Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoma City Thunder’

Mavs, Griz fight for right to play… OKC?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rick Carlisle talks about the Mavs’ season-ending game vs. the Grizzlies

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies might as well just come out and say it: Give us the MVP.

The vibe emanating from both camps as they prepare for tonight’s Grindhouse showdown that will decide the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the Western Conference is that both teams would just as soon stay away from the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and take their chances against probable league MVP Kevin Durant and the somewhat shaky-looking Thunder (or still possibly the hard-charging Los Angeles Clippers).

Records before and after the All-Star break

                                    OKC              SA           Memphis       Dallas

Before                       43-12            39-15           30-23              32-23

After                           15-11              24-4             19-9                 17-9

With multiple story lines swirling, the Mavs and Grizzlies, both 49-32, will make this regular-season finale count (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The loser settles for the No. 8 seed and a first-round playoff series against the Spurs. The winner takes the No. 7 seed and will head to either Oklahoma City or L.A., depending which team takes the No. 2 seed after tonight’s games.

Dallas won the first three meetings against Memphis. The first two came before Christmas when Memphis was a defensive mess. The third, at Memphis in early February, the Grizzlies played without point guard Mike Conley.

Memphis is trying to secure a second consecutive 50-win season. Dallas has been talking up 50 wins as a team goal for weeks, trying to get back to the mark it hit for 11 consecutive seasons, but not since the championship year of 2010-11 (they were 36-31 during the 2011-12 lockout season, falling below the .610 winning percentage of 50 wins, and 41-41 last season to snap a 12-year playoff streak).

After struggling early in the season at home, the Grizzlies are riding a season-best 13-game win there. The Mavs have won their last six road games, their longest such streak this season.

As for the preferred playoff matchup, neither the Spurs nor the Thunder will be a walk in the park. San Antonio ranks fifth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) and fourth in defensive efficiency. OKC ranks seventh in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency. Only the Thunder have looked out of sync since the All-Star break, struggling at times defensively and with cohesiveness because of missing pieces due to injuries.

The Mavs and Grizzlies both stumbled to 0-4 against the Spurs. Worse, Dallas has lost nine straight to San Antonio and Memphis has dropped 14 of 16.

Dallas’ four losses came by an average margin of 11.5 points; Memphis by 11.3. At least the Grizzlies can claim they were without big man Marc Gasol for essentially two of those games. Gasol injured his knee in the 102-86 loss on Nov. 22, playing just nine minutes. The injury that kept him out of the 110-108 overtime loss on Jan. 7, a game defensive bulldog Tony Allen also missed. However, fully loaded on April 6, Memphis got trounced in San Antonio, 112-92.

For offensive-minded Dallas, San Antonio simply presents an awful matchup. The Spurs’ excellent close-out defense limits the Mavs’ 3-point attempts while their precision offense dissects Dallas’ porous defense. In the four meetings, the Spurs have attempted 31 more 3s and outscored the Mavs from beyond the arc by 54 points. In their final meeting on April 10, Tony Parker didn’t play and Patty Mills did the honors, lighting up Dallas for six 3-pointers and 26 points.

Spurs vs. Mavs                      Spurs vs. Grizzlies

Dec. 26: W 116-107                  Oct. 30: W 101-94

 Jan. 8: W 112-90                     Nov. 22: W 102-86

 March 2: W 112-106               Jan. 7: W 110-108 (OT)

April 10: W 109-100                 April 16: W 112-92

If San Antonio has a rooting interest in tonight’s game as they wrap up the regular season at the Lakers, it has to be for the Mavs to pack to their bags for South Texas. Memphis puts up more defensive roadblocks and dishes out far more physical punishment that the Spurs and Tim Duncan, creeping up on his 38th birthday in nine days, would prefer to avoid.

Against Dallas, ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, the worst among the 16 playoff teams, Duncan averaged 18.5 ppg on 51.1 percent shooting and 12.5 rebounds. Against Memphis, even with Gasol missing time, Duncan averaged 12.0 ppg on 45.0 percent shooting and 8.5 rebounds.

Memphis, which can have a hard time scoring — only the Pacers and Hawks rank lower in offensive efficiency among playoff teams — didn’t fare any better against the Thunder, losing all four games to the team they beat in five games in last year’s conference semifinals. Of course, OKC played that series without Russell Westbrook, as they did twice against Memphis this season. But Memphis can make similar claims with Gasol. As with any regular-season series, who’s in and out of the lineup can alter relevance.

Dallas gained a measure of confidence against OKC over the last month, beating it twice, routing the Thunder at their place on March 16 and outlasting them in a wild OT game at home nine days later. In the two games, Dallas made 28 3-pointers, four more than it managed in four games against San Antonio. Of course, the Thunder was missing Westbrook, defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha and starting center Kendrick Perkins in the first Dallas win and Sefolosha and Perkins in the second.

Thunder vs. Mavs                      Thunder vs. Grizzlies

Nov. 6: W 107-93                            Dec. 11: W 116-100

March 16: L 109-86                        Jan. 14: W 90-87

March 25: L 128-119 (OT)              Feb. 3: W 86-77

–                                              Feb. 28: W 113-107

Finally, after tonight, the playoff pairings will be set and all these numbers can be tossed out the window.

Suns’ Cinderella season on the brink

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns are trying their best to make a frantic playoff charge

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Can the Phoenix Suns summon the energy to rise once more? Or will their improbable postseason hopes finally set?

Elimination day has arrived for the league’s season-long surprise team in Game 81. Phoenix (47-33) must beat the the Memphis Grizzlies (48-32) at home tonight (10 p.m. ET, League Pass) or the book will close on its Cinderella season, and the Grizzlies will clinch the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

It will take a Herculian effort. The Suns are picking themselves up from consecutive gut-punch road losses Friday and Saturday at San Antonio and Dallas in which they lost double-digits leads in both. Team MVP Goran Dragic is playing on a badly sprained left ankle. And then there’s this: Memphis, the antithesis of Phoenix’s fastbreaking style, is the lone Western Conference team the Suns have not defeated this season; they’re 0-3. The two teams last met on Jan. 10.

“We are still going to fight until the end,” Dragic said following Saturday’s 101-98 loss at Dallas in which Phoenix lost a 13-point third-quarter lead. “We have two games left and hopefully we can win the next game against Memphis and if so, anything is possible.”

If Phoenix wins tonight, it will move into a dead heat in the standings with Memphis, but will still need help to get into the playoffs. The Suns play at Sacramento on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) and will likely know by tipoff or shortly thereafter if the game holds meaning. They’ll need to have Dallas to win at Memphis (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), where the Grizzlies have won 13 in a row.

“We’ve got to stay positive,” said guard Eric Bledsoe, who has put up 59 points, 15 assists, 15 rebounds, but also 14 turnovers in the last two games. “There’s still life out there. These two teams, Memphis and Dallas have to play each other, so we have to take our next two games real serious.”

Dragic sprained his ankle last Wednesday night at New Orleans, stayed in the game and played 39 minutes. He missed Friday’s game against the Spurs and returned Saturday at Dallas, heavily taped, and logged more than 40 minutes. His availability tonight could be in jeopardy.

“It’s not a good situation for me, not good timing,” Dragic said Saturday. “I twisted my ankle against New Orleans, played the whole game and after the game it swelled a lot. It’s tough. I mean, no excuses, a lot of NBA players have to go through those pains, so I have to try to help my teammates as much as I can.”

The Grizzlies, 35-15 since Jan. 1 after starting 13-17, can wrap up a fourth consecutive playoff berth with a victory tonight. That would set up Wednesday’s home game against the Mavericks, who locked up a playoff berth with Saturday’s win over Phoenix, as a fight for the seventh seed, with a remote chance at the sixth seed.

Golden State needs one more win to clinch the sixth seed and can do so tonight at home against Minnesota (10:30 p.m., ET, NBA TV).

The No. 8 seed will face the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the opening round. The No. 7 seed will likely face the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Los Angeles Clippers have an outside chance of securing the No. 2 seed.

Most Valuable Player by the numbers

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters have their say on the LeBron-Durant MVP race

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Is the Kia NBA Most Valuable Player award for the most outstanding player or the most important player? If it’s the latter, is it more important to turn a playoff team into a championship contender than it is to turn a Lottery team into a playoff team?

Where would the Bobcats be without Al Jefferson? The Raptors without Kyle Lowry? How about the Mavs without Dirk Nowitzki? None of those three guys are in the top 10 of our MVP Ladder as of last Friday.

In reality, MVP voting is typically a combination of three things…

  1. Team success – Each of the last 25 MVPs played for a 1 (20) or 2 (five) seed in their conference. The last MVP not on one of the top two teams in his conference was Michael Jordan in 1988.
  2. Production – Each of those 25 MVPs have averaged at least 36.8 points + rebounds + assists per game, with 20 of the 25 averaging at least 40.
  3. Importance – This can lead to a narrative creeping into the conscience of a voter (see Derrick Rose in 2011), but it’s something that advanced stats can help quantify.

Obviously, in terms of production, Kevin Durant and LeBron James lead the pack. They rank first and second in our PIE statistic. And through Thursday, their teams each rank second in their conference.

All stats are through Wednesday, April 9.

But can we tell which guy has been more important to their team’s success? If you look at team numbers with each on and off the floor, they’re both in the same ball park.

Thunder & Heat NetRtg with Durant and James on and off the floor

On floor Off floor Difference
Player MIN NetRtg MIN NetRtg NetRtg Rank
Kevin Durant 2,961 +8.2 808 +3.6 4.5 67
LeBron James 2,830 +8.1 954 +3.3 4.9 64

NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
Rank = Among 244 players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes with one team

The Thunder have been 8.7 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 4.2 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Durant on the floor. The Heat have been 8.1 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 3.3 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with James on the floor.

Those numbers are influenced by who Durant and James are playing with and against. Both have All-Star teammates that have missed big chunks of the season. Russell Westbrook has missed 35 games for the Thunder, while Dwyane Wade has missed 27 games for the Heat. Durant (43 percent) and James (41 percent) have each played less than half of their minutes with their costars on the floor.

But Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh are both really good too. And both have missed just one game all season.

James has played more minutes without either Wade or Bosh than Durant has played without either Westbrook or Ibaka. But the Thunder’s only-Durant minutes have been much more successful than the Heat’s only-James minutes.

Thunder efficiency with Durant on the floor

On floor MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Durant + Ibaka + Westbrook 1,128 110.1 103.9 +6.2 +143
Durant + Ibaka, no Westbrook 1,195 107.0 100.7 +6.3 +162
Durant + Westbrook, no Ibaka 146 113.3 98.2 +15.1 +43
Durant, no Ibaka or Westbrook 492 114.7 99.6 +15.1 +153

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions

Heat efficiency with James on the floor

On floor MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
James + Bosh + Wade 1,022 109.5 101.4 +8.1 +156
James + Bosh, no Wade 1,113 115.4 101.6 +13.8 +270
James + Wade, no Bosh 127 107.8 107.8 -0.0 +2
James, no Bosh or Wade 568 109.0 109.9 -1.0 -18

James and Bosh have been a better tandem, but Durant has been, by far, the better solo act. Those 568 minutes are just 20 percent of James’ total playing time, but the numbers make it clear that Bosh has been a critical component to the Heat’s defense. His presence on the floor has been more important for the Heat than Ibaka’s has been for the Thunder.

These guys are never playing by themselves, of course. Beyond each team’s big three, the Thunder have gotten more consistent production from their role players. Nick Collison has the best on-off-court differential of OKC regulars.

But Collison has played less than 1,300 minutes and Durant’s on-court numbers appear to have been less influenced by the other stars on his team. The Thunder have the better record overall (57-21 vs. 53-25) and the better record when star No. 2 is out (35-10 vs. 27-10).

If James is going to be the fourth player to win five or more MVP awards, it probably won’t happen this year.

Westbrook keeps charging ahead

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dennis Scott and Jerry Stackhouse discuss Russell Westrbrook and the Thunder’s defense.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – It ain’t easy being Russell Westbrook.

On the same night LeBron James essentially conceded the MVP race to Westbrook’s more affable, more approachable and all-around great-guy-of-a-superstar teammate, Kevin Durant, Westbrook went full bionic mode on Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers.

He delivered the goods on a night Durant couldn’t drop it in the nearby Pacific. Mr. Efficiency went 8-for-26 and 1-for-7 from beyond the arc, although his one long ball was a drop-dead killer late in the fourth quarter.

Westbrook’s 30 points on 12-for-24 shooting, 11 rebounds — including two superhero-style, swooping offensive boards during the tense, final two minutes — six assists, two steals and one turnover in 33 minutes essentially sealed the 107-101 victory and locked up the No. 2 seed for the Thunder.

It’s a good thing Westbrook — he who shoots too much, facilitates for Durant too little, drives to the rim too wildly, coughs it into the first row too often and generally runs the offense with the court IQ of a Gatorade cooler — churns critics’ persistent negativity into fuel.

Can’t win a title with Westbrook … Durant deserves a pass-first point guard … Doesn’t he get it? He’s Pippen, not Jordan!

It’s not that some criticism is not without merit. Yet, with Westbrook as his point guard, Durant is on his way to a fourth scoring title in five seasons. Had he not eased off the gas a year ago to allow Carmelo Anthony his only crown, it’d be five in a row since Westbrook’s second season.

When Westbrook’s third surgery on his right knee in eight months sidelined him from Dec. 26 through the All-Star break, Durant averaged 35.0 ppg on 22.4 shot attempts per game. Since Westbrook’s return on Feb. 20, Durant has averaged 32.0 ppg on 20.6 shot attempts.

From Westbrook’s debut in the third game of the season following a second surgery, until he would unsuspectingly need a third surgery after his Christmas Day triple-double, Westbrook averaged 17.3 shot attempts in 32.9 mpg. In 18 games back, he’s averaging 16.0 shot attempts in 27.5 mpg.

Westbrook’s numbers in 43 games played are 21.7 ppg, 6.9 apg and 5.7 rpg. From his first stint to his second, Westbrook’s scoring average and shooting percentage are up; his shot attempts and turnovers, albeit slightly, are down (and so, too, are his minutes by design). The ferocity with which he attacks the rim and sacrifices his body for loose balls never waned even when it only seemed natural that it should.

Yet that courageous aspect to his rudely interrupted season seems more often swept aside.

If the Thunder don’t win the championship come June, or worse, they don’t get out of the ruthless Western Conference, anvil-weighted blame will undoubtedly land in the lap of whichever pair of chaotic-print chinos Westbrook will be wearing.

It doesn’t seem to matter that at age 22 he was the Thunder’s point guard when they advanced to the Western Conference finals. Or that at 23 he was the point guard when the Thunder fell to the Year 2 Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Or that a season ago he was the point guard of a 60-win Thunder team, one favored to give the Heat a rematch before Rockets guard Patrick Beverley undercut him in the first round and ripped his meniscus.

Now 25, the same age as the ever-evolving Durant and the ever-improving Serge Ibaka, Westbrook’s critics seem to judge him as if a finished product: a delightfully athletic specimen, but one lacking the intellect or desire or selflessness, or all three, to mature, to refine, to gain perspective, to make better on-court decisions. It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s an eyelash shy of averaging at least 7.0 apg in four of his six seasons, or that he’s twice averaged more than 8.0.

For years the rumbling has been that he and Durant aren’t made for each other, that Westbrook’s flinging will ultimately drive Durant crazy enough to seek a more deferential running mate. Durant, of course, has only professed admiration and joy for his partner.

They are of differing personalities to be sure — Durant being the silky smooth operator and Westbrook the unbroken mustang — but nevertheless capable of winning titles, plural, together. Durant is signed through 2016; Westbrook through 2017.

Yet if these two stars ever do part, championship or not, it will likely be Westbrook, and not Durant, who forces the split, weary of the scrutiny and subsequent blame or lack of recognition for whatever happens from here on out.

For now, by all accounts, they eagerly and willfully, and thankfully so for basketball fans, chase glory together.

Analytics Art: MVP leader stats

By Andrew Bergmann (@dubly), for NBA.com

Here are some key stats on the current MVP race leaders.

Tweet who you think should win the 2013-14 Most Valuable Player Award: Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, LeBron James or Joakim Noah, and watch The Starters’ “Starties Awards Show” tonight at 6 ET on NBA TV.

mvp-leaderstats

MVP Leader Stats

Andrew Bergmann’s data driven design work can be found on CNN, NBA, Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, Washington Post and USA Today. See more on www.dubly.com and twitter.com/dubly. Thanks to Tracy Weissenberg for the tip.

 

Mavs, Suns put playoffs in own hands

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant gets a record, but the Suns get the win

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Memphis Grizzlies, the team supposedly no high seeds want to see in the first round, is on the outside looking in. The Oklahoma City Thunder, a favorite to win the West, is 0-4 in the last month against the current No. 7 and No. 8 seeds they very well could face.

Following a busy Sunday in which the San Antonio Spurs showed zero fear for the slumping Grizzlies, the Phoenix Suns outlasted the Thunder again and the Dallas Mavericks sweated out a two-point win at Sacramento, the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race continues to be as unpredictable as it is tight.

The Mavs and Suns have put their playoff fates in their own hands. Beyond that, any sorting out with 10 days left in the regular season remains premature because No. 7 Dallas (47-31), one-half game up on No. 8 Phoenix (46-31), which is one game ahead of No. 9 Memphis (45-32), all play each other in the season’s final five days (see remaining schedules below).

Anything remains possible. Everything’s on the table.

The miracle Suns, predicted at the start of the season to be a franchise banking on a high lottery position, have bounced back strong after arguably the season’s most devastating loss at the Los Angeles Lakers a week ago, followed by a heartbreak home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

In the last three nights, Phoenix has won at Portland and beat OKC, 122-115. The Suns also outran the Thunder on March 6, 128-122. Meanwhile, it makes OKC 0-4 over the last month against potential first-round foes Phoenix and Dallas. Of the Suns’ five remaining games, four are on the road.

Dallas has rebounded from a disappointing 4-4 homestand and looks to finish its road trip 4-0. The Mavs play a third consecutive West bottom-feeder Tuesday when it visits the Jazz. After holding on for dear life against the Clippers on Thursday, they followed up with wins at the Lakers and Sunday’s 93-91 nail-biter against the Kings.

An interesting twist in the schedule has Dallas playing host to San Antonio on Thursday, then the Suns playing at San Antonio on Friday and then at Dallas on Saturday. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich could opt to rest multiple players in either game of the back-to-back considering the No. 1 seed is all but sewn up.

As for the Grizzlies — who hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Phoenix, but not Dallas — they’ve dropped four of six, and were no match for the Spurs in Sunday’s 112-92 trouncing. Next up is a home date with Miami on Wednesday before absolute must-have games against Philadelphia at home and the Lakers on the road.

Here’s how the remaining schedules shake out for the Mavs, Suns and Grizzlies:

No. 7 Mavericks (47-31)

Tuesday: at Utah

Thursday: vs. San Antonio

Saturday: vs. Phoenix

April 16: at Memphis

=================

No. 8 Suns (46-31)

Wednesday: at New Orleans

Friday: at San Antonio

Saturday: at Dallas

Monday: vs. Memphis

April 16: at Sacramento

=================

No. 9 Grizzlies (45-32)

Wednesday: vs. Miami

Friday: vs. Philadelphia

Sunday: at L.A. Lakers

Monday: at Phoenix

April 16: vs. Dallas

Morning Shootaround — April 5


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Garnett could return Saturday | Nash will play again this season | Wade expected back soon

No. 1: Garnett could return Saturday — Kevin Garnett has missed the last 19 games with back spasms. And while the Brooklyn Nets have gone 14-5 in that stretch, they need Garnett to help them on the glass. They rank dead last in defensive rebounding percentage since he first went out. Garnett, by the way, leads the league in individual defensive rebound percentage. And he could be back Saturday night in Philadelphia, as Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York writes:

While coach Jason Kidd wouldn’t fully commit to it, the Nets coach sure seemed optimistic about the possibility.

“[Kevin] felt better today,” Kidd said Friday night following his team’s 15th consecutive home victory. “We’ll see how his plane ride goes, and then we’ll see in the morning how he feels. We would like to try to get him to go tomorrow, but it’s up to him.”

Garnett has missed the past 19 games due to back spasms. The Nets (41-34) have gone 14-5 without him.

Asked if he is worried about reintegrating Garnett into the lineup, Kidd replied, “Nope. Kevin is a professional. He’s been doing it for a million years, so there’s nothing to worry about. He’s about the team. He’s about what we as a team stand for — unselfishness, defense — so he won’t have a problem with that.”

***

No. 2: Nash will play again this season — Before meeting the Mavs on Friday, Steve Nash speculated that it might be his last game of the season, with Jordan Farmar set to return from injury in the coming days. But after Nash dished out seven assists (watch video) in 19 minutes, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said that the 40 year old will play again over the last 11 days. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin has the story from L.A.:

Nash left the arena without speaking to reporters Friday, but his coach is making sure there will be at least one more encore performance.

“I said this is not your last game,” D’Antoni relayed after the Lakers’ 107-95 loss to the Mavericks. “He said, ‘OK.’ So, we’ll play him.”

There are only six games left to the Lakers season and Nash already all but ruled himself out Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers, fearing he won’t have enough recovery time to prepare himself for the early 12:30 p.m. PT tip.

He has repeatedly said he wanted to get out of the way when Jordan Farmar returns from a strained groin injury next week, preferring to give the minutes he’d play to Farmar and Kendall Marshall so they have the opportunity to prove themselves with free agency coming for each.

But D’Antoni, who first coached Nash a decade ago in Phoenix, isn’t going to let Nash disappear so easily.

***

No. 3: Wade expected back soon — The Miami Heat might not really need Dwyane Wade before the conference semifinals, but his health will always be a concern. Wade has missed 24 games this season (some just for rest), including the last five with a strained left hamstring. The Heat are 16-8 without Wade, but their defense is at its best when he’s healthy and active. The playoffs are exactly two weeks away, but there’s not a high level of concern in the Miami locker room, as Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald writes:

A strained left hamstring sidelined Heat guard Dwyane Wade for a fifth consecutive game on Friday night, but Heat players said he’s improving, and LeBron James said Wade “probably” will return “within the next week.”

There doesn’t appear to be concern about Wade’s availability for the start of the playoffs in two weeks.

But there is some uncertainty about a timetable. Udonis Haslem said Friday “it’s hard to tell” when Wade will play in a game again.

The Heat host the Knicks on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC).

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Thabo Sefolosha is getting closer to a return for the ThunderTayshaun Prince went down with an ankle injury in the Grizzlies’ win over Denver … Ty Lawson was benched after missing a team meeting (and then turned his ankle too) … The Bulls may sign one or more vets after waiving rookie Erik MurphyEric Gordon went to L.A. to have his knee checked out … and Leon Powe wants to own an NBA team.

ICYMI of The Night: Gerald Green went off the glass to himself as the Suns picked up a huge win in Portland:


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Gerald Green

MVP-charging KD closes in on MJ’s streak

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant is named the Kia Western Conference Player of the Month for March

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – It’s kind of understandable why Toronto Raptors guard Greivis Vasquez would compare MVP frontrunner Kevin Durant to Jesus after the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar capped a 51-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist effort with a long-range, game-winning 3-pointer in the final two seconds of double overtime.

Walk on water is about all Durant didn’t do.

Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson, who plays against Durant four times every season as a Northwest Division foe, offers probably a more relatable comparison.

“He’s doing things that haven’t been seen since Michael Jordan,” Lawson told NBA.com.

He’s right. On several fronts this season, Durant is flying in the rare air of His Airness. Take Durant’s stat-stuffer at Toronto on March 21 that so awed Vasquez. No player had reached such totals in a single game since Jordan in 1991-92. Instantly rave reviews flooded the Internet and highlight reels were posted to YouTube for all to be bedazzled by Durant’s array of crossovers, spin moves, floaters and every other move that should be darn-near impossible for a darn-near 7-footer to put down on the floor.

“Coming from where I come from in D.C., all you did was dribble the ball a lot, all these different crossovers, these different moves, so that’s where I kind of learned it from,” Durant would say a week later during a stop in Dallas. “Me being so tall, I got a way from it, I played below the basket up until I got to the league almost, so I had to kind of work on it again and bring it back. I’ve been working on it these last few years and I’m having the confidence to try to pull those moves off…”

Then Durant, so caught up in humility, go figure, got all self-deprecating.

“And most of the time,” he demurred, “I turn it over or I throw the turnover after I crossover, I do something that’s not right.”

Durant is now on the cusp of another Jordan moment. On Jan. 5, with point guard Russell Westbrook little more than a week into his extended absence due to knee surgery, Durant scored 21 points in a breezy 27 minutes in a win against Boston. It remains the last time he’s scored fewer than 25 points in a game. Durant can make it 39 in a row of 25 points or more tonight when the Thunder play a critical game in the chase for the No. 1 seed against the San Antonio Spurs (8 ET, TNT). If he does it, Durant can tie Jordan’s modern-day streak of 40, which he accomplished twice (1986-87 and ’88), on Friday night at Houston (9:30 ET, ESPN).

Before Jordan, a streak of greater length dates back a half-century to Oscar Robertson‘s 47 in 1963-64. Before that, Wilt Chamberlain went an astonishing 106 consecutive games in 1961-62.

But back to doing things that haven’t been done since MJ. Here’s another: Durant, averaging by far a league-best 32.2 ppg (51.2 percent shooting overall, 41.2 percent from 3-point range), 7.6 rpg and 5.7 apg, is on pace to be the first player to average at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists while shooting 50 percent from the floor since, yep, Jordan in 1991-92.

“He’s starting to make tougher and tougher shots and making it look easy,” Lawson said. “From the 3-point line it looks effortless, post-up game, he’s adding little things to his game. This year he’s adding assists, finding players. Like the stretch when Russell was out, he was playing, I think, out of his mind. He ’s just playing at a really high level.”

When Westbrook was out from just after Christmas through the All-Star break, Durant averaged 35.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 6.3 apg while shooting 52.7 percent overall and 39.9 percent from beyond the arc as the focal point of every defense he faced. The Thunder went 20-7 and Durant’s MVP campaign was in full bloom.

“He’s a great player, he does it all, rebounds, gets assists, he scores the ball, he can do whatever he wants on the floor,” Thunder wing Jeremy Lamb said. “Late in games he pulls it out for us, makes clutch shots. Amazing.”

With or without Westbrook, Durant, tied for second in the league with DeMar DeRozan in logging 38.4 mpg, has revealed new ways to make himself an unstoppable force. With less than two weeks to go in the regular season, it’s practically inarguable that he will win his first MVP trophy. If he does, it will be the second time that LeBron James, a four-time winner, will fall just short of becoming the first player to win three consecutive MVP titles since, no, not MJ, but Larry Bird from 1983-86.

And if there’s still a speck of doubt, there is one more no-one’s-done-that-since MJ tidbit. Durant, the Western Conference player of the month four times in the season’s first five months, averaged 34.5 ppg in March. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Durant is the first player to average 33 points or more in three successive months since, you guessed it, Jordan in 1989-90.

So when Vasquez said of Durant, “He’s like Jesus in this league,” maybe he simply expects him to walk on water.

He’s doing everything else.

Blogtable: The NBA’s most dynamic duo

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Indy’s roster tweaks | Style police | Most dynamic duo



VIDEO: LeBron James and Chris Bosh combined to snuff out Portland’s chance at a win Monday

> Right now — taking health problems and everything else into consideration – who would you name the most formidable pair of teammates in the NBA?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: This reminds me of the trivia question about baseball’s all-time brother act among HR hitters. Of course it’s the Aarons, on the strength of Henry’s 755 and Tommie’s 13. To me, any pair of teammates that includes LeBron James as one of them is a serious contender as top tandem. Some might argue that Chris Bosh is Miami’s second-best player now, but I’ll stick with a rested and recuperating Dwyane Wade as wingman to the NBA’s best player (not necessarily the 2014 MVP), based on how well Wade and the team have managed his health and workload.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Because there are questions going forward about how Russell Westbrook will hold up over the long haul of the playoffs and because there are constantly questions about Dwyane Wade’s knees, you have to go past the obvious.  I’ll put Chris Paul and Blake Griffin at the top of my 1-2 punch list.  Paul can run the break, get everybody a good shot at any time and Griffin has raised his all-around game to be part of the MVP conversation.  Formidable isn’t the word to describe Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, just incredibly efficient.  The pairing that could leap up and make an even bigger splash still in the playoffs is James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Blake Griffin, Chris Paul (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Blake Griffin, Chris Paul (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comKevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. I know Westbrook’s been in and out of the lineup and might be a knee bump away from potentially being shelved again, but together this tandem of 25-year-olds is a two-way terror like none other. Durant is the best player in the game right now, simply unguardable. Put the strength and speed of Westbrook, practically unguardable in his own right, next to KD and say goodnight.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comFour first names and two players equal one top tandem: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin. The best point guard in the world and one of the top, maybe the top, power forward gives the Clippers a dynamic inside-outside pairing with a season of Griffin’s commendable improvements and Paul coming back from the shoulder injury. James Harden-Dwight Howard and Paul George-Roy Hibbert (defense, defense) are in the conversation. Paul is not 100 percent, but the potential challengers of Westbrook-Durant, Lillard-Aldridge, Rose-Noah have larger health issues.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comLeBron James and Chris Bosh. James is the best player in the world and Bosh is the next most important player on the Heat, with his ability to defend the pick-and-roll and space the floor offensively. Dwyane Wade can create more offense when James is off the floor, but Bosh is the better complement. He’s bigger and a better perimeter shooter.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The most lethal pair of teammates, injuries included, remains Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. There aren’t two guys working in tandem that can wreak more havoc or affect more change, on both ends of the floor, during the course of a game than the Oklahoma City Thunder’s dynamic duo and their Miami Heat counterparts. When they crank it into high-gear, who else can wade into that deep water and still stay true to what they do best? Sure, Westbrook and Wade have dealt with more than their fair share of injury issues this season. But the entire league knows what happens when they have it going. They are the obvious choices for the most obvious of reasons, we’ve seen them go to that next level so often over the past three or four years that there should really be no argument here.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: I’m sure we’ll see nominations for Westbrook and Durant, Harden and Howard, maybe even LeBron and Bosh. But I think I’ll go with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. I don’t think CP3’s leadership or toughness have ever been questioned, and with CP3 missing time this year due to injury, I think we saw exactly how good and complete a player Blake has become. The thing I also like about these two is that they combine to form a terrific inside-out combination, or at least as much of an inside-out combination as exists these days in the NBA.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: Right now it’s the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin duo. The smartest PG in the league paired with one of the most athletic big man gave us Lob City, but now that Griffin is evolving into something more than just a spectacular dunker, the Clippers have a spectacular duo who’s winning a ton of games. They can both win games by themselves, as a duo or involving their other teammates. I really like what Doc Rivers has turned them into. Without injuries, I’d go with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade over Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: I was thinking about Howard/Harden, Nowitzki/Ellis, Paul/Griffin and Westbrook/Durant. But right now I don’t believe that any duo is as good on both sides of the floor as LeBron James and Chris Bosh. In his fourth season with the Heat, Bosh is so much more than the third-best player of the team. You could argue that Miami would be going nowhere if they didn’t have the lefty big man. He takes and makes big shots with great regularity and is capable of a key defensive play anytime. And LeBron is just the best player on the planet. I really believe that if you have those two players working together, you’re guaranteed a shot at the title. And they’re the only duo I think about in those terms.

Morning Shootaround — March 26


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook unsure if he’ll be on minutes limit | Report: Warriors to reassign Scalabrine | Aldridge hopes to play Thursday | Izzo quells Pistons talk | Kaman not happy with his role in Lakerland

No. 1: Westbrook unsure if he’ll face minutes limit in playoffs — It is understandable that the Oklahoma City Thunder would want to be careful with how much star guard Russell Westbrook plays as the season winds down. After all, Westbrook has had three knee surgeries within the last eight months and OKC knows it needs him healthy to make any kind of serious run at The Finals. As our Jeff Caplan reported last night, though, Westbrook says he’s unsure if he’ll be on a minutes/time limit once the playoffs get rolling:

Russell Westbrook returned to action Tuesday night for the first time since his knee scare four nights earlier in Toronto. He remains on a minutes restriction, up to 32 a game, a precaution he’s not yet sure will be lifted once the playoffs start in little more than three weeks.“I’m not sure,” Westbrook said prior to Tuesday’s game against the Mavericks. “Once I talk to the doctors, the coaches and the people I I need to talk to about that, then we’ll figure it out.”

“I feel great, but it ain’t about this year,” Westbrook said. “I’m 25 years old, you know? It’s not all about right now. You got to think about the future. I can’t just think about what’s going on right now. I’m still young, I’m trying to play as long as I can.”

Westbrook’s knee nightmare started 11 months ago in the first round of the playoffs when Rockets guard Patrick Beverley careened into him, tearing the meniscus in Westbrook’s right knee and ending his season. He underwent surgery to repair the meniscus days later and then required two subsequent, and unexpected arthroscopic procedures, one coming days before the start of training camp and another two days after he put up a triple-double at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day.

The latest setback kept him out until Feb. 20. Tuesday’s 129-118 overtime loss to the Mavs was the first time since his return that he logged more than 31 minutes. He played 33, but Thunder coach Scott Brooks, in order to adhere to the minutes restriction, sat Westbrook for the first 2:57 of overtime. OKC fell behind 120-113 before he checked in.

Westbrook has averaged 26.3 minutes in the 12 games he played prior to Tuesday night. His career average is 34.0 mpg and he averaged 38.4 mpg in the 2011-12 playoffs when OKC advanced to the NBA Finals. Along with the minutes restriction, which has been bumped up from 25-26 minutes initially to 30-32, Westbrook will continue to be held out of one game of back-to-back situations.

That leaves Westbrook available for eight of the Thunder’s final 11 games. OKC wraps up the regular season on April 16 and will open the first round at home that weekend. How the team will handle his minutes at that point, Brooks said, is not yet a significant part of the discussion.

“I haven’t really focused on a lot of that because there’s plenty of time for us to talk about that,” Brooks said. “We’re just focusing on what we have in place and that’s just the regular season. We’ve had some small discussions about what we’re going to do moving forward, but right now we haven’t really locked up anything.”

“It’s just my mindset, how I think, how I get myself going,” Westbrook said. “I just think to myself, go out and try to compete, that’s it, go out and help my team win. I know when I’m on the floor my only thing is go out and play hard and try to win.”

Since his return after the All-Star break, he’s averaged 21.0 points, 7.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds. His shooting percentages — 45.2 overall and 41.3 from beyond the arc — are higher than his overall shooting percentages.

“I mean, I’ve been confident,” Westbrook said. “The training staff and the rehab that I’ve done has put me in a great spot to be able to come out and perform at a high level, how I want to perform. So I have confidence in my knee; just have to go out there and play and let the rest take care of itself.”


VIDEO: The Mavs win an OT thriller against the Thunder

***

No. 2: Report: Warriors to reassign Scalabrine — A fan favorite during his playing days in New Jersey, Boston and Chicago, Brian Scalabrine has transitioned into a burgeoning coaching career in the NBA now. As a assistant coach in his first year on the Warriors’ staff, Scalabrine is working toward his long-term goal of becoming an NBA coach. His journey, however, may face a slight detour, writes Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, as the Warriors are expected to move Scalabrine into another role at the behest of coach Mark Jackson:

In what’s become an increasingly dysfunctional atmosphere, Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson has forced a reassignment of assistant coach Brian Scalabrine, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Ownership and management have been strong advocates of Scalabrine and his performance on the job, sources told Yahoo Sports. Nevertheless, Warriors officials decided that as long as Jackson is the head coach, he’ll have control of his coaching staff.

It is immediately unclear what kind of a role to which the Warriors will transition Scalabrine, but management has no intention of letting him leave the organization, sources said.

Over the past two years, Jackson’s difficulty with managing his coaching staff and creating a functional work environment has developed into one of the issues that threatens his future on the job, league sources said.

Scalabrine, who joined the staff in July, was Jackson’s choice as an assistant coach. For two straight years, Jackson has had issues with assistant coaches that he hired. Michael Malone and Jackson would go weeks without speaking to each other a year ago, league sources said. Malone left Golden State to become the head coach of the Sacramento Kings.

Jackson, in his third year at the helm of the Warriors, has one year left on his contract, but has come under increased scrutiny within the organization for how he has run the team and worked on the job. There have been no conversations about an extension for Jackson – nor are they expected to take place, sources said.

***

No. 3: Sliding Blazers hope to have Aldridge back Thursday — As our Fran Blinebury pointed out yesterday in a post you may have missed, the Blazers’ reliance on 3-pointers that fueled their early success may be their undoing now. While that may or may not be true, one thing that’s hurting Portland’s chances at winning is LaMarcus Aldridge’s absence from the starting lineup. Aldridge has missed the Blazers’ last seven games with a back contusion, but told CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes he hopes to play Thursday night in Atlanta:

The Portland Trail Blazers sunk to a new low when they got outplayed and outworked by the Orlando Magic, resulting in an embarrassing 95-85 loss Tuesday night in the Amway Center.“It’s probably the lowest point as far as being inconsistent, but it’s also the toughest,” Damian Lillard said postgame. “It’s getting down to that point where it’s time to make that push and get in the playoffs…We just got to tightened up and get it done.”

The Trail Blazers have shot 40 percent or lower in their last three games. Their lack of focus and energy level is clearly noticeable. On the defensive end, well, that continues to be a concern.

They need a savior, badly. And one may be on its way.

Slouched in his locker room stall after the game was a defeated-looking LaMarcus Aldridge who has sat out the team’s last seven games as he deals with a nagging back contusion. He looked helpless, wishing he could help his team.

The power forward spoke to members of the media for a few minutes and provided a ray of hope for the organization and the fan base.

“I say I’m trying to go no matter what [against Atlanta on Thursday] but if I look good enough to play [in Wednesday’s workout], then I’m going to play,” he said. “It’s up to the medical staff.”

Center Robin Lopez didn’t hold back about how he feels about Aldridge’s contribution to the team.

“We need L.A.,” Lopez said. “In order for us to be at our best, he has to be on the court with us. He’s our leader.”

Aldridge says he’s been getting better each passing day. The Trail Blazers are 3-4 since he took that hard fall in San Antonio on Mar. 12. He admitted that he didn’t think it would take this long. He wanted to play tonight, but the pain was too severe when he tried to run.

The eight-year vet was asked if a return on Thursday has anything to do with the team losing, and he replied saying it factors into it, though he reiterated that it’s ultimately the call of the team’s medical staff.

“It (losing) makes me want to play even worse, yes it does,” Aldridge answered in frustration. “But it’s not about me, it’s about the medical staff and them saying I can play. I’ve been wanting to play but obviously if you can’t move, you can’t play.”

Wednesday’s practice will be the first time since the injury that he’ll experience some body contact and try to go all out.


VIDEO:
Blazers coach Terry Stotts talks about Portland’s loss in Orlando

***

No. 4: Michigan State’s Izzo quiets NBA talk – As most NBA observers know, the Detroit Pistons are in a state of unrest in many ways. They fired coach Maurice Cheeks just 50 games into this season in a move that owner Tom Gores recently told the Detroit Free Press that he felt good about in retrospect. General manager Joe Dumars is thought to be on thin ice and could lose his job this offseason and Gores might have an eye on a local name — Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo — as the man to steer the Pistons in a winning direction. However, Izzo, in an interview with ESPN yesterday, seems fairly content in East Lansing, Mich.:

Tom Izzo has a message for the NBA should it come calling again: He’s still happy in college.

“There’s been so many rumors over the years,” the Michigan State coach said on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on Tuesday. “I look at people I used to recruit against years ago [that] said that I’d be gone, but I’m still here and some of those schools have had three different coaches.

“I’ve always said I’d never say never to anything because you never know what it brings. But I got so much more work to do here. I have a great president, a great AD and a football coach that I really get along [with]. So this is a pretty good place for me right now. We’re in a pretty good spot. Program’s in pretty good shape.

“Ain’t broke, so why fix it?”

Izzo’s comments come after a USA Today report stated the Detroit Pistons, enduring another disappointing campaign, could make a play for Izzo after this season.

The Pistons are expected to be in the market for a new coach. Maurice Cheeks was fired during the season, and interim coach John Loyer likely won’t be back.

Izzo said after Tuesday’s practice that he hasn’t talked to the Pistons or Detroit owner Tom Gores, adding that he has never met Gores, a Michigan State graduate.

“I swear to you, I have not talked to one soul from the Pistons,” Izzo said.

Izzo, 59, flirted with the NBA in the past, nearly taking the Cleveland Cavaliers’ job in 2010. He is 467-186 in 19 seasons, and his teams have reached six Final Fours. The Spartans have made the NCAA tournament 17 consecutive seasons and won the title in 1999-2000.

***

No. 5: Kaman unhappy in Lakerland, sounds off — Center Chris Kaman, a former All-Star, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Part of his struggles can be attributed to a foot injury that cost him to miss several patches of the Lakers’ first 69 games. But Kaman also hasn’t been happy with how he’s been used by coach Mike D’Antoni and expressed his frustration to the media before last night’s victory over the visiting New York Knicks:

Chris Kaman can’t wait until his miserable season with the Los Angeles Lakers finally ends.

Until then, he’s just trying to salvage something out of this wrong turn in his basketball career.

Kaman was the Lakers’ starting center Tuesday night against the New York Knicks with Pau Gasol sidelined by vertigo, but it was his first game action in March. The former All-Star 7-footer had watched the previous 10 games from the sidelines, unable to carve out any role in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system.

“It’s been a long season,” Kaman said. “I can’t wait until it’s over, I’ll tell you that.”

Kaman, an 11-year NBA veteran, called it the most frustrating season of his career “by far. Tenfold.”

Although he is averaging 9.9 points per game when he plays, Kaman is at career lows in rebounds (5.6) and minutes per game (18.4).

Kaman’s frustration has been palpable since shortly after he signed a one-year deal with the Lakers as a free agent in July. He appeared in just 34 of the Lakers’ first 69 games this season, with a foot injury hindering him much less than his inability to click with Los Angeles’ coaching staff.

“I was surprised the way we started the first preseason game,” Kaman said of his inability to crack D’Antoni’s rotation. “My bad on my part not doing due diligence enough to look into (D’Antoni’s) style of play.”

Kaman said he hadn’t spoken to D’Antoni since the Lakers were in Portland on March 3. The center doesn’t necessarily think that’s weird, but he leaves little doubt he doesn’t sync with D’Antoni’s style of coaching or management.

“I’m not at peace about it,” Kaman added. “I’m (ticked) about it, but I can’t control it. … It’s tough, but the best thing to do is play and try to stay positive and finish on a strong note.”

After spending his first eight NBA seasons with the Clippers, who made him the sixth overall pick in the 2003 draft, Kaman was traded to the New Orleans Hornets for one season.

He was similarly frustrated last season after signing with the Dallas Mavericks, struggling to get off coach Rick Carlisle‘s bench and chafing at his lack of involvement. He also missed time with a concussion.

Kaman said he can’t stay in game shape without playing in any games, and he expected to be rusty in his first game back. His foot injury is nothing that would prevent him from playing, and he’s still hoping he’ll get some time on court in the Lakers’ final 12 games of what’s likely to be the franchise’s worst season since moving to Los Angeles.

Kaman, who turns 32 next month, said he’ll “just do my job, make this go as quick as possible, and go from there.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Feels like we’ve heard this from Kobe Bryant before, but he told the New Yorker that Shaquille O’Neal was “lazy” …Spurs forward Matt Bonner will miss the next two weeks with a calf strain … Cavaliers forward Luol Deng doesn’t like not being in the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 … Jazz rookie point guard Trey Burke says Utah fans are being ‘selfish’ when they root for the Jazz to lose to increase their Draft lottery chancesChris Bosh opened up on “The Dan Le Batard Show” on South Florida radio about his nickname, his best friends on the team and more

ICYMI of the Night: Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters had himself quite a game last night against the Raptors and nailed this pretty little layup, too …


VIDEO: Dion Waiters sinks the crafty reverse layup against Toronto