The big scorers weren’t messing around tonight, folks. The clocks were turned back in Boston, an ABA type score was dropped in Houston, and the Highlight Factory was invaded (even more than usual!) by a force that even the great Kyle Korver could not stop. Robin Lopez was also on pace for 56 points after the first quarter, but that kind of fell through. To the Three Stars of the Night!
Third Star: Kevin Durant – (41 points, 13 rebounds, 14-for-23 shooting)
Kevin Durant isn’t just “getting the best” of his opponents or “outplaying” them…he’s absolutely eviscerating them. Ask the Atlanta Hawks after tonight — there’s no good way to defend Durant. Crowd him, and he has the burst and the length to put you on his hip and wish you goodbye as he glides to the hole. Play off of him and he’s simply popping the jumper. Bring a double, and he can see right over the top of it and fire a pass to two very good stand-still shooters (Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka) or a player you don’t want penetrating a gap with a full head of steam (Russell Westbrook). If the goal of the offense is to make the defense pick their poison, the Thunder accomplish that virtually anytime they put the ball in Durant’s hands anywhere remotely close to the basket. Only two players have averaged over 27 points a game over a full season with a True Shooting Percentage over 67 percent: Charles Barkley and Adrian Dantley. That’s it. No Kobe. No LeBron. No Jordan. Durant is averaging that so far this year. He’s been that good.
Second Star: James Harden – (33 points, 17-for-18 from the line, 7 assists)
James Harden might do one thing better than anyone else in the NBA, and that’s draw fouls. Harden’s signature move of extending the ball way out in front of him on drives is too appetizing for opponents to resist. They hack and slash down at the ball, almost always raking Harden across the arms, sending him to the line for two easy points. Harden is dangerous in the open floor when the Rockets are playing fast, but he also found a viable roll partner (sorry, Omer Asik, not you) in the halfcourt in promising young big man Greg Smith. If the Rockets are building their future around Harden — and they are — a great defender and defensive rebounder to spark the break (cheer up, Omer, that’s you!) and a point guard who can push the pace seem necessary along with a solid roll man. The Rockets are trying out a few different pieces, but now that their star is in place, they finally have direction. In the meantime, if opponents allow the Rockets to play fast like the 76ers did tonight? Good luck stopping them.
First Star: Paul Pierce – (40 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 13-for-16 shooting)
Do not adjust your computer monitor, because the numbers you are seeing are indeed the truth. Paul Pierce was absolutely on fire against the Cavaliers, knocking in each and every momentum shot and heat check he could throw at the rim — stepbacks, spotup J’s — whatever it was, it went in. Pierce doesn’t do this nearly as often as he used to, as he’s slowed down and lost much of the explosiveness that made him deadly in the past. But where the body fails, the mind picks up, and Pierce is a great example of that. No one manipulates space with his footwork quite like Pierce, and his ability to trail on the break and make himself available for a Rondo kickout at just the right time is nuanced brilliance. That’s the kind of stuff you learn after 38,000 minutes of floor time in the league, and although Pierce’s body and jump shot will betray him on many nights, he still knows how to ride out the perfect storm, no matter how infrequently they seem to come around.