We weren't quite sure what to expect from the Duke-Miami game, particularly after Miami's performance in Durham, but what we saw was classic Duke basketball.
For Miami, they knew that this game was likely the key to the rest of their season, and for a while at least, they played like it.
The Hurricanes hit their first four shots and started out like gangbusters.
And when Nolan Smith picked up two early fouls and then was inadvertently poked in the eye by Reggie Johnson, it seemed like it could be one of those nights.
To a large extent, Seth Curry prevented that.
He followed his stellar Carolina game with another outstanding effort.Â Curry scored 16 points on just 10 shots including four three-pointers.Â More than that, he played excellent defense, picking up five steals and four rebounds.
It would be a stretch to say that Duke didn't miss Smith,Â but stop and consider for a minute: for a while there, Duke was playing without the best freshman in the country and a guy who is potentially player of the year. Despite that, you almost didn't notice that they were playing without their original starting backcourt.Â That was because of Curry, who, among other things, scored 13 of his 16 points in the first half just when they were most needed.
Of course, after Smith shook off his eye injury and began to play like himself in the second half, he was a backbreaker for Miami.
Smith has been a constant; Curry's emergence helps make Duke a very different team.
Also helping in that regard was a nice turn by Duke's big men.
Although it was not was not a great rebounding day by the Devils, the big men played with confidence and verve. This was impressive for all three, not least of all Ryan Kelly, who we learned after the game had been playing on a sprained ankle. Kelly shot 4-5 for nine points and was the only starter not to finish in double figures.
In some ways, this was the best game in a long time for the Plumlees.Â Mason shot 5-7 and finished with 12 points and five boards, while Miles finished 2-4 for six points and five boards of his own.Â Combined Plumlee stats: 18 points, 10 boards and four assists.Â Yes it's two players, but that's pretty good productivity in the post.
More importantly, both Plumlees played with a lot of savvy and heart.Â They didn't back down in the post, where they constantly challenged Reggie Johnson.Â Johnson did finish 7-9 for 16 points and did manage to play 35 minutes which is unusual for him.Â However, the defense frustrated him on several occasions, leading to several traveling violations.
While this game wasn't nearly as important for Duke is it was for Miami, it was nonetheless a big deal. After the game, Coach K said that having started over again after Kyrie Irving's injury, this team is chronologically in early January or so.Â If so, they made up a lot of ground Sunday night. With a cohesive backcourt, solid inside play and the always intense Kyle Singler, who by the way played an excellent game himself with 14 points, seven rebounds and a ton of smart plays, Duke is a much more balanced and therefore dangerous team.
That doesn't mean progress is necessarily strictly linear; things rarely are, particularly with a group. Nonetheless, we may look back on this game as a breakthrough, a time in mid-February where this group came together in a very different way. It may not be as spectacular as the way last year's team came together with emergence of Brian Zoubek, but the potential for this group may be higher.
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