VIDEO: Highlights from Monday’s games
NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Westbrook on brink of NBA history — Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook picked up his 16th triple-double last night and OKC improved to 16-0 in those games. What’s more amazing than that perfect mark? How about this: that’s Westbrook’s seventh triple-double in March, the most in a single month since Michael Jordan in 1989. The 16 triple-doubles is two off the all-time mark (held by Magic Johnson) for the most in a season over the last 30 years … and Westbrook still has eight games to play. Oh, and entering this season, Westbrook had 19 career triple-doubles. Ethan Strauss of ESPN.com was on hand for Westbrook’s amazing performance in Toronto and has more on his play this season:
Kevin Durant is asked about Russell Westbrook a lot — about the triple-doubles, about the absurd athletic displays and about the punishing dunks. He sticks to pretty much the same line: He’s not surprised. He has seen that for the past seven years.
After Westbrook followed his own missed free throw in the fourth quarter Monday with a one-handed putback layup in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 119-100 win over the Toronto Raptors, Durant put both hands on his head. Even he was stunned this time.
“That was unreal,” Durant said. “You’ve got to time that right, and you’ve just got to be as athletic as him. There’s only a few … ”
Durant stopped himself.
“Well, I don’t know if there’s anybody in the league that can do that,” he said. “You’ve got to make the free throw, but I’ll take the two points and the acrobatic play instead. But yeah, he’s a freak of nature, man.”
There aren’t many ways to describe Westbrook anymore. “Freak of nature” seems to do just fine, but that might not be adequate.
The putback was the standout play for Westbrook in what has become a nightly crescendo of highlights for the supernova point guard. He notched his 16th triple-double of the season — 26 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists — which ties him with Fat Lever for second most in a season over the past 30 years. With eight games to go, Westbrook is just one off Magic Johnson’s record of 17.
It’s an amazing thing for a triple-double to seem routine, but that’s what Westbrook has done. For some guys, it’s a career accomplishment to get one — remember Andray Blatche running all over the court chasing rebounds a few years ago? — so is it even meaningful to Westbrook anymore?
“It’s something I never take for granted,” he said, “but I like winning.”
That’s what the Thunder do when Westbrook notches a triple-double. They’re now 16-0 in such games this season. They have also ripped off eight straight wins by an average margin of 17.1 points, with seven of those wins coming against playoff teams. The Thunder are hitting their stride as they gear up for the playoffs and are peaking with eight games left in the regular season. It has been the goal all season under coach Billy Donovan to work toward a bigger picture, a “better brand of basketball,” as everyone in the organization likes to say.
Just a few weeks ago, the Thunder hit rock bottom when they lost eight of 12 coming out of the All-Star break. That streak was punctuated by blown fourth-quarter leads and head-shaking losses to bad teams. The message internally was to stick with it, to believe they were playing well, despite the results, and trust it would pay off. It appears that it has.
“I tried to tell you guys that when we were going through it, but it was kind of blinded with the fourth-quarter losses and back-to-back losses. But I tried to tell you guys,” Durant said. “Glad you see it now. It was good to kind of figure ourselves out and what we need to do. It was kind of like a splash of water on your face — just knowing you’ve got to wake up and know the second half of the season is important.”
Donovan also offered his take.
“I think sometimes you’ve got to go through some wounds and some scars and some hurt,” the coach said. “You’ve got to get calloused a little bit. I think as you go through a season, you’ve got to get calloused. Sometimes, the harder and the more difficult the struggle, the more calloused you get, the more hardened you get. I think the more you have a chance to learn and grow — I’ve said this about this team — I don’t think it ever needs to be easy for them. It’s got to be hard.”
Confidence is dripping off the Thunder right now, as evidenced by the 48 minutes of swagger they dropped on the Raptors on Monday.
VIDEO: Best plays from Russell Westbrook’s 16th triple-double this season
No. 2: Scott skeptical about future of Lakers after drubbing in Utah — The Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers had a long, storied rivalry during Kobe Bryant‘s heyday of the last two decades. Utah paid tribute to those days gone by during its 123-75 win last night that not only tied the Jazz record for largest margin of victory, but tied the Lakers’ record for largest margin of defeat. Afterward, Lakers coach Byron Scott was not only displeased with the result, but as you might expect, was openly questioning the team’s young stars as well. Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News has more:
“Losing by 48 and winning 15 games in the season, it’s not like it’s something new for us,” Bryant said. “We’ve been getting drubbed all season.”
Bryant also has been receiving endless reminders of Father Time’s ticking clock near retirement. After Bryant airballed a jumper, the moment also brought a twisted irony toward when he airballed four shots in a playoff loss to Utah his rookie season.
“I’ve played way too many games in a row,” said Bryant, though he will still try to play all eight remaining games. “I can’t move.”
The Lakers’ young core played just as ineffectively, but the implications seem more consequential. D’Angelo Russell had five points on 2-of-11 shooting, zero assists and did not score until hitting a turnaround jumper with 4:22 left. Julius Randle added two points on a 1-of-5 clip, one rebound and did not play in the fourth quarter, something that Randle downplayed. Jordan Clarkson scored nine points on 5-of-18 shooting, marking the seventh time in the last nine games he has shot below 50 percent.
“You have to show this organization that you deserve to be here and you understand what wearing that purple and gold is all about,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “I don’t think a lot of guys in that locker room understand that right now.”
That explains Scott’s skepticism on who will lead the Lakers’ franchise following Bryant’s departure.
“I don’t look at any of those guys as being our next Kobe,” Scott said. “They can be a piece of it or part of it. But not to get to that level that he has gotten to.”
After all, Scott sounded irritated that Utah forward Rodney Hood scored 30 points before Bryant held him scoreless in the second half.
“It’s a damn shame our oldest player has to take the challenge,” Scott said. “It says a lot about him obviously and what he’s done all his life. But nobody else wanted to step up and take that challenge.”
Yet, Scott outlined a pretty extensive to-do list to convince him that Russell, Randle or Clarkson can become the franchise’s eventual next star,
“It’s going to take a hell of a lot of work,” Scott said. “All three of those guys have talent, no doubt about it. All three of those guys are athletic and can all do some things with that basketball. But they have to spend a whole lot of time on that end of the floor and a whole lot of time in the film room.”
Bryant met with Jazz ownership and received various passes to local ski resorts and national parks, which he called “unbelievable.” Bryant then received both boos and cheers during a 90-second video tribute. Those highlights included both Bryant’s airball game in 1997 against Utah and his playoff dominance against the Jazz from 2008 to 2010. Bryant left the game with 10:29 remaining and received a standing ovation that erased any animosity. He even threw his armband into the stands, prompting fan to smell his scent.
“The fans here, it’s more special because of the rivalry, because of the battles, because of the love-hate relationship,” Bryant said. “At the end, it’s hard to say goodbye to that. You want to go down memory lane and reminisce. They want to hate me tonight. I want to hate them, but we suck.”
No. 3: Pierce suffers knee, ankle injuries vs. Celtics — If you’re a believer in irony, then this was a solid case of it in the NBA. Los Angeles Clippers reserve forward Paul Pierce, the star of the Boston Celtics from 1999-2013 who led them to an NBA title and won Finals MVP honors (2008), was injured last night against, yep, the Celtics. His injury comes just a day after the Clippers received word star power forward Blake Griffin has been medically cleared to play after he serves his team-imposed four-game suspension. ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande has more on Pierce’s injury, which was termed by the team as a sprained right ankle and knee contusion:
Just when the Los Angeles Clippers were on the verge of returning to full form, with Blake Griffin eligible to finally rejoin the action at the start of next week, they lost Paul Pierce to a sprained right ankle during their 114-90 victory over the Boston Celtics on Monday night.
Pierce went down during a drive to the basket with two minutes left in the second quarter. He bumped his leg against a Celtic while in the air, then his leg buckled upon landing and his ankle rolled. Pierce grabbed his knee at first. He was helped up, then put his arms around teammates to get to the sideline, before finally heading the rest of the way to the locker room on his own.
A Clippers spokesman said Pierce was questionable for Wednesday’s game in Minnesota, but coach Doc Rivers said, “He is going to be out for a little bit,” which means Pierce probably would be sidelined for Thursday’s game in Oklahoma City as well.
If Pierce stays out longer, through Griffin’s return, it will prevent Rivers from getting test runs of his playoff rotations. It would mean more makeshift lineups, less chemistry development. Rivers sounded resigned to that scenario.
“It’s just not going to happen,” he said. “But our guys are fine. They just keep playing. We’re putting different guys in. We’ve got to figure out who we’re going to start while Paul is out. We’ll see. It’s been one of those years. There’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve just got to keep trying to get healthy for the playoffs.
“As far as having that ‘two-week period’ [to get ready], that’s not going to happen. So I’ve given up on that part. So we have to figure it out another way.”
At least it didn’t appear to be a season-ending injury, which could have been a career-ending injury for the 38-year-old Pierce. The Clippers could even joke about it.
“Of course the Laker fans thought they were going to bring out a wheelchair at some point,” Rivers said, referring to Pierce’s dramatic exit and subsequent return in Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals that still infuriates residents of Lakerland.
And DeAndre Jordan‘s initial reaction to Pierce being out: “More shots for me.”
VIDEO: Pierce injured vs. Celtics
No. 4: One last to-do item on Warriors’ checklist — Golden State is rocketing toward the best record in NBA history as it closes in on a 73-win season. The Warriors have won five straight and head into tonight’s showdown at Oracle Arena against the playoff-hopeful Washington Wizards (10:30 ET, TNT) seemingly hitting on all cylinders. Yet coach Steve Kerr can see one area that he wants his squad to improve on as the season wanes and the playoffs approach. Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle has more:
At one point early in Sunday’s game, Philadelphia guard Ish Smith drove to the basket for layups on consecutive possessions. The plays were symptomatic of a first quarter in which the Warriors allowed the 76ers to shoot 57 percent from the field.
Even though the open lanes were clogged later in the game, and the Warriors coasted to another victory, those defensive lapses were striking.
Make no mistake: Steve Kerr has noticed them, too.
Kerr realizes this sounds like nitpicking, with his team bearing down on the best regular season in NBA history. But he’s also aware numbers do not lie, and the numbers show the Warriors slipping on defense recently.
They led the league in “defensive rating” last season, allowing 98.2 points per 100 possessions. Through Sunday they ranked fifth this season, at 100.0 points (the Spurs were No. 1 at 96.0).
More important, the Warriors are allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions over their past 10 games. That might not sound like a dramatic step backward, but it’s enough to concern the coaches with the playoffs barely more than two weeks away.
“This is perfectly natural during an 82-game season, where things have gone extremely well,” Kerr said Monday. “It’s pretty easy to say, ‘We’ll back off a little bit, we’re still going to win.’ And that’s what’s happened. We are still winning, which — in a weird way — is kind of the problem.
“I think it’s that point of the season where our lead over San Antonio is a little more comfortable and guys are maybe backing off a little bit defensively. But we can’t just expect to turn it on for the playoffs. We’ve got to make sure we stay sharp.”
Assistant coach Ron Adams, essentially the defensive coordinator, actually was encouraged by the past few games. Before that, Adams said, the Warriors went through a period in which they played “average” defense.
Adams contends the Warriors are a better defensive team than last season, but the numbers don’t reflect it. Why?
“I think we let up in games,” Adams said. “We have a formula for winning, and the guys kind of know they can turn on the switch. From my perspective in defensive basketball, it’s got to be an every-possession mentality. More than anything else, we’ve probably slipped in that area.”
Another factor: The Warriors are so off-the-charts dynamic on offense, it’s natural to relax on defense. They lead the NBA in offensive rating this season at 113 points per 100 possessions, after finishing second last season (at 109.7, just behind the Clippers).
Guard Klay Thompson acknowledged the Warriors sometimes rely on their athleticism to bail them out.
“When we’re out there kind of just loafing around, that’s when teams get comfortable against us,” Thompson said. “When we’re switching with some force, and contesting every shot, we’re the best defensive team in the league in my mind.”
VIDEO: Klay Thompson and the Warriors talk after Monday’s practice
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder is returning to practice tomorrow and may be able to play by the end of the week … LeBron James (rest) will miss tonight’s game against the Houston Rockets … Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder and Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant have a mutual admiration for each other … Just for the record, Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing says he never would have been on a ‘superteam’ with his rivals back in the day … New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry joked about his team being under a ‘voodoo’ hex this season … There’s some Final Four trash talk in the OKC locker room these days … Former NBA player, coach and GM Vince Boryla died yesterday at 89 …