Just in case you hadn’t noticed already, we’ve reached That Time of Year in the NBA.
That sweet spot between the Super Bowl and the month of April, in which prestige-filled awards are still up for grabs, and players put in their most aggressive sweat equity in an effort to lock up playoff positioning and then take their feet off the pedal some before the postseason. The portion of the calendar when things start to matter a little more.
With all of that in mind, this past week and change in The Association was manna from Heaven, as a number of the league’s biggest superstars brought their best to the table.
Kyrie Irving had a 50-piece Monday night—his best-scoring output in more than two years—in a game against Charlotte that the struggling Nets had to have. Boston’s Jayson Tatum was unstoppable Sunday, outdueling one-time MVP Kevin Durant with a nationally televised 54-point showing to keep the red-hot Celtics rolling. The Mavericks’ Luka Dončić pieced together four 40-point showings in the past three weeks and took out the Warriors twice this past week alone. Memphis star Ja Morant, a shoo-in to receive considerable votes for both MVP and Most Improved Player, recently notched the first 50-point game of his career in the midst of his best scoring run as the Grizzlies currently cling to the league’s second-best record. Joel Embiid, an MVP front-runner, posted 43 points to go with 14 boards against the Bulls on Monday night to put the Sixers in sole possession of second place in the East. And Embiid’s biggest competition for the award, reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, has caught fire, logging an absurd 46-point, 12-board, 11-assist triple double—in which he scored 30 points in the fourth quarter and overtime alone—during a dramatic win over New Orleans on Sunday. Jokić then followed that up with 32, 15 and 12 on Monday to beat Golden State. (Jokić’s point totals have been stemming from unbelievable efficiency from the floor lately.)
And of course we can’t forget 37-year-old LeBron James, who went off for 56—his highest point total as a Laker, and one of the highest ever for a player his age—Saturday in what initially felt like the biggest win of the season for this struggling Los Angeles club. But in wringing out everything he had to get the victory over Steph Curry and the Warriors, James’s left knee flared up, something Lakers coach Frank Vogel described as “significant soreness.”
“With the heavy load that he’s carrying for us this year, we know that it’s always a possibility,” Vogel said before the Lakers dropped their Monday showing in San Antonio without James.
And in a way, that’s another reality with this time of year. You want to see players have heroic, game-altering showings. But you don’t want them to come at the players’ physical expense to where they’ll be run down come playoff time. In the Lakers’ case, we saw some of that last year, after in-season injuries to James and Anthony Davis sent Los Angeles plummeting, forcing the stars to floor the gas pedal at less than 100% to simply win the play-in round before getting beaten by a sound, balanced Phoenix squad that’s only gotten better since then.
Over the next week or so, much of the attention in the basketball world will understandably be shifting toward things like this, with March Madness on the way. So NBA fans should embrace the plethora of dominant performances while they can, assuming the last week or two of regular-season action will be more about positioning and rest until the playoffs begin.
What you should be reading
As a heads-up: I’ll seek to fill this section with goodies every week, blending both the best of Sports Illustrated’s NBA coverage and reporting along with other solid content around The Association. Feel free to send me your favorite stories from around the league at firstname.lastname@example.org just in case you come across something I might not.
My supremely talented teammate and podcast cohost, Michael Pina, has a fantastic Daily Cover piece on Morant, who’s easily been the most entertaining player in the league this season. He also had a killer story recently on the Pelicans and how they’ve quietly found themselves and have become one of the league’s best stories amid the hyperfocus on Zion and whether he wants to be in New Orleans long term. (He and I also podcasted on this subject.)
SI senior writer Howard Beck had a great podcast with soon-to-be Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki, who was candid in saying he feels the league’s superstars have gone perhaps too far from a player empowerment standpoint.
I wanted to include an array of coverage on the harrowing situation involving WNBA star Brittney Griner, who’s been detained in Russia for weeks now. A look at why she was arrested, what legal options she faces, how the U.S. government has responded so far and a get-you-up-to-speed story for more casual fans about why so many WNBA players take deals to play in Russia in the first place.
Lastly, a piece from this past week that is only tangentially tied to basketball but left me speechless. A story I’ll spend a long time thinking about, from Jonathan Tjarks, a basketball writer at The Ringer. If possible, save this one for when you have a moment to reflect.
More NBA Coverage: