Small ball is the NBA's new cure-all. To be topical, it's the Crying Jordan meme of Twitter -- seemingly everywhere, always effective, somehow growing even more popular. With the Mavericks and Rockets both missing their starting centers, it was inevitable.
It was Houston who won in Sunday's matinee game with small ball leading the way. Dwight Howard and Zaza Pachulia both sat with minor ailments for teams who already have a perchance for going small, and a lineup using newly acquired Josh Smith at center that crushed Dallas in the fourth quarter.
The Mavericks actually led in the middle of the game, using a 29-14 second quarter to take an eight-point lead into halftime and a one-point advantage into the fourth. But after surviving Houston's small play for a while, Dallas finally stumbled into a five-man unit they couldn't solve opening the final frame. Smith, who the Rockets traded for just three days ago, manned the middle with Ty Lawson, Jason Terry, Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza around him. In six minutes, they outscored Dallas by 14, making nine of their 12 shots, including five triples, and not turning the ball over once.
Dallas tried to match Houston, but Rick Carlisle can't completely abandon his core pieces. Dirk Nowitzki was stuck guarding Smith and labored while doing it, forcing the Mavericks to help and leaving too many shooters open. Dallas tried to use that same mismatch at the other end, but Smith is an adequate defender of the 37-year-old Nowitzki, holding his own as Smith's teammates preventing the cross-court swing pass that Nowitzki loves so much.
By the time James Harden finally reentered the game with six minutes to play, he had a 108-95 lead. And Harden was playing great! His final line was a brilliant 23-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist triple-double, but Houston didn't need him in that decisive run, just asking that he close it out. Dallas threw in the white flag with two minutes to play and Houston moved one game back of their Interstate-45 rivals for the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.
The Rockets haven't had a player like Smith since, well, you know, last year when they failed to bring him back mid-season. He had his warts, no doubt, but there isn't another player on the Rockets who could duplicate what he did on Sunday. Nowitzki could have hid on Terrence Jones or Clint Capela, but Smith forced him all the way out to the three-point line and made him use his creaky legs. Nowitzki is still Dallas' best player and still a matchup terror, but with the right ingredients, teams can also use that to their advantage. He still scored 19 points on 13 shots, but his inability to get it going in isolation clearly hurt during that run.
It won't be the same with both teams healthy. Josh Smith won't be getting too many chances at center when Howard is healthy, and Pachulia could have been a difference maker in this game. There's a good chance Houston couldn't have gone small with Pachulia in the game because of his uncanny knack for batting out offensive rebounds. It's something that would have obviously given his team second chance opportunities but also slowed down the quick tempo that the Rockets used to exploit Dallas' tired legs that showed themselves after playing eight games in 13 nights (with yet another back-to-back coming up).
But with both out, Smith's usefulness as a 6'9 Swiss army knife netted the Rockets a key division win.
Small ball in Houston will still be dictated by health and matchups, but after such a miserable season thus far, anything to change up their regular rotations surely can't hurt. As for Josh Smith, it's been a hell of a week -- barely playing with one team on a Wednesday, getting traded to a new team on a Friday, now winning games in a key role on a Sunday.
2 other things from Sunday
The Raptors aren't slowing down any time soon.
After rolling to an easy 112-94 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, the Raptors have won eight in a row to separate themselves from the rest of the East in the race for the No. 2 seed behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kyle Lowry's 21 points and six assists led a balanced attack for the Raptors. Jonas Valanciunas had 20 points and DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross each added 18 as seven Raptors scored in double figures. It was never that close. DeRozan led the charge in the first half, scoring 15 points as the Raptors jumped out to a 62-49 lead. Lowry took over in the second half with the game in hand as the Raptors extended their lead. Chris Paul had 23 points and 11 assists in a losing effort on a day the Clippers were no match for a better team in the Raptors.
Beating out the West's elite is turning into a recurring theme for the Raptors this season. They're now 9-7 against the West. Most impressive, though, they have six wins against four the West's top five teams. They've beaten the Clippers and Mavericks twice and have taken out the Spurs and Thunder once. And they're not too shabby against the East, either. They're now 29-15, just two games back of the Cavaliers. It was only a few weeks ago it seemed like no one wanted to challenge Cleveland in the East -- the Raptors, thanks to their winning streak, have emerged.
- Liam Boylan-Pett
The Nets -- the Nets! -- ended the Thunder winning streak.
The above sentence is not a typo. The Thunder came into Brooklyn and threw up a dud to end their seven-game winning streak with a whimper. The Nets ended a five-game losing streak of their own behind 31 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks from Brook Lopez, who played one of his best games of the season. It was a bizarre day in Brooklyn. The Nets never trailed and dominated the paint thanks to Steven Adams missing time for the Thunder. Lopez had a huge game and Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic had 18 points off the bench.
Just like the Cavaliers, the Thunder are allowed to have an awful game. There's no reason to panic after losing to the Nets, but -- also similar to the Cavaliers -- it certainly wasn't an encouraging effort. Kevin Durant had 32 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists and Russell Westbrook had 27 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, but the rest of the Thunder roster must have been buried by the blizzard that hit New York City. Only two other Thunder scored in double figures and the defense was a disaster down low. The 116 points the Nets scored was the most they had put up in regulation this season. The Thunder will need Adams' presence on defense or they'll continue to be hammered down low.
Play of the night
Kyle Lowry was slinging as per usual on Sunday. He wasn't facing Chris Paul on this play, and he didn't necessarily have the superstar's number, but Lowry led a Raptors squad that was more than ready to take out one of the West's elite. And he did it with nifty footwork and dribbling all over the Clippers defense. Austin Rivers was left chasing Lowry around on this play, unable to do anything against the screen at the top of the key. He wasn't the only one chasing Lowry and the Raptors on Sunday.
One fun thing
Jimmy Butler is carrying the Bulls into the future.
Rockets 115, Mavericks 104 (The Dream Shake recap | Mavs Moneyball recap)
Raptors 112, Clippers 94 (Raptors HQ recap | Clips Nation recap)
Celtics 112, 76ers 92 (Celtics Blog recap | Liberty Ballers recap)
Nets 116, Thunder 106 (Nets Daily recap | Welcome to Loud City recap)