1. Playoff Identities For L.A. Teams Take Shape
LOS ANGELES -- Now that the Los Angeles Lakers look increasingly like playoff possibilities, we turn to the same question that has been nagging their Staples Center neighbors, the Clippers, recently: Are they playoff capable?
The Lakers' 113-102 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night improved their record to 36-32, a game ahead of Utah for the eighth spot in the Western Conference, a half game behind seventh-place Houston.
That the Lakers did it without Kobe Bryant (out with a sprained ankle and the flu) was a healthy sign for their immediate future, which includes a game in Phoenix on Monday night for which Bryant might not be available. But it makes it more difficult to assess their long-term future.
If the Lakers hope to advance in the playoffs, they won't be carried by Antawn Jamison and Steve Blake the way they were Sunday night, when they combined for 43 points off the bench. They might break out a podium game, but they won't carry the team through a series. Bench players normally suffer the biggest dropoff in road games, and the Lakers will start any series they play on the road. They also won't get as many shot opportunities with Bryant as they did in playing more than 34 Kobe-free minutes each on Sunday.
Blake had a season-high 11 field goal attempts. More than anything it meant he had a chance to shoot his way back into it after starting 1-for-4. He was 5-for-7 in the second half.
"Sometimes people don't realize how tough it is to come in and play 30 minutes and get only one or two shots," Nash said. "But the more looks you get the more comfortable you feel and the more confidence you get from your teammates."
In other words, Laker fans shouldn't get too comfortable with a line of 16 points and eight assists from Blake. For that matter, they can't expect many nights of 19 points and 12 assists from Steve Nash when he doesn't handle the ball this much.
What's looking more likely come playoff time is a duplication of Dwight Howard's 12 points and 17 rebounds. Howard's rebounding totals have become the most dependable numbers in the NBA. Sunday night was his 14th consecutive game with at least 12 rebounds.
"I've been in better shape," Howard said. "The better shape I'm in, the more active I can be on both ends."
That was about his only reference to offense. But it's notable he wasn't complaining after he didn't record a single shot attempt in the second half, his field goals frozen at four makes in six shots. Instead he's talking about the things the Lakers believe are the most important for him to handle.
"For me, it starts on defense," Howard said. "Just making sure I control the paint. Making sure I come out with a lot of energy and just protect the basket for these guys."
"Dwight was great," Nash said. "I think for us, we've got a game plan that's going to be centered around him being down there and making it difficult for guys. so we can make keep the ball on the sidelines and baselines. It's really difficult to contend with him. Even if there's a breakdown, having him back there obviously helps our defense a ton."
It didn't help it enough to hold the Kings to less than 100 points. And the last time the Lakers faced one of their likely NBA playoff foes, the Oklahoma City Thunder scored 122 on them.
So while it's becoming easier to envision the Lakers in the playoffs, it's still hard to see them advancing.
The Clippers, meanwhile, have been playoff locks since they ran off a 17-game winning streak at the end of 2012, only to find their postseason credentials called into question recently. The doubt even emanated from the tattooed throat of former teammate Kenyon Martin, who said after he was on the losing end of a 93-80 Clippers victory over the Knicks that the Clippers "can't do it in the playoffs, so it doesn't matter."
The Clippers still need to figure out what it is exactly that they want to do. That's why they let a Knicks team without the injured Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire hang around far too long. The Clippers were plodding through an afternoon that was more arduous than enjoyable for everyone involved. Then, deep into the third quarter, a soaring Blake Griffin dunk, in which he reared back and hammered home a fast-break lob from Chris Paul, brought everyone to life. The fans woke up, and the Clippers started making snappier passes and extra efforts. Jamal Crawford hit a 3-pointer. Griffin grabbed an offensive rebound and threw down another dunk.
Griffin said he didn't "try to put a whole lot extra on it,", which is probably for the best because if he brought the ball back any further he might have separated his shoulder.
"We definitely feed off those, though," Griffin said.
Chauncey Billups said, "Those are like four- or five-point plays for us."
It's important for the Clippers to remember how the sequence began: with Griffin jamming an attempted screen on the sideline, which allowed Crawford to steal the ball from J.R. Smith and start the three-on-one break. A power forward making defensive plays out by the hashmark is a playoff-worthy effort.
That might seem a fluky way to hope for postseason success, but that also happens to be the method playoff darkhorse darling Memphis employs: generating turnovers. There's no reason that can't be the Clippers' M.O. They lead the league in steals per game (just less than 10) and can get the ball in the hands of the game's best point guard running with the two best finishers (Griffin and Jordan).
They say they want to be defensive oriented, but they haven't consistently acted like it. In other words, they haven't played with the mindset Dwight Howard has adopted lately.
2. Around the Association
Most valuable player: The matinee game was marred with sluggish play, but Blake Griffin's huge dunks were a cup of coffee. All he did was dunk in this game, but that was enough against a short-handed Knicks team.
Least valuable player: J.R. Smith. Could it be worse? Just 4-for-20 shooting from the field. Three turnovers. Absurd shots. Clueless defense. The Knicks needed a great performance from Smith, and they got the exact opposite.
Well that was unrevealing: New York's roster makes no sense without Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, and we know the Clippers can beat up on bad teams. What did this blowout teach us? Not much.
MVP: Stephen Curry. After a rough start, he went 11-for-16 in the final three quarters of the game. His 29 points and 11 assists led the game while setting the tempo for the Warriors.
X factor: The Rockets' slow start. Houston has been outscored by 8.3 points per game in the first quarter this month. The Warriors' eight-point cushion after the first quarter set the tone for the rest of the game.
That was anti-climatic: The past three Rockets-Warriors matchups have featured a plethora of long bombs and high-scoring runs, totaling in 654 combined points. This one was over by the end of the third quarter.
MVP: Russell Westbrook. In a tightly contested game for all 48 minutes, Westbrook was OKC's steadiest and most persistent force. He pushed the tempo on offense to keep Dallas off-kilter and his final tally of 35 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists accurately portrays his impact on the game.
That was stunning: Westbrook finished with three exhilarating fast break dunks, but none was more spectacular than his thunderous dunk in the first quarter. The lightning-quick fury of the slam was a marvel to behold in real time.
X factor: Kevin Durant's fourth quarter. After a sloppy and sluggish start, KD ignited for 19 points in the final period, including seven straight made field goals. His late-game hot streak was just enough to fend off a pesky Dallas squad.
MVP: Al Horford had 22 points, 11 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 assists. He was all over the court and at times dominated the game.
X factor: The Hawks' bench was a major factor in the win. Dahntay Jones showed he's more than a guy who fouled Kobe with 13 points. Ivan Johnson had seven and rookie John Jenkins also scored seven.
That was surprising: The Hawks haven't exactly been known as a team that puts its foot on a team's throat. But Sunday night they were dominant in the fourth quarter lead by Jeff Teague with 15 assists. If the Hawks can play this more often they can really make some noise.
MVP: Antawn Jamison had a huge game off the bench for the Lakers, pouring in 27 points with eight rebounds, shooting 5-of-8 from beyond the arc. Jamison was just one of three Lakers who could have earned MVP tonight.
That was interesting: Without Kobe Bryant on the floor, seven Lakers recorded at least 20 minutes and six of them finished in double figures, and all seven guys had at least six shots. The balanced attack kept everyone in rhythm.
Turning point: The Sacramento Kings came out like gangbusters to start the fourth quarter, but a 11-0 Lakers run that saw three consecutive 3-pointers essentially put the game on ice. We saw great resolve for Los Angeles down the stretch.
MVP: Monta Ellis single-handily won this game. He scored 25 of his game-high 39 points in the fourth quarter, and his backbreaking 3-pointer with 13 seconds left served as the dagger.
Defining moment: Trailing 83-70 entering the fourth quarter, Milwaukee scored 45 points to steal a victory from the Magic.
That was amazing: Ellis gets a lot of grief, and rightfully so, for being an inefficient volume scorer. But when he gets it going offensively, like he did in the fourth quarter against Orlando, he can be spectacular.
3. Sunday's Best
Monta Ellis, Bucks:
Ellis scored a season-high 39 points, including 25 in the fourth quarter, and Milwaukee rallied for a 115-109 over the Orlando Magic. The Bucks trailed most of the way before Ellis took over in the fourth. He connected on all five of his 3-point attempts in the period, and his 25 points were the most by an NBA player in one quarter this season.
4. Sunday's Worst
The ice-cold Rockets: That was the big payback. The Houston Rockets lost 108-78 to the Golden State Warriors. Last time they met, it was a 140-109 Warriors loss on Feb. 5, Golden State's most lopsided loss of the season. In the previous meeting, the Rockets tied an NBA record with 23 3-pointers and were looking for more, much to the Warriors displeasure. Sunday, Houston set season-low point totals in the first quarter (10) and first half (31).
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"They can't do it in the playoffs, so it doesn't matter. Regular season, it's all up-and-down. We know how the game goes in the regular season."
-- Knicks forward Kenyon Martin, on whether the approach of his former team, the Clippers, can succeed in the postseason.
8. Durant Finishes Strong
9. Stat Check
The Golden State Warriors posted a 108-78 victory at Houston, equaling their highest margin of victory in the 196 regular-season games played between these teams. Their previous 30-point win was recorded by the San Francisco Warriors against the San Diego Rockets on Dec. 23, 1968 (125-95). In that game, the Warriors held the San Diego's great rookie, Elvin Hayes, to 15 points -- his lowest total of the season to that point. The "Big E" carried a 30.5-point scoring average into that game.
The Rockets shot 20 percent from the field in the first half of Sunday's loss, including a combined 0-for-13 by Houston's starting forwards. The was the lowest first-half field-goal percentage in the NBA since the Kings shot 17 percent before halftime at Dallas in January 2012.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Around the Association
Defining moment: Rudy Gay tied the game at 77-77 early in the fourth quarter, but the Heat went on a 12-0 run early so seal their 22nd straight win.
MVP: LeBron James controlled the pace for Miami, scoring 22 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and coming just two assists shy of a triple-double.
X factor: Ray Allen was unstoppable in the fourth quarter. After scoring just four points in the first three quarters, Allen knocked down four 3-pointers and scored 16 points in the final frame.
MVP: Derrick Williams attacked the basket, got to the free throw line and was ferocious on the glass. Maybe most importantly for his team, he had his first hot outside shooting game in weeks. He finished with a career-high 28 points on 16 shots, went 3-of-5 on 3-pointers and grabbed seven boards.
Defining moment: With 48 seconds remaining and his team trailing by four, Ricky Rubio used a gorgeous crossover to split a Robin Lopez/Greivis Vasquez trap, laid in a wrong-footed lefty finger roll and got the foul. The Wolves didn't get the lead on that possession but it was the play that put them over the top.
X factor: The return of Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic didn't prevent the Hornets from crushing the Wolves on the glass, but their interior defense was a big reason the Hornets hit only 40 percent of their shots in the fourth quarter. Thanks to that tight D, the Hornets made just one field goal and scored only four points in the game's final 3:24.