I don’t know if a 13-game night can be dull in the middle of the fantasy playoffs, but last night’s action seemed to slide by with seven blowouts and no real groundbreaking developments taking place. The Pacers stopped the bleeding for a night, Kyrie Irving returned the right way, and the playoff races are not just tight at the bottom but tight throughout in terms of seeding. We’ll get two TNT games tonight with the Spurs and Thunder early and the Mavs and Clippers late.
Then it will be on to a 14-game extravaganza which marks the first of two jam-packed Fridays, with the season’s last night of action the following Wednesday carrying all 30 teams on the slate. I can’t believe it’s almost over and hopefully you’re riding high after a winning fantasy season, and I’m looking forward to circling up on how things went after it’s all done. Good luck and remember to be bold with your decisions, as things aren’t always what they seem late in the year and often the unconventional play is the correct one.
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RETURN OF THE PRINCE
All eyes were on Kyrie Irving as he returned from his biceps injury and into a whirlwind of criticism if things didn’t go well, since the Cavs have been playing better, more cohesive ball in his absence. The return against the Magic helped set the table for a successful night, and Irving did his part to make things go smoothly with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, six rebounds, eight assists and one steal. He also got to play alongside Dion Waiters (26 points, 10-of-15 FGs, three treys, zero rebounds, three assists, one steal) in the starting lineup – something that many covering the team have wanted to see for a while.
Waiters obviously needs to be held after that solid outing, but his margin for error will be small with poor fantasy peripherals that can quickly drag him down. Jarrett Jack (13 points, four rebounds, four assists, one steal) returned to the bench but still logged 30 minutes, and the Cavs will have a hard time playing that small against many teams they’ll come across. Still, they’re having a lot of success playing small versus playing big, so I’d say Jack has a coin flip chance of holding low-end value in 12-team leagues.
One guy you won’t find complaining about Irving’s return is Spencer Hawes (20 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four threes), as he returned to prior form and beat writers signed off on the fact that this was not coincidental. A must-own player throughout the recent slowdown, the return of Irving and absence of Anderson Varejao means that he’s got a shot at some big lines down the stretch. Tristan Thompson went for 20 and 11 with two steals and a block, but against the Magic that has to be discounted pretty significantly considering his body of work. If you’re hunting points and boards, though, he could be a sneaky hot pickup the rest of the way.
Luol Deng (eight points, two boards, two assists) left the game early due to back soreness, and though he said that he’d have stayed in the game had it been closer, this is undoubtedly a setback. Unlike Hawes, he has struggled to produce next to Irving in the past.
Typically energy isn’t a glaring issue for the Magic but they looked lifeless last night, and in a blowout loss to the Cavs there weren’t any big numbers on the Orlando side of the box. Arron Afflalo continued to underwhelm with seven points, four rebounds, five assists, one three and one block, Jameer Nelson logged 23 minutes en route to nine points, four assists and a three, and Nikola Vucevic had just seven and seven to go with three steals.
Maurice Harkless hit two threes and had one steal to go with 10 points, which isn’t paying the bills, and Kyle O’Quinn did what he was signed up to do with three blocks, eight points and five boards. Victor Oladipo scored 16 points off the bench with two threes, four assists, two steals and six perfect foul shots, and Tobias Harris went for 11 and seven with zeroes in the threes, steals and blocks categories.
The Pistons didn’t play great, but they played well enough to stick around with a Pacers team that started to find its way last night. Part of their success was the fact that Josh Smith has done well against the Pacers all year, and he scored 24 points with three treys, five boards, two steals and a block while defending Paul George on the other end. Of course, he hit just 3-of-7 foul shots and missed a big one at the end, so it wasn’t an unqualified success.
Greg Monroe hit just 6-of-21 shots for 17 points but made up for it with 16 rebounds, three steals and a block, and Brandon Jennings scored 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting with nine assists, two threes and a steal. Kyle Singler hit just 3-of-11 shots for 10 points, five rebounds, three assists and one three. He logged 39 minutes and eventually the shots will fall, making him a strong hold with four games on the slate next week. Rodney Stuckey scored 16 points with a three and not much else and that’s not really doing much outside of deep leagues where owners are desperate for points. He and Will Bynum (two points, 13 minutes) are trading off really crappy games right now.
MAKE THE CLIMB AS THE CHILD DID. WITHOUT ROPE. THEN FEAR WILL FIND YOU AGAIN
The Pacers started off slow in a way bigger game than anybody would have imagined three weeks ago, as another loss at home to a team that lost to the Sixers would have sent the NBA world packing. Reports started to trickle in after the game about yet another team meeting in which everybody got stuff off their chest, which typically generates an eye-roll, but they definitely looked like a different squad in the second half last night.
Paul George was the most visible beneficiary of the good vibes, scoring 27 points on 9-of-19 shooting (4-of-10 3PTs, 5-of-6 FTs) with 13 rebounds, seven assists and two steals at precisely the right time for owners. I didn’t agree with a handful of shots he took in isolation against Josh Smith, particularly the fallaways, but he was making them and needing to see the ball go through the hoop you’ll live with that as a either a coach or fake hoopster. And speaking of seeing the ball go through the hoop, the play in which the shot clock didn’t reset on time and he had to launch a 40-foot three due to scorekeeper error might have been the best luck the Pacers could have gotten. George drilled it like he shoots them all day in practice, and you could see the swag reentering his body, his team and throughout the arena. Bookmark that moment.
Lance Stephenson has gotten a ton of criticism and I’ve talked about the need to cede some touches to George and others, but folks gotta remember that he’s also been great and that he has been the quintessential ride-the-edge guy for the Pacers all year. The double-edged sword plays with such ferocity that passes are works of art right up until the point when they are not, and often he’s the only guy that can get an edge on his defender with the single-minded purpose to break down the defense. Whereas George relies on his fadeaway as his finishing move, Stephenson bobs and weaves with the intention of setting you up for the uppercut. Last night he kept the Pacers and their fans energized much more than the box score would suggest, finishing with 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting, five rebounds, four assists and a trey. While George brought home the win in the second half, Stephenson saved them from an implosion in the first.
Roy Hibbert got his second concussion test in the last week or so but returned to finish out the game, scoring 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting with three rebounds, three assists and two blocks in 29 minutes. He’s still getting pushed way off the block and relying on lower percentage hook shots, but it did seem like he had a bit more pep in his step. With moderate levels of athleticism he will torture the Heat down low in the playoffs. Last night’s version of Hibbert was halfway from where he has been in the last month to where he needs to be.
Overall, it’s still not time to take the finger off the panic button in Indy. After all, another loss on Friday to the Raptors could scramble up all these vibes with an even bigger notion of ‘here we go again.’ A few weeks back, however, we talked about the things that teams that haven’t won a championship have to do before they can win it.
Being pushed to their brink is one of those things. Staring at the abyss, experiencing the fear of uncertainty, and pushing through it is a rite of passage among Larry O’Brien trophy winners.
They have six more games to play, including a showdown with Miami right before their penultimate game against the Thunder. Tied in first place for home court throughout the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the board is setup for the Pacers to not just overcome their demons – but do so at precisely the right time.
I’m going to hang out on the bandwagon and see how this chemistry experiment pans out.
The replacement for Dwight Howard is a more-than-serviceable defensive-minded backup in Omer Asik (nine points, 15 boards, one steal), so the Rockets aren’t exactly dead in the water across the back line. But take away Patrick Beverley (knee) and Houston has had a problem finding toughness where they need it on the perimeter. They lost to the Raptors without Kyle Lowry last night and have dropped three in a row, putting the No. 3 seed out of reach and the Blazers just one game behind them for home court advantage in the first round.
Beverley’s status basically makes or breaks their dark horse status in the West, and they’ll need to ride a fine line between playing for seeding and letting Beverley force his way onto the court too early. Unlike an offensive player that needs their legs to be in tip-top shape to maintain rhythm, it’s feasible that a less-than-100 percent Beverley can have enough of an effect in the playoffs to keep the Rockets in the hunt.
James Harden scored 26 points with six rebounds, four assists, two steals and 10-of-12 makes from the foul line to keep his elite run going. Jeremy Lin scored 16 points with seven assists, three triples, two steals and a block to certify his fantasy credentials, and Chandler Parsons had a nice night with 20 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and a three. Terrence Jones isn’t ready for action with the flu he’s dealing with and lasted just 10 minutes. The timing couldn’t be worse, but with four games next week I can’t imagine dropping him unless it’s a do-or-die situation.
LIMPING TO THE FINISH
Kyle Lowry (knee) almost went for the Raptors last night but was a last-second scratch, so there is some hope that he can turn around and play Friday against the Pacers. They’re tied with the Bulls right now for the No. 3 seed and more importantly home court advantage is on their minds, since the standings are too bunched up to play any potential seeding games. Greivis Vasquez is the obvious plug-and-play behind Lowry and he put up 15 points, four rebounds, eight assists, one steal and four threes in the win.
DeMar DeRozan picked up the slack with 29 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals, and Jonas Valanciunas continued his quiet revival with 15 points, six rebounds, one steal and one block. Terrence Ross scored 14 points with nine rebounds and a three, and he’ll deserve added consideration for however long Lowry is out. Amir Johnson lasted just three minutes before giving way to an ankle injury and that’s been coming for a while. Patrick Patterson played 26 minutes and scored just eight points with two rebounds, one steal, one block and one three. P-Pat hasn’t looked all that good since returning, but he could be a sneaky pickup if the Raptors decide to rest Johnson while increasing Patterson’s load at the same time.