The stars came out on Saturday night.
LeBron James was back for the Heat, Kevin Durant was draining another game-winning jumper and Blake Griffin was posterizing Ersan Ilyasova.
And down in Atlanta, Josh Smith almost did something that no NBA player has done in more than six years. But more on that later.
James sat out Thursday’s triple-overtime win at Atlanta with a sprained ankle, joining Dwyane Wade in the thousand-dollar suit club. While Wade remained sidelined Saturday in New Jersey, James let everyone know right away he was back. Matched up against DeShawn Stevenson – who got some of the credit for James’ woes in last year’s NBA Finals – James unleashed a full frontal assault on the Nets.
From Jake Appelman of the New York Times: “James hit a face-up jumper over Stevenson to put the Heat ahead, 10-0, three minutes into the game as the Nets’ first-quarter offense failed them yet again. James, who went 7 of 7 from the field and 8 of 9 from the free-throw line to score 22 first-quarter points, put on a show for a capacity crowd that booed him at the beginning of the game but later cheered. Defending James, Stevenson picked up two fouls in 65 seconds late in the first quarter and walked off the court with his head down. A ferocious dunk and a step-back jumper on the quarter’s final possession capped James’s 12 stellar minutes.”
Is it too early to start the MVP discussion? The Heat are a league-best 8-1, and James has scored less than 26 points once this season. (He had 16 vs. Charlotte, when he played just 28 minutes in a 39-point win.) In addition to leading the NBA in scoring, he has had at least five assists and at least six rebounds in every game.
“He cares about winning more than people like to give him credit for, and that’s something I think I’ve been pleasantly surprised by,” teammate Shane Battier told the Times.
If we are having the MVP discussion, it has to include Durant, who is fifth in scoring and first in game-winning shots. In the season’s opening week, he did in Dallas with a ridiculous 28-footer at the buzzer. On Saturday at Houston, he had more time and less distance, draining the go-ahead 19-footer with 22 seconds to play.
Darnell Mayberry in the Daily Oklahoman explains that Durant doesn’t care if he misses the big shot: “When Durant delivered, he did so despite having missed 15 of 24 shots prior to his final field goal. But the reigning two-time scoring champ said he adopted his new attitude from former NBA forward Robert Horry, who was known for making clutch baskets. Previously, Durant said he worried too much about coming up big late. “I wanted to be that guy to make big shots,” Durant said. “I made a few. But I really wasn’t as successful as I wanted to be. I think I cared a little bit too much. Now, I’m just letting it play out. Whatever happens, happens; still be confident in myself that I can make those shots.”
Not all the news was good for the Thunder, who saw backup point guard Eric Maynor carried off the court in the fourth quarter with a knee injury that looked serious. Next man up is rookie Reggie Jackson.
On the open market are Acie Law, Marcus Banks, Antonio Daniels and – of course – Gilbert Arenas. Once Minnesota’s J.J. Barea and Houston’s Kyle Lowry are healthy, Luke Ridnour and Jonny Flynn may be available in trades.
Griffin could become a darkhorse in the MVP discussion if the Clippers continue to play well. He is sixth in scoring, and LA won its third straight game Saturday, holding off the road-weary Milwaukee Bucks to maintain first place in the Pacific Division, ahead of the rival Lakers.
Griffin still doesn’t have much range outside 12 feet and doesn’t make free throws with any regularity, so his ceiling is scary. But not as scary as a couple of dunks he laid on the Bucks in the third quarter that had Ralph Lawler exclaiming, “Oh me, oh my!”
First, Griffin used a spin move to split two defenders for a hammer jam. Then he soared for an alley-oop from Chris Paul that had him swinging from the rim. He saved the best for last, going through Ilyasova as if he weren’t there.
Let’s get to Smith and the Hawks, who held up pretty well over 5 1/2 games in six nights.
This was Atlanta’s week: Convincing win at Miami on Monday, two-point loss at Chicago on Tuesday, off Wednesday, triple-OT loss vs. Miami on Thursday, OT win at Charlotte on Friday, convincing win vs. Chicago on Saturday.
You couldn’t tell which team was off Friday and which team was playing for the third time in three nights, according to Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune: “Turns out Thibodeau was right when he said before the game that his team should not assume the Hawks would be tired, saying: “In the NBA, you can find an excuse every night.” The Bulls had no excuse for allowing a season-high 109 points and allowing the Hawks to make 16 steals, block eight shots — six by Josh Smith — and dish out 32 assists. “I thought we just took it to them,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said.
Smith had 25 points, five rebounds, five assists, six blocks and four steals, just missing a “five by five” – five or more in each of the five major individual stats. The only active players who have one are Marcus Camby and Jamaal Tinsley, and no one’s done it since Andrei Kirilenko on Jan. 3, 2006.
The Hawks were the fifth team this season to play three games in three nights. Those teams are 5-0 in the third game. Next up is the Thunder, who host San Antonio tonight.
- The Sixers pummeled the Raptors, 97-62. Six teams boast better win-loss records than Philadelphia’s 5-2 mark, but none of them are anywhere near the Sixers’ league-leading point differential of 15.3, which the sabermetricians will tell you is a huge indicator of a good team.
- One of the teams with a better record than the Sixers is the Pacers, who showed no letdown from Friday’s win in Boston with a home rout of Charlotte to improve to 6-2.
- The Spurs improved to 3-0 without Manu Ginobili with a 121-117 shootout win over the Nuggets as Danny Green scored a career-high 24 points. Prior to Saturday, Green had scored 119 points in 35 NBA games. And there was no truth to the rumor that Doug Moe coached both teams.
- The Knicks moved rookie Iman Shumpert into the starting lineup and won again at Detroit. Shumpert had 11 points in 28 minutes. Toney Douglas, the man he replaced, had the donut in six minutes off the bench.
- Despite Al-Farouq Aminu’s game highs of 15 points and 12 rebounds, the Hornets managed to lose their sixth straight game, falling 96-81 at Dallas. They’ve broken 90 points once during the slide. However, here’s some good news: They may have a buyer.
- The Jazz got their first road win of the season at Golden State, which has lost five in a row.