It’s almost March, so why shouldn’t an NBA story begin with a little taste of Bill Raftery?
Late in Duke’s win over Illinois in the 2004 Atlanta Regional final (yes, the regionals were referred to by their cities, then, a practice which mercifully didn’t last long), Luol Deng made the key plays which carried the Blue Devils back to the Final Four for the first time in three years. Raftery, always clever in his ability to fit player names into wordplays, simply exclaimed, “DENG IT!”
It wasn’t a curse, but a blessing for a Duke team which returned to its rightful place thanks to the Sudanese-British star.
A dozen years later, Deng is toiling in the NBA. He’s had a rough go of it with the Miami Heat, but after the All-Star break, he’s not merely played through pain; he’s played extremely well while in agony:
So, @LuolDeng9 had one double-digit rebound game before the All-Star break. He has three in three games since.
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) February 23, 2016
Let’s first say that what Deng is doing in Miami could very well reorganize the Heat’s lineup, if indeed Chris Bosh steers clear of another health scare and is deemed fit to play within the next week or so. The Heat might be able to put Deng at the 4, Bosh at the 5, and bring Hassan Whiteside off the bench. That could be the lasting effect of Deng’s peformance — it could matter in terms of reshaping the way the Heat approach the rest of the season and the playoffs.
What’s not likely to last, however? Those glossy, glittering rebound numbers.
This is not a shot at Deng or a knock on his capabilities. One must simply realize the point in the season when he’s grabbing all those boards: right after the All-Star break.
It’s a new frontier for NBA analysis: The extended All-Star break put into place by Adam Silver is only in its second season. The much longer period of respite given to the league’s non-participants in All-Star Weekend is a godsend for these role players. Yes, the break could certainly halt a surging team’s momentum. It could rob a team of rhythm (more on that in a bit), but for a lot of players — veterans in need of down time, younger players who needed some time to study what they needed to improve on — the full-week break resets the dial to a certain extent.
In the past 100 hours, as the league has returned to full-tilt action after its midwinter party in Canada, we’ve seen how the freshness of legs and minds creates different players. Deng is a foremost example.
What else have we seen in the past 100 hours?
Doug McDermott of the Chicago Bulls scored 30 points in a win over the Toronto Raptors, one in whch Chicago torched Toronto for 37 third-quarter points.
The Minnesota Timberwolves — with legs under their shots — made 31 of 31 free throws against the Memphis Grizzlies, an astounding feat not solely for the perfect mark, but due to the volume of attempts. A perfecto from the charity stripe with more than 20 attempts represents an extremely rare event in the course of basketball history.
The Golden State Warriors have actually suffered because of the break. They were totally out of sorts on defense against the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday, stale after a week of inactivity. They gave up 42 and 36 points in separate quarters in that game. They’re still not where they want to be on defense in the first 100 hours after the break; they gave up 36 third-quarter points to the not-very-good Atlanta Hawks on Monday night, squandering all of a 19-point lead before scrambling to win in the fourth.
Anthony Davis is as gifted as a player gets, and he’s going to put up more monster games such as the one he unfurled in Auburn Hills, Michigan, on Sunday. However, let’s not discount the place on the calendar as a partial reason Davis had that much fuel in the suburbs of the Motor City.
What else has happened in the past 100 hours? The San Antonio Spurs have not been sharp on defense. The Phoenix Suns — diminished as they are — hung 111 against them on Sunday afternoon.
The Minnesota Timberwolves — whose offense withered on the vine so many times before the break — busted loose for 124 in a win over the Boston Celtics on Monday night. Boston, a team which had been so good at winning second halves of back-to-backs, lost a second-half game in a B2B for the fourth time this season. Yes, it’s not as though Boston was going to continue to win every back end of a back-to-back in perpetuity, but the Celtics certainly didn’t figure to stumble against the T-Wolves after playing a day game in Denver and winning rather easily against the Nuggets. Of all the times to not win a back-end game in a B2B, Monday night’s failure in Minneapolis was the one which makes the least sense.
Minnesota, though, armed with talented and young players, certainly benefited from the refreshment provided by a week removed from labor… and the losing which came with it.
Welcome to the NBA in the first few days after the All-Star break. Crazy things are happening all over the place.
Yes, the tanking teams will continue to tank. The Spurs will continue to avoid bad losses. The Warriors will still find answers. Almost everywhere in between, though, don’t expect Luol Deng to continue to rebound at his current pace, or Doug McDermott to score 30 points.
Just like the 19-foot jumper the defense gives to Tony Allen, we’re seeing a lot of fool’s gold in the NBA. Don’t believe it’s the real thing.