Don’t look now, but here comes yet another team to muddle what is turning out to be an unexpectedly entertaining — and congested — race in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors, Bucks and 76ers are all meeting or exceeding high expectations at this early juncture, and the Celtics, presumptive favorites to succeed the LeBron-less Cavs as beasts of the East, finally looked the part with an eight-game win streak that ended on Saturday.
Yet the hottest team among them is the Pacers. They finished strong against the Knicks on Sunday for their seventh straight victory, the longest active streak in the NBA and their best since 2016-17.
One of the biggest surprises of last season, Indiana is proving it was no fluke with 20 wins in 30 outings, tying them with Milwaukee for second in the East behind mighty Toronto.
The Pacers’ solid start comes with an asterisk: Per Basketball Reference, they’ve had the league’s fifth-easiest schedule so far. But that tidbit comes with several additional asterisks of its own: Not only do the Pacers boast the NBA’s fifth-best point differential at 5.3 points per game, they won 7 of 11 outings without All-Star shooting guard Victor Oladipo as he dealt with a sore right knee.
Oladipo returned last Wednesday, scoring a total of 26 points in double-digit victories over the Bucks and 76ers. But he was all the way back to his old self against the Knicks with 26 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and five steals as the Pacers closed on an extended 29-18 surge.
As has been the case all season, the Pacers had plenty of other contributors. Myles Turner extended his recent run of impressive play with 24 points, Domantas Sabonis added his 12th double-double off the bench and the Pacers, who entered with the NBA’s second-best defensive rating, collectively held the Knicks to 41.6-percent shooting.
The continued development of their two standout bigs is encouraging, particularly Turner. While he wasn’t exactly bad, neither did Turner do much early on to prove he was deserving of the lucrative extension he signed during the offseason. Since Nov. 26, however, he’s been borderline great, averaging 15.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks as the Pacers have gone 9-2.
The Pacers still might not have the raw star or staying power of their fellow Eastern leaders. But with Oladipo, one of the league’s best young frontcourt tandems and a deep rotation that goes eight or nine deep, they continue to prove that life after Paul George can be pretty, pretty good.
Let’s be completely honest. There’s no way any game not involving the two-time defending champion Warriors can be a real Finals preview.
So let’s just call Sunday’s battle between the Raptors and Nuggets in Denver what it was: A really entertaining game between the first-place teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences.
The proceedings were unfortunately marred by a glut of absences as both teams were forced to play without three of their top five scorers. (Curse you, Injury Bug!) But while that impacted the quality of play — the two foes combined to shoot 41 percent — it did nothing to diminish the drama.
The two teams battled through 13 lead changes in the first half before the Raptors, riding a monster 16-0 run overlapping halftime, surged ahead by as many as 13 in the third quarter. Then the Nuggets responded with an uppercut of their own, ripping off 18 unanswered to take the lead for good despite a sweat-inducing late push by the Raptors.
Despite yeoman’s work from Kawhi Leonard (29 points, 14 rebounds, four assists), the difference proved to be the Nuggets’ tandem of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. While Jokic did the heavy lifting with 26 points, nine rebounds and four assists, Murray scored 15 of his 19 points in the fourth to carry the Nuggets home for a 95-86 triumph.
While you cleaned out your garage or did the weekly grocery shopping, John Wall spent his Sunday tormenting the Lakers with brilliance like this:
— NBA (@NBA) December 17, 2018
By the time the dust settled, Wall had amassed one of the most awesome stat lines of his career (40 points, 14 assists, six rebounds, three steals and two blocks) and the Wizards were 128-110 victors over their hapless guests.
It was a far cry from his listless performance against the Nets on Friday, in which he scored a paltry 17 points on 16 shots.
“Just being aggressive, just trying to get downhill and attack the basket,” said Wall, as reported by the The Washington Post. “Kind of disappointed how I played in Brooklyn. Not being aggressive. When I’m aggressive, it makes it easier for guys offensively.”
Not to be done, giant-sized point guard Ben Simmons turned in one of the best games of his young career as the 76ers pasted the Cavaliers 128-105.
His 22 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists were impressive enough. But what really set his performance apart was the fact he committed no turnovers to become the first player to hit those numbers since Antoine Walker in 2002 and, at 22, the youngest to do it since Grant Hill in 1995.
Not enough esoteric stats for you? Try this one: Simmons also became the second-fastest to reach 15 career triple-doubles at 111 games, surpassing Magic Johnson’s 116. (The record: 40, held by the ridiculous Oscar Robertson.)
The Nets absorbed one of the biggest body blows of the young season on Nov. 12 when popular and productive shooting guard Caris LeVert dislocated his right foot. (Although the injury was actually less severe than initially thought, there is still no timetable for his return.)
They promptly dropped 10 of their next 12, and whatever hopes of earning their first playoff berth since 2014-15 seemed all but dashed.
Make no mistake: That’s still going to be a tall task. But the Nets have at least showed some major heart lately with five straight victories, including Sunday’s 144-127 rout of the Hawks. In the Good Omen Department, that’s the longest winning streak the Nets have enjoyed since that 2014-15 campaign.
No wonder Jarrett Allen’s excited.
— Jarrett Allen (@_bigjayy_) December 16, 2018
Count Kings coach Dave Joerger among Luka Doncic’s many fans after he lavished praise on the early Kia Rookie of the Year favorite prior to Sunday’s contest in Dallas.
Dave Joerger's entire quote on Luka Doncic: pic.twitter.com/zrMqBK3AYK
— James Ham (@James_HamNBCS) December 17, 2018
While it wasn’t enough to avert a 120-113 loss for the Mavericks, Doncic turned in yet another quality performance with 28 points, six rebounds and nine assists.
As good as Doncic already is, he’s got a mountain to climb if he wants to threaten Dirk Nowitzki’s status as the greatest player in franchise history. The Mavs and their faithful showed their appreciation for the big German with a tribute video and standing ovation as he made the 21st home season debut of his illustrious career.
"It's been such a joy."
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) December 17, 2018
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) December 17, 2018
We’re a sucker for Jrue Holiday’s adorable little daughter J.T. here at NBA.com. Here’s a heart-warming shot of her stealing a quick pregame moment with her daddy before he scored 22 points in the Pelicans’ 102-96 setback against the Heat.
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) December 17, 2018