by: Michael Shields
As NBA All-Star Weekend prepares to invade Toronto, we take a look back at the greatest games of this thrilling season…
It has been a unique NBA season thus far. While the proclamation I was able to haughtily declare at this same time last year, that there was a multitude of contenders for the title, is hardly the case this time around, the action still has remained sizzling hot. It appears that there is but a trilogy of teams poised to vie for hardware this year, with the San Antonio Spurs, The Cleveland Cavaliers, and The Golden State Warriors standing heads and shoulders above the rest of the league. Although the dominance of these teams certainly finds the league in the awkward position of being top heavy, on almost any given night you wouldn’t really know it, as players like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Demarcus Cousin, and Chris Paul (just to name a few) are playing as if it’s anyone’s ballgame. While the frustration of the bottom feeders in the league – Philadelphia, Los Angeles (Lakers-wise), Phoenix, and Brooklyn – is palpable, the “middle class” continues its assault on the league’s “one percent,” resulting in a series of classic showdowns. Despite the fact that some of the games that were poised to be absolute barnburners this year fell short of expectations (looking at you Spurs v. Warriors on January 25th!), there were a few that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. So now, without further adieu, I present for your consideration: The Top Five NBA Games of the 2015-2016 Season (So Far)….
5. Sacramento Kings vs. Charlotte Hornets, January 25, 2016
Like Kemba Walker on the eighteenth of January (52 points), and Jimmy Butler on the fourteenth of the same month (53 points) ((There were five other fifty points games so far this season, three courtesy of Stephen Curry and one from James Harden.)), on this fateful evening at Arco Arena (I’m not ready to call it Sleep Train, I’m not) Demarcus “Boogie” Cousins was Feeling the Beeeeern. In an awe-inspiring performance, he went on to set a Sacramento record with 56 points ((The former record was held by Chris Weber who put up 51 points, also in an overtime game.)), most by an NBA player this season. Cousins was unstoppable inside the paint and out, but remarkably it was all for not, as the Charlotte Hornets in a double overtime thriller, after a go-ahead three by Troy Daniels (Roanoke, Virginia’s own!), beat the Kings 129-128.
This game wasn’t notable solely because of Cousins performance, or for its breathtaking closing moments, but because everyone – on both sides of the court – came to play. For the Kings, who came into the game with a 5 game winning streak, Rajon Rondo had 20 points and 10 rebounds and Rudy Gay put up 20. For Charlotte, Troy Daniels made 8 three pointers and scored a career-high 28 points, Jeremy “I miss” Lin-Sanity contributed 20 points and 11 assists, Kemba Walker added 24 (but failed to hit a foul shot that would have sealed the deal in regulation), and Spencer Hawes (yup, still in the league!) scored a season-high 18. But truth be told, this one needs to be remembered for Boogie’s performance. Who knows what would have happened if he didn’t foul out in the second overtime? Wait, that’s easy – Sacremento gets that win.
Charlotte Hornets 129 – Sacramento Kings 128 (2 OT)
4. Philadelphia 76ers vs. New York Knicks, January 18th, 2016
How, you ask, can a matchup between two bottom-rung Eastern Conference teams end up on a list of the best games of the year so far? Fair question, but a great game is a great game, no matter who the participants are. And on Martin Luther King Day at Madison Square Garden, two teams who seem to take pride in disheartening their fan base annually came with it. Carmelo Anthony was back in the lineup after missing the two previous games with an ankle injury, but this game wasn’t about aging superstars, rather rising ones, because this showdown featured two of the Top 5 picks from the 2015 NBA Draft in Jahlil Okafor (who finished with 20 points in just 26 minutes) and Kristaps Porzingis (7 foot 6 inches of HOPE!).
Porzingis (7 of 11 from the field) played inspired ball from the onset, igniting the garden into a frenzy with a thunderous dunk which exhibited how nimbly he can get up and down the floor for a man of his towering height. But in a scary moment for the Knicks, the Lengthy Latvian limped off the court with a sore right foot. The Knicks would have to do it without him, and that they did, but it took withstanding a 32-12 run by the Sixers (featuring outstanding play by Ish Smith and Nerlens Noel), a clutch three by Melo to force overtime, a series of hard-earned buckets by Aaron Afflalo (25 points), and some phenomenal, albeit unexpected, play from Langston “Hughes” Galloway in the final overtime (4 points, 1 assist, 1 block, 1 rebound in the 2nd OT) to eek out a win at home against the lowly Sixers, bringing New York’s record on the Good Doctor’s holiday to 20 and 10.
New York Knicks 119 – Philadelphia 76ers 113 (2 OT)
3. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors, December 25, 2015
Maybe it’s because the fire crisps and crackles with sentiment on this special day as ABC’s NBA theme song calls to attention the start of the game, or the fact that on a holiday watching three hoop games back to back to back isn’t frowned upon as much as regular, but either way, the NBA on Christmas Day is a grand celebration regardless of creed. With a rematch of last year’s Finals on the docket, it was sure to be a special day for basketball, but surprisingly it didn’t start out that way.
Although there were seven lead changes within the first five minutes, the Warriors appeared to have control of the Cavs throughout the majority of the game, even attaining a 10 point lead deep in the fourth. But LeBron (who finished with 25), determined to make the statement that the Cavs were as good as the Warriors, responded with thunderous dunks, a timely block, and some clutch threes. Yet Lebron’s efforts fell short in a grind it out win for the Warriors, who were held under 100 points at home for the first time in over a year in the regular season. With the win the Warriors improved to 28-1 on the season, and although Stephen Curry and Lebron James are the cream of the NBA’s crop, this day belonged to Draymond Green who was elected to his first All-Star game this year (well-deserved!). Green finished just three assists shy of a triple double (22 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists), displaying once again a dynamic player who improves his team in a multitude of ways. And to cap off this impressive performance he went ahead and finished off the Cavs with a pair of free throws in the final seconds of the game. Fortuitously, the rematch of last year’s NBA Finals so many had been salivating over – and a preview, many believe, of the Finals to come – lived up to its billing. Eventually, that is.
Golden State Warriors 89 – Cleveland Cavaliers 83
2. Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Clippers, November 19, 2015
You might be noticing a trend developing here in the involvement of the Warriors in this list of the best games of the year (so far). Well, that’s because there is nothing more compelling in and around the league then what’s going down in the Bay Area. It’s just that simple. What the Warriors are doing amounts to Must-See TV, every time they step on the court. And a matchup with one of the more imposing presences in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Clippers, meant it was time to get your popcorn ready.
To begin the game, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin appeared unstoppable. Shockingly, as the first quarter was winding down, the Clippers had amassed a 23 point lead, and the way things were looking it was easy to imagine things would only get worse for the Warriors from there on out. But remember, this is the Warriors we are speaking of. The feel good story of the NBA. The team who will not go quietly into the night, who will not vanish without a fight. Through a balanced attack where Klay Thompson put up 25 points, Draymond Green added 19, Harrison Barnes had 21 and Curry amassed the quietest 40 point game I have ever witnessed, the Warriors not only regained control of the game, but stepped on the Clips throat mercilessly. If you come at the King you best not miss, and the Clippers, who noticeably put everything they had into this one, came up short, resulting in a crushing, and ultimately embarrassing, loss. As the night came to its close, MVP chants for Stephen Curry could be heard echoing throughout the Staples Center – adding insult injury.
Golden State Warriors 124 – Los Angeles Lakers 117
1. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Golden State Warriors, February 6, 2016
The Golden State Warriors almost never lose at home, highlighted by the fact that in this win amid the dawning days of February, the Warriors extended their home winning streak to 41 games. FORTY ONE! ((The 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls hold the record for the league’s longest home winning streak with 44 games – a record that is about to be broken by the 2015-2016 Warriors.)). But not only do the Warriors rarely lose at home, more often than not they aren’t even tested.
In a game that dripped with Playoff-level intensity, the Warriors displayed their usual riveting brand of succinct basketball, with Curry finishing with 26 points (although he oddly only had one three-pointer all game), Harrison Barnes with 19 points and Klay Thompson with 18. But the story here was on the other side of the court, where the wonder-duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were unrelenting. Kevin Durant had 40 points and 14 rebounds and Russell Westbrook added 27 points and 12 assists for the Thunder, and the fashion they did it in was remarkable. Although the Warriors held on in the end to win, sealing the deal with a layup by Curry and then a dunk by Iguodala, the Thunder made them sweat. Exceedingly so. And we haven’t seen that happen in Oracle in some time. Post game, there was a great deal of talk about this being a moral victory for the Thunder – and while I normally subscribe to the idea that a loss is a loss – Durant and Co. surely could walk away from this one with their chins held high.
Here’s hoping that these two teams run into each other in the Playoffs, and that if they do, that both teams display the absolute fire that they did throughout the entirety of this contest. While I may have bemoaned in the opening to this countdown about there only being three authentic contenders this year, if Westbrook and Durant can finally get their act together, there may be another.