Milwaukee Bucks, Trae Young and the unwelcome return of 'Pandemic P' for the Los Angeles Clippers all make the winners and losers this week.
Time is flying. February felt like it lasted for about three days, March is already here and the first half of the NBA season is almost in the books.
We have just five more nights of action before the All-Star break (where I'm extremely excited to see Obi Toppin flying high in the dunk contest) but before we talk about this year's All-Star selections, it's time to evaluate the winners and losers of the week.
Let's talk buckets!
I do want to mention that whilst writing the original draft of this column, I wrote several thousands of words, so I've trimmed it down to just two winners and two losers this week.
Having said that, let's quickly give a shout out to the Miami Heat who are currently on a six-game winning streak and have looked like they've turned their fortunes around after struggling earlier on in the season; perhaps still being tired from a long stint in the bubble didn't help, but it looks like the cups of 'Big Face Coffee' are in full flow once again.
Speaking of the Heat, they're constantly linked to Victor Oladipo and his impending free agency. The man the Rockets acquired after trading away James Harden reportedly rejected a two-year $45m extension to stay in Houston. The more time goes by, the more it looks like they should have dealt Harden to the Sixers straight up for Ben Simmons, who has been balling.
Instead, they will lose Oladipo, gave Caris Levert to Indiana and allowed Cleveland to take Jarrett Allen. Those draft picks better be good, otherwise that trade could be the biggest loss of the season for any team.
Oh, and last night the Rockets lost by 49 points at home, the eighth biggest home loss by any team in the history of the league. They only made 23 field goals, yet they turned the ball over 23 times.
Houston, we have a problem.
Winners: The New York Knicks
If you thought 2020 was full of surprises and unpredictability, 2021 seems to be continuing the trend. The New York Knicks are currently the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. They're above the reigning Eastern Conference champions the Miami Heat, the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, and Indiana Pacers. This is not a drill, people. The New York Knicks (finally) look legit!
I don't think even the Madison Square Garden faithful saw this coming. I certainly didn't.
After their hot start to the season, I wasn't sure that their success would be sustainable given the minutes that coach Tom Thibodeau is notorious for making his starters play.
Since then, Thibs is starting to find slightly more balance with his roster. Julius Randle leads all players with 36.7 minutes a night (we'll talk more about him in a second) but there are 14 players on the Knicks roster that are averaging double-digit minutes!
They traded for veteran Derrick Rose, who will prove to be an excellent mentor for rookie guard Immanuel Quickley (looking like the steal of the draft right now) and have hit their stride. RJ Barrett continues to fly under the radar whilst making solid contributions and other role players are stepping up too.
Personally, I think the biggest improvement has come off the court though. There hasn't been a peep of any behind-the-scenes drama. Moreover, we haven't heard from the Knicks' outspoken owner James Dolan much at all this season!
The big news this week from the Big Apple is the inclusion of Julius Randle to the All-Star team. He's averaging 23.4 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists so far this season, and is fully deserving of his selection.
His usage rate (27.7 per cent) has stayed the same as last year, when he was known as something of a ball-stopper on offense, but he is performing at a much better level efficiency. His assist numbers are up, his field goal percentage is up, he's hitting more threes per game and, all-round, is a more refined player.
Check out the play below, although it's D Rose who gets credited for the awesome touch-pass on the assist, watch how Julius recognises the double team is coming and makes the correct play.
His gravity as the primary offensive option demands extra coverage from the opposition, which opens up the floor for his team-mates, even if this doesn't show up on the stat-sheet every time.
Loser: Trae Young
I'm only now just realising how rude the sub-headings in my column look. No, I'm not calling Trae Young a loser, I'm just saying this week hasn't been the greatest for him. Maybe next week I'll change this column to W's & L's, but we'll see.
But let's get back to talking about 'Ice Trae'. The electrifying point-guard who has unlimited scoring range seems to have fallen out of favour with NBA fans, players and coaches.
After being selected as an All-Star Starter last year, he has failed to make the All-Star team this year, even as a reserve.
Fan voting had him in sixth place amongst guards from the Eastern Conference, not a huge achievement given that Russell Westbrook - who has been injured for most of the season - was closely behind him in seventh place, and his fellow players did not vote for Trae to be amongst the top 10 guards in the East.
Last year, almost three million fans voted for him to be in the All-Star Game. This year? Less than one million. Last year 65 of his fellow players voted for him, this year, only 20. His numbers have remained impressive, 26.5 points and 9.5 assists per game are certainly All-Star worthy numbers, so in the words of the Black Eyed Peas: where is the love?
The first factor could be the lack of winning basketball. I know this sounds ironic given that Bradley Beal was selected as a starter despite the Wizards barely winning any games until recently, but they didn't spend the offseason acquiring veterans to help them push for the playoffs.
The additions of Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn and others have not amounted to much, as the Hawks currently sit 11th in the East, with a 14-20 record.
I know injuries haven't helped, but with team-mates like John Collins (who the Hawks now risk losing, but that's a completely different story) and Clint Capela (who has been putting up absurd numbers) fans may be expecting Trae to at least be leading this team into the playoff picture.
Speaking of John Collins, it was reported earlier this season that he was unhappy with how Young is running the Hawks offence, and numerous team-mates agreed. Too many threes early in the shot clock and the lack of ball-movement seemed to be the main areas of concern, but I don't believe this is the reason he wasn't selected.
The real reason the narrative is shifting around Young is his compulsive desire to hunt for foul calls.
In all fairness, nothing he's doing is against the rules and it seems to be working for him, he's second in the NBA for free throws made (481) as he shoots 9.8 times from the charity stripe each night.
It's not as if he's getting to the line so many times because he's being hacked by defenders whilst attacking the rim, the clip below highlights an example of how Trae is manipulating the rule book to pick up easy free throws.
Not only have fans and other players taken a dislike to this, but one of Trae's heroes in Steve Nash also voiced his disapproval.
"That's not basketball" - Steve Nash— Talkin’ Nets (@TalkinNets) December 31, 2020
Trae Young was drawing cheap fouls and Steve Nash was tired of seeing it, not being able to do anything about it. Coach Nash had to have a word with this ref. Talk heavy coach. #WeGoHard - @Keith_McPherson pic.twitter.com/tMEbkSD6Ga
Winners: Milwaukee Bucks
What a game it was on Sunday night. If you weren't tuned-in to Sky Sports for #NBASundays then what were you thinking? We had a thriller between the Bucks and Clippers, in which Giannis Antetokounmpo reminded the world why he is the reigning back-to-back MVP and defensive player of the year.
He became the first Bucks player to record four straight 35+ point games since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1973 as he finished with a stat-line of 36 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and four blocks. Seventeen of those 36 points came in the fourth quarter to cut into the lead that the Clippers had built in the third.
First of all, check out this monster rejection on Clippers big-man Ivica Zubac:
Then watch how the Bucks' ball movement leads to Giannis sealing the win with just 10 seconds remaining:
He even sprinkled in a couple three-pointers to silence the haters, including one clutch triple from the corner in the fourth quarter, as he out-duelled Kawhi Leonard and carried Milwaukee to the win.
Let's be honest, if Giannis had not won the last two MVP awards he would be firmly in the conversation for this years' award too.
Over the past week he is averaging 37.7 points, 12 rebounds, and 5.3 assists, not to mention he has led the Bucks on a five-game win streak since I criticised the team in last week's column.
With Jrue Holiday's return to the line-up, I expect the defence to improve, and the offence to be clicking as always, as the Bucks continue to chase the leaders at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Giannis has now won two MVPs and a DPOY award, so probably won't be receiving much more love from the fans and media no matter what he does, at least until he proves he can do it in the playoffs.
Last night down the stretch in a close game we saw him isolate at the top for a few possessions which didn't end well.
He adapted and instead let Middleton handle the ball whilst using himself as a roll-man in screen-roll action. With the Clippers going to a small-ball line-up, he then went and started posting up, sealing defenders, generating easy points or trips to the free throw line.
If the Bucks can continue their recent run of form into the second half of the season, they're a team that no one will want to face in the post-season.
Loser: Paul George
For the loyal viewers of Heatcheck, you've enjoyed numerous opportunities to make jokes at the expense of Paul George - please enjoy another with this throwback:
Mo goes off on the Clippers! 🏀@TheHoopGenius destroys the Clippers after losing to the Nuggets from a 3-1 lead - Doc Rivers, ‘Playoff P’ and even Kawhi Leonard are all under attack.— Sky Sports NBA (@SkySportsNBA) September 17, 2020
📲 There’s more in the extended version on Sky Sports YouTube: https://t.co/v69sJkjWPD pic.twitter.com/aofaZDhCbA
This season, however, he has looked like a much-improved player. PG is averaging a career-high shooting percentage, including a 45.9 per cent conversation rate from downtown, whilst also playing a more team-friendly brand of basketball on the way to a career-high 5.5 assists per game.
He even got off to a hot start last night... and then it happened.
Fourth quarter. Crumble. Meltdown. Choke. Whatever you want to call it: it was what we've come to expect from Paul George on the LA Clippers.
He missed all five of his shot attempts in the final three minutes and 23 seconds of the game. As a team, the Clippers were 0-of-9 from the field in the last four minutes of the game against the Bucks.
The other four shots were taken by Kawhi Leonard who should be criticised too, but he's not the one who gave himself a nickname and anointed himself as a clutch player before making any truly clutch plays.
Immediately after the game 'Pandemic P' was trending across the internet, so this week I'll leave you with some of my favourite Paul George memes from yesterday evening.