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The Sixers’ One Shining Moment

T.J. McConnell’s game winner sends the Knicks further down their spiraling mess, Isaiah Thomas does things he’s never done before, and Russell Westbrook gets his revenge

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

This Is March

Katie Baker: The Knicks lost, 98–97, on a buzzer-beater by the Sixers’ T.J. McConnell on Wednesday night, but that wasn’t the half of it. Let’s try again: The Knicks squandered a 17-point lead to drop their ninth game in their past 10 on a buzzer-beater by McConnell that came on the heels of a Kristaps Porzingis air ball and was executed in the face of Carmelo Anthony.

It was an innovative new entry into the annals of New York losses and a hectic Sixers win in front of a psyched Philly crowd. The win’s vibes were captured well by McConnell’s reaction after he received the ball, pirouetted off Melo, and put up a cool and ultimately good little jumper as the clock struck zero. With his flying fist pump and his sprint down the court, McConnell looked like a college kid winning hearts on the first day of March Madness. (Melo looked like he had indigestion.) A delighted Joel Embiid towered over McConnell, patting his head like he was palming a basketball and treating the moment generally like an audition for a Nicholas Sparks movie poster.

McConnell was a sophomore at Duquesne in 2012 when, according to Sporting News, he went to an early-round NCAA tournament game with his dad and decided he wanted in. He had been the Atlantic-10 rookie of the year at Duquesne and attracted interest that led him to transfer to Arizona, where he twice made it to the Elite Eight. (Both times, the Wildcats lost to Wisconsin.) He went undrafted in 2015, signed with the Sixers as a free agent, and last season averaged 6.1 points a game and had a couple of All-Rookie Team votes thrown his way. He came within one assist of a triple-double earlier this season. And on Wednesday, he saw to it that Philadelphia would pick up its fourth win in the past five games.

“I thought we were going to throw it to Joel,” McConnell said after the game, “so when the ball was coming at me I was like, ‘Oh my god.’” Embiid finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds, and the right attitude.

For the Knicks, it was one more depressing loss in what has been an increasingly dismal stretch. Derrick Rose, back after going cryptically AWOL the other night, finished with 25 points, including a late-game basket which, at the time, seemed to give the Knicks a decent cushion. (He also, without irony, said at halftime that the key to good defense is “always communication.”) Anthony added 28. Porzingis was 3-of-10 from the field and 1-for-6 from 3-point land. His miss from the corner, with six seconds to play in the game and the Knicks up 97–96, swished the side of the net so neatly that I just assumed it had gone in. There was zero such confusion on McConnell’s winning shot, other than on Melo’s face.

Escape From the Grindhouse

Micah Peters: The last time the Thunder met the Grizzlies, Oklahoma City’s performance as a unit was, in the gentlest possible terms, as if trash were dropped into more trash and gathered together with even trasher trash and then set on fire. Credit goes mostly to Memphis’s You May Not Wipe Your Asses Without Our Permission brand of defense, which harried OKC into 34 percent shooting overall and 18 turnovers. Russell Westbrook, pissed beyond belief, was ejected halfway through the third frame after arguing himself into two quick technicals.

Going into Wednesday’s rematch, both teams were coming off modest two-game win streaks — the Grizzlies’ the more impressive of the two for a couple of reasons:

1. The first game was won by overcoming a 24-point deficit against the Golden State Biblical Flood in overtime, which, yo.

2. The second was won in an entirely different, but more familiar fashion for the Grizzlies: grinding the Utah Jazz down to nubs, and winning without breaking 90 points. Also, they sat half a game ahead of the Thunder in the Western Conference standings.

Westbrook (who logged his 18th triple-double of the season, matching his total from last season) and Cameron Payne seemed pretty Ray Charles to all of that:

The game moved at Memphis’s pace for most of the proceedings — the Thunder took 55 points into the locker room at the half and, by six minutes into the third quarter, had improved that to only 59. The Grizzlies never led, but they managed to keep the game relatively close throughout. Things were tense going into the final two minutes, but then Jerami Grant — well, I mean, I don’t know about you, but this would probably break my spirit.

Look at this shit. He took off from outside the restricted area, sailed underneath the hoop, steeped some tea, took out the classifieds section, perused them for a boat — a skip, a sloop maybe — remembered that he was still in the air, and reached back to put a punctuation mark on the Thunder’s third straight win. Thunder 103, Grizzlies 95

The Wolves’ Full Moon

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Back in mid-December, the last time the Rockets played the Wolves, Minnesota led by 12 with 2:10 left in the game. Somehow, Houston won, and the result seemed to reemphasize the identities of both teams. It showed just how far 3-point magic could take a team like the Rockets, as Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson unloaded four triples in the remaining time, sending the game to overtime. For the Wolves, the loss highlighted how disastrous their young team was down the stretch.

This go-round, Minnesota was missing Zach LaVine, but everything else was going oh so right: The Rockets were on the second night of a back-to-back, and both Clint Capela and Eric Gordon were out. Brandon Rush, who prior to tonight, had racked up nearly twice as many DNP-CDs in Minnesota as points scored in any one game, started in LaVine’s place. He was the glue in every crack, finishing with 12 points, three rebounds, three assists, three steals, and two blocks (!). Andrew Wiggins notched 28 points; Gorgui Dieng was perfect from the field, going 5-for-5 and hitting three midrange shots against a team that’s all but eliminated them from their diet. Oh, and Kris Dunn hurt a man:

Shabazz Muhammad came off the bench to score 20 points and even had an assist, his first in 11 games. Ricky Rubio reminded us that he’s here to do more than create trade rumors, dishing out 17 dimes, matching his career high and the Wolves’ franchise record. Minnesota’s 7–1 in games when Rubio logs at least 10 assists, which is incredible, because trying to find any statistical circumstance that gives Minnesota a record over .500 is like watching the Wolves in the fourth quarter: difficult, if not impossible.

Before tonight, Minnesota was even under .500 (8–9) when up by double-digits in the second half, a league high in blown leads of 10 or more points. So tonight, the Target Center held its breath when, once again, with 2:26 left, the Rockets trailed by 12. Being up 114–102 and it seeming like a death sentence sounds ridiculous, but Tom Thibodeau’s gruffy voice was yelling “THREE” until the end. Shabazz hit one from behind the arc to seal the win 119–105. The Wolves were closers, if just for one night.

The Millennial’s Answer to the Answer

Kevin O’Connor: If this is your first season watching the spectacular sport of basketball, you probably think of Isaiah Thomas the same way us longtime NBA fans think of Allen Iverson: small in stature, yet extraordinary in talent, and dazzling in entertainment value.

Thomas is listed at 5-foot-9, one inch shorter than the average American man, yet he does things on the court that are hard to fathom even when they’re happening in front of you over and over again.

Thomas is averaging 28.2 points per game, the fourth most in the NBA. It feels like Iverson déjà vu for a lot of us because there aren’t many guys in league history this small that even make it to the league, let alone become one of its top point guards. I.T. had 38 points in the Celtics’ 117–108 win over the Wizards. Thomas scored a lot of pretty buckets, but these were my favorites, because it’s not something I recall seeing him do before:

That’s just the Little Guy channeling Larry Bird, throwing his body into the paint, grabbing his own miss, and then tossing it back up for a basket. Then he did it again the following quarter:

I can’t be the only one who laughs hysterically while watching him. Thomas’s style of play evokes a sense of newness, a feeling that’s hard to find as we get older and the days start to feel the same. It’s like your first time eating sushi or listening to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon with headphones on and the lights turned out. It’s magic. Basketball might not change your life, but it’s hard not to feel at least a bit inspired watching someone shorter than the average man excel in a sport in which living giants walk.

Aaron Gordon in Virtual Reality

Jonathan Tjarks: With Serge Ibaka sitting out with a sore shoulder, the logjam in the Magic frontcourt was a little less crowded against the Clippers. Once Jeff Green picked up two fouls in the first few minutes of the first quarter, things got really interesting. Frank Vogel swapped Green for Jodie Meeks, which moved Aaron Gordon up to power forward, his natural position. It was like Gordon had been suddenly transported to a team that was actually built around what he could do well.

Gordon was playing with two sharpshooters on the wings (Evan Fournier and Meeks), a center who can step out and knock down 20-footers (Nikola Vucevic), and only one nonshooter (Elfrid Payton). Just like that, he had driving lanes to the rim, which allowed him to take advantage of his rare combination of speed and ballhandling ability for a 6-foot-9 player. Check out how much space he had on this drive to the basket, where he spins around Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to get a layup. Gordon essentially got an unexpected upgrade to first class, and he stretched his legs out to take in all the extra room.

Gordon had 16 points in the first quarter, including a rim-rattling dunk over a slow-rotating DeAndre Jordan, who decided at the last minute to avoid getting himself put in a Vine. He was getting out and running in transition, and he knocked down several open 3s off ball movement from the extra perimeter players on the floor for Orlando. It was a brief taste of what the most talented player on the Magic roster could do in a role more suitable to his skill set.

Gordon finished the game with 28 points on 11-of-17 shooting, a great performance that was still a little frustrating because the rest of the team shot only 37 percent from the floor. He normally gets his points within the flow of the offense, or by getting out and running in transition, so the Magic don’t call a lot of plays for him, but it would have been nice to see them feed the hot hand on a night when not much else was working for them. He took only three shots in the fourth quarter and he spent most of crunch time standing in the corner, uninvolved in the offense. Orlando lost 105–96, but more important than the team’s record is the way it’s handling the talent on its roster. The Magic still don’t quite seem to know what they have in Gordon, but he keeps showing flashes of what he could be in a different situation.

Did Mason Plumlee Record a Triple-Double? No

Jason Concepcion: Last week, when LeBron James said, “We gotta get a point guard. It’s my last time saying it. We need a point guard,” I imagine he did so while gazing directly into Kay Felder’s eyes. And, rightly so. The Blazers fed the Cavaliers into a woodchipper Wednesday night, handing them a 102–86 loss. Kyrie Irving got shredded on screens and couldn’t find his offense. Kyle Korver air-balled a 3-pointer by about a meter (shouts to the metric system), and shot 1-for-5 for the game. Kevin Love tweaked his knee. And, Kay Felder — well, in the words of LeBron James, the Cavs gotta get a point guard.

Both teams were on the second night of a back-to-back. Both teams arrived in Portland in the small hours of the morning due to a biblical snowstorm that threatened to cancel the game. Both teams seemed, energy-wise, no worse for wear. But the Blazers played like a cohesive team.

Part of that is the Blazers are finally at full strength. Dame Lillard and — crucially for Portland’s defense — Al-Farouq Aminu are back from various ailments. After C.J. McCollum dropped 27 points (5-of-10 from 3), it is confirmed that his jumper is currently among the wettest substances known to humankind. Allen Crabbe (24 points, 9-of-11 from the floor), too, was serving up boiled Cavs.

But, forget all that. The Cavaliers will be fine. The Blazers are, more or less, who we thought they were. Let’s talk about one of my favorite subplots of this already-great NBA season. Let’s talk about the Mason Plumlee Triple-Double Watch. On October 20, 2016, as the preseason was winding down, I clicked on the following story, which hit my eyeballs like a drone strike:

The Blazers came barreling out of summer ’16 with more swag than any person, or collection of persons, on earth. Before the season started, Evan Turner’s infamous “the future is in the midrange” interview dropped; Dame Lillard declared his intention to be the league MVP; and various Portland players somehow decided that multiple — as in plural; as in not more than one, but many, many, many more — Mason Plumlee triple-doubles were not just a possibility, but a certainty. A question of when, not if. I was enthralled.

At that time, Mason Plumlee had not produced a game with more than seven assists in three career seasons. Whatever Dame Lillard was feeling when he said, “Oh, I can see him getting a lot of them” is what I want to feel running through my body for the rest of my life. Distill that emotion into a liquid, dry it into a powder, and sell it for $10,000 a kilo. Dame is the greatest teammate of all time, just based on that statement alone.

Plumlee has messed around plenty, but that triple-double has remained elusive. He got tantalizingly close last week against the Pistons: eight points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists. But it took him [extremely Post Malone voice] double OT to get there, and he shot 4-of-12. I remain haunted by that game.

What we need, now more than ever, is a Mason Plumlee triple-double. I mean, technically we were promised more than one, but I, personally, will settle for the one.

Mason Plumlee Triple-Double Watch (Wednesday, 1/11/17): Nope; four points, five rebounds, four assists.