by: Michael Shields
As All-Star Weekend prepares to invade New York City, we take a look at the greatest games of this spectacular season…..
In Across the Margin’s Mid-Season NBA Report, I went on and on and about the health of the NBA. I alluded to the fact that this season, despite a few perennial contenders well out of the mix, is as enthralling as any season to come before it. I laid the hyperbole on thick, and went through all the title contenders in an effort to exhibit the sort of parity the league is exhibiting. A parity which has fashioned any given regular season game into a Playoff-level barnburner.
Not buying it? I thought a few casual NBA fans might doubt the level of splendor that I am trumpeting. Well, I am here to put my money where my mouth is. To display, with a consummate level of clarity, this elevated brand of ball I speak of by presenting an abridged list of the greatest games of the 2014-2015 season, thus far. It wasn’t easy to whittle down the bountiful excitement to a mere five games, but when this arduous process was complete, what we are left with is a riveting and telling illustration of a season ablaze with intensity. And now, without further adieu, I present: The Top Five NBA Games of the 2014-2015 Season (So Far)……
5. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Phoenix Suns, December 31st, 2014
As so many of us were busy buying and chilling champagne, preparing the evening’s meat and cheese plates, pre-hydrating, and stocking up on fringe blowout noisemakers and 2015 novelty glasses in preparation for the New Year’s Eve festivities, the Oklahoma City Thunder were lacing up, stretching, and mentally preparing to face the rejuvenated Phoenix Suns. The embattled Thunder, struggling all season due to injuries, had reason to look at this seemingly ordinary game in Phoenix as a turning point. As this game would mark the return of their star, Kevin Durant, after missing six games with a sprained ankle. At this point in the season Durant had only played nine games, averaging 22.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists. But it was here, against the Suns, where Kevin was truly ready to put his injury plagued season behind him, and play some ball. And he did not disappoint. Not in the least….
The Suns, who had won six straight games prior to a loss the previous night in New Orleans, had their own reason to look at this game in the same vital light. For to advance to the Playoffs they will most likely do it as the eighth seed, the same exact slot the Thunder have their eye on. Thus, this regular season game played on the immediate cusp of 2015, embodied the true aura of a Playoff game. Both teams came to play. No love was lost (seven technical fouls were called in the game!) in this heated battle.
I don’t hate defense. Not in the least, as any astute fan knows that defense wins championships. But I love some motherfucking offense. And this game was chock full of it. All night long, neither team in Chesapeake Energy Arena seemed to have an answer defensively for the other. The Suns backcourt, which has been putting on a dazzling showing all season, was spectacular as Eric Gordon had 29 points and Goran Dragic added 21. Markieff Morris was impressive as well, putting up 25 and nearly winning the game in regulation with a three-pointer that just rimmed out with 2.9 seconds left.
But the night belonged to Kevin Durant, whose impressiveness was heightened by the fact that he nearly had to do it all himself because his running mate, Russell Westbrook, couldn’t keep his cool and was asked to leave in the second quarter after two technical fouls and 20 points (in only seventeen minutes!). Durant finished the game with 44 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists, and in the final moments of overtime found Anthony Morrow tucked in the corner where he delivered on a four-point play which acted as the final nail in Phoenix’s coffin. It was an epic performance by the Durantula, and a warning to the rest of the league that he had returned.
Oklahoma City Thunder 137 – Phoenix Suns 134
4. Chicago Bulls vs. Golden State Warriors, January 27, 2014
Derrick Rose, less one forgets, is – when on the court and healthy – the absolute truth. What has happened to him since he has come into the league, with all the injuries and time lost, has been an absolute shame. Not only for Bulls’ fans mind you, but for anyone who champions athletic prowess. Who becomes invigorated at the sight of prodigious physical capabilities and inventive dexterity. When healthy, the former league MVP is a sight to behold. And an apparently healthy Rose was present and accounted for that fateful evening the Bulls sauntered into Oracle Arena, charged with the lofty task of cooling off one of the hottest teams in basketball, the Golden State Warriors, who had won a franchise-record nineteen straight at home.
Both the Warriors and the Bulls brought their A-game that evening, with Klay Thompson (30 points and 10 rebounds) and Derrick Rose (30 points) leading the charge for their teams respectively. But for each squad, the effort from the entire team was consummate, and vital contributions were abounding. For the Bulls, Pau Gasol finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds and Joakim Noah added 18 points and 15 rebounds ((The Bulls out-rebounded Golden State 61 to 48, an impressive front-court performance all around.)), while David Lee scored a season-high 24 points for the Warriors.
In the waning moments of regulation, the Warriors forced overtime on Draymond Green’s tying tip-in with 1.4 seconds left setting up a thrilling overtime. An overtime that was zealously capped off by Rose, who with seven seconds remaining, snap-dribbled to his left creating enough space to get off a twenty foot game winner over Klay Thompson. It was the exclamation point capping off a spectacular offensive effort for Rose, and a reminder of what Rose, at the height of his powers, is capable of. And it was also the silencer of a raucous crowd of 19,596 eager to celebrate twenty straight home victories. Rose’s performance was so impressive it almost allowed us to forget the career-high 11 turnovers he committed throughout the game. Almost.
Chicago Bulls 113 – Golden State 111 (OT)
3. San Antonio Spurs vs. Portland Trail Blazers, December 19, 2014
Just two nights prior to facing off with a red-hot Trailblazer squad, the Spurs were involved in a battle of epic proportions. A three overtime juggernaut against the Memphis Grizzlies, which we will speak on soon enough. Invoking the late and triumphantly great Ernie Banks, the Spurs decide “let’s play two,” and in the course of just three days found themselves in the midst of a second three overtime battle ((The first time a team was involved in back-to-back triple overtime games since the Baltimore Bullets in 1951.)). The game was special for many reasons, but in particular in the way that it acted as a breakout performance for one of the league’s most promising talents, Damian Lillard.
Lillard’s previous career high was 41 points on January 7, 2014, against Sacramento, but the significance here is that this thriller of a game was against the Spurs, who had dismantled the Blazers in the Western Conference semifinals the previous season. The embarrassing lashing the Spurs laid upon the Blazers in that series acted as the fuel for this evening’s fire. And Lillard took it upon himself to seek some retribution, scoring 16 of his 43 points after regulation, sending the Spurs to their second straight heartbreaking loss.
What was wasted this evening was another brilliant performance from Tim Duncan who continues to spit in the face of father time. In the loss, he scored 32 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and the level that he consistently performs, at the age of 38, is flat out jaw-dropping. But nevertheless, this three overtime instant-classic belonged to the Blazers, and one of the best guards in the game who was inexplicably left off the All-Star roster. Lillard is proving to be an exceptional talent, and the Blazers winning in San Antonio, and in the manner in which they they did, was particularly special for Portland. A turning point for this young squad and a possible sign of things to come.
Portland Trail Blazers 129 – San Antonio Spurs 119 (3 OT)
2. Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs, December 17, 2014
The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. There was something in the air as the Memphis Grizzlies arrived in San Antonio in mid-December. The Grizzlies might have arrived fresh off snapping Golden State’s sixteen game winning streak the night prior, but they also came bearing the knowledge that San Antonio kind of had their number. Memphis had not won a game at the AT&T Center since the 2011 Playoffs, when the Grizzlies shocked the world with a sweep of the Spurs in the first round. If the Grizzlies were to be considered a contender in the West, then they were going to have to find a way to remove that perennial thorn from their side, the San Antonio Spurs. And in a three overtime thriller, they did just that.
On a magical night, a pulse-quickening instant-classic was born. One where huge timely buckets were followed quickly by even bigger and more clutch shots. And this action seemed to come to a boil in the third quarter when the Spurs began raining threes (they hit a season high seventeen threes throughout the game!), enabling them to marginalize what had been a twenty-three point first half deficit. Then, a back and forth battle ensued, climaxing with an awkward leaner from Marc Gasol from thirty feet out to send the game into overtime. Soon after, and not content with only one buzzer-beater on this evening, Gasol hit a crucial layup to to send the game into a second overtime!
The heated volley continued into this second overtime, where the Big Fundamental contributed to the theatrics, rattling in a clutch rainmaker from twelve feet out that was impossibly contested by Marc Gasol to send it to a third overtime. Like I said, the sea was angry that day, something was in the air! The game felt like it might actually continue in perpetuum, until Memphis found a way to seize the moment in the third overtime and grab their first win in San Antonio in years. The game may have been played in December, but it was as entertaining as any Playoff game I have ever witnessed. It would easily be the game of the year if not for a man named Klay.
Memphis Grizzlies 117, San Antonio Spurs 116 (3 OT)
1. Sacramento Kings vs. Golden State Warriors, January 23, 2015
The specifics of this game itself matter little. And although that sort of talk may sound strange in the midst of a list touting the greatest games of the season, what we are about to talk about is something that transcends a mere basketball game. What we are discussing is a performance so grand that it will be hailed, without hyperbole, as one of the most thrilling phenomenons to occur in the National Basketball Association forever. On January 23, 2015, the 19,596 fans lucky enough to be in attendance at a rowdy Oracle Arena, were treated to a quarter of basketball they will never forget. One in which Klay Thompson caught fire, and in breathtaking fashion found a way to score 37 points – in just one quarter of basketball, obviously claiming the record for most points scored in a twelve minute span ((Carmelo Anthony and George Gervin (who played in an era before the three point arc) shared the previous record, both scoring thirty-three points in a quarter.)).
Maybe it’s because I am a basketball junkie, and that I find little more beautiful in life than a high-arcing long ball that hurriedly splashes through the net with a wffff. Maybe it’s because I can only imagine how it feels to have tens of thousands of people with their jaws glued to the floor because you are making basketball look impossibly easy. Or maybe it’s because I understand, on many levels, how infeasible of a task this should be. But whatever the reason, I consider what Klay Thompson did to be one of the most incredible events in all of sports history. Any sport. Not just basketball.
But although I am focusing on the performance rather than the game, let it be known that the game was tied 60 – 60 when lightning struck. It was actually an incredibly competitive game until Klay assured that it wasn’t. But the crux of the matter is that in one quarter Klay Thompson went 13 for 13 from the field, including 9 for 9 from behind the three-point arc. And the fashion in which he did it – dunks, alley-oops, deep balls – was just ridiculous. Absolutely absurd. Unbelievable even. The performance of the year, by far.
Golden State Warriors 126 – Sacramento Kings 101
It is a touch embarrassing that one of the better stories of the NBA in the Atlanta Hawks and their unexpected rise to dominance isn’t represented on this list. But that is the way the cookie crumbles. And the truth of the matter is, if they wanted in on this prolific assemblage of instant-classics, then they could have participated in more than one overtime game the first half of this season ((The only overtime game they participated in was a loss to the Charlotte Hornets. And even though Big Al Jefferson dropped 37 points, that loss hardly makes sense now.)). But that’s the deal, that is what I am getting at here – there is just so much to celebrate about the NBA this season! And we can be rest assured, the fun has only begun….