About Last Night

About Last Night: A contrast of contenders

The West's top two teams made very different impressions on a wild and physical Sunday

The two-team tango at the top of the West saw Golden State seize the lead and Denver stumble in a startling contrast of killer instinct.

Neither team faced world-beaters, though the Warriors’ opponent (Charlotte) had playoff aspirations at stake that Denver’s opposition (Washington) had forfeited weeks ago. Yet it was Golden State demolishing the playoff-hopeful Hornets 137-90, while the Nuggets suffered a shocking 95-90 letdown to the lottery-bound Wizards.

The Warriors cruised despite just 11 minutes action from DeMarcus Cousins, who was ejected after his errant elbow to Willy Hernangomez’s face earned him a Flagrant 2.

Even with Cousins gone and a quietly content Kevin Durant (11 points, nine assists), Golden State jumped out to a 22-point halftime lead thanks to the Splash Triplets of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Quinn Cook. The trio combined for 70 points, including a 16-for-23 showing from beyond the arc. The Warriors scored more than 30 points in every quarter while simultaneously holding the Hornets below that mark.

Three states over, where Denver enjoys a conference-best 31-6 record at Pepsi Center, the Nuggets couldn’t get themselves untracked outside of Nikola Jokic (23 points, 14 rebounds). Yet even the Joker had a rough night. First there was his nose morphing into a bloody fountain:

Then Bobby Portis decided to turn a hard foul into a prolonged hug at Jokic’s expense:

By the time the night was over, the Nuggets were no doubt glad to see the last of the Wizards in the Mile High City. The loss did far more damage to Denver’s hopes of securing the No. 1 seed out West, where they now trail Golden State by a full game with just six remaining.

The Nuggets no doubt lament fizzling on the same day Golden State submitted a demolition derby on national television. The perceived gap between the two teams has been far greater than that in the standings for most of the season. Denver is no doubt eager to diminish both on Tuesday when the Nuggets and Warriors play under the TNT spotlight with a potential tiebreaker, the top spot in the standings and a possible mental edge at stake.

Trae’s sixth sense

The last nine weeks have provided Trae Young supporters all the proof they need to back their man, both in general and in a Kia Rookie of the Year race that seemed over months ago. The Hawks’ young guard added to the portfolio on Sunday with his second game-winner in as many weeks, a ridiculously intuitive push shot as time expired to give Atlanta the 136-135 victory over East-leading Milwaukee.

Reminder: The Horry Scale breaks down a game-winning buzzer-beater (GWBB) in the categories of difficulty, game situation (was the team tied or behind at the time?), importance (playoff game or garden-variety night in January?) and celebration. Then we give it an overall grade on a scale of 1-5 Robert Horrys, named for the patron saint of last-second answered prayers.

DIFFICULTY: Like many entries in the dunk contest or simple layups in traffic, a slow-motion replay is the best way to appreciate Young’s last-second heroics.

Live-ball situations are the most difficult to read, let alone react to in timely fashion. Young does both in less than a second while 1) catching the ball with his left hand; 2) switching to his right; 3) evading the outstretched defense of George Hill; and 4) releasing the ball before exhausting the same jump he launched to begin the play.

This isn’t something you can practice. It’s instinct and touch coming together in a literal split0-second of NBA action.

GAME SITUATION: The Hawks will take every confidence-inflating breath to come with victory. That being said, almost nothing rode on this game. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe were all no-go’s for the NBA’s best team, which even after the loss boasts a three-game lead over second-place Toronto.

CELEBRATION: Do we dock Young for his teammates’ initial lack of response? His game-winner was met by a vacuum of space and a startling absence of mob-forming, chest-bumping Hawks. Even after Young admirably crows to his adoring fans, he walks several steps down the court before one teammate gives him a well-deserved bear hug.

GRADE: Young’s crunch-time chops are already a thing, something no one would have predicted just three short months ago. Yet the game’s lack of import and post-shot euphoria left a lot to be desired when it comes to the overall magic of buzzer-beaters. 2.0 Horrys.

Sunday’s standings

Four playoff-bound teams — Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Denver — lost to lottery squads, with the latter three providing unintentional help to the rest of the Western Conference. Once the dust settled:

  • The Spurs and Thunder remained locked into a tie for seventh, though neither team will know until Game 82 whether Golden State or Denver await as the first or second seed.
  • The Clippers’ rout of Memphis, combined with the aforementioned defeats, launched LA to a tie for fifth with Utah. Yet with third and fourth place just as unsettled between Houston and Portland, neither the Clippers nor Jazz can assume who would wait for them in the first round.
  • The Hornets’ 47-point loss to the Warriors has their playoff hopes hanging by a thread. Charlotte trails eighth-place Miami by a full three games with Orlando sitting between them. It doesn’t get any easier this week, when the Hornets play at Utah (Monday) and host Toronto (Friday).

A different kind of Hussle

The basketball and popular music worlds share the same orbit, so it’s no wonder that the NBA mourned the loss of Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle. The 33-year-old was shot outside his Los Angeles store Sunday afternoon, prompting countless heartfelt expressions of grief and gratitude for the longtime NBA fan turned music star.

Many NBA stars knew of and appreciated Hussle’s climb from a bleak upbringing to an adult life of success and hope. Their teams, aware of the effect his loss would have on their players and the community in general, played Hussle’s music during their respective games while capturing moments of reflection following his death.


Pop pops off

If you thought Gregg Popovich would relax after the Spurs clinched their NBA-record 22nd playoff berth on Saturday, you need to watch more Spurs basketball. An assured postseason appearance and a lottery opponent mean nothing when it comes to what the five-time champion coach considers bad calls.

There are countless reasons why former Spurs gush about the franchise’s family atmosphere. Here’s one: Popovich protects them as vociferously as any youth sports parent. Just as impressive to this audience of one: his unruffled exit as soon as he felt the tirade had run its course.