Wednesday, July 24, 2024

NBA Star Power Index: LeBron James’ scoring-title chase an act of desperation; Stephen Curry gets his man back

Welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players getting the most buzz around the league. Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing — it simply means you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. This is also not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order. This column will run every week throughout the regular season. 

LeBron James has finally figured out a winning recipe for the Los Angeles Lakers: All he has to do is score 50 points. Is that asking too much? Since the All-Star break, the Lakers have lost eight of 10 games. In the two they won, against the Warriors and Wizards, LeBron put up 56 and 50, respectively. Anything less apparently isn’t enough for what truly might be, without Anthony Davis, one of the worst teams in the league. 

The consolation prize for LeBron’s scoring binge might be his second scoring title. He won his first in 2007-08 by averaging 30 on the dot. This season, he’s averaging 29.7 entering play on Wednesday, tied for second with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and just two-tenths of a point behind current scoring leader Joel Embiid

If LeBron wanted to, he could’ve won 10 scoring titles by now. Volume bucket-hunting isn’t normally his thing. This is being done out of sheer desperation trying to carry a supremely flawed team in Davis’ absence. 

That LeBron can flip this kind of scoring switch in his 19th season at 37 years old, without a single other threat on the court at present that defenses are even remotely concerned about, is remarkable. That it’s proven to be nowhere near enough to make the Lakers even an average team is even more remarkable. 

Kyrie Irving has scored 132 points over his last three games. Fifty of those came against the Hornets on March 8, then 60 more came on Tuesday night against the Magic. Irving’s 60-piece came less than 24 hours after Karl-Anthony Towns put up his own 60 against the Spurs

For Irving, in addition to tying Towns for the NBA’s single-game high this season, the 60 points is a career high (he had 57 in 2015) and a Nets franchise record, topping Deron Williams‘ 57 in 2012. 

Irving’s night continues what has been a wild scoring binge across the NBA of late. Over the past two weeks alone, there have been six games of at least 50 points: Irving (50, 60), LeBron James (50, 56) Jayson Tatum (54) and Kevin Durant (53). Add to that a 47 for Stephen Curry, a 47 and 46 for Trae Young, 45 for Jordan Clarkson, 44 for Josh Hart and De’Aaron Fox (who also had a 41), 43 for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid, 41 for Darius Garland and 40 for Nikola Jokic

The Nets were playing on the front end of a back-to-back, but don’t worry about Kyrie wearing himself out. He can’t play at home vs. Dallas on Wednesday anyway. In fact, he can’t play in Brooklyn’s next three games, meaning he won’t suit up again for almost two weeks. 

As mentioned above. Towns owned this season’s single-game scoring high for about 20 hours until Irving matched him. Like Irving, Towns only needed 31 shots to get his 60. He made 19 of them, including seven of his 11 3-pointers. Towns also made 15 of his 16 free throws, and he dedicated his performance to his late mother, Jacqueline, who died in 2020 at the age of 58 from COVID-related complications. 

“Yesterday was two years to the date that my parents walked into the ER at JFK Medical Center in Edison, NJ and were admitted with COVID-19,” Towns posted. “The same hospital that my mother gave me life, and tragically, the same hospital where I saw her life begin to slip away. Two years later, I walked into AT&T Center with the greatest guardian angel that I could ever ask for and dropped 60 against the winningest coach of all time.

“I say this to say…no matter what life throws at you, you can come out of it stronger. Tough times don’t last, tough people do. Miss you Momma. This game…my life…is for you.”

While Irving set the season high for points in a half with 41, Towns set the season’s high-water mark for points in a quarter with 32 in the third. which ranks as the fifth-highest scoring quarter in history. Towns had 56 through three quarters before coming back late for the icing. 

Luka Doncic was named Western Conference Player of the Week and is averaging over 31 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in March. The Dallas Mavericks have won 26 of their last 34 games, and they’ve moved into a tie with the Utah Jazz for the West’s No. 4 seed with one head-to-head matchup remaining. 

Kevin Durant was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week on the strength of a 53-point outburst against the Knicks. Durant also put up 51 against the Pistons back in mid-December, making him and Kyrie Irving the first teammates since Elgin Baylor and Jerry West to post multiple 50-point games in the same season. 

All Trae Young has done in his past two games is score 47 points against the Pacers and 46 against the Blazers. More importantly, the Hawks won both those games, and have, in fact, won five of their last seven to finally open up a bit of breathing room to at least qualify for the play-in. 

Entering play on Wednesday, the Hawks, at No. 9 in the East, lead the No. 11 Wizards by four games in the loss column, and they still have a great chance to pass Brooklyn for the No. 8 seed, which would give them two cracks at a playoff spot. Atlanta is down just one game to the Nets and they still have one head-to-head matchup remaining. 

Nobody was happier to see Draymond Green back in action than Stephen Curry, who posted 47 points on 16-of-25 shooting, including 7 of 14 from 3, in Green’s return against Washington on Monday. You never want to make much out of single-game plus-minus numbers, but Green being a game-high plus-24 in his return is not a coincidence. The Warriors are such a different team, on both ends, when he’s on the floor, and Curry, at this stage of his career, looks more Draymond dependent than ever. 

That’s not a knock on Curry; it’s just a recognition of the value of this pairing. Curry doesn’t have to create as much with the ball in his hands, and nobody knows how to find him amid all his random movement better than Green, who is such a threat as a passer that even without elite scoring options outside Curry on this roster, the whole unit, moving as it does, poses a much bigger threat, which in turn takes a few eyes off Curry. 

Just look at this:

The Warriors, and Curry, looked positively blah without Green. But with Draymond back, and Klay Thompson hopefully starting to find his legs and consistent rhythm, the Warriors could be back in title contention. 

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