When the All-Star Game rolls around, we think in terms of averages; a spot on the team is a reward for overall performance. But it's fun to keep an eye on the season's peaks and bust-outs at the break, too.
I like to check the "Season Bests" page from time to time; it's more dramatic than stats and splits.
A week before Christmas, on the road in Milwaukee, after losing at home in overtime to the Knicks the night before, Allen Iverson went for 54 points. Kicked in five assists, eight rebounds, and two steals, too. Shot 58% from the floor and hit four-out-of-seven threes.
Jermaine O'Neal, in his fifth game back after the suspension, scored 55 points in just 36 minutes at home against the Bucks. He pulled down 11 rebounds that night, and got to the line for 25 free throws (he averages 9.5). And, oh by the way, he'd scored 31 the game before and he racked up 32 each of the next two games he played.
Fresh off a stinging loss to the Spurs in early December, Dirk Nowitzki officially kicked off his MVP campaign in an overtime win over Houston with a Chamberlainesque line of 53 points, 16 boards, two assists, three steals, and four blocked shots.
On the road in Dallas in November, with all the favorite-son-returns lights beating down hot on him, Steve Nash handed out 18 cool assists and put up 17 points. And he was just warming up: Later that same week in LA against the Clippers he delivered 18 assists and 22 points. All very impressive numbers, but nothing compared to last night's 33 points and 17 assists in a two-point victory over the division rival Kings.
At the tail end of a heinous 2-8 tailspin for the Wolves, Kevin Garnett put his hard hat on in an 87-80 loss to the Magic and came up out of the hole with 19 points, 8 assists, and a downright heroic 25 rebounds (on a night when no other player on either team managed double digit boards).
Think on these nights (or others like them) for a minute. Don't think of them like the ironic, cynical tough guy you are. Think of them like the kid you once were. Be blown away by them.
These are the nights when a guy gets burned into your consciousness, right? They're the nights when you swear, even just sitting on your couch, that you're moving in time with him, riding his wave.
On nights like these, the game has a kind of delirious edge to it, like the laws of averages and physics are just a little more arbitrary than you've been led to believe, like there's a kind of magic in the air. The steady 20-plus point lines, and the 10 like-clockwork assists and rebounds numbers, are impressive, but it's the games when a player goes off like an alarm that make us fans.
When AI manages 54 we're reminded what a crazy thing it is that someone so small can be so fierce, and we realize all over again how miraculous his stuttered, slipstream game really is.
When Nowitzki and Garnett blow up all over the scorebook it hits us fresh that these two guys, and not Shaq, are the ones who have forever revolutionized the big man's game.
Greatness gets amplified; it takes on weight and depth. We go from being interested to being awe-struck.
But, of course, it isn't just the superstars who shine bright. Check the list of standout performances for the season so far and you see some star turns from unexpected players, too.
Brevin Knight has the three best assist games of the season. He's gone for 18, 19, and 20. And the 20, in an overtime loss at the Cavs, he had 15 points, three rebounds, and two steals, thank you very much. Want to win a bar bet? Ask your buddies who has the three highest assist totals for the season. They'll say Nash. You'll take their cash.
Three weeks back, with Kenyon Martin out sick and Nene suspended, Marcus Camby, a solid nine-and-nine guy, went Moses Malone on the Sonics, racking up 25 points and 24 rebounds. Remember that the Sonics are among the best rebounding teams in the league. Remember too, that Camby looks like something somebody'd use to stir a tall glass of iced tea.
Dan Dickau didn't play but 16 minutes of the first month of this season (as a Maverick). On January 28th (as a Hornet), at home against the Sixers, he posted one assist for every one of those minutes in November, and added 19 points, just for good measure.
On January 15th, in a loss to Minnesota, the Blazers' Joel Przybilla had one rebound and four points in 27 minutes worth of game "action." (The statistical record is sketchy, but rumor has it that former Blazers center Bill Walton, who was not in Portland at the time, had three rebounds on the night.) Three nights later, in the Blazers' next game, at Sacremento, Joel Przybilla, or the alien who had inhabited Joel Przybilla's body, stepped in for an injured Zach Randolph, grabbed 22 rebounds, including 10 offensive boards, and scored 17 points.
In the first 41 games of this season, Erick Dampier had registered double-digit rebound totals just 12 times, and only twice on consecutive nights. Then came January 29th, the 42nd game, in which Mr. Dampier pulled 26 rebounds out of his ... er, out of the air. And on every night since, he's been good for eleven or more, like maybe he is the key addition to the Mavericks' attack after all.
These aren't the same sort of performances as Iverson, Nash, and company put on. They aren't explosive demonstrations of the hot lava that always lurks beneath the surface of an elite player. They're more wacky than exhilarating. But in a way, I almost like them more.
I like thinking about the way the floor must have looked to Dickau, compared to the way it had looked those nights when he was watching from the bench. I find myself thinking about how Przybilla, who's never been anyone's idea of graceful, must have moved, automatically, instinctively, and with a kind of confident quickness to the ball that night in Sacramento, going 'bound for 'bound and then some with Chris Webber.
It's the everyman thing, I guess. The magic of being on a roll or in the zone or in the pocket or whatever you want to call it isn't just reserved for the household names. It's sometimes out there for the Przybillas and Dickaus of the world, too.
Sure, maybe the definitive image of a player in The Zone is MJ doing the palms-up shrug the night he rained threes on Portland in the Finals back in '92. Because they sometimes make it look so easy, it's easy to imagine all the tumblers falling into place for any one of the great players.
But the ways of basketball magic are many and varied. It will sometimes light upon Marcus Camby. It will sometimes smile upon Brevin Knight.
And when it does, there is a freshness about it, an enthusiasm. You can imagine the rush these guys must be getting as their once-in-a-blue moon night is unfolding step for perfect step.
They're not All-Stars, but they're one-game wonders, and that's almost as good, because you find yourself thrilled for these guys as well as by them.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. His Basketball Jones column will appear each Wednesday -- and the occasional Friday -- during the NBA season.