Traditionally, NBA players treat the last game before the All-Star break like you treated the last day of school before summer vacation. But through the slop, there were some entertaining games on Wednesday, here is what you need to know:
1) If you weren’t taking the Celtics seriously before, the Clippers think you should start. The Boston Celtics are 32-23, have the third-best defense in the NBA, and in their last 10 games are outscoring opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions (fifth best in the NBA in that stretch). They are legitimate. Not title contenders, but they are looking like the third best team in the East and a second-round showdown with Toronto could be interesting (especially if Danny Ainge can pull off a big move at the trade deadline — he’s trying). Brad Stevens is earning Coach of the Year votes every time the Celtics step on the court.
The latest sign the Celtics are for real — winning a shootout against the Los Angeles Clippers. Two good defensive teams decided to take the night off on that end, which was entertaining and fit the “last day of school before break” theme. Isaiah Thomas just shredded the Clippers perimeter defense on his way to 36 points and 11 assists (watching how quick he is on the dribble, he’s got to be the favorite at the All-Star Saturday skills challenge). Chris Paul countered with 35 points and 13 assists. It was an old-fashioned, 1980s-style barn burner that went to overtime when the Clippers didn’t score a field goal in the final 3:29 of regulation and the Celtics completed a comeback in a Thomas jumper. In OT, J.J. Redick started out hot, but the Celtics closed hotter and got the win. The one bit of bad news for Boston Kelly Olynyk suffered a shoulder subluxation, he will have the week off to let that rest. (We will now note that happened on the same night Kevin Love suffered a shoulder injury, too. His was just a stinger, and he will be back after the break.)
2) Kawhi Leonard drains game winner to give Spurs another win. A couple of seasons back, when the Spurs motion offense was clicking, with the game on the line they would have run a play, four guys would touch the ball, and they would get a clean look. But this is how much Gregg Popovich trusts Kawhi Leonard now: Tie game with 13.3 seconds remaining, and the play design is a 1-4 flat isolation for Leonard. That’s what you call for LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Popovich called it for Leonard. And he was rewarded with the win.
3) Chauncey Billups got his number retired in Detroit. There is a 2004 championship banner hanging above the Detroit Pistons court in large part because for a stretch Billups was not only the ultimate leader but played as well as anyone in the league. Just ask Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Wednesday night they honored Billups in the Motor City (well, in Auburn Hills) by retiring his number.
4) Portland beats Houston to take over final playoff spot in the Western Conference. If the playoffs started today, the Trail Blazers would be the eight seed in the West and the Rockets would be golfing. That’s because Portland beat Houston 116-103 to move to .500 and ahead of Houston in the standings by half a game. Houston had some success scoring in the first quarter thanks to some old school Dwight Howard in the post and James Harden on the drive. The problem is, when Portland adjusted and Houston’s offense sputtered, they had no defense to fall back on — Portland scored at will all night. Damian Lillard finished with 31 points, the Trail Blazers had an offensive rating on the night of 115.6, and the Rockets head into the break trying to answer the same questions they had back when Kevin McHale got fired. Houston thinks things can come together, and they can make another playoff run, but a playoff run would be based on defense and the Rockets don’t play four quarters on that end nightly.
5) Suns Markieff Morris, Aaron Goodwin scuffle on bench. After the game — a 112-104 loss to Golden State — Morris said this was no more than two guys as close as brothers having a disagreement. It’s just a little hard considering everything that has gone on in Phoenix this season — including Morris’ poor play and the towel throwing incident with now-fired coach Jeff Hornacek — to think this is not another window into the chemistry problem in the Suns locker room.