This year's award for best research paper was shared between "Who is Responsible for a Called Strike" and "Counterpoints: Advanced Defense Metrics for NBA Basketball," the latter of which was detailed extensively on Grantland earlier this week.
Elsewhere, the award for best analytics organization went to the San Antonio Spurs, with Spurs general manager R.C. Buford also collecting a lifetime achievement award for his role in the team's sustained excellence.
Earlier in the day, it was two other NBA general managers, Houston's Daryl Morey and Golden State's Bob Myers, who bantered throughout a panel on sports negotiations that also included sports agent Arn Tellem.
Moderator Deepak Malhotra gave Morey and Myers each a minute near the end of the panel to stump for their respective MVP candidates, James Harden and Stephen Curry.
"I like to bring up that deal whenever I can," he joked, drawing teases from Myers and Malhotra. But the insight into the Rockets' decision to open the war chests was illuminating.
“We basically told [Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander], ‘We should just give [Oklahoma City] everything. Like, literally, every possible thing that isn’t bolted down at the Rockets should be traded,’” Morey said.
Myers was less overt about campaigning for Curry but did point out the Warriors' 4-0 record against the Rockets this season.
When each general manager had finished, Tellem leapt out of his chair.
"Russ Westbrook is better than both of them!" Tellem shouted. "Who would you pay to see?"
Westbrook, of course, is represented by Tellem.
Overheard at Sloan
"We don't want to see data. We want to see representations of the actual phenomena going on in the world." -- Kirk Goldsberry, expounding on his work designing defensive shot charts.
"Oh no, that was last year. They're good now." -- Goldsberry, invoking the Jazz as an example of terrible defense, only to correct himself and substitute in the Lakers.
"I don't really like human beings that much." -- Grantland's Jonah Keri, making a tongue-in-cheek case for robot umpires in baseball.
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Damian Lillard believed the Portland Trail Blazers hadn't been themselves lately.
The evidence was obvious.
Portland, once on Golden State's heels for the best record in the West, staggered into the All-Star break with nine losses over a stretch of 15 games. Then the Blazers stumbled into the stretch run after a full week off with their worst loss of the season in a 92-76 setback in Utah.
"It wasn't the same energy," Lillard said of the recent malaise. "It just didn't feel like us."
A far more familiar feeling returned Friday night, when the Blazers frantically erased a double-figure deficit in the fourth quarter and absorbed a third consecutive triple-double assault from Russell Westbrook to hold off Oklahoma City 115-112 for their most important win of the season.
Then, Lillard went out and notched his highest-scoring game in a month with 29 points.
Then, LaMarcus Aldridge followed with a phenomenal outburst in the fourth quarter, when he neutralized Westbrook's impact and finished with 29 points and 16 rebounds. Role players Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews shot a combined 4-for-19 from the field, but it was the shot in the arm they provided on defense to help slow Westbrook that highlighted their efforts.
Then, newly-acquired swingman Arron Afflalo made some key plays in the final seconds to seal the win.
It had all of the ingredients of the type of basketball the Blazers played at the beginning of the season, when everyone was healthy, happy and contributing to one of the best starts in franchise history. The Blazers rallied from an 11-point deficit in the final eight minutes to improve to 9-2 at home this season in games when they entered the fourth quarter trailing.
Some might see that as flirting with danger. The Blazers see it as resilience.
"It was an important win for how we managed to stick with it, come back, fight through some adversity," Stotts said. "I don't think we necessarily played our best, but we found a way. It'll do us well going forward. Like I said before the game, as much as the implications were as far as the division and tiebreaker, it was as much or more about the 20-something games to go and finding ways to win."
It helps when Lillard is engaged and aggressive. Perhaps Westbrook commanded his full attention in the point guard matchup. With 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, Westbrook became the first player since LeBron James in 2009 to post triple-doubles in three consecutive games. Westbrook received a scare late in the game when he was inadvertently kneed in the head by a teammate and was taken after the game to a Portland-area medical facility for further evaluation.
But the Blazers met -- and ultimately -- exceeded Westbrook's energy and tenacity.
It helps when Aldridge, who had been dealing with injuries to both thumbs, grasped the challenge of getting into the paint and dominating that area on both ends of the court. Aldridge admitted afterward that he spoke up aggressively in timeout huddles to spark his team.
"I don't even remember what anybody else was saying, because I was talking," Aldridge said.
He did far more than talk. His actions spoke volumes during a stretch when he had nine points, five rebounds, two assists and a block in the fourth quarter to ignite the Blazers. At one point, Aldridge completely abandoned his feathery-soft perimeter jumper and repeatedly attacked the lane. It resulted in Portland holding an 18-8 edge in free throw attempts in the fourth quarter.
"I just felt like the game was right there for us to take," Aldridge said. "We never believe that we're out of it. We understand that if we turn up our defense and play to the level we're capable of, anything is possible. Our guys played together. Our confidence is back. It wavered for a minute. But our swagger in the fourth quarter has come back to us. And that's good."
And that was the point Lillard made from the outset. In the West, where teams are bunched together in a thrilling race to secure playoff seeds, the postseason intensity has arrived early in Portland.
"The way that we were there for each other -- the high fives, the emotion from everybody -- I think it's back to what we're accustomed to. That's what we do. We play exciting basketball games and get the crowd into it. And that's what we did," Lillard said.
Companies such as Samsung and Oculus are making it possible for consumers to experience events in revolutionary ways, and Silver believes it could be key to reach billions of global NBA fans who would never have the opportunity to see a game in person.
Could the day come when you purchase a digital courtside seat?
Elsewhere . . .
Shane Battier may have been the MVP of Day 1. The former NBA player spoke on three panels and punctuated his support of advanced analytics in basketball with droll anecdotes from his playing career.
One of his best stories took place during the early 2000s, when he played for Hubie Brown's Memphis Grizzlies. The nascent idea of advanced stats was becoming a popular topic of conversation, so Brown gathered his team together and told them he knew the real secret to winning basketball.
As the staff and players leaned forward, ready to take notes, Brown took to the chalkboard:
"If you do not have good players," Brown wrote, "you will not win."
Later, Battier discussed the motivation superstars add to a team.
"Peer pressure is the most powerful force on a sports team," Battier said. In his experience, he said, players like Steve Nash and Kevin Garnett raise the level of their entire teams just by example.
Overheard at Sloan
“The two keys in fourth-grade girls’ basketball are this: Can you make a layup, and do all of your players show up? Because if all 10 show up, you have to play them equally, but if you can convince two that they’re really sick ... your two best players play three quarters. That’s how you win at fourth-grade girls’ basketball.” -- ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, embarking on a tangential rant about Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive
"Are you worried your shrimp cocktail on the plane is going to be a little bit warmer?" -- Former head coach Mike D'Antoni, on the concerns of travel fatigue on NBA players
"To be honest with you, they're doing great things with therapy. I'm good." D'Antoni in response to a fan question of whether coaching Carmelo Anthony's ball-stopping tendencies gave him "nightmares"
"This is the panel I’m moderating because, as Charles Barkley put it, I couldn’t get girls in high school.” -- ESPN The Magazine writer Pablo Torre, having a little fun with Barkley's recent comments about basketball's stat nerds
Special to ESPN.com
In Ranadive's case, it was coaching a 12-year-old girls' team to a championship game by aggressively deploying a full-court press.
Speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday, ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said in his own coaching, he prefers a different tactic.
"That owner of Sacramento, saying that he won a girls championship with no talent just by pressing? I’m like, are you kidding me?" Van Gundy said. "I coached fourth-grade girls basketball this year. It’s all about the players!”
Van Gundy’s youth-team experience gives him a different perspective on being a successful girls’ team coach: “The two keys in fourth-grade girls’ basketball are this: Can you make a layup, and do all of your players show up? Because if all 10 show up, you have to play them equally, but if you can convince two that they’re really sick ... your two best players play three quarters. That’s how you win at fourth-grade girls’ basketball.”
There was no word on how successful Van Gundy’s girls’ teams have been.
- Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: Kevin Durant and Steven Adams both went through light on-court workouts before Thursday’s game at Phoenix. Durant, who is recovering from a second surgery to his right foot, did some light shooting from various spots, even taking shots from as far out as the 3-point line. Durant, however, did not take jump shots. His feet barely left the court on all his shots. Durant also did a series of calisthenics, including inverted push-ups and a core exercise using resistance ropes. A timetable for Durant’s return to the lineup is still unknown. He is scheduled to be evaluated early next week. ... Adams, meanwhile, joined fellow big men Enes Kanter and Mitch McGary in a workout with coaches. ... Adams has been out since fracturing the fourth metacarpal in his right hand on Feb. 8. He also is scheduled to be re-evaluated early next week.
- Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: A year ago, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic were the ceremonial co-captains of the Suns, but P.J. Tucker and Channing Frye emerged as the team's leaders. Tucker continues to bring the moxie to yell at teammates and display the unbridled effort for a young team to follow, but all of the ideal ingredients for the next Suns leader might be present in Brandon Knight. At 23 years old and one week as a Sun, it would be too soon to turn the franchise over to Knight's leadership, particularly with a restricted free agency status coming in July. But Knight is already showing a willingness to be vocal with teammates that is backed well by his playing ability and his basketball intelligence. "He understands the game, so that's always helpful," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said.
- Diamond Leung of The Oakland Tribune: Steve Kerr had a simple explanation for the Warriors' 110-99 loss at Cleveland. "The best player on the planet from the last five years had a huge night on us," the coach said. LeBron James dominated with 42 points in his first game against the Warriors this season, providing a reminder that he is once again very much a candidate for the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award. James' 15-for-25 shooting performance happened to come on a Thursday night when Stephen Curry, the Warriors' MVP candidate, was in the building. Curry scored 18 points on 5-for-17 shooting, with only four of his points coming in the second half. He also committed four turnovers. "If I'm playing one on one against (James) and you just look at tonight, then I lost obviously," Curry said of the MVP race. "But it's about a body of work. It's about what your team's doing. It's about just being consistent over the course of the season. And that's my job. Tonight just wasn't my best, and it won't be the last bad game of my career, so I'll be all right." ... "I gotta be the MVP for these guys, the 14 guys in this locker room," James said, downplaying that the presence of Curry had something to do with his big game."
- Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: Any celebration over this victory will have to wait until the results are back on Kyrie Irving’s MRI. It’s surprising, if he needs an MRI, that he was even put back in the game in the fourth quarter. The initial in-game injury update indicated Irving shoulder was “bumped” but he was fine. If he’s headed to the Clinic, clearly all is not well. Irving is listed as doubtful for Friday’s game against the Pacers, a team that ended the Cavs’ 12-game winning streak three weeks ago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. This is why the Cavs were searching for another point guard at the trade deadline. It will be curious to see which way Blatt plays this. Common sense would indicate Matthew Dellavedova starts at point guard, but it wouldn’t completely shock me to see Iman Shumpert in the starting rotation. James is the pseudo point guard anyway and Shumpert has also played there in spurts this season. Again, the smart money is on Delly starting, but I don’t think that’s a lock at this point.
- Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: Rick Carlisle and Rajon Rondo are going through the recovery process after their temper flare-up Tuesday led to Rondo’s suspension for Wednesday’s game at Atlanta. It’s a fact of life when you’re a point guard, said Devin Harris, a 10-year veteran. It’s particularly important when it comes to play-calling and what the right mix is for a coach calling the shots and a point guard having the freedom to run the team. He is, after all, an extension of the coach, right? ... At this point, it doesn’t matter if Rondo has any intentions of re-signing with the Mavericks beyond this season. All that matters is right now — and the Mavericks’ position as a legitimate contender with the ability to make serious noise in the playoffs. That still hasn’t changed, by the way. ... With only 22 games left in the regular season, the clock already is ticking. The Mavericks are coming off five games in seven days. They took Thursday as a complete rest day.
- Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald: To think Rondo and Carlisle wouldn’t have problems is to mix two parts hydrogen with one part oxygen and be utterly stunned at the creation of water. The accelerant here was expectation. The Mavericks were hoping Rondo would be the element that could work well with what they already had and legitimize their shot at this season’s championship. But his play had grown inconsistent, and Rondo lost some important fourth-quarter minutes to others. With Dallas down nine to Toronto in the third quarter Tuesday, Carlisle called a play, but Rondo had something else in mind. And while it is generally accepted that, in such split-second situations, NBA teams most often go with the point guard’s call, a boiling point had been reached. And the fact is Rondo comes equipped with a Bunsen burner. His first coach with the Celtics, Doc Rivers, said that these things happen with a number of players and added that Carlisle and Rondo will “figure it out; I really believe that.” It’s all about adapting to one’s environment. This is not to suggest that Rick Carlisle needs to change his life to suit Rajon Rondo’s mood, but he should not have expected anything less than the response he got when he called out someone who’s made a living off small man’s anger.
- Jason Reid of The Washington Post: The Washington Wizards have 24 games remaining in the regular season, and they seem utterly incapable of winning any of them. Their strong start a distant memory, the Wizards are lost, and Coach Randy Wittman appears to be asleep at the wheel. When a team that was on a fast track to joining the Eastern Conference’s elite can’t get anything right for months, the person in charge should come under the microscope. The debate about Wittman’s job performance figures only to intensify after the Wizards flopped again in Wednesday’s 97-77 road loss to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves. ... For the Wizards to get it back together, Wittman must consider a lineup shakeup. Roles need to be redefined. The return of Beal, who is expected back soon, will give Wittman more lineup flexibility. And although tinkering always can be done with X’s and O’s, getting the Wizards’ heads right will be Wittman’s biggest challenge. He has to persuade them to recommit to what worked: playing sound defense, sharing the ball and being tough. He’ll have to rely on his motivational skills. Of course, the players have to expect more from themselves, too. Washington is a veteran team with a roster full of self-starters, though recent weeks have offered little evidence of that.
- Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: George Karl has a certain level of empathy for the Kings after more than a week on the job. The Kings are playing for their third coach this season, and they’re adjusting to different strategies for the second time this season. ... Karl knows he must be patient. But patience shouldn’t be confused with acceptance of how things have been. The Kings need to break habits such as taking contested shots, not passing enough and committing turnovers. They are far from being what Karl wants them to be, but they were good enough to beat one the NBA’s best teams, the Memphis Grizzlies, 102-90 Wednesday night at Sleep Train Arena. Sacramento is 2-1 under Karl, with both victories coming at home. The Kings pleased Karl when they didn’t cave in after the Grizzlies roughed them up with their physical style while taking the lead at the end of the third quarter.
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian: On Wednesday, in a game that was bigger than any Trail Blazers player let on, Matthews was the tipping point in an 111-95 win over San Antonio that cauterized some festering anxiety in Rip City. With 31 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals - and a handful of court burns - Matthews helped stop a two-game losing streak and provided what could turn out to be a game we circle at the end of the season as an important date. Every once in a while during the long and winding NBA season, there comes a game, or a moment, that goes a long way to changing a team's season. Last season, the benchmark date came at the end of March, in Orlando after a loss to the lowly Magic. It was the eighth loss in 11 games for the Blazers and suddenly their cozy playoff standing was not only slipping, it was in jeopardy. In the locker room after that game Matthews stood before the team and gave a spirited and to-the-point speech that it was time to wake up. The Blazers closed the season winning nine of their final 10 games. After the season, LaMarcus Aldridge said of the team's turnaround: "Wes did it. Give all the credit to Wes. His speech." Fast forward to this season, and Wednesday at the Moda Center. In a different way, Matthews once again provided an important wake-up call.
- Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News: Jordan Hill sat on the bench staring at his cell phone and looking fairly downtrodden. Nick Young showed as much stoicism as he sat by his locker. Their demeanor prior to when the Lakers visited the Utah Jazz on Wednesday at EnergySolutions Arena starkly contrasted to how they acted following the Lakers’ overtime win on Sunday over Boston. Then Hill, Nick Young and Carlos Boozer crashed Jeremy Lin’s postgame interview and expressed elation over a rare victory. The footage soon aired on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where Kobe Bryant offered an annoyed and silent reaction. Lakers coach Byron Scott then reported scolding his team about the incident. “Kobe, in particular, made everybody look at it differently,” Young said. “If ESPN said something about it the night it happened or the next day, I understand. To me, they waited until they saw Kobe react to it.” ... "We’ve been doing this the whole season, but I guess it’s a problem now,” Hill said. “It is what it is.” Yet, Young and Hill walked the tight rope between respecting Scott’s criticism and defending their behavior. “He’s right about it,” Hill said about Scott. “But we’re just trying to finish this season out with our heads high.” Young acknowledged he defended himself “a little bit” to Scott.
- Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com: The Timberwolves and nearly 20,000 fans partied like it was 1995 on Wednesday night. The Target Center walls were donned with fresh murals, the crowd exceeded seating capacity, Montell Jordan was the halftime act and 20 years later, a fairy tale story came full circle for a sports city in need of energy. Flashes from the past hovered over Kevin Garnett as a video tribute began: "With the fifth pick in the 1995 draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select..." And for the first time in 588 games, "Wolves" draped across Garnett's chest once again. "It actually felt like my rookie year," Garnett said. "With the energy and anticipation, looking in the crowd, saw my friends and family. Glad my daughters were here to see that. It was a really special time, I can't even put it into words. I thank everybody that came out to show love for the city. I'm happy to be here. I'm hoping we can get some more wins, give the city and everybody something to be excited about." In the 7.5 years without Garnett, the franchise has been starved of success and currently holds the NBA's longest drought without a playoff berth. There won't be a postseason in Minnesota again this year, but fans and moving tributes created a playoff atmosphere for the Timberwolves' 13th win of the season and first with Garnett since 2007.
- Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: The Rockets had lost their previous six and 11 of 12 games against the Clippers when finally, they took a one-point game and played their own greatest hits. The Rockets took off with waves of 3-pointers, a run from their suddenly high-flying bench and enough of James Harden down the stretch to knock off the Clippers, 110-105, their way. “We just wanted to … be able to create our own identity,” Josh Smith said. “That’s playing up and down and playing the way we know how to play.” That meant moving the ball to open 3-pointers. With the Clippers putting two defenders on Harden outside and swarming to him inside, the Rockets matched their season-high with 17 3-pointers, putting up 44 attempts from beyond the arc. They had made at least 15 3s in an NBA record 14 games (going 12-2), already four more than the previous record. It meant turned to their high-speed second unit led by Corey Brewer and Smith to start the fourth quarter, scoring nine fast break points – including a no-look pass Pablo Prigioni bounced through his legs to Brewer – in a 15-1 run that changed the game. “They played well,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.
- Matt Winkeljohn of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Yeah, I think Dennis likes playing Dallas for a couple reasons,” teammate Kyle Korver said after Schroder led Atlanta in scoring in a 104-87 win. “It’s the German thing.” Indeed, leading Atlanta’s bounce-back from a dreadful 34-22 first-quarter hole, Schroder was special. He scored eight points in the second while draining 2-of-3 3-pointers and adding two of his four assists.Yep, there’s something about the big D – Dirk Nowitzki. Schroder’s countryman, easily the most famous German basketball player, was in the house with the Mavs. So, Dennis did what he does with amplitude in helping the Hawks pull within 53-47 by halftime. On a a 7-of-15 shooting night that included a career-high three 3-pointers made in five attempts, he brought attitude. “With Dirk, another German player, yeah, I’m competitive, too,” Schroder said. “You want to show other German players that you can play the game at a high level.
- Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: The perception in July: Lance Stephenson’s versatility will lift this team and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is some dude who can’t shoot. The reality in February: Kidd-Gilchrist’s versatility lifts this team and Stephenson looks like a dude who can’t shoot. Mo Williams had a horrible start to this game, committing two shooting fouls outside the 3-point line in the first seven minutes. But his third quarter – 13 points and three assists – might have been the biggest factor in the Hornets breaking that five-game losing streak. You won’t see the Hornets score 17 fast-break points on a regular basis. It’s not because they don’t choose to run, they’re just not particularly built to be that team.
- Jay King of MassLive.com: Calling a stress fracture in his left foot "God's plan," Boston Celtics big man Jared Sullinger said the light switched has finally flipped in regards to changing his body. The 22-year-old said he will not undergo surgery, but has been ruled out for the rest of the season. Discussing his approach to recovery, Sullinger said, "Change the physique, change the way I look. That's the biggest thing, I think, is just change the way I look. I'm tired of looking on camera and just seeing how I look and seeing how I play during extended minutes. Conditioning's going to be a big factor." Including a back surgery that ended his rookie season, this will be the second season-ending injury of Sullinger's career. The third-year pro has long called shedding weight a focus. He stated a goal of losing more than 20 pounds last offseason. He openly acknowledges his lack of conditioning and has always suggested he could reach another level with improvement in that area. ... Despite his goals, Sullinger said he has no plans to hire a personal nutritionist, adding that he has lost weight and changed his body before.
- Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: The Bill Walker Game! (I mean the Henry Walker Game!) Heck, it could have been the Henry Winkler Game. This was one the Heat could not lose. Somehow they found a way. Barely. Not that that matters in the standings. What matter is a victory gained when not all was going as scripted. So while Goran Dragic was off with his shot, he did keep the ball moving. And he did make the most important free throws of the game.Elfrid Payton's defense against Dragic also was a factor. But the Heat also recognize that this has to be about more than Dragic. And there was a lot more Wednesday. When no one else could, Dwyane Wade stepped up with a 3-pointer when needed in the fourth quarter, when the Heat were 3 of 20 from beyond the arc to that stage. A wayward hero-ball attempt followed. And another. Then Walker turned into the game's true hero. Bang. Bang.
- Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: John Henson played a big role off the bench in Milwaukee's 104-88 rout of the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night. Henson finished with a season-high 21 points and added nine rebounds, three blocks and two steals while playing 29 minutes. "Left hook, that's my thing," Henson said. "Whenever I can get that off, there's a good chance it can go in." Henson hit 9 of 12 shots and fell just two points shy of his career-high point total established last season against Toronto. Henson had been starting at center for the previous 11 games, but Bucks coach Jason Kidd went back to veteran Zaza Pachulia as the starter on Wednesday. "I thought John was great for us coming off the bench," Kidd said. "He gave us a big spark. We even played through him in the post to give him some opportunities. "He's doing a lot of work for us defensively, rebounding and blocking shots and helping the little guys on the pick-and-roll." The Bucks bench had slipped a bit recently but it was back in form with 50 points against the 76ers, including 13 by Jerryd Bayless, nine by newcomer Tyler Ennis and seven by Jared Dudley.
- Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: On trade day a week ago, Suns executives put a selfish label on some of the Suns players who were traded and implored the team to recapture last season's unselfishness. In the first three games after the break, the Suns averaged 24.3 assists after averaging 20.6 on the season. "Everybody gets involved," Jeff Hornacek said. "Everybody's moving the ball. When you hesitate with the ball and don't move it, then it ends up being a one-on-one. Things are designed to move the ball and make quick decisions. Hopefully, we'll do a better job of that and continue that. It also doesn't allow the defense for the other team to set. When you go one-on-one, they're in the help spots."
ATLANTA -- There's no fire drill more absurd than the metro Atlanta area bracing for winter precipitation. The region, which has grown exponentially since the Hawks moved to town, has little regard for tradition, so it's almost quaint to see that the afternoon before a forecasted dusting the scene at the Kroger hasn't changed in three decades. Grown adults storm the frozen-food aisle like it's the last chopper out of Saigon. The Storm Team from the local television affiliates are out in full force. By 3 p.m., major thoroughfares typically choking on traffic are deserted.
About that time on Wednesday, Hawks players were told the team's game against the Dallas Mavericks at 7:30 p.m. was off. The governor of Georgia had declared a state of emergency for 50 counties in North Georgia. And beyond any official order, Atlanta is still spooked by last January's Snowpocalypse, which snuck up on the city, stranded tens of thousands and became "Daily Show" gold. Unamused at being a national laughingstock, Atlantans have decided to play it safe this winter.
The city of Atlanta's paranoia notwithstanding, an NBA game isn't cancelled lightly, and about an hour later, Hawks players who were hunkering in to wait out the storm received word that the ball would be tipped, as scheduled. After a rough first quarter, the Hawks played some of their best basketball since January and pummeled the Mavericks 104-87.
Like any honest-to-goodness Atlantan, Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll went to the grocery store with his family when he learned that he needed to return to work.
"We thought we were going to get snowed in, and I was on Aisle 7 when I looked at my phone," Carroll said. "I told my fiancee, 'The game is back on.' So we had to rush, hurry up, get back and get here. I think that had a lot to do with it."
"It's hard mentally," Horford said. "You're preparing, then they tell you it's not, so you kind of let your guard down. Then, it's like, 'Wait. We are playing.' It definitely affected me. I'm not going to lie."
Truth be told, the defense wasn't as atrocious as Dallas' 34 points would suggest. Monta Ellis and J.J. Barea combined to shoot 7-for-8 in the quarter without a trip to the line, but six of those seven shots were long 2s off the dribble, largely contested. Yet, the Hawks felt like the Mavericks' backcourt was getting off a little too easy.
"We changed a few coverages," Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. "We were showing out, but we were focused in too much on Dirk [Nowitzki] and the bigs, and the guards were giving us problems, finding shots."
The Hawks' on-court personnel was just one piece of the dysfunction in the first quarter at Philips Arena. Toward the end of the quarter, a small leak in the arena's roof caused a five-minute delay. Three times in the period the official game clock froze, causing a stoppage in play as the hamster required resuscitation before being reinserted onto its wheel.
Out in the stands and up in the concourse, the Hawks and Philips Arena were working short-staffed, as the organization advised game-night staff with travel or family issues to stay at home. All but a couple of concession stands were open for business, and the Hawks' chief revenue officer was pouring beer.
Problem solving has been a Hawks trademark this season, and as the second quarter got underway, the defense addressed the first-quarter hemorrhaging. Hawks defenders didn't exactly neglect Nowitzki, who finished with only four points, but they refocused their efforts of their pick-and-roll coverage onto the Mavericks' platoon of quick guards, which did not include Rajon Rondo, who was serving a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
"They're a pretty good defensive team," Nowitzki said. "Their bigs are very mobile. They show on the pick-and-rolls hard. They corral our ball handlers. They rotate around on the perimeter. They have quick hands."
After notching 34 points in the first quarter, the Mavericks managed only 67 over the 53 possessions of the final three quarters -- an anemic 79.1 offensive efficiency rating. On the other end, it was the usual Hawks blueprint: Six players in double digits but none with more than 17.
The Mavericks were also under the impression the game would likely be canceled. They were loading up their luggage in an effort to try to beat the weather out of town when they learned they'd need to be in uniform for the national anthem at 7:30 p.m.
"The afternoon was weird," Nowitzki said. "I don't think the NBA handled it pretty good. They screwed this one up pretty good. They kept telling us, 'We're waiting to hear from the NBA.' The next thing you know, we're all kind of sitting around. We didn't know if we should go to our meeting or not, so I thought they played that pretty poorly. We fought through it and I thought we were ready to play."
Carroll ultimately left Aisle 7, but not before loading up on Little Debbie cakes in the event the Atlanta storm obliterated glucose from the area.
"That's my aisle," Carroll said.
As of publication, the temperature had not yet dropped below freezing at Philips Arena.
It is simply impossible to undersell the hard thrum that began coursing through the Target Center when Kevin Garnett came charging out of the tunnel for the first time in 7½ years wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves uniform. If you knew nothing about Garnett's history with the team, if you were too young or not into basketball, you might not have understood it, but it was impossible to deny it as a felt thing within the arena.
With the four other starters introduced, the screen above the scoreboard fell black, the stands spiked with the stars of cellphones' flashes. Former NBA commissioner David Stern's voice poured out: "With the fifth pick in the 1995 NBA draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select "
And it hung there, Kanye West's "Homecoming" rising up into the silence as clip after clip of a young Garnett unspooled and the crowd spiked the tense silence with whistles. They were clips we'd seen perhaps hundreds of times: Garnett leaping on the scorer's table, dusting his palms with talcum, his teammates piling crazily on top of him. But stacked one on top of another, with Garnett waiting there in the darkness by the bench, it built into something towering. When fireworks shot out from the stanchions, it was practically redundant. The place was already on fire.
But almost inexorably, they began to pull it together. From the moment Garnett went to the bench, he was in the players' ears, from Andrew Wiggins to Adreian Payne to Gorgui Dieng. On the court, he shouted his teammates into place, and the Wolves defense took a noticeable step up, showing how much one player who knows how to show and recover can anchor the rotations of a whole team.
By halftime, Minnesota had pulled even with Washington at 42, and the second half began with a bang-bang play that had Ricky Rubio running off a Garnett screen, getting the ball back to him at the top of the arc, and Garnett threading a perfect pass to Wiggins cutting past a downscreen from Nikola Pekovic for a dunk.
Garnett contributed directly in these ways, plus brought in eight rebounds to go with five points, but it was his indirect effect on the other Wolves that stood out. Although they had to overcome that early tightness, once they got into the second half, they played hard without tensing up, with an edge. They cut harder, moved with purpose, snapped the ball, jumped out on screens -- all stuff they've been working on since training camp but with a new kind of energy.
It became clearer as they started to push out the lead in the second half of the second quarter. Going back at least to Rubio's sophomore season -- when Kevin Love began the season injured and never truly came back -- this team has been living too much in its head. The pieces -- Rubio's passing, Love's shooting and rebounding, Pekovic's immovability, Martin's scoring -- looked right on paper but struggled to jell on the floor. The team so far this season has flashed glimpses of a promising future, but it's also full of young players struggling to reconcile their innate feel for the game with all that they're learning.
But as smart as Garnett is on the floor, he lives the game farther down in his body, not even in the heart so much as the belly. Whatever he's sparking in these players, it's only just beginning, and there's no guarantee it won't falter or fail to sustain itself.
But in his first game back, he showed the Wolves' players and reminded the Wolves' fans that it's okay to want: to not just hit your marks and do what you're supposed to but in that moment to want to make the play so badly that you want it more than anything else -- to know that you can make that feeling happen when you need it.
This is the magic and the promise of Kevin Garnett. This is the possibility that the move to acquire him was not just fine or even good, but possibly brilliant.
There are many games to go. At 38 years old, Garnett is likely to miss several of them. The Wolves are going to lose a bunch of them -- they even need to if Garnett's return is truly going to lay the groundwork for future growth. They will, after all, need someone to replace him, and there are strong power forward prospects in this draft.
When the season ends, one win over the Wizards at the tail end of February is not going to look like much. It won't stand out amid the wins and losses, the final box score bearing nothing so epic as Mo Williams' 52-point outburst earlier this season or Love's 31-point, 31-rebound masterpiece against the Knicks in 2010.
But it's not a game that will be quickly forgotten by anyone who was there. For one night, the Timberwolves felt like a different team -- one that mattered, even if it was only to themselves. The trick, now, is making that change stick.