Big Men Getting Busy in Big Games

After a well-deserved break from regular-season action, the 2021 NBA All-Star Weekend has passed and the second-half grind towards the playoffs is officially underway. In a short week to kick things off the big story of the week was the superb play of the big men across the league. After seeing big guys like Domantas Sabonis (2021 Skills Competition Winner) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (2021 All-Star Game MVP) dominate during All-Star Weekend, it seems like the big fellas are coming into the second half of the season with a new swag and confidence. So this week, to recognize and celebrate the continued emergence of the New-Age bigs, my Hoopers of the Week are Domantas Sabonis in the Eastern Conference and Jonas Valanciunas in the Western Conference.

Domantas Sabonis

It only seems right to start with the defending Taco Bell Skills Challenge Champion who had two solid performances this week against two of the Top-4 teams in the Western Conference. After becoming the fifth big man to win the Skills competition in the last six years, Sabonis came out this week and only further validated why he is one of the most talented centers in the league.

In the first game on Friday against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, Sabonis and the Indians Pacers came out red hot and ready to make a statement. Indiana led the game for about three and a half quarters and had it not been for a strong fourth-quarter rally led by Kyle Kuzma (15 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter), the Pacers would be starting the second half of the season 1-0. Unfortunately, they fell just short as the Lakers snatched the game away winning 105-100, but that did not stop Sabonis from getting his in the process. Alongside Malcolm Brogdon who had 29 points, Sabonis added 20 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists while shooting 7-of-15 from the floor.

Then to make up for falling just short of a triple-double in a loss, Sabonis followed this game up with a huge performance against the Phoenix Suns. In a matchup where the Pacers would go on to win 122-111, Sabonis got his triple-double this time with 22 points, 13 rebounds, and ten assists. He also got big contributions from Brogdon (25 points) and Doug McDermott off the bench (22 points). The Pacers also got to see newly acquired forward Caris LeVert (13 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes) on the court for the first time since January after having a mass removed in his kidney.

With LeVert and Brogdon in the backcourt along with the front-court duo of Sabonis and Myles Turner, Indiana has the chance to be one of the most interesting low seeds in the NBA. If they can remain healthy and quickly develop some solid on-court chemistry, this collection of talent could easily shoot up the standings and go from being discussed as a Play-In team to a legit playoff contender that could finish as a Top-5 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Jonas Valanciunas 

This man Jonas Valanciunas is just a walking double-double. Similar to Sabonis and the Pacers, Valanciunas and the Grizzles went 1-1 this week including a matchup against one of the NBA’s most dominant big men in Nikola Jokic.

First, to start the week, Memphis vs. the Washington Wizards was one of the first two games to kick off the second half of the season and it did not disappoint. Valanciunas had a career-night as he scored a season-high 29 points while matching his season-best with 20 rebounds en route to the Grizzlies winning 127-112. Ja Morant and rookie guard Desmond Bane would both have big nights as well. Morant had a near triple-double with 21 points, six rebounds, and ten assists while shooting 7-of-14 from the field. Bane would chip in 20 points and four rebounds on 7-of-13 shooting with five big threes.

Then in the matchup against Jokic and the Nuggets, Valanciunas held his own as he had a relatively solid performance. In a tough one-point loss where Jokic dominated in the closing moments of the game, Memphis lost 103-102 and may have had the chance to win had there not been a controversial non-call on a Morant go-ahead shot attempt in the final seconds. Nonetheless, Valanciunas had a solid 14 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 7-of-10 from the floor. Valanciunas got a lot of help in the frontcourt from second-year forward Brandon Clarke who gave the Grizzlies 20 points in 30 minutes off the bench.

Memphis is going to continue to be a tough out throughout the season with the combination of Morant and Valanciunas playing at a high level. What will really put them over the hump is if they can get solid contributions from Dillon Brooks and Justise Winslow, who is finally playing for them for the first time since being traded to Memphis from the Miami Heat. Another wild card is Jaren Jackson Jr. who gives them an athletic rim defender next Valanciunas that would completely change the defensive dynamic of this young Grizzlies team. Memphis is already one of the better young, rebuilding teams in the NBA and solid veteran leadership from a guy like Valanciunas is just another solid component that makes the Grizzlies such a dangerous team towards the bottom of the Western Conference.