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NBA Shootaround: Prince of the City

Kyrie Irving plays hero ball, Knicks fans have something to be excited about, Steph Curry levels up, and more Shootaround goodness.

So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.

Kyrie Can’t Drive 55

Chris Ryan: “It was a total team effort,” said Kyrie Irving, lying his ass off, after the Cavs beat the Blazers at the Q on Wednesday. Irving scored 55 points, on 17-36 shooting, cashing 11 3-pointers, including one to tie the game with a bit more than a minute left, and another to win it with seven seconds remaining — both of which he launched on Nic Batum. Irving scored more than half of Cleveland’s points for the night, coming off a 38-point effort against the Pistons on Tuesday. So there’s your back-to-back hangover. With LeBron on the bench, nursing a bum wrist, Irving willed the Cavs to a win, more or less single-handedly, and avenged this Dame Dagger from last season:

Right now, life for Kyrie Irving probably feels like the first time you heard the beat drop in “All of the Lights,” so it seems churlish to mention just how single-handedly. This was hero ball, and the thing about hero ball is it’s a great litmus test for how you feel about a player. If you like the guy, 36 shots is awesome and hilarious. If you don’t … it’s 36 shots. If you’re a fan, you believe a player has to take that many shots. With Kyrie, it looks like he wants to. Whatever. It doesn’t look like the Cavs minded one bit.

Our Little Infinity

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York KnicksNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Jason Concepcion: The Knicks have not gotten much Shootaround run because the Knicks are a burned-out shell that has no relevance to this season’s NBA landscape beyond lending their arena to the All-Star Game. No relevance, that is, unless they can spoil other teams’ bids for relevance, thus becoming briefly, if obliquely, relevant. And — OH MY GOD, IS THAT LANCE THOMAS’S MUSIC?

I’ve been legitimately excited about Knicks basketball exactly two times this season. The first was opening night, when the rapturous pregame coverage of LeBron’s return to the Cavaliers culminated in the lead singer for Imagine Dragons getting choked up onstage while talking about how much it meant to the hardworking people of Cleveland. With the universe relegating the Knicks to the role of John the Baptist’s severed head, the thought crossed my mind: Man, wouldn’t it be awesome if the Knicks won this game? Spoiler: It was.

The second time was last night, after Tim Hardaway Jr. blocked Kendrick Perkins’s steam-powered-robot-having-a-seizure layup attempt and then came down to hit a 3-pointer, to push New York’s lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder to four with 7:24 left in the game. As winning became a distinct possibility, a confluence of interconnected events allowed me to feel, albeit briefly, like an actual annoying New York Knicks fan:

• The Sixers and T-Wolves had both won their games earlier in the evening, meaning a win wouldn’t unduly affect New York’s tank mission.

• Lance Thomas, on a 10-day contract, and better known as the trade ballast in the J.R. Smith–Iman Shumpert–Dion Waiters trade, was in the midst of a low-key revenge game, and I love revenge games. Thomas scored 17 points on 8-of-13, hitting baskets that, had he hit them while in a Thunder uniform, might have saved OKC from being in the position of really needing to beat an eight-win Knicks team in late January.

• Carmelo Anthony, who admits he needs knee surgery, and will probably have it roughly two minutes after he appears in the All-Star Game, did his best Willis Reed impression, except imagine if Willis Reed had averaged 24 points and six rebounds during a handful of meaningless games in the middle of a lost season instead of scoring four points in Game 7 of the Finals.

• Yes, the Thunder still have 36 games to catch Phoenix (who also won last night), but this was a game they really, really should’ve won.

Said Russell Westbrook of the Knicks after the game: “They’re an NBA team.” Technically true, Russ!

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We going the ’ship. Shouts to my guy Ansel Elgort.

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The Thunder Right Now

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Under the Skin

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Danny Chau: Last month, the NBA fined Matt Barnes for kicking a water bottle into the stands (though Barnes claims it was a paper Gatorade cup that traveled 3 feet). On Tuesday, the league fined Barnes $25,000 for inappropriate language directed at a fan during Sunday’s game against the Suns (though Barnes claims the fine was due to an unfriendly interaction with Suns owner Robert Sarver).

The next day, with less than 50 seconds left to go in an incredibly physical game between the Clippers and the Jazz, Barnes came down hard on Enes Kanter, but no foul was called. Tensions had been mounting the entire night. As Kanter fell to the floor, you heard a Clippers player yell, “GET THAT SHIT OUTTA HERE!” as he and several other Clippers headed in Barnes’s direction to congratulate him for … what was pretty clearly a foul. Barnes just stood there and glared back at Kanter.

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That’s so Clippers! What a perfect display of unnecessary villainy against one of the worst teams in the West. Look, the Clippers are in a three-way tie for the third-best conference record. They’re quite good, and last night’s win against the Jazz made it 13 straight against Utah, their longest winning streak against any one team in franchise history. But you get a sense that simply taking the title of L.A.’s winning basketball team isn’t enough. They remain the little brother. They will find ways to get your attention, to get under your skin. Lately, if I’m watching a Clippers game, I’m finding that the reason has less to do with the acrobatics or the artistry of Chris Paul and more because I don’t hate-watch enough things, and thus have been depriving myself of that special kind of catharsis. I’ve been watching the Clippers because they’re annoying. It’s been a long time coming, but the Clippers’ culture of petulance has become their most thrilling quality.

The Challenge II: Rivals

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Jason Gallagher: I’ve started referring to basketball games between Houston and Dallas as “Challenges.” Unlike most NBA feuds that revolve around playoff history, or things that happen on a basketball court, Mavs-Rockets is trashier. It just makes a lot more sense to call up a friend and say, “Hey, did you hear Dallas and Houston are in a Challenge tonight? I know, grab a box of Franzia and get over here!”

There was plenty of shit to be spoken before last night’s Challenge. Former Dallas Maverick and current full-grown adult who still pretends he’s an airplane Jason Terry had some cold-blooded words for Dallas.

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Let’s check in with Chandler Parsons, who has been trolling the city of Houston ever since he signed with Dallas, while partying in Orlando.

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Wait, hold up. Those are nice words … Is the beef squashed? Has everyone matured? Did Daryl Morey and Mark Cuban become allies in an attempt to dethrone San Antonio?

HELL NO.

Last night’s Challenge was as weird as anything T.J. Lavin has ever hosted. The Mavs were trying to dig themselves out of a three-game losing streak, on the second night of a back-to-back. They almost pulled out the ugliest of wins, thanks to a Monta Ellis/Chandler Parsons 54-point outing. But Dallas came into Houston with a huge turnover problem — giving up 16 to the Memphis Grizzlies the night before. And they gave up a season-high 23 turnovers against the Rockets. Fantastic.

Meanwhile, Houston had no Dwight and only 17 points from James Harden, so of course they won. The victory was secured thanks to a healthy dose of scoring from guys like Donatas Motiejunas (16 points), Trevor Ariza (13), Corey Brewer (14), and Terrence Jones (10).

To add to the total weirdness of this Challenge, Josh Smith went 4-5 from 3-Point Land and was Houston’s leading scorer in a winning professional basketball game.

Josh Smith Shot Chart

That shot chart alone should be reason enough to tune in to the next Mavs-Rockets Challenge, on February 20.

Flying Wolves

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Rudy Can’t Fail

Toronto Raptors took on the Sacramento KingsRichard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Brett Koremenos: It’s been almost 14 months since Rudy Gay departed the land north of the border for Northern California. It was a trade that “made” the Raptors the quasi contender they are now, and seemed to cement Gay’s legacy as an unwatchable volume shooter who ruins teams.

But since moving to Sacramento, Gay has strayed further and further from the player Toronto fans were happy to see leave. In T-Dot, Gay was painted as some sort of villain whose shameless gunning held back DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry from their All-Star-level heights. Ironically, as the two teams faced off Wednesday night, it seemed as if DeRozan had become more like Gay than Gay ever was. Just look at their numbers so far this season (stats courtesy of Basketball Reference):

TS% Assist% Box Score +/- PER
Gay 54.8 21.1 2.2 19.7
DeRozan 49.1 13.2 -2.7 15.4

And if that’s not interesting enough, check out this heat map of their shot charts from this year:

Gay_DeRozan Heat Map

DeRozan is obviously still rounding back into form after missing a decent chunk of the season due to injury, but that doesn’t fully account for the increasing number of tough midrange shots he’s been attempting on a nightly basis.

If you suggested to a Raptors fan a year ago that Toronto would be in the same situation if they had swapped DeRozan rather than Gay, there’s a good chance you would have suffered death by Tim Hortons. But now it seems like it’s not such a bold claim.

SpongeBob Sixer

Philadelphia 76ers V Detroit PistonsJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Ben Detrick: Back when hot-take artisans were suggesting the Sixers would be manhandled by the Delmarva CYO traveling team, JaKarr Sampson was sometimes singled out as evidence of the franchise’s alleged dedication to tanking. After all, the lightly regarded 21-year-old swingman went undrafted after averaging 12.8 points and 6.1 rebounds during his sophomore year at St. John’s, and debuted on the professional stage by clunking 22 of his first 29 field goal attempts. It was presumed that JaKarr’s occasional spot in the starting lineup could only be nefarious self-sabotage.

But Sixers GM Sam Hinkie has a type: long-limbed, capable of springing into the stratosphere, and liable to dent low-flying aircraft with ricocheting jumpers. JaKarr fits the profile. Nicknamed SpongeBob Sampson, he streaks down the hardwood in a scuttle of twitching appendages, kind of like a 6-foot-9 tarantula who dunks violently. Despite the nightmarish description, he’s adorably equipped with a sagebrush scrub of hair, groomed beard, and a gap-toothed grin that make him resemble an amiable member of a Cella Dwellas affiliate group.

Although his minutes vacillate, Sampson is another Sixer emerging as an intriguing bundle of chaos. Wednesday night, during their breezy annihilation of the Pistons, he set a career high with 13 points, while pitching in eight boards and two steals. All in all, he’s shot less disastrously from deep than scouts anticipated, defends like a gluey irritant, and has posted a respectable True Shooting percentage of 56 percent since December 1. But JaKarr’s most emblematic moment occured a few weeks ago, when Kyle Lowry stole the ball from him and then was subjected to a metaphor for life courtesy of SpongeBob Sampson.

Humph Day

Washington Wizards v Phoenix SunsBarry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Claire Lobenfeld: There is an early scene in Alex Cox’s 1986 Sex Pistols biopic Sid and Nancy in which Andrew Schofield, playing Johnny Rotten, explains why Sid is replacing Glen Matlock as bassist in the band: It was because Matlock “washed his feet too much.” That’s kind of what it was like when the Phoenix Suns hosted the Washington Wizards last night. If you were expecting the rascally Suns to get into it with the Wizards, you were not alone. Alas, and to quote Schofield’s Rotten again, the game was “boring, boring, boring, boring.” Markieff Morris was a little bit wily, but the Wiz played this one pretty close to the chest and lagged behind the Suns in double digits for most of the game, down by as many as 22 at one point.

Both teams had something to prove. The Suns were protecting their longest home winning streak in five seasons (eight, as of last night), and Washington had won five of its last seven road games. Perhaps the Wiz ate too many Marshawn Lynch Solidarity Skittles before tipoff to get into the spirit. They were able to get back into the game, in the fourth, with a 3 from Otto Porter and a layup from Garrett Temple, shaving the lead down into the single digits. But they didn’t have enough.

This one was about rest. The Wizards have been out west for five days, while the Suns haven’t been on a court since Sunday. Goran Dragic was still able to come out of the game with 20 points, but it might be Kris Humphries who had the most impressive stats, with 15 rebounds. Fifteen! Do you think that’s how many he’s had since the dissolution of his short marriage to Kim Kardashian? Maybe he washed his feet too much, too. Maybe he didn’t wash his feet enough. Whatever he’s doing with his feet, he should keep doing it.

Play of the Year (of the Week)

Amos Barshad: Technically this is a tweak on the Rondo: a faked behind-the-back pass leading to options in the lane. But it’s the Rondo as if practiced by (hey, Rajon? Stop reading) some kind of future human — the successful product of nefarious experiments, carried out by God-playing mad scientists splicing human DNA with all the best bits of an eagle and a jaguar and an unkillable android. Basically: Steph Curry is evolved, man. And he’s also now the first two-time winner in the history of the Play of the Year (of the Week), a highly prestigious honor (that we just made up four weeks ago).