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NBA Third-Quarter Awards: No team was better than the Bucks, and Dame Lillard was on another level

Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports Illustration
Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports Illustration

When the Grizzlies took on the Lakers on Tuesday, it was their 60th game of the season. Memphis was the only team in the NBA yet to reach that mark; that means we’re now officially in the final 20ish games of the 2022-23 NBA season, and that can mean only one thing:

It’s time to hand out some purely hypothetical, intangible, no-cash-value-but-some-things-are-worth-more-than-money hardware. It’s time, my lovelies, for Third-Quarter Awards.

One quick (but important!) note before we begin: These selections aren’t intended as predictions of who’ll wind up winning the NBA’s actual year-end trophies. Instead, they’re based solely on performance since our last check-in — the 20ish-game period between Jan. 11 and March 3 — with the goal of allowing us to take stock of what we’ve just seen so that we might be better prepared for what’s about to come.

So let us come together, heart to heart and hand in hand, to review and revere what’s just transpired, starting in the place whose name is Algonquin for “The Good Land”:

(All statistics as of Friday morning.)

Team of the Quarter: Milwaukee Bucks

I dug into the Bucks’ recent surge just before the All-Star break, and it continues apace! Mike Budenholzer’s squad owned the NBA’s best record (19-3) and net rating (plus-10.9 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions) in Q3, ripping off the season’s longest winning streak and going undefeated in February behind phenomenal play from their finally (mostly) healthy core four.

Perennial MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo has averaged more than a point per minute over the past six weeks to go with nearly 12.5 rebounds and six assists a night — despite being held under 10 minutes in two contests on either side of the All-Star break due to a right knee injury. Jrue Holiday’s been brilliant, cementing his first All-Star nod in 10 years with one of the best stretches of two-way play to date: 22 points, 7.2 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game in Q3 on what would be career-best shooting efficiency despite a usage rate that’d be his highest since 2015-16, all while continuing to guard the very best offensive players in the sport.

Khris Middleton has shined since returning from wrist and knee issues, averaging 14.9 points, five rebounds and 4.1 assists in just 19.9 minutes per game off the bench. Backstopping it all is giving tree Brook Lopez, locking down the lane — seventh in blocks per game in Q3, holding opponents to just 47.7% shooting at the rim, according to Second Spectrum — while continuing to pour in more points than he has since he was a Brooklyn Net.

Middleton’s return, in particular, has helped rebalance an offense that often struggled to generate quality shots earlier in the season. Milwaukee’s complementary shooters suddenly have easier access to better looks; in turn, they’re canning them more frequently. Only the Warriors made more 3-pointers per game in Q3 than the Bucks, and the only member of Milwaukee’s rotation not to hit more than 35% from deep during this run was Middleton — a career 38.9% marksman whom you’d expect will find his level before too long.

Better spacing, shot creation and shot-making translated into a top-five half-court offense in Q3 — which, when added to how devastating Giannis and Co. can be in transition, and how suffocating they are on defense (even against top offenses) makes Milwaukee an awfully tough team to beat. Tough enough to hold off the Celtics in the sprint for the East’s No. 1 seed? That remains to be seen. The last six weeks have made it clear, though, that a full-strength Bucks team ought to have one hell of a closing kick.

Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Nuggets (best record and net rating in the West, bearing down on that No. 1 seed), Celtics (still right there with the Bucks atop the East despite Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Robert Williams III all missing time), 76ers and Cavaliers (a tier below the C’s and Bucks, but strong enough on both ends to harbor hopes of a deep run) and Kings (15-7 in Q3 with an absolute incinerator of an offense, which they’ll hope is enough to hold off the newly Durant-ified Suns for third place).

Player of the Quarter: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

There are plenty of perfectly fine answers here, including Antetokounmpo; Nikola Jokic, whose ho-hum Q3 average of near 24-14-11 on 67% shooting this week touched off a made-for-TV snit about stat-padding; and Joel Embiid, dominant night-in and night-out in Philadelphia. That trio will probably top most MVP ballots and harbor legit championship hopes in a couple of months’ time. Lillard, on the other hand, likely figures to receive only down-ballot recognition at best — if, as the leader of a sub.-500 Portland team still trying to scratch its way into the play-in tournament, he gets any at all.

These quarterly awards, though, are bound by nothing but whatever I feel like writing about … and right now, I feel like tipping the cap to a guy who’s averaged nearly 39 points a night for seven friggin’ weeks.

After topping 40 points three times through his first 40 games of the season, Lillard’s done it 10 times in his last 21 appearances — including 50 on 28 shots against Cleveland, 60 on 29 shots against Utah and, of course, a career-high 71 on 38 shots against Houston on Sunday — to lead the league in scoring in Q3.

Lillard devastated all over the court in Q3, posting the kind of sky-high true shooting percentage (which factors in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) typically associated with low-usage, catch-and-dunk big men (and Jokic, the exception to so many rules). He shot 70% inside the restricted area (which would be a career-high for a full season) and averaged 15.2 points per game off drives to the basket (ditto). Any concerns about him losing his ability to get to the free-throw line feel, oh, so very last season; nobody took more freebies than Lillard’s 245 in Q3 (an average of 11.7 attempts per game), and he missed a grand total of 11 of them, a 95.5% clip.

He drilled a downright Durantian 57.1% of his midrange tries, too, though he rarely took them — preferring, instead, to launch nearly a dozen triples a night, and splash 40.2% of them. (Again: Both would be career highs.) Lillard took 184 pull-up 3s in Q3; only 122 other players even took that many shots overall. He made more off-the-bounce 3s in that span than 14 TEAMS!

The threat of those live-dribble bombs — which Lillard’s become increasingly comfortable taking from absurd length, going 21-of-55 (38.2%) from beyond 30 feet in Q3 — can stretch defenses past their breaking points. It demands constant attention, second and third defenders cheating Lillard’s way off the ball, which creates more opportunities for his teammates; even while leading the league in scoring in this stretch, Lillard also ranked in the top 20 in assists, secondary or “hockey” assists and points created via assist in Q3.

A team that has sunk to 27th in defensive efficiency following a strong start on that end wins solely on the strength of its offense; it demands an overwhelming point-producing force to carry it across the finish line. With Lillard off the floor in Q3, the Blazers put up 114.3 points-per-100, according to’s lineup data — a below-league-average attack, not nearly enough to make that porous defense stand up. With him on it, though? A torrid 122.9 points-per-100: a league-best rate.

None of that makes Lillard an unsolvable equation. The Warriors short-circuited him on Tuesday, bringing hard blitzes and box-and-ones to force the ball out of his hands and force his teammates to make plays; he scored just 6 points on nine shots in the second half, the Blazers managed just 40 as a team, and Golden State ran away in a rout. That the Warriors started dipping into their bag of postseason coverages to cool Lillard down on a Tuesday night in February, though, points to just how scorching hot he’s been — how he’s turning in perhaps the best play of his career midway through his 11th season, how he’s providing his team’s best (and perhaps only) shot at winning through sheer force of will and a full quiver of pull-up arrows, and how he is, at the moment, maybe the best show in town.

ARTVIMB: Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Embiid, LeBron James (get well soon), Jayson Tatum, Kawhi Leonard (averaging 28-6-4 on 53/50/91 shooting splits since some guy wrote that the Clips really needed to start Seeing Prime Kawhi Soon), De’Aaron Fox (who’s hung 30-plus in seven straight and nine of his last 10 to pace the go-go Kings) and Domantas Sabonis (seven or more assists 12 times in 21 games in Q3 as the inside-out table-setter for the league’s No. 2 offense), Jalen Brunson (27.8 points and 5.6 assists per game in Q3 on 51/46/83 shooting for a red-hot Knicks team that kind of remarkably boasts the East’s second-best offense this season) and Julius Randle (who’s putting up better numbers than his All-NBA season; might a second selection be on the way?), Trae Young (leading the league in assists in Q3 and, like Lillard, just about the only thing keeping a flailing Hawks team afloat, even amid all the off-court grumblings), Luka Doncic (the numbers are great, but the defensive concerns coming out of the Kyrie Irving deal have been well-founded and the crunch-time play could use some work), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Ja Morant (um, maybe just hoop for a bit?).

Rookie of the Quarter: Jalen Williams, Thunder

On the whole, Paolo Banchero — our Q1 and Q2 repeat winner! — remains the cream of the freshman crop. (And if you don’t believe me, just ask the Pelicans.) But with the Magic’s rising star struggling from the field since our last check-in, shooting just 27.3% outside the restricted area in Q3, it opened the door to considering other candidates … and man, it’s hard not to like what the 2022 NBA Draft’s No. 12 pick has been doing as part of a somewhat surprisingly strong squad in Oklahoma City.

Williams blends the strong positional size and length — listed at 6-foot-5 and 211 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan — that’s long been a calling card of Sam Presti draftees with ahead-of-the-curve feel for the game that allows him to contribute in a variety of ways, on both ends of the court. That versatility helped the Santa Clara product quickly earn a spot in Mark Daigneault’s starting lineup; he has rewarded his coach’s trust with consistent improvement throughout the campaign, averaging 14.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and two steals (tied for the league lead!) per game in Q3.

After a slow start shooting the ball, Williams knocked down 39.7% of his long balls in Q3, the bulk of them coming on catch-and-shoot tries when spotting up off the ball — an important trait on a Thunder team that features All-Star point guard Gilgeous-Alexander and on-ball playmaker Josh Giddey. He’s a threat when he doesn’t fire off the catch, too, with the quickness and handle to elude an onrushing defender, penetrate and either dish off to a teammate or attack the rim, where he shot 70.7% in Q3 — fifth among rotation rookies in that period, trailing only big men, and just a tick below what some guy named LeBron James managed over that span.

Williams has also shown a knack for moving without the ball, finding pockets of space to take advantage of the attention his teammates draw and averaging 1.44 points per possession finished as a cutter this season, according to Synergy — a top-20 mark among players to finish at least 50 such plays. He can take the reins himself, showing comfort bringing the ball up the floor, running the pick-and-roll, slinging passes with either hand and capably working as a facilitator when SGA and Giddey rest. He checks everyone from point guards to big wings, ranking 12th among 218 players to log at least 1,000 minutes in The BBall Index’s defensive versatility metric; the list of players who’ve spent as much time as Williams guarding players at all five positions includes Swiss Army knife stoppers like O.G. Anunoby, Dorian Finney-Smith and Jimmy Butler.

Players who can do a little bit of everything at a high level, connecting dots and providing a stable foundation on which their teammates can continue to build and develop their own skills, are worth their weight in gold. They’ve also got a pretty solid starting point from which to propel their own development forward; here’s where we note that, with Gilgeous-Alexander missing OKC’s last four games with an abdominal issue and a stint in health and safety protocols, Williams averaged an eye-opening 22 points and 5.8 assists on 56/46/84 shooting. J-Dub spent the first half of his first pro season establishing himself as a high-floor connective tissue piece for an ascendant young Oklahoma City team; his work in Q3, though, hinted at what could be an awfully exciting ceiling.

ARTVIMB: Banchero, Keegan Murray (42% from deep on 6.5 attempts per game in Q3, an absolutely vital piece of Sacramento’s stunning run to home-court in Round 1), Bennedict Mathurin (led all rookies in scoring in Q3, continuing to look like a long-term backcourt partner for Tyrese Haliburton in Indiana), Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren (a pair of keepers getting all the reps they can handle amid the losing in Detroit), Walker Kessler (averaged 11 and 11 on 71.5% shooting as a full-time starter while blocking more shots per game than anybody but Jaren Jackson Jr., and maaaaaaybe just straight-up better than Rudy Gobert this season full stop?), Jeremy Sochan, AJ Griffin, Mark Williams.

Defensive Player of the Quarter: Jrue Holiday, Bucks

Given their outsized role on the defensive end — as ballhandlers’ primary targets in the pick-and-roll and the last line of defense at the basket, the dudes most responsible for erasing the acres of space offenses create in the half-court and taking away the highest-value shots in the game — the Defensive Player of the Year conversation typically revolves around big men. Centers and power forwards have essentially had the award in the Cobra Clutch since the early 1990s, with only four guards/wings — Gary Payton, Metta Sandiford-Artest (then called Ron Artest), Kawhi Leonard and last season’s winner, Smart — taking home the trophy in the last 30 years.

Smart’s win will probably be a rare exception than the establishment of a new rule. The odds suggest it’s overwhelmingly likely that an interior shot deterrent will take home this season’s trophy, with Memphis’ Jackson Jr., Miami’s Bam Adebayo, Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton, Philadelphia’s Embiid and Cleveland’s duo of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen leading a number of big men in the running for the award — including a pair of Holiday’s teammates, 2020 DPOY Antetokounmpo and Q1 winner Lopez.

But the first line of defense matters a ton, too. And there’s no sharper tip of the spear in the league than Holiday, who led a Milwaukee defense that ranked second in the NBA in Q3 in total minutes, and whose ability to go step-for-step and toe-to-toe with the game’s most lethal scorers sets the tone for a unit that delights in shutting off opponents’ water every time it takes the court.

“He’s phenomenal,” Budenholzer told reporters after Holiday’s key late-game stop on Devin Booker sealed a recent win over the Suns. “His hands are phenomenal. His competitiveness is high, high level. He’s got a knack for getting deflections and steals in meaningful moments. That’s what winners do.”

Budenholzer’s onto something there. Holiday saw only 28.5 minutes of “clutch” play in Q3 — a byproduct of Milwaukee frequently just blowing opponents’ doors off over the past couple of months — but he had more steals in them than anybody but Adebayo, who played nearly twice as many crunch-time minutes for the perpetually in-close-games Heat. When the game’s on the line and you need somebody to get you the ball, there might not be a better option in the league than the one the Bucks can turn to every night.

Holiday almost exclusively guards the best scorers on the planet — top assignments in the last month include Booker, Butler, Paul George, Lillard and Leonard — and they shot, on average, about 2% worse from the field with him on them in Q3, according to NBA Advanced Stats. He remains one of the most elusive defenders in the game, almost impossible to stick with a screen and strong enough to shrug off bumps to stay attached without giving ground, whether on the perimeter or in presumed mismatches against taller scorers in the post. And nobody’s got better instincts or faster hands when it comes to poke-checking an opponent’s dribble to throw off their timing or dislodge the ball entirely.

He’s a constant disruptive force, hounding opponents the length and width of the court — only 15 players in the league traveled a greater distance on defense in Q3 than Holiday, according to Second Spectrum — with unerring consistency and an unsettlingly placid demeanor. The best scorers in the world frequently say they think more about the second and third levels of an opposing team’s defense than the first, so confident are they in their ability to beat the initial man at the point of attack. They don’t talk that way about Holiday.

“He should be six-time Defensive Player of the Year, at least,” former teammate P.J. Tucker told SB Nation’s Paul Hudrick earlier this season.

Holiday might not ever wind up winning one. But over the last 20ish games, I’m not sure anyone in the league’s been better at locking up dudes.

ARTVIMB: All of those aforementioned big men, Anthony Davis (in or near the top five in defensive rebounding, blocks and contested shots in Q3 to anchor a Lakers defense that clamped down at a top-two level in that span with him on the floor), Jaden McDaniels (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan and a mindset to match — “I like messing peoples’ night up” — as he hectors primary creators of all shapes and sizes for the Wolves’ No. 9 Q3 defense), Alex Caruso (averaging nearly EIGHT combined steals and deflections per 36 minutes for a Bulls defense that, shooting luck or no, led the NBA in defensive efficiency in Q3).

Reserve of the Quarter: Immanuel Quickley, Knicks

When reports began swirling early in the season that New York might consider trading Quickley, I wondered whether Knicks brass might be letting cold shooting — just 35.6% from the field and 27% from deep through his first 17 games — obscure what seemed like some pretty significant contributions as a perimeter defender, ball-mover, rebounder and all-around connector. Luckily for Knicks fans, Quickley began to thaw out around Thanksgiving, which helped earn him more minutes and a steadier diet of opportunities to run the offense following Tom Thibodeau’s early December rotation reorganization … and now, he’s become arguably the third-most important player on a team looking like a lock to return to the postseason.

Quickley averaged 15.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 28.7 minutes per game in 20 appearances off the bench in Q3, shooting 50.5% from the floor and 41.5% from 3-point range on 5.3 attempts a night. Thibodeau has increasingly entrusted him with backup point guard duties, letting him run the show with the second unit when Brunson’s off the floor — Quickley’s posting the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career — and shown confidence in his ability to contribute on and off the ball when it counts. No Knick played more fourth-quarter minutes in Q3 than Quickley; New York outscored its opponents by 16 points in his 206 minutes, and was outscored by nine in the 70 he sat.

The Kentucky product’s end-to-end speed, quick-trigger threes and decisive slices into the paint have made him a vital source of complementary offense on a Knicks team that owned the NBA’s No. 3 offense in Q3. What he’s brought on the defensive end, though, might be even more valuable — the agility to stay with elite ballhandlers off the bounce, the length to close down passing lanes and contest shots, even against larger opponents, and the constant communication off the ball that helps keep everyone on the same page.

“The thing I love about Quick is that he’s smart. He’s very, very smart,” Thibodeau recently told Fred Katz of The Athletic. “He understands what he has to do to help our team defense. I think it’s his greatest strength.”

The Knicks allowed 115.9 points per 100 possessions in Q3, according to NBA Advanced Stats — 19th in the league. But with Quickley on the floor — directing traffic, nailing rotations, helping in the right spots at the right times, stifling multiple actions and dousing perimeter fires before they can spread — they gave up just 111.4 points-per-100, a near-top-five mark in that span. That plummets to a microscopic 104.8 points-per-100 when Quickley shares the floor with trade-deadline arrival Josh Hart, who seems to have been designed in a lab to play for Thibodeau and who has helped transform New York’s reserve corps into arguably the league’s best.

Other reserves score more, dish more assists, force more turnovers and post gaudier stats. Over the past couple of months, though, none of them has driven winning more than Quickley, in whose Q3 minutes the Knicks blitzed opponents by 9.3 points-per-100 and whose ongoing development has been one of the brightest spots in a New York season full of them.

ARTVIMB: Norman Powell (the top scorer among reserves in Q3 on 47/41/86 shooting splits, an as-advertised offensive force for the Clippers), Malcolm Brogdon (if the higher-scoring Powell’s not the frontrunner for the award, the Celtics’ sixth man just might be), Tyrese Maxey (he can wax and wane a bit, but his slide to the bench has helped harmonize Philly’s rotation over the past few months), Malik Monk and Trey Lyles (key cogs in Mike Brown’s humming offensive machine in Sacramento), Khris Middleton (a starter-in-reserve’s clothing making a killing in his restricted minutes since getting healthy), Donte DiVincenzo (whom Steve Kerr recently slid into the starting lineup), Deni Avdija, Isaiah Joe.

Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Derrick White, Celtics

In-season improvement can be a bit tricky to gauge; you’re within your rights to chalk White’s impressive recent form less to the addition or refinement of specific skills and more to the need for someone to step into a larger ballhandling and shot-creating role in Boston with Smart and Brown missing time. But as talented as NBA players are, not all of them can respond to a larger workload with star-level production and efficiency — which is precisely what White’s done over his past 22 games.

After spending most of the season as a do-it-all off-guard next to Smart alongside Brown, Tatum and Horford in Boston’s small(ish) starting five, Smart’s right ankle injury pressed White into duty as more of a lead ballhandler than he’d been since his second season in San Antonio, when he set the table for the likes of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. He aced the test with flying colors, averaging 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds in 35.1 minutes per game during Smart’s absence, shooting the cover off the ball — 76.9% inside the restricted area, 46.7% on floaters, 43.6% from 3-point land and 88.6% from the charity stripe.

Just before the All-Star break, with the Celtics down multiple starters, White cranked it up another notch, hanging 33 points and 10 assists on Charlotte, 23 and 10 on Memphis, and 27 and 12 on Milwaukee in an overtime thriller. And even amid career-high usage, taking more shots and facilitating more than he had since his days at Colorado, White kept turning in All-Defensive-Team-caliber work at the point of attack — and, often, flying in at the rim.

A healthy and full-strength version of the Celtics doesn’t ask White to do that much. Tatum and Brown do the lion’s share of the shot creation; Smart and Brogdon do most of the organizing; White returns to the do-it-all off-the-ball role in which he’s thrived since coming to Boston at last season’s trade deadline. But after watching White struggle mightily on the offensive end throughout much of the 2022 postseason, clanging many of the shots he took and turning down plenty he should’ve, the fact that he’s entering the stretch run having proven he’s got both the confidence and capacity to do more when called upon ought to be heartening to a Boston team intent on getting back to the Finals and finishing the job this time.

ARTVIMB: Brunson (it’s now become sort of surprising when he doesn’t score 25 or more), Mikal Bridges (not getting significantly more touches in Brooklyn than he did in Phoenix yet, but doing a lot more with them: 23.4 points per game as a Net on 52/47/92 shooting), Josh Okogie (always a defensive dog in Minnesota, now earning the Suns’ fifth starter slot by knocking down 42.2% of his threes in Q3), Cam Thomas and Mark Williams (shouts to going from out of the rotation to into the future plans!).

Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The Plunging Pelicans

A little over two months ago, Zion Williamson scored 36 points in 31 minutes to beat the Sixers and improve the Pelicans to 23-12, tied for first in the Western Conference. Even with Brandon Ingram missing the entire month of December, New Orleans looked like a championship contender — an exciting young team with size, speed, length, depth and scoring talent, poised to take off into the stratosphere.

… And then.

Williamson went down again, this time with a hamstring injury that he later reaggravated, keeping him off the court for the last two months, and counting. Ingram’s toe injury kept him sidelined for most of January, too; he’s produced since returning, averaging a shade under 27-5-5, but the lengthy lack of New Orleans’ top two scoring threats wound up overextending C.J. McCollum, who’s having his least efficient scoring season since 2017.

The stars’ absences and struggles have shined a glaring spotlight on the lack of complementary shooting on the Pelicans’ roster. New Orleans ranked 28th in 3-point makes, 3-point attempts and 3-point accuracy in Q3, with sophomore Trey Murphy III (who has to be more aggressive in hunting his shot) and Devonte’ Graham (since traded to San Antonio for Josh Richardson) the only rotation players hitting even 35% of their long balls; not even wide-open looks have fallen for a team that desperately needs a fresh wellspring of buckets with Williamson on ice.

That bricky shooting has come as the Pelicans have suffered a slew of other damaging non-Williamson injuries, too — ankle sprains for ace reserve Larry Nance Jr. and lottery pick Dyson Daniels (who recently returned), a stress reaction in the tibia of point-of-attack menace Jose Alvarado — which has seemed to leave head coach Willie Green at a loss for answers at times. Add it all up, and you’ve got a recipe for a Pelicans offense that had been a top-10 unit through the first half of the season crashing all the way down to 28th in points scored per possession in Q3 and a 6-16 record that was the NBA’s sixth-worst in that span.

All is not necessarily lost: The Pelicans enter Friday at 31-32, a game ahead of the Lakers for 10th place and just 1.5 games out of sixth in the remarkably congested middle of the West. Ingram just turned in his best performance of the season, popping for 40 points on 18-for-29 shooting in Wednesday’s win over the Blazers — a victory in which Green and his staff showed some creativity in shuffling the deck, downsizing to a look that featured Herb Jones as a small-ball center to help decongest the half-court so that the Pelicans’ offense might breathe a little more freely:

If the Pelicans bring that same energy to take on the Warriors on Friday and spring an upset at Chase Center, they’ll be back at .500 with one of the West’s easiest remaining schedules to look forward to. Stay alive long enough to get the injured pieces back to full strength — including, hopefully, that big snappy dresser — and New Orleans would still be an awfully tough out in a play-in scenario. That’s not nothing. Considering where the Pels stood just two months ago, though, it’s still kind of a bummer.

ARTVIMB: The Grizzlies essentially cratering without Steven Adams/after fake-squabbling with Shannon Sharpe, the consistent offensive struggles in Miami and Chicago, the Clippers’ defense falling off a cliff just as the offense finally got cooking, all the injuries that have so muddled the playoff chase.

Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: The Knicks Being Flat-Out Good!

By the second week of January, it wasn’t a surprise the Knicks were playing well. They’d been doing that for more than a month — pretty much ever since 3-and-D wing Quentin Grimes got healthy enough to return to the starting lineup and Thibs tightened his rotation to nine dudes who could dribble, pass, shoot and play defense. (What a concept!)

The uptick had gotten the Knicks to three games over .500. That was roughly in line with some of the sunnier projections for a team that had some decent underlying numbers the previous season — despite missing the 2022 playoffs, they’d outscored opponents by a pretty strong three points per 100 possessions in non-Kemba Walker minutes — and had added Brunson in free agency to fill the decades-long yawning hellmouth that was their point guard position. Keep it up, and maybe the Knicks could keep hovering around the seventh and eighth seeds in the play-in mix and have a real shot at returning to postseason play.

The surprise, though, is that the Knicks aren’t just “playing well,” now. They’re not “frisky” or a “tough out” or whatever other damn-with-faint-praise phrase we might once have favored. They’re just legitimately good, full stop.

The Knicks turned in the NBA’s sixth-best record (15-8) and fourth-best net rating (plus-5.6 points-per-100) in Q3, just a couple of spots behind the Cavaliers — who, by the way, enter Friday just 1.5 games ahead of the Knicks in the race for the No. 4 seed in the East. (Multiple projection systems predict that Cleveland will hold New York off, thanks in part to the Cavs having the league’s friendliest remaining slate.)

Brunson, the newly minted Eastern Conference Player of the Month, has been the single best free-agency signing in the sport this season. Randle has bounced back from a down 2021-22 to return to All-Star (and possibly All-NBA) status, giving New York an inside-out one-two punch to propel the franchise’s most potent offense in a decade.

Center Mitchell Robinson’s been a board-crashing, rim-protecting, havoc-wreaking difference-maker, with the Knicks hammering opponents by 10.2 points-per-100 in his Q3 minutes. But New York persevered when he broke his thumb, too, going 8-6 with a positive point differential in the 14 games he missed. That’s thanks partly to the second unit, which went into overdrive after the trade for Hart, now shooting the lights out and playing some of the best ball of his career; lineups featuring the bench trio of Quickley, Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein have annihilated opponents by 72 points in their first 121 minutes of work since the trade deadline.

None of that guarantees anything in a playoff series, of course. The top teams in the East are excellent, and at some point the Knicks may well run into a “We don’t have a Antetokounmpo, Embiid or Tatum” problem. Even those megastars will have their work cut out for them against this Knicks team, though. The pieces fit, the plan of attack makes sense, and the result has been some pretty damn good basketball … to say nothing of the vibes:

“A wave of cheeriness” in the home locker room at Madison Square Garden. Will wonders never cease.

ARTVIMB: Ditto for the Kings, our Q2 winner, who ain’t going anywhere. Also: The Nuggets creeping up the defensive rankings — eighth in Q3! — as they close in on the No. 1 seed, Klay Thompson turning back the clock and bombing away to keep the Warriors in the hunt while Curry’s on the mend, Utah continuing to battle and remaining in play-in position despite finally doing some selling at the deadline, Jonathan Isaac returning to the floor after 904 days and resembling the defensive monster he was before he got hurt, further fortifying a Magic team that has stockpiled a lot of frontcourt talent.