This is March.
Wait, wrong level of basketball. Let's try that again. This is ... the second-to-last month of the NBA's regular season. Not really the same ring to it. Still, here we are. Another month down in the NBA calendar as the league starts to come into focus with some potential playoff matchups shaping up. Playoff contenders are also trying to get healthy before April, and maybe add a helpful piece or two from the buyout market.
As the season winds down, teams and players across the league will be looking for every possible edge they can use to be in the best position come playoff time. This week alone we've seen bench players deliver star performances, star players answer trash talk with superstar performances and two generational talents go head-to-head twice. What a week. What a league.
Let's take a look at some of the NBA's winners and losers from the final week of February:
Winner: Shake Milton
Move over Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Ray Allen. There's a new player who holds the title for greatest shooter of all-time and his name is Shake Milton. OK, maybe not, but Milton has been on an absolute tear since the Philadelphia 76ers lost their two star players -- Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid -- to injuries over the last week. Serving as the Sixers' point guard and primary ball-handler, Milton finally got the opportunity to show that he not only belonged on an NBA court, but that he could dominate it as well -- culminating with against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday.
Through four games, Milton has averaged 21.3 points, 4.8 assists and 3.8 rebounds. Those numbers come from a player who appeared in just 24 games this season prior to the aforementioned injuries to Philly's roster.
Perhaps most impressive about Milton's performance last week was how he appeared to have an inability to miss any shots from beyond the arc. Over the span over his last three games, starting with Feb. 26 against the Cleveland Cavaliers and ending with Sunday's matchup with the Clippers, Milton hit 13 straight three-pointers. Thirteen! That streak tied the NBA record for most consecutive 3s made.
In the last week and amid his streak, Milton managed to hit from beyond the arc at a 74 percent clip. Now obviously that level of insane production isn't sustainable, but the former SMU guard proved that he can be a lethal weapon from downtown.
Given his position and abilities shooting and running the Sixers' half-court offense, Milton is clearly working himself toward becoming the team's backup point guard once Simmons returns from injury.
From being out of the rotation, to racking up 13 straight 3s and a 39-point effort, Milton had as good a week as anyone across the league.
Winner: Anyone who watched both Lakers-Pelicans bouts
Truly, I feel bad for anyone who missed those two Lakers-Pelicans games this past week. If you missed the first one on Tuesday and still actively chose to not watch Sunday's prime-time affair, then I have no sympathy for you.
The matchups between Los Angeles and New Orleans this week gave basketball fans a real-time view of present versus future. LeBron James and Zion Williamson competed against each other , both thriving in the heat of battle and daring the other to take their performance even higher.
Just look at this sequence from Sunday night:
Zion's slam brought the entire arena to its feet, and LeBron knew he had to respond. The type of competitive energy the rookie brings out in the game's best player was never more apparent than in this sequence. And it was awesome.
While that one particular moment encompassed all of what made these two games great, there were plenty of other jaw-dropping plays from the young phenom and The King.
In the first game, LeBron posted a 40-point performance and Zion scored 29 points on 18 shots. For a follow-up, the rookie Lakers victory, each by single digits.on Sunday. LeBron answered with a 34-point triple-double. Both games ended in a
Given the level of excitement and that "I need to drop whatever it is I'm doing and watch this game" feeling both of those contests produced, it's only fair to assume that a first-round playoff matchup between the Lakers and Pelicans would be one of the most highly anticipated No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed showdowns in recent memory.
Here's to hoping such a situation comes to fruition.
Loser: James Harden's trash talk
"I wish I could be 7 feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all," Harden told Nichols during the interview. "I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I'll take that any day."
That's a spicy take about a guy who won the MVP last season. Harden felt the need to defend himself after Giannis threw a subtle jab his way during the All-Star Game selection show, when the Bucks star opted to draft Kemba Walker over Harden so he could have "somebody who's gonna pass the ball" on his team.
Kind of an unnecessary comment in its own right, considering Harden averages more assists than both Walker and Giannis. But it seemed to be all in good fun.
Nevertheless, Harden took his shot at Giannis and, well, it didn't really turn out all that great.
Here's a little preview of what the Greek Freak did on the court following Harden's take on his skill set:
Seems like a bit of skill Is involved in a move like that.
As for Giannis' final line, he went on to pour in 41 points, 20 rebounds and six assists in Milwaukee's win over Charlotte.
Nothing like a casual 41-20-6 game on the heels of being criticized for not having skills. Just another day in the life of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Harden can be thanked for awakening what already appeared to be an unstoppable force on its way to a second consecutive MVP award.
My condolences to the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Winner: Russell Westbrook
While one Rockets MVP took an L this week, another continued to enjoy an impressive season.
Russell Westbrook has quietly been playing some of his best basketball since his MVP season, and it's not nearly being talked about enough. In two games last week, Westbrook averaged 37 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.5 steals.
First, against Memphis, Westbrook poured in 33 points, nine boards, eight assists and four steals while being a plus-37 on court in just 34 minutes. That's efficiency to the highest degree, a trait in Westbrook's game that has long been inconsistent.
Although that performance was impressive, and certainly isn't going overlooked, Westbrook's real accomplishment this week was being Boston Celtics.over the
In the victory, Westbrook poured in 41 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals. Following a game-tying 3-pointer by Jaylen Brown as time expired in regulation, Westbrook went to work in the extra period and provided three crucial points and a timely defensive rebound that ultimately helped will the Rockets to a victory behind Harden's two game-winning free throws.
Playing in the new centerless system in Houston, Westbrook has been able to thrive by pushing the pace to his liking and playing in a wide-open court that allows him to attack the basket at will without feeling the need to force low percentage jumpers.
Houston has a prime-time matchup against the Clippers on Thursday along with two potential cupcake games against the Knicks and Hornets. With the Rockets sitting just 1.5 games behind the Clippers for the third seed in the Western Conference, Westbrook is really finding his groove at the most opportune time for his squad.
Loser: Portland Trail Blazers
A season to forget for the Portland Trail Blazers continued on last week with three straight losses. Portland's slump dropped the team to a 26-35 record, and 3-7 in its last 10 games. Damian Lillard has been sidelined since Feb. 12, and is already ruled out for Monday's contest against the Orlando Magic.
In other words, it's not looking great for a team that sits 3.5 games out of the West's final playoff spot with the likes of New Orleans and Memphis in front of them.
Despite having Lillard (who prior to his injury was playing as well as anyone in the league) and CJ McCollum, the Blazers just haven't been able to find a groove this season that would position them as a legitimate playoff team, let alone a serious title contender.
The addition of Carmelo Anthony has been so-so at best. He's had his moments of triumph and he's certainly displayed lapses in his play. In a week where he needed to step up and play like the Melo of old, with opponents like Boston and Indiana on the schedule, Anthony delivered a pair of 12-point performances against the Pacers and Hawks, and a 14-point outing against the Celtics. That won't get it done as Portland's de facto second option with Lillard sidelined.
Even with the backcourt talent Portland possesses, it feels like the situation is beginning to reach a point of questioning how successful a Lillard-McCollum-driven team can ultimately be. Can those two be the driving force to a championship? That remains to be seen, but the data currently at our disposal doesn't bode well for those who think the answer to that question is yes.
This past week was just another microcosm example of the bigger questions surrounding the Trail Blazers, regardless of Lillard being in the lineup or not.