Sunday night’s marquee matchup in the NBA features the top teams in the Eastern and Western Conference.
No, it’s not Boston vs. Golden State, as many would expect. Instead, Toronto and Denver lead their respective conferences a third of the way through the season.
The Raptors (23-8) come into Sunday’s matchup in Denver banged up, but they have company. The Nuggets are missing three starters from opening night but have been able to push through for their best start in decades.
Denver (19-9) leads the Western Conference this late in the season for the first time despite not having forward Paul Millsap (broken toe), guard Gary Harris (hip) and forward Will Barton (core muscle surgery). Coach Michael Malone has dug deep into his bench and found some production.
Most notable among the players stepping up is third-year forward Juancho Hernangomez. The Spaniard has played well this season, including 16 points in a key win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.
He also had a big block in the final seconds of a 100-98 win over Golden State in the third game of the season.
“Juancho always plays extremely hard,” Malone told reporters after Friday’s win. “I think in his first two years he was playing very hard but not a lot of discipline. He was just all over the place. I think he’s calming down, he’s understanding who he’s guarding, tendencies, he’s having a lot more discipline within the game plan.”
Toronto has also adjusted to injuries, but it will be tested without center Jonas Valanciunas, who underwent surgery on his dislocated left thumb Thursday and is expected to miss four to six weeks.
Forward Kawhi Leonard scored 28 Friday night at Portland after missing two games with a hip injury, and guard Kyle Lowry is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game with a thigh injury. He didn’t play against the Trail Blazers two nights after having 23 points and 12 assists in a win at Golden State.
Lowry had been struggling a bit before the win over the Warriors, which was a surprise to teammate Fred VanVleet.
“It’s unusual to see a guy who plays at a high level like that go through slumps,” VanVleet told reporters earlier in the week.
“But it comes and goes. It was just shot-making, really. It wasn’t like he wasn’t showing effort. He was probably frustrated he wasn’t making shots, but that comes and goes, and he’s right back where we want him, and where we need him to be.”
VanVleet had 21 points and eight assists Friday and likely will be tasked with trying to contain Denver point guard Jamal Murray.
Toronto will be looking for some revenge, too. The Nuggets snapped the Raptors’ eight-game winning streak with a 106-103 victory on Dec. 3. Jokic had a triple-double and Lowry missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied it.
Denver had Millsap and Harris in that game but won’t have either Sunday.
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Boston plays up to the level of its competition, which is enough to earn big win over Toronto. Speaking on behalf of basketball fans everywhere, after watching the last two meetings between these teams, I would like to order seven more of these games for late May. Please. This is a playoff matchup that has to happen.
Now, about last night…
“What is wrong with the Boston Celtics” has been a favorite parlor game around the NBA this season, and while the “too talented” theory and others exist, Wednesday night’s performance and win at home against the Toronto Raptors shed light on maybe the real issue:
These Celtics play to the level of their competition. That gets them in trouble against lesser teams, but when the big guns come to town Boston shows up.
One week ago, the Celtics dismantled a strong Indiana team by 27 points. Boston then turned around and lost to Miami, Orlando, and Brooklyn (the Heat and Nets are .500 teams, the Magic are trying to find their way into the playoffs).
Boston came out Wednesday night like none of those losses happened and played one of its best games of the season to beat Toronto, the team with the best record in the NBA. It was a huge effort led by Kyrie Irving, who had 27 points and a career-high 18 assists, and he outplayed Kawhi Leonard down the stretch of the game (the Kyrie vs. Kawhi duel is what the game became at the end). Irving hit all the big shots.
The Celtics have won 2-of-3 against the Raptors and now are 6-3 overall against Toronto, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Philadelphia this season. When the Celtics need to raise their game up, they can, they just don’t do it nightly. After the game, to a man, the Celtics said they need to play like this in their upcoming games (struggling Memphis, then at Atlanta, Miami, and Cleveland).
“We have to play all those teams that aren’t the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philly 76ers, we have to play those teams like they are,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston. “That only helps us, keeps us in a rhythm, a great rhythm and it holds us accountable for doing the right things.”
“It just comes with our maturity as a team,” Irving said. “I did a poor job of setting an example for these young guys of what it’s like to get something out of your teammates. You go and say something publicly and it ends up being received in so many different ways. You never know how fragile or what guys are going through if you say things like that. You’re expecting results but at the same time I should have kept it in-house. Going forward, I want … to get the best out of them but I won’t do it publicly like that.”
Was this win a turning point for Boston? It felt like it, not just in the fact that the had to fight back from behind twice in the game and showed real grit and will, but those postgame comments are a positive. Boston may be learning its lessons and growing into a contender.
Only time will tell. With some soft games on the schedule coming up, we may quickly see if Boston is learning its lessons.
2) Stephen Curry explodes for 23 points in third, Warriors storm back then hold off Pelicans for the win. For the second night in a row, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors put on a basketball fireworks show.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans were playing maybe their best game of the season and were up 16 on Golden State at Oracle Arena, then Curry went on the kind of run they will show in his Hall of Fame career retrospective video — 23 points on 7 threes in the third.
Curry finished with 41 points on 22 shots, hitting 9-of-17 from beyond the arc. Kevin Durant had 30 points, maybe scariest of all for coaches who have to game plan against the Warriors Draymond Green shot 4-of-7 from three on his way to 17 points (sagging off Green at the arc has been a thing this season, and for a while now).
The Warriors got the win 147-140 in a game with the most threes made in any game in NBA history (43).
It wasn’t a defensive masterpiece by anyone, but the game had amazing shot making all night long.
It was the second night in a row the Warriors looked like the Warriors, and why they are back as the No. 1 seed in the West.
All of that overshadowed a 30 point, 18 rebound game from Anthony Davis, who reminded everyone why he should be in the MVP conversation even if the Pelicans are three games below .500.
3) James Harden scores 58 but the Rockets still lose to Brooklyn in OT. We could be seeing variations of that headline a lot in the next month — James Harden continues to play at an MVP level, but it’s hard to underestimate just how much Houston is going to miss Clint Capela this season, both on defense and in the overall scheme of how they play. (Capela is out 4-6 weeks with ligament damage in the thumb of his right hand.)
Harden was spectacular again on Wednesday, scoring 58 points.
After a P.J. Tucker three, Brooklyn was down eight with 1:02 left in the game. But them Sixth Man of the Year Spencer Dinwiddie drained a key three. Then one more. Then a third — this one to send the game to OT. That’s where the Nets got the win.
Brooklyn is a .500 team with this win — an amazing season considering the roster, the expectations, and the fact this team lost Caris LeVert (their best scorer) for much of the season due to an ankle injury. They are building something in Brooklyn that in a few years could be very special.