What a wild weekend in the NBA!
Last week, all eyes were on Ja Morant and his mystifying talent keeping the Memphis Grizzlies firmly entrenched as a top-4 seed in the Western Conference. There’s more parity and young talent in the league now than there’s been in 20 years. With five weeks to play in the regular season and the recently expanded playoff format offering 10 teams per conference a chance at a playoff birth, 25 of the 30 NBA teams remain in somewhat-realistic contention. Even the Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Detroit Pistons who round out the bottom five in the league aren’t an easy out on any given night. NBA League-Pass subscribers rejoice!
Here are 5 takeaways from the weekend as we enter the home stretch of the regular season.
Five Takeaways From a Wild Weekend in the NBA
1. Are we paying enough attention to the Miami Heat?
With 17 games left in the regular season, The Miami Heat sit in first place in the stacked Eastern Conference. They’re 3-1 in their last 4 games, a stretch that pitted them against fellow East contenders – The Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, and Chicago Bulls – all while playing without starting PG Kyle Lowry. Victor Oladipo made his season debut Monday night against the Rockets. Vegas currently has the Heat at 5-1 to win the East (4th best odds) and 10-1 to win the NBA Championship (6th best odds). Why does it seem like the Heat are flying under the radar?
Here’s one theory – the Heat aren’t…sexy? They didn’t make any splashy deadline trades. They’re top-5 in defensive rating and routinely clamp down on opposing teams’ stars. They’re well-coached. There’s no reported discontent in the locker room. Jimmy Butler at 32 years old remains one of the league’s best two-way players but isn’t anywhere near the MVP conversation.
This season, the Heat are an East-leading 22-7 at home and play 12 of their final 17 regular-season games in Miami. The last time the Heat finished the regular season as the #1 seed in the East was 2013. All they did that year was win the NBA Championship. They may not have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh, but they’re for real, and we should be paying attention.
2. LeBron scores 56 as the struggling Lakers beat the struggling Warriors
Speaking of LeBron, wow, what a vintage performance he put up in the Lakers’ win on Saturday against the Warriors. His 56 points were the third-most he’s scored in a game during his illustrious 19-year career. After the game, James told ABC’s Lisa Salters that he and his teammates are playing with a sense of “desperation” as they fight to remain in contention for one of the West’s play-in spots. In addition to their pride, the Lakers will also likely lose their first-round pick this year if they miss the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Warriors are 2-8 in their last 10 games. They miss what Draymond Green brings on the defensive side of the floor. The latest reports are that Green should return to action before the end of the regular season. The Warriors need him in top form him if they want to make a run at a title this season.
3. Is Nikola Jokic the MVP again?
The Nuggets currently sit in 6th place in the West. They’ve played the entire season without star point guard Jamal Murray who tore his ACL last April. The primary reason for the Nuggets’ success this season? The Joker’s bid for a 2nd consecutive NBA MVP award.
In Sunday’s overtime win over the Pelicans, Nikola Jokic posted his second 40-point triple-double of the season. The last player to accomplish such a feat was Wilt Chamberlain. Jokic leads the league with 17 triple-doubles this season – a career-high for the 27-year-old from Serbia. His numbers are better across the board this season compared to his MVP campaign from a year ago.
This is the tightest MVP race in recent memory. Joel Embiid is the current betting favorite with Jokic close behind. Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan, and Morant are also playing at MVP levels for their respective teams.
Jokic plays the game like no center ever has. He’s extremely durable for a player his size, and in the 7 games he’s missed this season the Nuggets are 2-5. It’s no knock on Embiid or any of the other aforementioned MVP candidates, but it’s hard to imagine Jokic not being league MVP again this season.
4. Shorthanded Suns show their depth, fall to Bucks
On Friday night the first place Phoenix Suns hosted the reeling New York Knicks, losers of their previous 6 games. The Suns were playing without all-star guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker. The Knicks opened the second half on fire and captured momentum before Julius Randle got ejected for a dust-up with the Suns’ Cam Johnson. The Knicks held an 11-point lead heading into the 4th quarter, eventually letting the Suns back in the game, and then this happened.
On Sunday in a rematch of last year’s NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, both Paul and Booker remained out while Friday’s hero Cam Johnson was also inactive. The Suns led for most of the game despite missing 3 of their top scorers and a down night from defensive player of the year candidate Mikal Bridges. The Bucks would eventually win the game, led by a magnificent 44-point performance from Khris Middleton.
Nobody is overlooking the Suns as title contenders as their core is expected to return come playoff time. This stretch of games without many of their key pieces gives some of their role players a chance at increased minutes, which will surely come in handy down the stretch.
Oh, and the Bucks are still the defending champions. Don’t sleep on them, either.
5. No Luka, no problem for Mavs to finish off the wild weekend in the NBA
The Dallas Mavericks seem to have found the additional shot-creator they so desperately needed in Spencer Dinwiddie, who came over in the Kristaps Porzingis trade with the Washington Wizards. With Luka Doncic taking a night off on Saturday the Dallas Mavericks overcame a 4th quarter deficit and 44 points from De’Aaron Fox to beat the Sacramento Kings 114-113. Dinwiddie dropped 36 points and 7 assists.
This Mavericks team doesn’t garner a lot of attention in the NBA title conversation, but we know Luka can singlehandedly take over a game. And if Dinwiddie can sustain Saturday’s production, they’re going to be a tough out in the west playoffs.
Another wild weekend in the NBA, and the best is yet to come.
Main Image: Embed from Getty Images