3 NBA players stepping up for injured stars, plus a look at Rivals Week

Even with some star players missing good chunks of the NBA schedule, it doesn’t feel like any team has truly had to suffer the ultimate consequence yet. A lot of it has to do with how many players have risen to the occasion when asked to outperform their normal level of play.

The Western Conference is a logjam from the second seed down, and there’s no telling how the East will play out once you look beyond Boston. That congestion and uncertainty in the standings at this point in the season should explain the parity that exists throughout the league.

I want to shed light on a few players who have stood out to me recently before pivoting to what’s going on in the league this week that we should pay attention to.

Players stepping up for injured stars

Thomas Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

Thomas Bryant is currently playing some of the best basketball of his NBA career. His -2.9 average plus-minus during Anthony Davis’ 19-game absence may not indicate as much, but he’s had several highs that have benefited the Lakers over the past month and change. I’m talking 19 points and 17 rebounds at Atlanta, 29 and 14 at Sacramento and most recently 31 and 14 at Portland, which all came in wins. But even when the numbers aren’t eye-popping, generally, when Bryant is producing, he’s helping fuel Lakers wins. Los Angeles has a 10-9 record since Bryant filled in for Davis in the starting lineup, and the in the wins, no player wearing purple and gold is averaging more points (18.8) or rebounds (11.5).

Surely Bryant has his flaws — Houston’s Alperen Sengun exposed some of his shortcomings last week as a one-on-one defender. But if you ask me, the positives on offense outweigh the few negatives on the other end of the court. Bryant’s been all over the offensive glass, he is running and finishing in transition and is proving to be a reliable source of offense out of the pick and role. His energy and activity always give him a chance to have a good game, and his upward trend has been one of the factors in keeping the Lakers from bottoming out while missing their main man in the middle.

Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

With how things ended for Phoenix last postseason, the Suns entered this campaign needing Mikal Bridges to take a sizable leap forward on the offensive end. It’s debatable whether the jump was substantial or not through the first bit of the season, but there’s no denying how large it’s been in recent weeks.

Since losing nine of 10 games (and 12 of 14), including a stretch of six straight, Phoenix has recovered to win three in a row to bring itself to .500 on the season. Credit the Suns’ role players for stepping up as three starters were dealing with various injuries. But also, let’s give Bridges his due credit for being awesome recently. Over the the last seven games, Bridges is scoring 21.7 points per game on 47.9/41.2/86.7 shooting splits. That’s while the minutes pile up as he remains the go-to wing defender.

None of that has my attention as much as Bridges’ playmaking does. He tied a career-best nine assists against Brooklyn last Thursday and hasn’t registered fewer than four assists in a game since Jan. 8. While that may not sound like a lot, it’s an encouraging streak for a player that entered this season not having ever averaged more than 2.3 assists per game in any season throughout his career. It’s also something that may prove to be beneficial for the offense in the long run, should opposing teams force players not named Devin Booker to generate offense.

Gabe Vincent, Miami Heat

This section might’ve been more useful a week ago, but I’ll shoot Gabe Vincent some praise anyway.

As the Heat were set to face the Oklahoma City Thunder two weeks ago, I was scrolling through BetMGM’s player props, looking for any that stood out. It didn’t take long before I got to Gabe Vincent over/under 13.5 points. Knowing Vincent hadn’t been as noticeably impactful as he was a season ago, I had to dissect his game log to ensure I hadn’t missed anything. Nope — he’d scored six or fewer points in six straight games (eight out of the last 10) and hadn’t scored more than 13 points in nearly two months. So, what did the sportsbook know that we didn’t? Probably that Vincent was in line to see usage and minute increases in the short term after starting point guard Kyle Lowry was ruled out with a knee injury.

While Vincent didn’t hit the over on his projected points total that Tuesday night against OKC, he scored 13 points and was impactful enough to earn the second-most minutes (39) for the Heat and accumulate the second-highest plus-minus ( +2) in the one-point victory. His success against the Thunder resulted in 40-plus-minute games over the next two, in which his 28 and then 27 points led the team in two wins against the Milwaukee Bucks.

It’s hard to know how active the Heat will be at the trade deadline or what this team will look like in March and April. However, if Vincent is still in Miami, his recent play should serve as a reminder of how he is capable of providing a needed punch on both ends of the court.

Rivals Week

Beginning today, the NBA is rolling out one of its newest additions to the season, called Rivals Week. Essentially, the national television slate throughout this week will feature traditional rivalries — Celtics vs. Lakers, for example — and newer ones, such as Grizzlies vs. Warriors. How much the games matter depends on who you ask, but some of these upcoming matchups come at important times for a few featured teams.

For instance, at the time of this writing, Luka Doncic’s Mavericks are in the midst of a funk that’s resulted in seven losses in their last 10 games. At the same time, the Suns are getting healthy and have ripped off three straight wins for the first time in over a month. When the two meet on Thursday, the outcome could cause a shift in the standings.

Like the Mavericks, Ja Morant and the Grizzlies need to figure out how to stop the bleeding. A disastrous four-game trip to the left coast could end in four straight defeats if they don’t get right for a Warriors team on Wednesday that embarrassed them on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, the defending champions still haven’t turned the corner this season , even with Stephen Curry back in the lineup. They’ll be looking to dodge a fifth-straight home loss, so expect them to be juiced up and ready to go when they meet Memphis in the Bay this week.

The point here is that the debut of Rivals Week should have plenty of entertainment value. It also makes for some great betting opportunities for those who are into such things.

(Photo of Thomas Bryant: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)

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