The major storylines for the NBA are usually set by Christmas Day. In December, we knew that the Golden State Warriors would be chasing history, that the San Antonio Spurs would be their biggest challenger and that Kobe Bryant's farewell tour would mostly involve collecting tribute videos and L's. We thought we knew how the Western Conference playoff picture was going to shake out, too, with seven teams appearing to be more or less locked in while three or four battled for the No. 8 seed.
As it turns out, two rising squads are flipping that storyline on its head. On Tuesday, the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers both won yet again, continuing feverish, significant pushes back into the playoff picture. Both teams are now aiming much higher than simply being first-round fodder for the Warriors.
Portland is the more surprising of the two, with a run that truly has materialized out of nowhere. On Jan. 20, they were 19-26 and everybody was mildly impressed at how well they were playing after they gutted their roster last summer. Since then, they've played 12 games and won 11 of them, gaining ground in the West by beating Houston twice, Memphis in overtime and Utah a few days ago. Even more stunning was their sensational performance against the Warriors in their first game out of the All-Star break. The Blazers handed the Warriors just their fifth loss of the season with a 137-105 blowout.
All-Star snub Damian Lillard and his sidekick C.J. McCollum both scored 34 points Tuesday. Both have been at the center of this astounding surge. We're all willing to admit that nobody saw this coming. Portland has flaws, mostly stemming from a mishmash frontcourt that isn't all that dynamic, but right now, with the way the Blazers' backcourt is carrying them, none of that has mattered.
The Houston Rockets were one of those seven teams that seemed locked into a playoff spot during the holiday season. A hugely disappointing start to the season had people questioning if it was going to get better, but nobody expected the Rockets to get even worse. With the two losses to Portland, the Rockets cracked the door open. On Tuesday, Utah topped them 117-114 in overtime.
Unlike Portland, the Jazz were considered a playoff team coming into the year, but losing Dante Exum for the season and Rudy Gobert for the first couple months pushed them down into the Western Conference muck. They stayed under .500 for most of the year until finally breaking above surface with a huge overtime victory against Dallas right before the All-Star break. After dipping back below, the win against Houston put them right back at the break-even mark.
Utah's fantastic defense carries it, something we saw glimpses of last year. The offense can be great, too, especially when working through Gordon Hayward or the suddenly emerging Rodney Hood. But when the ball's not in the hands of either one of them, the attack often lacks any purpose or direction. Regardless, Utah's seven-game winning streak at the end of January and start of February put it right back in position to push for a higher seed in the West.
The conference seems more open than it did just a few weeks ago, too. Although home-court advantage appears to be set -- Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles, mostly likely in that order -- the de facto No. 5 seed Memphis just lost Marc Gasol for the season. Dallas, which had held steady in sixth, lost five games out of six sandwiching the break before Monday's walloping of Philadelphia, and their lead on the Blazers has disappeared. And the Rockets are just sad, dropping to ninth place in the conference with the loss, a half-game behind the Jazz and two games behind the Blazers.
Both the Blazers and Jazz should even out slightly, but neither team seems too broken up about the way it has shaken up the Western Conference playoff picture so far. Counting them out from rising up the standings even more would be foolish.
3 other things from Tuesday
Boogie saves the Kings
DeMarcus Cousins had already done virtually everything for Sacramento, scoring 39 points on 14-of-24 shooting with nine rebounds. Somehow, despite a big lead early in the second half, the Denver Nuggets still had a chance to tie or win the game with seconds left and the Kings up 112-110. So for one final play, Sacramento had to call on Cousins, who ripped the ball out of Darrell Arthur's hands after he caught it with his back to the basket with about two seconds left in the game. That was all the Kings needed. When the ball bounced away harmlessly and the buzzer expired, Cousins could finally exhale.
No encore for The Brow
Anthony Davis embodied Godzilla on Sunday in a win against Detroit, scoring 59 points and snaring 20 rebounds while making it look all too easy. But on Tuesday, Davis was downgraded to just a generic, straight-to-DVD horror movie antagonist. He picked up 20 rebounds again, the first time he's done that consecutively in his NBA career, but scored just nine points on 3-of-9 shooting in a 109-89 loss to Washington.
Of course Davis can't do that every night, especially given New Orleans' pitiful roster situation. Because of injuries and questionable general managing, these are the starters who the Pelicans are putting around Davis: Norris Cole, Alexis Ajinca, Dante Cunningham and Bryce Dejean-Jones. None of those four players should be NBA starters, much less all of them. Davis is a generational talent and New Orleans' cornerstone for the coming years, but it must do better than this. Davis can't put up 59 points every night. When he doesn't, it's no surprise that the Pelicans lose by 20.
Video Game Stats: Anthony Davis absolutely torched the Pistons on Sunday
Gordon Hayward's crazily efficient evening
Hayward scored 28 points, which is pretty good. He did it on seven field goal attempts, which is absurd. Thanks to 6-of-7 shooting from the field, 3-of-4 shooting from behind the three-point line and 13 made free throws in 15 attempts, Hayward truly put up a stat line that Dirk Nowitzki would be proud of. Even in a tense game down the stretch, Hayward never once forced it, trusting his teammates when he ran out of room driving towards the rim. Even crazier, Hayward was 6 of 6 before missing a desperate half-court heave at the end of regulation with the score tied.
According to basketball-reference.com, Hayward is only the second player in NBA history to score 28 or more points on seven shot attempts or fewer. Pretty, pretty good.
Play of the night
Big men shouldn't be able to do things like this.
3 fun things
Damian Lillard just casually threw up a 60-footer that went in.
JAMES HARDEN MADE A DANG EMOJI FACE
Someone forgot to tell Aaron Gordon the dunk contest is over.
Magic 124, 76ers 115 (Orlando Pinstriped Post recap | Liberty Ballers recap)
Wizards 109, Pelicans 89 (Bullets Forever recap | The Bird Writes recap)
Kings 114, Nuggets 110 (Sactown Royalty recap | Denver Stiffs recap)
Jazz 117, Rockets 114 (OT) (SLC Dunk recap | The Dream Shake recap)
Trail Blazers 112, Nets 104 (Blazer's Edge recap | Nets Daily recap)