Thursday’s four games each delivered more intensity and competition than Christmas Day’s duds, beginning with the Hawks’ gasp-inducing victory in double-overtime against the Cavaliers. Jeff Teague delivered the winning basket—a 20-foot jumper which danced around the rim five times before finally dropping through as the buzzer sounded—and the victory was even more stirring since Atlanta lost two starters to injury during the game. Starting SF DeMarre Carroll left with a sprained right thumb in the fourth quarter, which was bad enough, and Al Horford exited with a right shoulder injury in overtime.
Horford finished with 25 points, eight boards, four assists and two blocks, but the health of his shoulder is the only thing fantasy owners will care about. Initial reports were very vague and it sounds like we’ll have to wait until Friday afternoon before the team releases any details. An MRI is all but inevitable and it we can only hope that Horford didn’t tear a muscle as he did in January 2012, when a torn pectoral knocked him out for four months.
As for DeMarre Carroll, he was in serious pain and although the initial diagnosis is a ‘sprain’, it will again require an MRI before we can rule out a tear or other serious damage. If Horford and/or Carroll miss games, which isn’t guaranteed, coach Mike Budenholzer will have to get creative with some matchup-based lineups, while relying more on a deep bench that includes Mike Scott, Gustavo Ayon, Pero Antic, Elton Brand and Cartier Martin. Fantasy owners should also keep an eye on reserve guard Shelvin Mack (see below).
Those injuries marred what was otherwise a brilliant road victory for the Hawks, whose 16-13 record has them entrenched as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. They join the Pacers and Heat as the only teams in the East with records above .500.
Patient fantasy owners are finally reaping the benefits of Jeff Teague’s position as the starting PG on a team that leads the NBA with 25.7 assists per game. It was only a matter of time. He racked up a season-high 34 points with 14 assists, three steals and six turnovers vs. the Cavaliers, and over the past five games he’s had phenomenal averages of 20.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 11.0 assists and 1.4 steals. His 41.1 percent shooting through 28 games was his lowest mark since he was a rookie in 2009-10, and tonight’s game should be the beginning of a slow correction toward last year’s 45.1 percent. The assists, as mentioned above, are a given in Mike Budenholzer’s offensive system which prizes ball movement and spacing above all else.
Fantasy stalwart Paul Millsap filled up the boxscore yet again with 20 points, 11 boards, three assists, two steals, two blocks and two more 3-pointers on just four attempts from beyond the arc. Yahtzee. Kyle Korver also had 20/6/5 with four 3-pointers in 44 minutes, but we expect Millsap and Korver to go off in high-scoring double-OT games.
What might not be expected, and may go unappreciated, is Shelvin Mack’s steady leadership of the second unit. He played 36 minutes to finish with 10 points, one 3-pointer, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and zero turnovers, and he didn’t leave the court during the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter and both overtimes. His ability to succeed alongside Jeff Teague is crucial, though it may be partially a product of the Cavaliers’ own willingness to play three-guard lineups with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack/Matthew Dellavedova. As promising as Mack’s performance was tonight, he should be avoided unless the Hawks announce some bad injury updates on Friday…and even then he’s not a lock for value unless Budenholzer leans toward small lineups.
The Cavaliers third straight defeat came in heart-breaking fashion, squandering Kyrie Irving’s dazzling 40-point performance (17-of-33 shooting with three 3s, nine dimes and four steals). Irving’s slow start to the season is receding from memory with each game, and he’s raised his scoring average to 24.5 points per game in December. Dion Waiters said that he’s still bothered by his wrist tendinitis, but he led Cleveland’s reserves with 20 points on unusually efficient 9-of-14 shooting, in addition to four rebounds. I say unusually efficient because Waiters’ 43.1 percent shooting this year represents a new career-high. His bugaboo assist-to-turnover ratio was also evident again, as he coughed up five turnovers while finding his teammates for just two made baskets.
Andrew Bynum, coming off an atrocious 0-of-11 shooting performance, staggered his way to just four points, one rebound and one block in 18 minutes. It’s hard to envision his plodding, half-court game fitting in with Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson (22 points, two blocks) and the Cavs’ personnel, regardless of how badly Mike Brown wants Bynum to be the anchor on a defense-first team. That’s actually amusing to write after last night’s loss, in which the Cavs yielded 127 points.
The flipside of Bynum’s struggles was that bouncy big man Anderson Varejao thrived in extended playing time off the bench – he scored eight points, grabbed a game-high 17 rebounds (five offensive), and chipped in three assists, one steal and three blocks in 35 minutes. There hasn’t been as much trade chatter surrounding Varejao as I anticipated this season, though that will certainly change if he stays healthy once the trade deadline begins creeping into view. Presumably any team willing to trade for AV would play him at least the 28 minutes he’s currently averaging off Cleveland’s bench, so I’d view a trade as a break-even prospect at worst.
The other ‘big news’ for the Cavaliers was Mike Brown’s decision to bench Alonzo Gee in favor of Earl Clark at SF. This arrangement didn’t work when the Cavs started the season, and Clark’s three points and five boards in 18 minutes on Thursday don’t give me any reason to think it’ll be more effective this time around. Alonzo Gee and Sergey Karasev both wound with DNP-CDs, Anthony Bennett was scoreless in five minutes, and it’s safe to say that the Cavs’ SF position is a black hole for fantasy value.
We now shift our attention to Houston, where the Rockets used a decisive 34-20 advantage in the fourth quarter to beat the Grizzlies for their third consecutive win. After a recent three-game period in which Tony Allen averaged 17.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.7 steals, the Grizzlies’ veteran has stalled out. He scored six points on Monday and finished Thursday’s loss with eight points and zero rebounds, assists or steals, as major foul trouble limited him to 21 minutes. On average he’s a middle- to late-round value, and anyone who owns him should be targeting his 2.0 steals per game.
Zach Randolph predictably led all Memphis starters with 23 points and 17 rebounds. Just as predictably, Tayshaun Prince’s return from a sore left knee was an event worthy of indifference. He immediately resumed starting at SF and coach Dave Joerger doesn’t seem inclined to tamper with his role, as he’s enamored with Prince’s veteran poise and experience, but that doesn’t mean much for fantasy purposes. Prince finished with nine points and four assists in 25 minutes. The really intriguing variable at SF is newcomer James Johnson, who followed up Monday’s solid game with another understated gem in 28 bench minutes – 12 points, one 3-pointer, five rebounds, three steals and one block.
I’ve highlighted Johnson’s per-minute steals and blocks as a reason to watch him closely in fantasy leagues, or even stash him if you need defensive stats, and he’s proving the point on a nightly basis. After averaging 1.9 steals and 3.4 blocks in the D-League before his call-up, he’s notching 2.0 steals and 1.7 blocks in the past three games. If his playing time off the bench on Thursday is any indication, there’s plenty more where that came from.
On the flipside we have Jon Leuer, whose streak of excellent games sans Marc Gasol has quickly stalled out. He scored just two points vs. the Knicks last Saturday, bounced back with 11 points on Monday, and was limited to six points with zero rebounds in 12 minutes last night. With his playing time dwindling and Gasol potentially returning in just 1-2 weeks, Leuer can be cut for any free agent with a more promising near- or long-term outlook. He was found money for fantasy owners, and it was fun spending while it lasted.
A series of quick whistles held Dwight Howard in check vs. the Grizzlies, as he picked up his fifth foul with eight minutes left in the third quarter and gave way to Donatas Motiejunas (four points, three boards, three blocks). Of greater concern is Dwight’s back, which stiffened up on him and led Kevin McHale to bench him in the fourth quarter. The injury doesn’t seem serious but owners should check for updates leading up to Saturday’s game vs. the Pelicans. Howard has been unstoppable all month and a quick recitation of his splits from December should suffice to buoy his fantasy owners’ spirits – 21.3 points (61.7 percent FGs and a relatively stellar 60.2 percent FTs), 15.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. If you ignore FT percentage, as well as his 3.3 turnovers per game this season, Dwight has been a top-10 fantasy option.
James Harden scored a game-high 27 points on Thursday despite missing seven of his nine FG attempts. He achieved that historical oddity by attempting a ridiculous 25 free throws, making 22 of them. This was a hugely encouraging performance for many reasons. He relentlessly attacked the hoop in the second game of a back-to-back set (following up a 42-minute gem from Wednesday) and there can be no doubt that his nagging ankle sprain has finally healed. On a related note, this was the first time in seven games that Harden has attempted double-digit free throws, which is a staple of his fantasy appeal and one of the reasons he’s a purebred stud in roto leagues. He missed one game on Monday with his sore ankle but remains on pace to be among the best fantasy plays this week thanks to Houston’s gaudy five-game schedule.
Owners hoping to squeeze more value out of Aaron Brooks were disappointed, as he came off the bench for just six points in 15 minutes before tweaking his ankle. He’s prone to get hot offensively, even in limited minutes, but owners in average leagues should have better options while Brooks is buried behind James Harden (44 minutes) and Jeremy Lin (18 points in 37 minutes). The return of Patrick Beverley will only make matters worse, and Brooks is cuttable even if his ankle doesn’t cost him any games.
Chandler Parsons contributed a nice double-double with 15 points, 11 boards and five assists, but I was more impressed by Terrence Jones. He played 31 minutes in another start at PF and pitched in 20 points on 10-of-14 shooting, with five rebounds, two assists, two blocks and zero turnovers. He’s averaging 20.5 points in the past two games, which is sweet relief after a seven-game stretch in which he failed to top 10 points. Coach Kevin McHale isn’t shy about plugging in Omri Casspi at PF as matchups require, and it’s worth noting that both Omer Asik and Greg Smith were out with knee injuries, so T-Jones’ fantasy owners should strap in for an alternately thrilling and nauseating roller coaster ride.
The Spurs rolled into Dallas and stole a road win behind nice games from Tim Duncan (21 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks), Tony Parker (23 points, including 11-of-12 free throws) and Danny Green (22 points). Green has been quiet lately so his big scoring total is already eye-opening, and more so since he did it on 7-of-7 shooting with five 3-pointers, three steals and two blocks. He only played 27 minutes and his perfect shooting night is a rarity to say the least, so this doesn’t mean much in the big picture. It does highlight Green’s strengths as a fantasy option, however, where a steady dose of 3s, steals and blocks have him as a top-100 player in nine-cat leagues, despite his miniscule 22 minutes per game. It was reported prior to the game that Tiago Splitter was questionable with a hamstring issue, but he started at center and scored 12 points in 23 minutes without appearing limited.
Every loss stings for the Mavericks, who are clinging to a playoff spot with a 16-13 record, but Thursday’s defeat was particularly painful for DeJuan Blair. The former Spurs big man has been outspoken about his desire to show San Antonio what they are missing without him, and what they missed when Gregg Popovich benched him in the playoffs last season. The Mavs played up his ‘revenge game’ on Thursday and he did his part by making 6-of-8 field goals to finish with 14 points, 11 rebounds (seven offensive), three assists, one steal and one block. He did his damage in just 23 minutes and sat out most of the fourth quarter in favor of Samuel Dalembert, who was questionable to play due to an illness but wound up with eight points, six boards and three blocks in 24 minutes off the bench. Fellow big man Brandan Wright was also under the weather and didn’t join the team tonight, but he should be ready to go for Monday’s game vs. the Wolves.
It’s worth quickly noting that Dallas is getting next-to-nothing out of their two rookie point guards this season. Shane Larkin is averaging 3.5 points on 33.9 shooting, Gal Mekel is averaging 3.1 points on 37.3 percent shooting, and I assume that both of them will disappear from Rick Carlisle’s rotation once Devin Harris eventually returns from his toe injuries. Harris has already had multiple setbacks and is experiencing swelling in a metatarsal other than the one that was surgically repaired this summer, but he’s resumed running on a treadmill and hopes to be fully recovered in January.
The fourth and final game on Thursday was another overtime thriller in which the Blazers knocked off the Clippers by a final score of 116-112. LaMarcus Aldridge was questionable to play after recently having his wisdom teeth removed, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell by watching him play. He matched Blake Griffin beat for beat to finish with 32 points, 10 rebounds and zero turnovers, and he gave Portland a late lead in overtime on one of his fall-away mid-range jumpers (patent pending).
Damian Lillard struggled his way to 14 points against Chris Paul, but reserve PG Mo Williams played well despite recently bruising his hip. He came off the bench for 12 points, four 3-pointers and eight assists in 24 minutes—the assists were a season-high but this is the fourth straight game in which he’s had at least five dimes. He’s an integral part of Portland’s revamped second unit but has been unplayable in standard fantasy leagues – he’s a plus-contributor in assists per game (4.5) but falls short in points (9.1), FG percentage (40.8 percent) and steals (0.7), and even his 1.0 three-pointers are uninspiring.
The loss was particularly rough for the Clippers, who were coming off a disappointing loss to the Warriors in which Blake Griffin was wrongly ejected (the NBA confirmed that the referees made a mistake). Blake roared back with a season-high 35 points on 15-of-27 shooting (with one 3-pointer), to go along with 11 rebounds, one steal and two blocks. Chris Paul dominated all night, leading his team back from multiple deficits with 34 points, 16 assists, six steals and only one turnover, all while playing enviable defense against Damian Lillard (14 points, four turnovers). DeAndre Jordan snared 19 rebounds before fouling out, Matt Barnes led the reserves with 12 points, Jamal Crawford scored 21 points before missing a key free throw late in OT, and it all added up to an exhausting road loss in Portland. Doc Rivers’ crew will look to regroup in home games against the Jazz on Saturday and the Suns on Monday.
Larry Sanders (thumb) practiced on Thursday and he will return to action on Friday, nearly two months after he hurt his thumb in a brawl at a nightclub. I can only surmise that Sanders has avoided censure due to the Bucks’ small media market and the team’s desire to protect his image after they inked him to a massive four-year, $44 million contract this summer. It probably helps that Bucks fans are openly rooting for their team to lose games in the hopes of earning a higher draft pick this summer (I’ll have much more on that trend in a future column). But if Monta Ellis had millions of dollars clawed back from his contract after shredding his ankle in a moped accident, couldn’t the same principle have been applied to Sanders, who was hurt (and hurt his team) due to his own poor decision-making? Of course, for Milwaukee to even broach that topic would create a rift that might be unbridgeable (see also: Monta and the Warriors), so it’s not at all surprising that they opted to shelve him without raising a fuss. In any case, he’s back and coach Larry Drew said that he looked good during practice. He deserves to be owned for his stellar shot-blocking, at the very least, and my assumption is that he’ll eventually start at center with John Henson either starting at PF or coming off the bench as a combo PF/C.
Ersan Ilyasova (ankle) was also back on the practice court on Thursday, and the odds seem very good that he’ll play on Friday. It’s strange to say given Ersan’s huge upside, but I’m not willing to take more than a zero-risk flier on him at this point. If you own Xavier Henry, go ahead and cut him for Ilyasova. Ditto for Jon Leuer or any number of borderline scrubs whose fantasy value is teetering on oblivion. But with so many talented, long forwards in the Bucks’ rotation, guys like John Henson, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, there are no guarantees that Ilyasova will earn a reliable 30-minute role, let alone a starting job. Milwaukee’s frontcourt rotations will be under the microscope in the coming weeks, and with good reason since Larry Drew will determine multiple players’ fantasy relevance with his playing time allotments.
Chase Budinger (knee surgery) continues to do “light work” during T-Wolves' practices but there is no timetable for his return.