seconds remaining, Steve Nash threaded his way though two defenders and pulled up for a foul line floater that fluttered right through the net to give the Suns a 107-105 road victory that moved them a half-game ahead of the Jazz and within a game of eighth-place Denver in the Western Conference playoff race.
I tend to alternately curse this season and embrace it, the sheer number of games crowded into so few nights making for a dizzying experience from day to day. Do you realize it was a mere 2 weeks ago that Vinny Del Negro appeared headed for the scrap heap and the Clippers appeared to be in a freefall?
So just imagine where we’ll be in another two weeks, when we still have a week of games ahead of us to determine the playoff seedings and the playoff-eligible teams.
This April rocks, and last night was one of the best assortment of treats any of us may witness all year — as I discussed on the Armando and Perk show in Miami this morning, an interview in which I was asked for my “gun to the head” MVP pick. Click to hear it.
So let’s get right onto our morning trek around the Web to see what the nation’s best writers had to say about the events that transpired:
From Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com: “It was a game that quenched the appetite for the competitors and fans alike. LeBron James and Kevin Durant glaring in each other’s eyes and impressing, outdoing and challenging each other for entire quarters on end. Hard fouls and rough language. Technicals and flagrants. Pressure-stuffed moments in the final minute. It left everyone wanting more, especially the players themselves as the beginning roots of a rivalry began to sprout. All that’s needed is a meeting in the playoffs. For that, all will have to wait and see. For the regular season, the Heat evened the series at 1-1 with a high-energy 98-93 win. It was their 17th straight home victory, but no win this season, in fact no game, has had quite the same intensity. “This was a competitive warrior game where our guys can go in the locker room and look each other in the eyes,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra as part of an adrenaline-fueled rant after the game in which he started referring to imagined enemies and looked as if he were ready to stand and beat his chest at one point. “Our guys showed up with a real warrior-tough mentality.” The warrior references and his players’ postgame chest-bowing — a perfect yin to the Thunder’s yang of bitterness at the outcome — about how they aren’t to be pushed could be excused to a degree. It just wasn’t your average Wednesday at the office. It was channeled through James and Durant, whose individual battle was as entertaining as it was impressive. James steal, Durant block, James pull-up jumper, Durant dunk, James drive and foul, Durant laser-beam 3-pointer, James steal again. This is how it was for swaths of the game, the audience drinking it in as the two Most Valuable Player candidates slugged it out. What it means for the actual award was secondary; that was not in their minds at all. It was the type of back-and-forth fans yearn for in these sorts of games.”
From Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times: “During a Clippers timeout, Bryant, who also had five rebounds and six assists, floated to the Lakers’ bench with both arms extended like an airplane landing. The most significant thing about this game is that the Lakers (35-20) now own the tiebreaker over the Clippers (32-22). So if the two teams end the regular season with the same record, the Lakers would be the higher-seeded team in the playoffs. “We have to just keep playing,” said Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro, whose team is fourth in the Western Conference, one spot behind the Lakers. “It’s not just about the Lakers. It’s about Memphis and Dallas and Denver. It’s everybody. Everything is so tight in the West. We just have to play.” Caron Butler had a season-high 28 points and Chris Paul had 22 points and 16 assists for the Clippers. But Paul had a big turnover with the Clippers down, 105-104, when Metta World Peace stole the ball from him.
Bynum, who played after missing the previous game because of a sprained left ankle, made one of two free throws for a 106-104 Lakers lead with 1:55 left. That left the door open for the Clippers, but they never got any closer. There’s been a definite edginess to the teams’ games this season, and this one was no exception.”
From Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News: “The Spurs had been the most efficient offensive team in basketball. They averaged an NBA-best 107 points per game, and for good measure, piled up a season-high 125 points Tuesday in Cleveland to begin April. Their coach calls the scoring explosion a necessary adjustment for a team he rates no better than above-average on defense. It also had made them the league’s hottest team of late with eight straight wins. When the offensive magic disappeared in the second half at TD Garden against the Celtics, winners of five in a row before Wednesday’s showdown, it took some old-fashioned defensive magic to secure a ninth consecutive win — an 87-86 victory in the Spurs’ lowest scoring game in more than three months. But a win is a win. This one, coupled with the Thunder’s close loss in Miami on Wednesday, puts the Spurs only one game out of first place in the Western Conference.Who better to demonstrate the Spurs’ old way than Tim Duncan, whose challenge of an 18-foot jumper by Boston’s Paul Pierce forced an awkward miss that helped the Spurs hold on? Trailing by a point with 7.9 seconds left, the Celtics called a pair of 20-second timeouts to set up a play for Pierce. With a foul to give before Boston would be in the bonus, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had instructed his players to foul Pierce before he could get off a shot. Told to switch on every screen, Duncan ended up defending Pierce after he took a pass from Rajon Rondo. “I knew we had a foul to give, but once he turned that corner and got his shoulders squared to the basket, I wasn’t going to do it,” Duncan said. “Once he turned the corner and kind of squared his shoulder, when you reach out to grab somebody these days, they’re programmed to look like they’re shooting. I didn’t want to do it at that point.” Instead, Duncan stretched his 6-foot-11 frame and made Pierce shoot a high-arching shot that was badly off line.”
From Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic: “The Mailman came to the Energy Solutions Arena visiting locker room to deliver a message late Wednesday night. “That was a big one right there,” Hall of Famer Karl Malone told future Hall of Famer Steve Nash of the Suns’ 107-105 victory over Utah. “Staying alive,” the MVP from Phoenix told the MVP from Utah. “That was cold,” Malone told Nash, referring to how “Two-Time” delivered twice in the clutch. Nash made two shots in the final 14 seconds for a victory that thrust the Suns (28-26) past the Jazz (28-27) into ninth place in the Western Conference and within a game of seventh-place co-habitants Denver and Houston. The Suns play Friday night at Denver. … (Paul) Millsap’s drive and feed for Al Jefferson’s layup tied the score at 105 with 9.4 seconds to go. The Suns’ ensuing play was to set up for (Channing) Frye or Michael Redd, but Redd was doubled and pushed a weak bounce pass in the area of Nash and Frye at the 3-point line. Nash grabbed it and stepped between Millsap and Gordon Hayward to make a 17-foot leaner with 1.7 seconds to go. “I knew we didn’t have a ton of time, but I didn’t have to rush,” Nash said. “I saw (Marcin) Gortat open under the basket, but I didn’t want to mess around with it.”
Those were the four best games, and another good one is on tap tonight: Celtics-Bulls.
It is going to be an enjoyable ride from now until the playoffs, so roll down the windows, enjoy the fresh breeze and fasten your seatbelts.
In other games Wednesday night:
- We’ve warned you that the Nuggets road-heavy late-season schedule would be a difficulty, and that dynamic manifested itself in New Orleans against the West’s worst team. Eric Gordon scored 15 points in his first action in three months, making two free throws in the final seconds to lift the Hornets to a 94-92 victory. Jason Smith had a steal on the final play to prevent Denver from getting off one final shot for the win or tie. Denver tied it at 92 on Al Harrington‘s 3 from the corner with 10 seconds left, only to see Gordon bait Arron Afflalo into a foul on an up-fake near the lane with 2 seconds left.
- Dallas (31-24, 6th in West) used a 21-4 run over a 7-minute span of the fourth quarter to defeat the Grizzlies (30-23, 5th in West), who were playing for the third straight night and shot just 1-for-12 in that stretch. “We ran out of gas,” Mike Conley said.
- Monta Ellis scored 16 of his 30 points in the final 5 minutes, helping the Milwaukee Bucks defeat Cleveland 107-98 victory. Beginning with a jumper at the 4:32 mark, Ellis hit the Bucks’ last eight shots of the game. Milwaukee have won four of their past five to close within a game of New York for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks were off Wednesday.
- The 76ers stuck up the joint in the fourth quarter at home, scoring a mere 7 points in the final 12 minutes of a 99-78 loss to the Toronto Raptors. It was Philadelphia’s eighth loss in the last 12 games. The Sixers end the season with a stretch of nine road games over the final 11 that could jeopardize a playoff spot.
- The schedule-maker bestows a gift on someone every time the Charlotte Bobcats play, and the Atlanta Hawks were the beneficiaries Wednesday night. Josh Smith scored 24 points, Jeff Teague added 17 and the Hawks rested their starters in the fourth quarter of a 120-93 romp. Atlanta outscored Charlotte 60-36 in the paint, 36-14 on fast breaks.
- Indiana’s starters shot 71 percent Wednesday and completed a season sweep of Washington with a 109-96 victory, maintaining the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers shot a season-high 58 percent as a team, an Danny Granger led the way with 20 points.
- David Lee had 31 points and eight rebounds, and Charles Jenkins scored seven of Golden State’s final nine points to help the Warriors rally from a 20-point deficit to top the reeling Timberwolves 97-94. Minnesota has lost four in a row and five of six to fall out of playoff contention.
- Portland rallied with a 17-3 run after falling behind in the fourth quarter to beat New Jersey 101-88. LaMarcus Aldridge had 24 points and nine rebounds for the Blazers, who led by as many as 16 points in the third quarter before a late surge put New Jersey in front in the fourth.