Over the course of this week, Andrew Unterberger will be counting down the 100 best things (here are Nos. 100-61, 60-41 and 40-21) that happened from opening night to the start of the offseason in the NBA year that was. Read on and live the greatest plays, games, photos, performances, celebrations, quotes, fights, achievements and fashion statements from the 2012-13 season, and begin counting down the long, lonely days and nights before the National Basketball Association is once again upon us.
20. Kobe’s insane comebacks against the Hornets and Raptors
It all seems a little silly in retrospect, given that Kobe’s herculean efforts (on one side of the ball, at least) to get the Lakers into the playoff picture ended with him missing the team’s four-game first round sweep by the Spurs with a season-ending ACL injury and Dwight Howard skipping town after getting himself kicked out of the Lakers’ Game 4 loss. Still, outside of Miami, there was no drama better in the second half of the NBA season than watching Kobe shoot his teams to victories that probably shouldn’t have been nearly as suspenseful as they were, each one keeping their slim playoff hopes alive another day.
These games were the two best — aside from the last one, which we’ll get to later — with Kobe going off for 40+ and 10+ in consecutive fourth quarter comeback victories against two crappy opponents, a loss to either of which would have essentially deaded their season. The Lakers’ season may have been a disaster, but you certainly couldn’t ever say it was a waste of time, and that was pretty much all Kobe.
19. Carmelo Anthony scores 131 points in three games
It wasn’t as neat or as long-lasting as LeBron’s 30-point, 60 percent FG% streak, but it was arguably more impressive (and for me at least, far more fun) to watch. For this three-game period — 50 points against Miami, 40 against ATL and 41 against the Bucks — Carmelo Anthony was in as much of a zone with his jumper as we’re likely to ever see any NBA player be, hitting automatically the way we always assume the best players are able to do when we’re kids, but which is usually slightly more difficult than that against grown-man NBA defenses. What made these games especially notable for Carmelo is that usually, when he puts up 30-40 in a given night, it’s much uglier than it looks in the box score — lots of putbacks of his own misses, some helter-skelter threes, tons of trips to the foul line. Not in these three, though — just swished jumper after swished jumper, until it seemed like he might never go cold again.
Unfortunately for Knicks fans, go cold again he most certainly did, and at a much less opportune time than meaningless-in-retrospect games towards the end of the season. But damn, who knows when we’re ever going to see shooting like this again?
18. Knicks-Nets, parts 1 and 2
Truth told, the Knicks and Nets had about as much natural cause for rivalry as the Kings and Bobcats. But sports law demands that when two teams play in the same state, especially a media-saturated one like New York, then it has to be a big deal even if it isn’t really. Luckily for us, even if Joe Johnson and J.R. Smith probably think each other are just swell off the court, the on-court product through two games in this rivalry was feisty enough to make it seem like the Knicks and Nets were a tale as old as time — hard-fought, tight-knit and exceedingly emotional contests that made you care, even if you didn’t really (and knew you shouldn’t really) care. The next two matchups couldn’t quite live up to the first two, but the mega-teaming of the Celtics and Nets under the Brooklyn umbrella (with longtime Knick villains Paul Pierce and KG, and ex-Knick Jason Kidd at head coach) ensures even greater heights to the rivalry next year.
I remember watching the second game — the one the Knicks won on the Kidd three — at a bar in Brooklyn, and could feel half the crowd cheering and half the crowd sighing with each successive momentum swing. It was a pretty cool thing, and one which I felt lucky to now witness four times a year.
17. KD’s first-half eruption against Houston in Game 3
As devastated as we all were to see Russell Westbrook’s postseason ended with injury two games in, I think most NBA fans were also a little bit excited to see what it would do to Kevin Durant. We hadn’t seen KD unleashed in full-on takeover mode in a long time — if truly ever — and we couldn’t help but wonder: Could he drag the Thunder to the Finals basically on his own, 2007 LeBron style? The prospect was tantalizing, and for one half of basketball, it 100 percent delivered on its promise, as Durant went off for 27 points in the first half of Game 3 against the Rockets, including a couple vicious dunks and even an extracurricular blow to Jeremy Lin’s chest that proved just how Not Nice KD was feeling after Russ’ departure. It was absolutely everything we wanted to see from Durant, and it was about as enthralling as any half of basketball in the playoffs.
Sadly, it proved unsustainable — even by the end of the game, KD had wound down, and though they ended up escaping past the Rockets (in the game and the series), OKC ran aground against Memphis in Round Two. We can only hope the setback serves to make Kevin Durant just that much nastier for OKC’s next (and hopefully less abortive) title run.
16. Andre Miller’s Game 1 Game-Winner
It seems especially cruel that even after his incredible Game 1 performance, and playing on the team with the better record for once in his life, Andre Miller was still unable to get out of the first round, dragging the vet to 0-9 for his playoff career. Still, you’d have to be even more of an NBA curmudgeon than ‘Dre himself to not be ecstatic for the man after he put the Nuggets on his back of Denver’s series-opener against the Warriors, scoring 28 for the game and driving past (!!) rookie Draymond Green for the game-winning layup in the final seconds — the first game-winner of his career, or so he claims. In a postseason dominated by breakout stars like Stephen Curry and Paul George, it was the rare victory for the old guy.
Hope you can get to the second round one of these days, Andre. Just hope that it isn’t with the Heat, which it almost certainly will be.
15. Heat-Spurs, Game 7
A comedown after Game 6? Perhaps, but only because Game 6 was Game 6. Otherwise, Game 7 is that rare deciding game in a series that actually felt like it could still go either way down to the very last minute, and still might have gone the other way in the last minute had a certain Hall of Fame power forward been able to make a certain layup. Incredible shooting nights from LeBron and Shane Battier, a proving-anything-left-to-be-proven performance from Kawhi Leonard, plenty of momentum swings and What If? moments, and emotional stakes so high that you just wanted to hug everybody after it was all over (and Gregg Popovich actually did!), especially the Spurs players who will no doubt be haunted by it for years to come. It was a Game 7 worthy of the six games that came before it, and that was all we could ask for.
14. Danny Green setting the Finals three-point record
Danny Green, Finals MVP? Could’ve happened. Green was like the NBA playoff incarnation of my dad’s oft-stated worry about the Phillies scoring too many runs in any one game when there’s still a game or two to go in the series, fearing the team might run out of runs when they need them later. Advanced analytics (as well as basic logic) would scoff at such an idea, but such was the case with Danny Green when he hit an unthinkable 25 threes through the first five games of the Spurs-Heat Finals, easily besting Ray Allen’s previous record of 22 with two games still to go. Then, in a couple close games when one made three could’ve been the difference in either game, Green went a combined 2-11 from deep (and 2-19 from the field), arguably costing the Spurs the series. But holy moly, those first 25 threes were something, making Steph Curry look pedestrian and giving Ray-Ray himself cause for serious consternation. History may not remember it as such, but in a series featuring at least seven future Hall-of-Famers, for five games, the biggest story by far was Danny Green.
So lesson learned, then, Danny? Don’t use all your three-pointers up in the first five games. Save some for the end of the series. You never know when your team might need them.
13. The Knicks-Celtics “Honey Nut Cheerios” Game
Honestly, the actual game of this one wasn’t particularly classic — it was intense and fun the way Knicks-Celtics games have always been intense and fun since both teams got good, but really, it was more confusing than compelling. What did KG do to Melo to take him out of his game so much in the fourth quarter? The next day, “Honey Nut Cheerios” was trending on Twitter, and we (maybe) got our answer. Whether the story is true or not will probably never be 100 percent verified, but almost certainly doesn’t matter. Everyone, including fans from both teams, wanted to believe it was true because it was so perfect: Ridiculous, specific, vulgar and weirdly playful, trash talk on a level that we basically never get to experience in the NBA until the tales trickle out years and years after the fact. And because we knew the players involved so well, and because their actions were so consistent with what we’d expect from them, it just made the experience all the richer.
Next year, getting to combine the Knicks-Celtics rivalry and the Knicks-Nets rivalry into one ultra-mecha-rivalry that covers animosity both personal and territorial … the NBA couldn’t have drawn it up better if they’d tried.
12. Heat-Celtics, during the winning streak
Amazingly, that first Heat-Celtics game that I thought for sure would go down as the best game of the NBA regular season ended up not even being the best Heat-Celtics game of the regular season. That would be victory No. 23 in the Heat’s season-dominating win streak, an incredibly suspenseful affair that went down to the wire in Boston, where the Heat never win, until LeBron got revenge on Jeff Green for having shut him down in OT in the teams’ previous matchup by draining the game-winning jumper over his arm with seconds to go. And as if all that, combined with the history at stake (No. 23 moved the Heat past the 2008 Rockets for the second-longest streak ever) wasn’t enough, this was also the night when Jeff Green had the offensive game of his life, scoring 43 on 14-21 shooting, and also the setting for LeBron sending Jason Terry to tha crossroads, probably the second-best posterization dunk of the whole season.
I still can’t believe the Celtics didn’t win this one. But the streak would come to an end in fairly satisfying fashion soon enough.
11. Jason Collins coming out
Amidst a couple teams potentially coming back from 3-0 series deficits, the Thunder losing Russell Westbrook for the postseason, Brandon Jennings looking like an idiot and the Lakers’ empire officially crumbling, the biggest and best story of the first round of the NBA playoffs was about a guy whose season had ended riding the pine for the Wizards weeks earlier. Jason Collins wouldn’t have been anyone’s bet to be the first active NBA player to come out of the closet, but we’d soon find out that he was just about the ideal choice — a well-spoken, likeable guy whose hard-nosed, defensive reputation meant he couldn’t be written off by homophobes as effete or soft. The real heart-swelling moment for NBA fans came after Collins’ announcement, when (aside from your spare Chris Broussards and Mark Jacksons) he was met with unconditional support from virtually the whole NBA community — including marquee players like LeBron and Kobe who had shown moments of intolerance or poor understanding in the past — in a way it’s hard to see happening quite the same in any other major sport.
There’s still a lot of progress to be made in this field, from ensuring Jason Collins’ fair treatment in the locker room and on the court should he make an NBA team next year, to having more of a name player still in the peak of his career make a similar announcement. But hopefully, the reception Collins has gotten, in which he’s now a better-known and more-popular player than he ever was when scrapping in the low post against Shaq or Dwight Howard, can provide the precedent to make these next steps a possibility.
Check back tomorrow for the final installment in this series.