By: Robert Bishop
Back again, and a week off for the All-Star break did little to slow DeMar DeRozan of the Chicago Bulls. DeRozan entered the hiatus on a white-hot streak, and on Thursday night, he picked up right where he left off. Against the Atlanta Hawks, DeRozan dropped 37 points to lead Chicago to a single-digit victory. For the season, DeRozan is now averaging over 28 points per game, the highest total of his thirteen-year career. Now on a six-game winning streak, the Chicago Bulls are 39-21, a half-game ahead of the Miami Heat for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. A Saturday evening showdown against the playoff-bound Memphis Grizzlies is next for Chicago.
Cleveland’s second half didn’t get off to the most encouraging start as the Cavaliers fell to the Detroit Pistons. It’s worth noting that Cleveland was without All-Star Darius Garland (lower back) and Caris LeVert (foot), forcing the team to play Rajon Rondo heavy minutes. Garland is expected to be ready to return to action as soon as this weekend, while LeVert’s injury is likely to sideline him for multiple games. On the plus side, the Cavaliers face the lowly Washington Wizards tomorrow night. On the downside, after the matchup against Washington, Cleveland’s schedule gets a whole lot more challenging. The Cavaliers, losers of three straight, currently sit in fifth place in the East, a game ahead of the Boston Celtics and two games out of the play-in tournament.
As for the Celtics, Boston has surged up the Eastern Conference standings on the heels of a 12-2 run, including a win last night over the Brooklyn Nets. It took a bit of time, but the Celtics have rounded into form, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown living up to their reputations as All-Star caliber players, Marcus Smart continuing to shine as a defender and an underrated playmaker, and the duo of Al Horford and Robert Williams III being an unassuming yet potent frontcourt combination. Plus, the team’s addition of Derrick White at the deadline is proving to be a massive success. With games against the Pistons and tanking Indiana Pacers this weekend, it would take an upset for Boston’s winning ways to come to an end in the coming days.
Minnesota’s quest to escape the play-in continued on Thursday as the Timberwolves defeated the Memphis Grizzlies. Led by a superstar performance from D’Angelo Russell (37 points, nine dimes) and Karl-Anthony Towns continuing to do Karl-Anthony Towns things (22 points, 11 boards), Minnesota moved to 32-28 on the season. Perhaps the most impressive takeaway from the win for the Timberwolves was that Minnesota was able to beat Memphis despite an awful game from Anthony Edwards. As Edwards continues to play through an ankle injury, he continues to struggle. On Thursday, that meant a 1-of-11 shooting performance. The Timberwolves will be in action again tonight, the second leg of a back-to-back, facing the Philadelphia 76ers.
All eyes will be on Minnesota’s date with Philadelphia on Friday night as it seems poised to be James Harden’s debut with the 76ers. Acquired at the trade deadline after forcing his way out of Brooklyn, Harden’s on-court debut with Philadelphia had been delayed due to injury. Now, he seems set to begin a new era as Joel Embiid’s running mate. The 76ers are 35-23 on the season, and Embiid is arguably a top-two candidate for MVP alongside Nikola Jokic, so it will be interesting to watch Harden’s integration within Philadelphia’s offensive structure. However, there is no denying Harden, when properly motivated, is a capable scorer and one of the best and most creative playmakers in the NBA. Amidst a crowded nine-game slate on Friday night, Harden’s debut is the one to watch.