We know you weren’t keeping up on Tuesday night’s NBA games because you were watching a Burmese Python and alligator fight, so we’ve got you covered. Here are the big takeaways of the night.
1) Flat Nuggets fall to Kings, fall out of playoffs, leave Mike Malone searching for leaders. It is just game 35 of 82, it’s just January, and the Denver Nuggets were on the second night of a back-to-back. Which is to say, there are plenty of reasons not to read too much into this one game.
However, for Denver that one game Tuesday was against Sacramento — the team the Nuggets were tied with for the final playoff spot in the West. And Denver came out flat. They struggled to slow DeMarcus Cousins — they put Wilson Chandler on him early, but he was overpowered by Cousins’ inside and struggled to stay in front of guards when the pick-and-roll was switched — who finished the game with 31 points. Darren Collison added 26. The Kings got the 120-113 win relatively easily, which for a day gives them the lock on the eight seed in the West.
What frustrated coach Mike Malone wasn’t just the loss, it was his team coming out flat in a game that had meaning. He looked at his young team and said it lacked veteran leadership.
He’s not wrong, Denver is inconsistent and at some point that stability and professionalism has to come from the players, not just the coach. Malone seemed to make a call to Chandler, Jameer Nelson, Mike Miller and Danilo Gallinari to step it up.
As for the playoff chase in the West: are seven teams in the West that look like playoff locks if they can stay healthy — Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Utah, L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City, and Memphis. After them it’s a 5.5 game drop to teams: Sacramento is the eight seed right now, Portland is one game back, Denver 1.5 games, and the Pelicans are are just two back. All those teams are in the mix for one playoff spot, so when they face each other it matters. Denver didn’t play with that sense of urgency.
There are seven teams that look like playoff locks if they can stay healthy — Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Utah, L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City, and Memphis. That group has separated itself, it’s a 5.5 game drop to the teams battling for the last ticket to the dance: Sacramento is the eight seed right now, Portland is one game back, Denver 1.5 games, and the Pelicans are are just 2 back. If I had to place my money on one team in that group it would be Portland, just because they have the talent and have reached that stage before. But in fact, it will come down to health and which team makes the smart moves at the trade deadline.
Malone’s point is valid — when one of those four teams going for one spot face each other it is the kind of game your team needs to be up and focused for. Tuesday night Denver didn’t play with that sense of urgency. They looked young and inconsistent. He can rant all he wants, but some of that has to come from the players, not top-down from the coach.
2) Play of the night goes to Sixers, game-winner to beat Minnesota. It was a wild ending in Philadelphia. Minnesota — which has played better, if not consistent, defense of late — held the Sixers to just 14 fourth-quarter points and made a comeback. Joel Embiid tried to put the dagger in the Timberwolves with six seconds left, but Karl-Anthony Towns rejected him.
That set up a Ricky Rubio three that tied the game at 91-91 with 1.6 seconds left. Brett Brown drew up a clever little play — the SLOB play, which starts to look like the “elevator doors” play the Warriors love to run but ends with Robert Covington rolling to the rim relatively uncontested for the bucket. Sixers fans, give some love to Dario Saric for that pass.
3) Spurs thrash Raptors, which leads to the question “will Toronto be buyers at trade deadline?” Tuesday night the Raptors completed their six-game, West Coast road trip and they went 3-3. Teams often fall flat in the last game of a long trip and the Raptors lived up to that, getting thrashed by the Spurs 110-82, with Kawhi Leonard scoring 25 to lead San Antonio. The result here isn’t a shock regardless of the timing, the Spurs are the better team. But this does lead to another question:
Do the Raptors need to be active buyers at the trade deadline?
On this road trip, the Raptors got thrashed by the Warriors and Spurs. Toronto is 0-3 against Cleveland this season. As we have said in this space more than once, the Raptors have a defined spot in the NBA hierarchy right now — they are the second best team in the East, but a clear step or two behind the elite of the NBA.
The Raptors have a window to challenge the Cavaliers at the top of the East, but they need one more star player — ideally at the four. Which is why if the Hawks actually are making Paul Millsap available — and that is not certain, it’s being debated internally in Atlanta — Toronto needs to be buyers. That comes with the questions of what are the Raptors willing to surrender (All-Stars don’t come cheap) and are they willing to give him a max contract this summer to keep him? Or, to cut more to the chase, are the Raptors ready to go all in? Or does GM Masai Ujiri want to save his chips and see if there are better options available this summer? Toronto went hard after Pau Gasol last summer and thought they were in the mix, but he chose the Spurs. Do they want to take that risk again this summer?
This is the golden age of Raptors basketball — this is the best teams they have ever had, and last season was the franchise’s first trip to the Conference Finals. Toronto is very good. But they are in the conference with LeBron James. If they want to compete for it all, they need to take one more step. Will they be able to do that at the trade deadline is the question.