Editor's Note: There were 12 games last night, and I was able to watch maybe four of them relatively closely, so today's edition is going to be pretty top-heavy. Apologies if I neglect your team.
Boston Celtics 105, Milwaukee Bucks 102
Brandon Jennings is marketed as one of the elite up-and-coming point guards in this league. He has a shoe deal (well, sorta). He is discussed in the rookie of the year chase with Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry. He shares a division with Derrick Rose (who, as we've already discussed, may be a bit overrated). He's flashy, outspoken and media savvy. Because of all this, we think he's a better player than he is.
But the truth is, Jennings is well behind a lot of the other elite young point guards in the league. This much was clear to people watching closely last year, when the Bucks often won in spite of Jennings, not because of him. If you still weren't convinced, last night's Bucks-Celtics game should convince you that Jennings needs to pick it up for the Bucks to go anywhere serious this season.
The Bucks got big performances from most of the rest of their team. Andrew Bogut still looks a bit slow, but he had 13 rebounds and kept many other possessions alive with backtaps. Carlos Delfino had an outstanding game, though he committed two big turnovers near the end. Ersan Ilyasova and Keyon Dooling gave the Bucks a lot off the bench, and Corey Maggette got to the free-throw line eight times in 22 minutes. These are not things they've gotten thus far this season. All they needed was a decent performance from the face of their franchise.
And ... he didn't deliver. Jennings had 13 points, but only had four assists. The Bucks were outscored by 16 points with him off the floor, and down the stretch, when the Bucks needed him most, he came up small. He had one drive and score late in regulation, but otherwise, he didn't really do much of anything. Whereras Boston was crisp running through their sets late, the Bucks were ragged and scattered. Part of that is the Bucks' style, but a lot of that is Jennings. During a stretch of the game where the point guard needs to calm everyone down, Jennings was nowhere to be found.
To me, two plays late in regulation sum up the Jennings experience well. The first came at the 2:16 mark. Jennings came off a high screen and roll designed to initiate the offense, and even though his teammates were stuck under the rim, he decided to shoot a 12-foot floater. That play was especially dangerous because Jennings is responsible for retreating back on defense. With three players near Milwaukee's baseline, the Bucks would have been in trouble if Jennings missed the shot. Sure enough, he did, and Boston turned it into a transition opportunity that ended in a layup and foul for Paul Pierce that put Boston ahead.
The other was a couple plays later, on the wacky possession where Andrew Bogut threw it to nobody. The turnover was credited to Bogut, but we forget that it was Jennings who tried to force the ball into him in the post. Had Jennings changed the play or been more patient, the possession could have been saved. Instead, Bogut threw it away and Pierce got another layup.
Boston is a good defensive team that played Jennings perfectly. They know that, when he gets into the paint, he tries to score, so they cut off all his passing lanes and made him shoot wild shots. They deserve credit for that. But the bottom line is that Milwaukee lost this game because Jennings couldn't quite raise his level of play enough. That's okay - he's still very young, with tons of room for improvement - but it just means he's not in a class with Evans, John Wall, Rose, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, etc.
To be fair, right now, nobody is in Rondo's class. He added 15 more assists, meaning he now has 82 on the season. No point guard in NBA history ever had more after his first five games of the season. He was simply amazing. Paul Pierce chipped in with an efficient 28 points, including his 20,000th point, and Ray Allen had a good game as well. Boston played like they usually do. It was Milwaukee that stepped up the effort and almost got a big win.
They just needed Jennings to be better.
Play of the game: Kevin Garnett slams it down on Andrew Bogut, lifts his elbows and pretends he did nothing. Bogut retaliates and shoves KG in the chest. Maybe KG was engaging in some #politicallycorrecttrashtalk.
Play of the game, Part II: Paul Pierce goes over 20,000 points for his career.
San Antonio Spurs 112, Phoenix Suns 110
This one was a regular-season classic. Despite the loss of Amare Stoudemire, it looked like this was the Western Conference playoffs all over again. Both teams attacked each other the same way. Phoenix tried to involve Tim Duncan in pick and rolls (this time using Hakim Warrick instead of Amare), and the Spurs tried to run more controlled pick and rolls to get shooters open.
In the end, Richard Jefferson was the difference. Last year, Jefferson struggled because he wanted to be more than a spot-up shooter. This year, he's accepted that role, and it's paid immediate dividends. His production has improved, and tonight, he showed he can master the Spurs' "corner three" role. Jefferson hit four threes from the left corner, the last of which gave the Spurs the lead for good. If he can hit that shot consistently, the Spurs' offense will suddenly regain the spacing they didn't have all of last season.
Play of the game: Okay, this isn't really a play, but check out Jefferson's shot chart. Via NBA Playbook:
That's probably what the Spurs want to see.
New Orleans Hornets 107, Houston Rockets 99
The Hornets are 4-0 and the Rockets are 0-4. Who would have thought?
I paid close attention to this game, and I continue to be amazed with how much the Hornets are running off missed shots. Lots of teams talk about committing to the transition game, but few pull it off. The Hornets have, and I think it's made them much more dangerous. Chris Paul has always been great, but he becomes even more lethal if he gets up and down the court. The Hornets got back into it with an 18-6 run in the third quarter, and Paul finished things off down the stretch.
There's a chance that Paul's stats drop this year, because in the past, he walked the ball up the court and became the entire Hornets' offense. Now, he's relinquishing responsibility to Trevor Ariza and even Emeka Okafor, so the assists may be down. But make no mistake: Paul is playing better than ever right now. With his quickness, he's naturally outstanding in the open floor. We just never really saw it.
The Rockets have to worry about their defense. They gave up 110.3 points per 100 possessions last night, and that's an improvement from where they were at earlier this year. Coming into the game, they were the league's worst defensive team on a per-possession basis. Yao Ming may be on a strict minute limit, but that simply can't happen.
Play of the game: Can't pick out one, so here are all the highlights.
Dallas Mavericks 102, Denver Nuggets 101
Another fun one. Denver had their offense going for most of the game, but the Mavericks threw them off with a zone defense down the stretch. The Nuggets stayed in it thanks to some inspired one-on-one defense from Al Harrington on Dirk Nowitzki (which worked then, but not earlier in the game), but a tough Caron Butler three put them up 102-99 and was just enough to hold on. Carmelo Anthony had a chance to win the game, but he missed the stepback jumper he's hit so many times to win games in his career.
Anthony had 15 rebounds, which you'd think would silence those "he can't rebound" doubters. But he had key defensive rebounds slip through his fingerprints twice on late defensive possessions, allowing the Mavericks extra shot attempts. It would have happened again on the possession before his missed shot if the Nuggets didn't get bailed out with a shot clock violation.
For my money, these are the second- and third-best Western Conference teams right now. That'll definitely change in the coming weeks, but this was such a well-played game that I had to put it out there.
Los Angeles Lakers 112, Sacramento Kings 100
I had this game on in the background while writing, so take this with a grain of salt. But the game was lost late in the second quarter, when a young Kings team had one of their patented "we forget what defense means" stretches. The Lakers went into the break up nine, and they carried that momentum into a double-digit lead in the third quarter. Sure, a nine-point lead is manageable at the half, but the Kings were so close for much of the time that it had to take the wind out of their sails.
There's no shame in losing to the Lakers, who are playing out of their minds right now. However, one concern I'd have if I'm a Kings fan is that they shot so many jumpers in the third quarter trying to come back. It looked like everyone was trying to do it themselves.
Play of the Game: Kobe Bryant had a triple-double. Here's how he did it.
From the blogs: Silver Screen and Roll writes that Lakers fans shouldn't take this win for granted, while Sactown Royalty writes that only an absolutely perfect game by the Kings could have secured a win.
GAMES I MISSED OR BARELY SAW
- Philadelphia 76ers 101, Indiana Pacers 75: Roy Hibbert wasn't happy with his team's performance, and took to Twitter to say so.
- Atlanta Hawks 94, Detroit Pistons 85: The Pistons' fourth-quarter lineup was Ben Gordon, Tracy McGrady, Austin Daye, Charlie Villanueva and Greg Monroe. Rodney Stuckey, who was actually playing well, isn't happy about this. I don't blame him.
- Charlotte Bobcats 85, New Jersey Nets 83: BORING.
- Orlando Magic 128, Minnesota Timberwolves 86: Darko Milicic, the new $20 million man who was deemed the best passing big man in the league by his GM, now has three assists and 11 turnovers this season. He's also shooting 4/28 from the field. Canis Hoopus put it well: "The idea of Darko is much better than the actual Darko."
- Utah Jazz 125, Toronto Raptors 108: The Raptors can't play defense, with or without Chris Bosh.
- Golden State Warriors 115, Memphis Grizzlies 109: Monta Ellis: 39 points on 26 shots with 19 free-throw attempts. The difference between him under Don Nelson and him under Keith Smart is like night and day.
- Los Angeles Clippers 107, Oklahoma City Thunder 92: The Painted Area, a wonderful general NBA blog, wrote about this earlier in the week, but it bears repeating: the Thunder's defense isn't what it was for most of last year. They did not defend well to end last season, and those problems have carried over to this year. There's no way a team as simplistic as the Clippers should score 107 points on them. Throw in a bad shooting night from Kevin Durant, and you get games like this.