Welome back to “What Happened Last Night?” which returns today after a one-day hiatus. Hope y’all had a good one (whether you celebrate the holiday or not). But the holiday’s done now, and we’ve got a busy NBA night to break down, so let’s get to it.
The Heat are the defending champs for a reason.
OK, fine, this was a 5:30 game, so calling it “night” is stretching a bit, but it ended after 8 Eastern time and it was the marquee game on yesterday’s schedule, so not devoting any space to it here just feels wrong. Not to mention: it was a hell of a game. The Heat went into halftime with a 54-48 lead, but the Thunder came back to take the lead midway through the third and went into the fourth down just two. And Erik Spoelstra’s reaction to his team’s inability to hold that halftime lead was more or less: “Well, OKC’s too good to go quietly. What’d you expect?” And when Kevin Durant scores 25 points in a half, as he did in the final 24 minutes yesterday, of course the Thunder will be tough to beat.
But they weren’t tough enough, and as usual when the Heat win, LeBron James’s all-around game was the biggest reason why. LeBron had 29 points, eight rebounds and nine assists last night, one of those assists coming on a critical Chris Bosh bucket in the final minute that put Miami up by three. Even so, the Thunder were very much in the game right up until the final seconds – and those final seconds weren’t without controversy. Specifically, Russell Westbrook thought he was fouled on an attempted three that would have tied the game with less than 10 seconds to go. He didn’t get it. The Heat got the rebound. He protested. Het got called for a technical foul. The Heat made their free throws. Ballgame.
And what a ballgame it was – the intensity on display reminded more than a few people of the games these teams played six months ago in the NBA Finals. LeBron didn’t want any part of that comparison, but it was a hard one not to make. These are two elite teams, they employ the league’s two best players, and the memory of them squaring off for the 2012 title remains fresh in the mind of every NBA fan. With any luck, come June 2013, they’ll be playing each other again… and producing games just like yesterday’s.
The Clippers still can’t lose.
Sure, despite their back-to-back losses, the Thunder are still the squad to beat in the West. But if they are beaten by anyone in the conference, amazingly enough, the Clippers stand as good a chance as anyone to be the team that dethrones them. L.A. remained on a roll last night, earning its 14th straight win by beating the Nuggets, 112-100. The game showed off the Clippers’ depth – the team’s two leading scorers last night came off the bench, with Jamal Crawford scoring 22 and Matt Barnes netting 20. (Chris Paul was pretty good too, with 14 points and eight assists – agains one turnover – in just 32 minutes.)
While of course the Clippers will lose eventually and can’t stay this hot all year, they’re a serious contender. They’re led by one of the best point guards ever, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan remain as explosively athletic a frontcourt as the NBA has to offer, and the rest of the roster is loaded with solid players. Not only that, but the Clips have done all this without Grant Hill playing a minute all season, and Chauncey Billups not playing much more than that (three games). When those two are back, the Clippers’ bench will get even stronger – as will their case as championship contenders. The Clippers. This is the brave new world of the NBA.
The Rockets are starting to roll.
Despite acquisitions like James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik this offseason, the Rockets struggled early on, posting just an 11-12 record through mid-December. Just a couple weeks later, they look unstoppable. Houston crushed the Bulls 120-97 in Chicago last night for their fourth straight win – third in a row by more than 20 points – and those offseason acquisitions led the way. Harden had a team-high 26. Lin had 20 and 11 assists. And Asik had 20 of his own against his former team, plus 18 rebounds and three blocks.
Lookout for the Rockets: Harden’s fully proven himself as an elite scorer this season (25.7 points a night). Lin, who by his own admission was “terrible” early on, is resembling more and more the player who took the league by storm last season, averaging 19 and nine assists during the Rockets’ recent winning streak. And Asik, despite never getting on the floor much with the Bulls, proved himself worthy of the contract the Rockets offered him – he’s averaging a double-double on the season. While like the Clippers, the Rockets can’t stay this hot, if their prized new pieces continue to perform this well together, they’ll make themselves quite a thorn in everyone’s side come playoff time.
Well, Christmas is over.
But don’t worry – you have another holiday to celebrate
with unholy drunkenness in less than a week.
Photos via Getty