Two of the NBA's more surprising teams this season met Monday in Brooklyn, where the red-hot Pistons (winners of 12 of 14 coming in) took on the Nets (on pace for their best finish since 2013-14).
It was competitive for about a quarter.
Taking advantage of their customary balance, the Nets never trailed over the final 45:26 and led by as many as 31 en route to a comprehensive 103-75 conquest.
It was their third-largest victory of the season, and the second-largest defeat for the Pistons.
Of more importance, the Nets hopped past the Pistons by half a game for sixth place in the Eastern Conference as they continue to pursue their first playoff berth in four years.
The victory clinched the season series for the Nets at 2-1. Given that both they and the Pistons are likely too low in the standings to climb any higher than sixth, that could be critical as they play their remaining 13 and 16 games, respectively. (The Heat sit in eighth place with 16 games left, and trail the Nets by just two in the loss column with one last meeting on April 10 in the regular-season finale.)
''They brought a tough mindset and a much more physical game,'' said Pistons forward Blake Griffin, who was limited to 10 points on 1-for-10 shooting.
What the Nets lack in star power -- sorry, D'Angelo Russell, you're not quite there, recent All-Star berth notwithstanding -- they more than make up for with depth and chemistry. Both traits were on full display against the Pistons with seven double-figure scorers and a smothering defensive effort.
Indeed, in addition to allowing their fewest points since Dec. 2014, a span of 375 games, Detroit's miserable 27.8 shooting percentage was the third worst by a Nets opponent -- ever.
"Our guys attacked it,'' Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. ''Sometimes when you're not used to these big games you might be on your heels a little bit. But, I felt like we were the more aggressive team and we weren't afraid of the moment. Definitely a good sign for us if we have more of these big games in the future.''
We'll find out soon enough. The Nets now embark on an absolutely brutal 16-day, seven-game road trip featuring five teams currently slated to make the postseason, including the 76ers, Thunder, Trail Blazers and Jazz.
Bring the same defensive intensity as they did against the Pistons, and they just might survive.
The last word
So, as you might have heard, things got pretty ugly Monday in Utah, where the Jazz are investigating a profanity-laced confrontation that took place between Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook and a fan.
The incident marred what was otherwise an intriguing matchup between two potential postseason opponents who already don't like each other much after meeting in last season's playoffs, with the Jazz eliminating the Thunder 4-2 in the first round.
Such setbacks can't be avenged in the regular season, but the Thunder did their level best by sweeping all four meetings, including Monday's 98-89 victory in which they led by as many as 17 in the fourth quarter.
The Jazz did rally within six late in the period before Westbrook had the last word, scoring five points during a 9-1 run that put the game away. That included a 33-foot 3-pointer that he appeared to enjoy quite a bit:
Back to the drawing board
The narrative machine has been in full force for the Celtics lately, with tales of the beleaguered team bonding on their recent flight West surfacing as they stitched together a modest but much-needed three-game winning streak, including last week's 33-point throttling of the Warriors.
Are the Celtics, scribes breathlessly asked, finally fixed?
Maybe, maybe not. Turning in their worst defensive performance since 1994, the Celtics yielded a whopping 140 points to the Clippers, including 78 in the second half alone, en route to a 25-point defeat in which they led for a grand total of one possession.
Much of that had to do with the Clippers, who continue to defy expectations. They did it again Monday as they shot 61.6 percent and Lou Williams scored 34 points to surpass Dell Curry as the all-time leader in bench points. Playing without the injured Jayson Tatum certainly didn't help.
But the loss also fell squarely on the Celtics, who had ranked fourth in defensive efficiency coming in but mustered virtually zero resistance as the deficit ballooned to as much as 30 points.
And now they head home facing many of the same doubts and questions as before.
It hasn't been a great week for the NBA's best, with conference frontrunners Milwaukee and Golden State absorbing embarrassing losses to the Suns within a span of six days.
Next up for a turn in the barrel? The Raptors, who lost 126-101 loss to a Cavaliers squad that trailed them by 31.5 games coming in. And they weren't even resting Kawhi Leonard!
Adding insult to literal injury, they'll almost certainly be without Serge Ibaka for at least a game or two after he and Marquese Chriss were ejected for fighting.
The Warriors endured probably their worst loss of the season on Sunday, losing to the lowly Suns despite entering as 17-point favorites. Ever the optimist, Stephen Curry noted that the Warriors have an immediate opportunity to turn the page with their next outing, a marquee matchup against Western Conference rival Houston.
"The beauty of the NBA is that on Wednesday we have an opportunity to send a statement,” said Curry, as reported by ESPN. “We have to take advantage of that opportunity. We’re looking forward to it, no question."
Which teed up Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, no doubt feeling good after his team beat the Hornets for their ninth straight win, for an epic barb:
Mike D'Antoni on Steph Curry's 'statement' comment: "Yeah, well they should've probably said it before (the Suns game)."— Salman Ali (@SalmanAliNBA) March 12, 2019
Pass the rock
Rockets point guard Chris Paul is used to dishing out assists. He was on the receiving end Monday courtesy of teammate Iman Shumpert's beautiful little daughter Junie.
So, Joel Embiid got a new dog. He named it after former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie. That is all.
Come on man ...
My favorite sign of the season: "GO CAVES" pic.twitter.com/YVzZulr3JZ— J.E. Skeets (@jeskeets) March 12, 2019