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The Closers

Isaiah Thomas and Kyle Lowry put on a show in Boston, Dion Waiters wins the one-play MVP, and LeBron James has his vengeance

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Welcome to the NBA Shootaround, the Ringer staff’s weekly run through the league, told in riffs and GIFs.

Kings of the Fourth

Rodger Sherman: I’d like to thank all the people who told Isaiah Thomas that he was too short; the person who decided to make him the very last pick in the NBA draft; and everybody who said “oh — like the famous basketball player?” when he told them his name. All those slights turned the NBA’s slightest player into an unstoppable confidence machine. He might be Tyrion Lannister–sized, but they’ve taken to calling him the King in the Fourth.

Wednesday night, the Celtics faced off against the Raptors in a matchup of the NBA’s two greatest one-man fourth-quarter shows. Without DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors don’t have many options besides Kyle Lowry, and he drilled a game-winner in overtime Tuesday night to tally his third straight 30-point game. That same night, Thomas outscored the Pistons 22–19 in the final seven minutes of a Celtics win, his second 40-point game of the month and Boston’s fourth straight win.

Wednesday night, everybody cleared out and watched Thomas and Lowry duke it out, a battle between ballers who need boosters to dunk. Lowry drilled long 3s:

Thomas drilled longer 3s:

Lowry used his muscle to power into the lane and finish at the rim. Thomas used his speed and athleticism to slice past bigger bodies and finesse in layups. There was no question about who would take the shots at the end of fourth-quarter possessions, but that was fine. Strategy can be boring sometimes. Give me two dudes with ridiculous repertoires and let them fight to the death.

The tinier one won. The Celtics trailed by as much as 18 in the third quarter, but Thomas posted 19 of his 44 points in the fourth quarter to give Boston a 109–104 win. Lowry, the loser, had a measly 12 fourth-quarter points for his fourth straight 30-point game. It seemed a little bit like a playoff game, and it was supposed to: These two teams are 2 and 3 in the Eastern Conference, with Boston now 1.5 games ahead.

Tuesday, Matt Moore of CBS posted about about Thomas’s fourth-quarter excellence and revealed a strange trend. The Celtics generally get outplayed when Thomas is on the floor in the fourth quarter, as he posts incredible offensive numbers and the Celtics post horrendous defensive numbers.

This makes him the NBA’s most watchable player. Every game is a thriller. It’s the movie’s last scene, and Thomas is the guy in charge of planting the time bomb in the enemy base. He’s the only human speedy and nimble enough to dive out just in time, smiling as the explosion happens behind him.

Dion Waiters, Right Now > Linsanity

Chris Ryan: Philly Cheese Swag. Mr. 0-for-30. Mr. Steal Your Shot. When we fled Waiters Island in the storm, he stayed. When we returned to its shores in the calm, he welcomed us. With a 116–93 victory over the Hawks, the Miami Heat Machine are the hottest team in the league, winners of nine in a row. Yes, two of those are against Brooklyn, but two others are against Golden State and Houston.

Dion Waiters is averaging 20.7 points per game over his last 10, and is rocking a 29.0 usage rate, which harkens back to his early Cleveland days when he was the lord of the pre-LeBron dogtown. Recently, he has been the sun behind this Heat wave (BACK OFF. I’M A PRO). Miami doesn’t have a ton of talent — we’re talking Willie Reed, Rodney McGruder, and Luke Babbitt. Never mind the Heatles, these are the Rutels (seriously, Erik Spoelstra is practicing Popovich-level magic this season). So when Dion is, say, running the break, there’s no one for him to pass to. AND THAT’S EXACTLY HOW DION LIKES IT.

The Hawks-Heat clash was basically a playground game, both in how loose it felt and how many people were in attendance. Waiters had 20 points, seven boards, three assists, two steals, two blocks, and was [turns on “Intro (Dreamchasers 2)”] PLUS-33 for the night. Goran Dragic looks like peak Phoenix Goran (27 points, five assists), all junk shots, figure-eight dribbles, and floaters. But this, man …

If the MVP award was given for just one play, Dion Waiters would be the winner. Surf’s up.

We Get It, Blake: CP3 Is Out

This Is Cleveland, Not Hollywood

Haley O’Shaughnessy: If Wednesday’s Cavs-Timberwolves games had been a movie, the underdogs from Minnesota would have triumphed, complete with a romantic montage, swelling music, and dreams of opening a jazz club … wait, wrong film. After Minnesota lost a horrendous 18 of its first 24 games this season, the team ended January winning eight of its last 11. It was too good to be true — the Wolves haven’t won like that in nearly three years, since March 2014. Remember Kevin Love in the West? He sat with an injury Wednesday night, but the byproduct of Love’s blockbuster trade to Cleveland, Andrew Wiggins, has been known to ball out against the team that drafted him. He’s never won, mind you, but he entered the game averaging almost 29 against the Cavs. The only guy to score more per game facing Cleveland is Michael Jordan, who can tell you all about basketball movies with physically gifted opponents.

Any reminder the Wolves needed that they were in Cleveland, and not Hollywood, happened when Wiggins went silent after halftime. Tristan Thompson, with 18 points and 14 rebounds, was not:

Nor Channing Frye:

Kyrie Irving dished a career-high 14 assists, Kyle Korver splashed four threes on his way to 20 points (his most since joining the Cavs), and LeBron, well … it’s not a movie, but with the 125–97 win on Wednesday, Cleveland is clicking again, and that just might be better.

Steph Curry Put Marvin Williams in the ‘Inception’ Hallway Scene

New York, New York

Katie Baker: Numerous times over the course of Wednesday night’s Interborough Waddling Subway Rat Classic, the Knicks and the Nets traded turnovers the way normal franchises alternate baskets. Each time it happened was one more grim, chuckling reminder of a simpler time when fed-up Knicks fans thought latching on to the new-look Brooklyn Nets might provide some source of excitement. Instead, the Nets are now 9–40, the worst team in the league by a long shot, and the Knicks are having the sort of season in which a win over the worst team in the league by a long shot felt kind of encouraging.

The Knicks won 95–90, and nothing much changed: Two games and three better teams still separate them from a playoff spot, and the awkward ongoing discussions about Carmelo Anthony’s future have not only not gone away, they’ve evolved into the more powerful and annoying form of Jeanie Buss kinda subtweeting Frank Isola. There probably shouldn’t be that much to cheer.

And yet: With Melo courtside in the fourth quarter, swaddled in various towels and compression garments like some sun-averse grandparent stuck at a swimming pool, the Knicks game became, briefly, about someone else. Make that a pair of unlikely someone elses. There was Sasha Vujacic, who, in his first 13 minutes of action, pulled off not one but two four-point plays — the first player to do so in Knicks history. (At one point, Walt Frazier described the emotional Vujacic as “like an open-faced sandwich.”)

There was Willy Hernangomez, who finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds and set up Kristaps Porzingis for the fourth-quarter dunk that gave the Knicks their first lead of the night. (Frazier, commenting on KP’s reported stomach virus: “Sometimes it’s a good thing! It’s like fasting!”)

This season it has often seemed like the Knicks can catch no breaks, only L’s. But Wednesday the shots were falling — even the bad ones. A Porzingis three point attempt bounced high off the rim, kissed the backboard, and fell through the hoop. (He finished with 19 points despite seeming a little bit woozy.) Hernangomez looked like a volleyball player (or goaltender?) on one botched-but-then-saved alley-oop attempt.

Even Mindaugas Kuzminskas had a low-key pivotal moment: Late in the third quarter, with the Knicks down 10, he netted a 3-pointer that stopped the bleeding and outed the significant number of Knicks fans inside the Barclays Center. Once they started cheering, not much could get them to stop: even if it was objectively silly to be so excited; even if it was just one dumb win against the worst team in the league by a long shot.

Seth Curry and the Mavs Have a New Theme Song

Meet Salah Mejri

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Jonathan Tjarks: Some notes on Salah Mejri’s night …

What did Salah Mejri do last night?

The Mavs backup center had 16 points and 17 rebounds on 7-of-9 shooting in 21 minutes in a 113–95 win against the 76ers. Up against two former lottery picks, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, Mejri, an undrafted free agent, was the best center on the floor (Joel Embiid sat this one out). Mejri had eight offensive rebounds, which is four more rebounds than Noel and Okafor had combined. He flat out gave those guys the business.

Who is Mejri? And where did he come from?

Mejri is the first Tunisian to ever play in the NBA. He’s a bit of a late-bloomer — a 30-year-old in his second season in the league. He was the third-string center at Real Madrid, one of the top teams in Europe, when the Mavs signed him in 2015 to a three-year contract at the league minimum. He showed some flashes and moved into the rotation towards the end of last season, but off-season knee surgery, as well as a numbers crunch at the center position in Dallas, has limited his minutes this season.

Why should we care about him?

He doesn’t carry himself like a third-string center who is lucky to be in the league. He’s hilarious. Mejri comes into every game thinking that he’s the best player on the floor, and he doesn’t back down from anyone. In one of his first bits of playing time last season, he blocked Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in consecutive possessions.

After the game, he brushed it off like it was nothing, saying that he’d blocked them before in international play and that they knew who he was. In another memorable moment last season, he dunked and then ran down the court yelling at Gregg Popovich, despite the Mavs being down more than 20 points. Mejri just doesn’t care. Noel and Okafor? He thinks that he’s better than those guys.

Is he actually a good basketball player?

You wouldn’t know it from his per game averages, but Mejri can fill a role on a good team. At 7-foot-2 and 245 pounds, he’s a beanpole with great length and a high motor who can roll to the rim and finish in traffic on offense, and can block shots and move his feet on the perimeter on defense. He’s a solid backup center who should be able to stick in the NBA for a few more seasons, whether it’s on Dallas or another team.

An earlier version of this story misstated Willy Hernangomez’s stats against the Nets on Wednesday night. He had 16 rebounds, not 16 assists.