Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoma City Thunder’

Morning shootaround — March 25


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron has no issue with Love’s MVP vote | Golden State wraps up Pacific | McHale expecting worst with Beverley’s injury; Howard may return tonight

No. 1: James not faulting Love for his MVP choice — Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love has been in the spotlight a little bit after some recent interviews. He recently told ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike” how his relationship with Cavs star LeBron James is ‘evolving’ and, in a chat with “The Dan Patrick Show”, Love said that if he had an MVP vote, it would likely go to Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (and not his teammate, James). So is James miffed over who Love would pick if he could vote? Not in the slightest, writes Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:

“I don’t really think too much of it, really,” James said after Cleveland Cavaliers practice on Tuesday. “I don’t really get involved in that. I think the voters are going to decide who is the MVP. I think what Russ has been doing, his numbers have been pretty crazy keeping those guys afloat in the West in his play. Steph Curry can make a case, for sure, what he’s been doing — James Harden and myself, as well. So, Kevin has his own opinion of who he believes is the MVP. No one should fault him for that.”

Love was a guest on “The Dan Patrick Show” on Monday and was put on the spot to pick either Oklahoma City’s do-everything guard or Cleveland’s captain for the NBA’s most prestigious individual award.

“I would just say because of time spent on the court, you know ‘Bron took those few games off and those couple of weeks off. … They’re both having MVP-type seasons, but I’m going to go with Russell Westbrook because every single night you’re looking at his stat sheet, they’re fighting for a playoff spot even with Serge Ibaka going down now, Kevin Durant potentially being out the rest of the year and [Westbrook] still going out there and really fighting for his team and them winning and fighting for that seventh and eighth spot in the playoffs,” Love told Patrick. “I think Russ is arguably having the better season.”

Love expanded on his choice on Tuesday when asked if he was surprised all the attention his answer caused.

“If you choose to get the little three or four second clip,” Love said, believing his answer was controversial only when taken out of context. “In my whole answer I said LeBron could very well be the MVP. Steph Curry, James Harden — those are guys that you all talk about. You know very well all of them could be named (MVP).”

James said he doesn’t judge this season for him based on his previous MVP campaigns, but rather on his impact he’s made in the games he’s played.

“When I’m on the floor, you judge me by when I’m on the floor and my winning and do I win?” James said. “And when I’m on the floor, do I play at a high level? And that’s all I care about. When I’m on the floor, is my team winning? Because I think that has a lot to do with it. And, how are my numbers when I’m on the floor? Judge me by that and then when I’m not on the floor.”


VIDEO: LeBron James talks after practice about Kevin Love’s MVP comments

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Morning Shootaround — March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING


VIDEO: Highlights from games played March 21

Aldridge re-injures hand in loss to Grizz | Pacers on the brink? | Steve Nash’s retirement felt hardest in Phoenix | Grizz move Green to bench

No. 1: Portland’s nightmare road trip — When it rains, it pours. After surviving an early-season injury to LaMarcus Aldridge, the Portland Trail Blazers managed to survive and become title contenders. But then Wesley Matthews went down for the season with a torn Achilles, and though they vowed to carry on without Matthews, the Blazers have had what they call a “nightmare” road trip. Now, with Nicolas Batum and Aldridge battling injuries, as Joe Freeman writes in The Oregonian, the Blazers may have reached their toughest point of the season:

A five-game trip that started with so much promise went from bad to worse on Saturday night as the Blazers not only lost 97-86 to the Memphis Grizzlies, but also lost two more key players to injuries.

If you’re counting, the Blazers have four players — three starters and their top backup big man — dealing with varying levels of injuries. And, as if that weren’t enough, they also happen to be in the middle of a four-game losing streak, the longest of the season. That impressive victory over the Toronto Raptors was only seven days ago, but it feels like seven months.

How might one describe that five-game trip?

“A nightmare,” Aldridge said.

And his health is reason No. 1 for that harsh reality. Aldridge injured his left hand — the same body part that already features a torn thumb ligament — with 4:37 left in the first quarter against the Grizzlies, when Tony Allen smacked it as he lunged for a steal.

On the play, Aldridge collected a pass from Damian Lillard just above the left elbow and drove toward the hoop. Zach Randolph charged from the middle and Allen blitzed from the left, reaching at Aldridge with his left hand to dislodge the ball, smacking Aldridge’s hand in the process. The four-time All-Star instantly winced and cupped his left hand with his right, a sight that no doubt sent a shiver across Rip City considering he has played with a bum left thumb since Jan. 24.

He played the rest of the  quarter and gave it a go in the second for six minutes, but did not play after halftime, finishing with 16 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.

The good news? The results of in-game X-rays were negative. The bad news? After the game, Aldridge’s hand was swollen, in pain and he said he could not bend it.

“It didn’t exactly go the way we planned,” center Robin Lopez said of the Blazers’ five-game trip.

Despite the rash of injuries, the Blazers (44-24) actually held their own in the second half against the second-best team in the Western Conference. Less than 24 hours after an embarrassing loss to the Orlando Magic, the shorthanded Blazers trimmed an 18-point Memphis lead down to seven in the fourth quarter, causing 17,898 at the FedExForum squirm in their seats down the stretch. With Dorell Wright raining threes, snatching steals and completing smooth coast-to-coast layups, Lopez scoring inside and rebounding and Damian Lillard doing it all, the Blazers made things interesting.

But the Grizzlies (49-21) were too deep and talented to wilt completely, and in the end, Mike Conley (21 points, nine assists) was too good, Green (23 points, nine rebounds) was too smooth, Tony Allen (10 points, 11 rebounds, six steals) was too menacing and their long-range attack (11 for 18 from three-point range) was surprisingly too effective.

Lillard finished with 27 points and seven assists, CJ McCollum added 13 points and six rebounds and Wright had 10 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals. But it was all for naught. And as the Blazers walked away from that postgame scene in the locker room, they chose not to dwell on the injuries or the losing streak.

Instead, they chose to look forward. They’ve no doubt reached their toughest moment of the season. But they insist they have plenty of fight left.

“We’ve got our backs up against the wall right now,” Lillard said, before adding, “I’m not concerned. We’ve just got to play better. If we play better, just keep doing what we’re doing, keep believing in each other, I think we’ll be fine.”


VIDEO: Blazers coach Terry Stotts discusses the team’s loss in Memphis

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In MVP chatter, touches speak loudly

VIDEO: James Harden explodes for a career-high 50 points on Thursday

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — You often hear broadcasters say that Player X needs to touch the ball on a critical possession down the stretch. And when they need a big bucket, most teams do just put the ball in their best player’s hands and tell him to go to work.

But that player will be on the floor for about 70 possessions per game and more than 5,000 possessions over the course of the season. In the past, we’ve measured how well a team performs when a player is on or off the floor. And now, SportVU’s player tracking cameras can tell us how important it is that a player actually touches the ball.

For example, here are the top six MVP candidates, with their team’s efficiency when they touch the ball (in the frontcourt), when they don’t touch the ball, and when they’re off the floor…

20150320_top6

For all six, their presence on the floor is pretty darn important to their team’s offense. But while the other guys also need to touch the ball, the Cavs’ offense is potent whether LeBron James touches it or not.

The Clippers have the No. 1 offense in the league (by a hair over the Warriors) and Chris Paul obviously deserves a ton of credit for it. The difference between L.A.’s efficiency on possessions he has touched the ball (116.0 points per 100 possessions) and on possessions he has not touched it or been off the floor (98.3) is the largest in the league among players who have been on the floor for at least 2,000 offensive possessions. It’s a crowded field, but Paul has a legit MVP case.

Davis, of course, can’t just bring the ball up the floor like the rest of these guys can. (Well, maybe he could, but he has yet to unleash that facet of his game.) He’s touched the ball on only 53 percent of the Pelicans’ possessions while he’s been on the floor. That ranks 118th among 218 players who have been on the floor for at least 2,000 offensive possessions and, obviously, last among the six guys we’re focusing on.

20150320_touchpct

In fact, there are 36 power forwards and centers, led by Blake Griffin at 68.0 percent, with a higher touch percentage than Davis. Kris Humphries (56.1 percent) has been more likely to touch the ball on a Wizards possession he’s been on the floor for than Davis has been to touch it on a Pelicans possession.

Pelicans coach Monty Williams acknowledged the challenge of getting the ball to Davis as much as he needs it before a game last week.

“That’s why it’s difficult at times,” Williams said, “for him to have the kind of night [43 points, six assists, 17-for-23 shooting] like he did [in Milwaukee on March 9], because he can’t get the ball in an out-of-bounds situation, bring it up and go to work.

“We have made more of a focus to get him the ball, but we also don’t want to exhaust it so much that nobody else gets a rhythm. And I think he likes it that way, because it keeps teams off-balance at times.”

Some more notes from SportVU’s touch-no-touch numbers …

  • John Wall leads the league in touch percentage at 89.4 percent. He touches the ball in the frontcourt on nine out of every 10 Wizards possessions he’s on the floor for. Not coincidentally, he leads the league in time of possession per game.
  • Stan Van Gundy likes to have the ball in the hands of his point guards. Brandon Jennings is right behind Wall at 88.9 percent and third on the list is D.J. Augustin (Detroit minutes only) at 87.9 percent. Reggie Jackson touched the ball on just 70 percent of Thunder possessions, but has touched it on 87 percent of Pistons possessions he’s been on the floor for.
  • Robin Lopez is last in touch percentage, having touched the ball on only 33.5 percent of the Blazers’ possessions he’s been on the floor for. He’s followed by Andre Drummond (33.9 percent), Anthony Morrow (35.7 percent), Bojan Bogdanovic (35.9 percent) and Andre Roberson (37.9 percent). Those poor Thunder wings.
  • With Danilo Gallinari on the floor, the Nuggets have scored 112.7 points per 100 possessions when Gallinari has touched the ball and only 91.3 when he hasn’t. That’s the largest discrepancy among players who have been on the floor for at least 2,000 possessions and it requires further examination. Gallo hasn’t shot the ball particularly well and his teammates haven’t shot it particularly well off his passes either.

OKC’s Durant ‘taken off floor,’ return uncertain


VIDEO: Thunder GM Sam Presti on shutting down Durant

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City’s All-Star forward and the NBA’s 2014 Most Valuable Player, has been shut down from basketball activity by the team due to continued soreness in his surgically repaired right foot, with no timetable for his return.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti announced the decision, taken as a precautionary measure and in response to Durant’s discomfort, in a Friday morning media session. “Right now, we’ve decided to take him off the floor so the people who are the experts can make the [medical] determination,” Presti said. “When he’s able to play without that soreness, he’ll be back on the floor.”

Durant, 26, played in just 27 of the Thunder’s 68 games heading into the matchup against Atlanta in Oklahoma City. He missed the season’s first 17 games after fracturing his foot in the preseason, returned for nine, then was sidelined for six more.

The four-time NBA scoring champ, also enduring a sprained ankle and a sprained toe, returned to action Dec. 31 and played in 18 of 22 heading up through the All-Star break in February. But on Feb. 23, Durant had a second surgery to replace a screw in his right foot and has not played since.

Durant has averaged 25.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 33.8 minutes. Currently No. 8 in the Western Conference, the Thunder has gone 18-9 in his 27 starts vs. 20-21 in the games Durant has not played.

And as if OKC doesn’t have enough injury news, it will be without center Enes Kanter tonight against the Atlanta Hawks.

Morning shootaround — March 20


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant held out of practice | Report: Spurs might pursue Grizzlies’ Gasol | Gordon apologizes for Suns talk in 2012

No. 1: Durant held out of practice with Thunder — A little over a week ago, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks said he expected reigning MVP and team star Kevin Durant to return to the lineup in a week or two. Well, here we are eight days later … does it look like Durant will be suiting up soon for OKC? Based on Royce Young‘s report on ESPN.com’s Daily Thunder blog, it sure doesn’t sound like it:

Durant did not practice today, held out with what Brooks called “some soreness,” which is a word I’m quite sick of seeing, personally.

“Experiencing a little bit of soreness,” Brooks said. “That’s expected. We have some peaks and valleys, and we always have a cautious approach, so today he didn’t do anything.”

Eight days ago, Brooks updated Durant’s timetable to return to play in a “week or two.” That followed two one week re-evaluations. So since Durant underwent a second surgery on Feb. 23, he’s missed almost four weeks.

Asked if he’d classify Durant’s soreness as a setback, or how he’d classify it, Brooks worked around the edges of answering that.

“Just he experienced some soreness,” Brooks said. “I think when you go through rehab, we all know through the rehab process you’re going to have some peaks and valleys, and you just have to adjust accordingly. That’s why he was off today, and he’s definitely not playing tomorrow. That’s all part of the process with his rehab.”

Asked directly if Durant’s timetable has changed, Brooks gave maybe the most revealing answer of all.

“I don’t know that yet,” he said. “But we’ll definitely take, with all our players, with injuries we’ll always take the best interest of the player and always take a cautious approach.”

That’s worrisome. Again, Durant was given a timetable of “a week or two” eight days ago, which suggested he would be back soon. Him not practicing today is certainly a step in the wrong direction of returning, and it certainly appears he’s not on track.

Obviously, with all of this Durant stuff, there’s a lot of worry and concern. But I’ll say this: I have every reason to believe Durant will return in the regular season. I have been told repeatedly by those who would know that Durant’s Jones fracture isn’t at risk. It’s about the pain he’s experiencing as a result of the screw head rubbing against a bone for weeks.

 


VIDEO: OKC’s players are readying for a big showdown with the Hawks tonight

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Schedule says Thunder have edge on Pelicans for playoff spot


VIDEO: Pelicans GM Dell Demps assesses his teams hopes for a playoff berth

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — With just 30 days to go in the 2014-15 season, the battles for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference and the last two spots in the East have never been tighter.

After losing in Dallas on Monday, the Oklahoma City Thunder have a half game lead on the New Orleans Pelicans for eighth in the West. The Pelicans have the tiebreaker with a 3-1 head-to-head record, but the Thunder have an easier remaining schedule, with more home games, fewer back-to-backs, and fewer games against teams with winning records.

Here’s an updated look at remaining schedules for the entire Western Conference …

20150317_sos_west

Here’s an explanation of the “Adj.,” column, which starts with the opponent NetRtg for each game and makes the following adjustments:

  • plus-2.6* for a road game.
  • minus-2.6 for a home game.
  • plus-2.6** when the team is playing the second night of a back-to-back and the opponent isn’t.
  • minus-2.6 when the opponent is playing the second night of a back-to-back and the team isn’t.

* Home teams have outscored road teams by 2.6 points per 100 possessions this season.
** When one team played the night before and the other didn’t, the rested team has been a plus-2.6 this season.

A couple of notes on the West:

  • Mathematically, the Phoenix Suns still have a shot at a playoff spot. But the toughest remaining schedule in the league is enough to dismiss them. They’re 1-5 against teams currently over .500 since the All-Star break and play 12 of their final 14 games against that group.
  • The L.A. Clippers just finished a stretch where they played 17 of 21 games against teams that are currently over .500. They’re rewarded with the easiest remaining schedule of the 10 teams that have a shot in the playoffs. They’re currently in seventh place, but are just a half game out of fifth and are 24-4 against teams that are currently under .500.
  • The Grizzlies still have some work to do to hold on to the No. 2 seed. They have just a one-game lead in the loss column over the Portland Trail Blazers, who have an easier remaining schedule.

Here’s the remaining schedules in the East …

20150317_sos_east

  • The Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are all tied with 36 losses, and they all have relatively tough schedules remaining.
  • None of the four have more home games than road games remaining.
  • The Hornets play more losing teams than winning teams, but also have the most back-to-backs remaining in the league, starting with Tuesday’s visit to the Clippers after Monday’s drubbing in Utah.
  • The Pacers and Celtics have the most momentum of the group, but also have the toughest remaining schedules. Both Boston (3-2) and Indiana (4-2) do have winning records since the All-Star break against teams with winning records, though.
  • The most home games remaining should be an opportunity for Brooklyn to get back in that 7-10 mix, but the Nets are a league-worst 3-11 at home in 2015.
  • Don’t hand the Cleveland Cavaliers the No. 2 seed just yet. The Toronto Raptors are only a game behind in the loss column, play 12 of their final 15 games against teams under .500, and are 25-7 against that group so far.
  • An easier remaining schedule should give the Chicago Bulls an edge over the Washington Wizards in the race for the No. 4 seed (and home-court advantage in a first-round matchup). They’re currently tied in the loss column, with Chicago holding the tiebreaker edge (better conference record, with a 2-2 tie in head-to-head meetings).

Morning shootaround — March 14


VIDEO: Check out all the highlights from Friday

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook a stat-seeking missile? | Pacers’ George treading lightly | Jazz’s Gobert: from clunker to hardware | NBA season in ‘twilight time?’

No. 1: Westbrook a stat-seeking missile? — It is considered bad form for a restaurant server or anyone else in the service industry, frankly, to flat-out ask for a tip. But it was OK in OKC for Russell Westbrook Friday night, his suggestion to the scorekeepers paying off in nice, round statistical fashion for yet another triple-double. No one here at Hang Time HQ is accusing Westbrook of lowering himself to Ricky Davis levels, and there often have been different interpretations applied to assists and rebounds (remember all the home-cooking accusations about Jazz great John Stockton‘s dimes in Salt Lake City games?). But Royce Young reported on Westbrook’s big numbers against Minnesota, then concluded that they were bonafide. Or at least justified:

The Thunder were enjoying an impressive blowout over the young Minnesota Timberwolves, and Westbrook was going to be left to watch the final couple of minutes a single rebound short. That’s when he took matters into his own hands. He looked over at the Thunder’s official scorekeepers, holding his arm up.

“Tip?” he said, nodding his head. “Tip?”

A quick conference at the scorer’s table and right around the time the buzzer sounded on the Thunder’s 113-99 win, Westbrook suddenly had his triple-double: 29 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists. His eighth of the season, sixth in the last eight games, and the first player since Jason Kidd in 2007-08 to have eight or more in a season (Kidd had 13).

The rebound appears to be a tad dubious, an offensive board awarded with 2:35 left where Westbrook went up to tip back a missed 3-point attempt by D.J. Augustin. Westbrook was given a missed shot on it, so everything is on the up and up, but still, hard not to raise an eyebrow.

So, was he campaigning for the rebound or what?

“Uhh, no,” Westbrook said.

The idea is that stat-padding breeds selfishness, a label Westbrook already battles against, but his play actually separates the two things entirely. The stats are a means to the end, a necessity in winning. Westbrook is single-minded when it comes to winning, and with that in the bag on Friday, there’s nothing wrong with wanting another bullet point added to the growing MVP resume.

Because while an extra “10” in the box score is pretty arbitrary, it means a lot when you start talking history. Westbrook became only the fourth player in the last 30 years to record six triple-doubles in a season with at least 25 points (LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson). As he continues to build an MVP case, that’s another feather in his cap. And we can’t act as if individual accolades don’t matter. It’s all part of the game, and Westbrook knows how to compartmentalize and separate that from the bottom line.

Westbrook actually nearly had a quadruple-double with eight turnovers, giving him an eye-popping 27 over his last three games. It has been a stat that has sort of been glossed over because of how much he’s doing for the Thunder, along with how he’s giving the ball away. It’s not really the classic out-of-control Westbrook that’s barreling down the lane and leaving his feet with no plan. It’s forced pocket passes, soft post-entry passes, unselfish extra passes fired at point-blank range.

“I do know one thing, I know I need to stop turning the ball over. I can tell you that much,” Westbrook said, unprompted. “It’s so frustrating, trying [to] find and make passes and turn the ball [over], but at the same time, we won, so I’ll go back to the drawing board and take care of it.”

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No. 2: Pacers’ George treading lightly — Maybe Paul George had a late-night phone conversation with Derrick Rose. Maybe his anticipated return from the serious leg fractures suffered last August was a diversion all along, meant to take Indiana fans’ focus off its team’s struggles for most of this 2014-15 season. Or, most likely, George has seen the Pacers’ recent tear and move into playoff position in the Eastern Conference as the proverbial ain’t-broke object no longer in need of his fix. The Pacers’ All-Star wing player sounded a little conflicted Friday about making a comeback for what’s left of this season, less due to his own physical condition than to the team’s encouraging play of late. Mark Montieth of Pacers.com reported on George’s quandary after the player’s weekly media chinwag:

“I’m on the fence,” he told reporters following Friday’s light workout at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “They’ve come together. To shake up the chemistry and add another body, I don’t want to be that guy who destroys what these guys have going. And then there’s part of me who thinks I can definitely help turn these tough games into games we have fully under control.

“It’s difficult. It’s a difficult point right now…but we take it day to day.”

George still spoke optimistically of the physical improvement he’s made since breaking his leg on Aug. 1. He experiences some soreness “but I push through those days.” He’s worn an elastic sleeve on his right leg the past two days in practice because his leg feels better when he does, but he has no significant pain in the formerly broken leg.

George had thrown out a mid-March return as his goal during interviews over All-Star Weekend last month, but isn’t guessing at dates now. Coach Frank Vogel earlier in the week had nixed the possibility of him playing on Saturday, but nobody is saying yes or no to future dates. The Pacers’ first game next week is Monday at home against Toronto. They follow with road games at Chicago on Wednesday and Cleveland on Friday, and then have a home game against Brooklyn on Saturday.

“Is there a chance you’ll play next week?” he was asked.

“I have no idea,” he said.

If and when he does return, George will come off the bench and play spot minutes. He likely would continue to play as a reserve, potentially strengthening a unit that’s already one of the best in the NBA.

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No. 3: Jazz’s Gobert: from clunker to hardwareRudy Gobert, Utah’s blossoming 7-foot-2 French import, didn’t generate a lot of excitement when he first appeared on the NBA scene. As ProBasketballTalk.com’s Dan Feldman tells it, Gobert – despite remarkable size and wingspan, definite NBA attributes – was nursing a sore knee that hurt his performance in workouts. But whatever perceived lack of athleticism caused him to plummet to the bottom of the first round in the 2013 Draft, Gobert has more than made up for with his play lately. In fact, Feldman makes a case that the Jazz reserve big man could be a legit contender for multiple awards this spring:

Gobert is averaging 7.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. In 11 starts since Utah traded Enes Kanter, Gobert’s averages have jumped to 10.5 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. The Jazz are 9-2 in that span, including wins over the playoff-bound Trail Blazers, Spurs, Bucks, Grizzlies and Rockets

If the 2013 draft were re-done – with consideration to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nerlens Noel, Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, Mason Plumlee and everyone else – Gobert makes a compelling case to go No. 1 overall.

Now, in his breakout season, Gobert is a legitimate contender for three awards – Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player.

He might not win any, and two would be tough. Three would be unprecedented.

Just six players have won two of the major player awards – Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player – in the same season:

Darrell Armstrong, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1999
Hakeem Olajuwon, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1994
Michael Jordan, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1988
Alvin Robertson, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1986
Wes Unseld, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1969
Wilt Chamberlain, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1960

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No. 4: NBA season in ‘twilight time?’ — Certainly there’s churning and jostling for playoff position taking place within the East and West conferences. But on a macro level, we know who most of the playoff teams are likely to be, same as we know who most of the lottery teams are this spring. That’s why longtime NBA writer Mark Heisler suggests in the L.A. Daily News that the 82-game schedule is too long, leading to this stretch of March and April where the NCAA game grabs basketball’s spotlight and even swipes Charles Barkley:

Most good teams are resting stars, easing injured players back in — this makes two weeks in a row that the Clippers’ Blake Griffin is expected back — and otherwise lying in the weeds.

All that remains is securing the final playoff slots.

Three teams are vying for the last West slot: New Orleans (just got Anthony Davis back) Oklahoma City (soon to get Kevin Durant back) and Phoenix (unfortunately not getting anyone back).

Then there’s the East dogfight for No. 7 and 8 among the Pacers, Heat, Hornets, Celtics and Nets. Two will get in even if they’re on pace to win 39-37-36-35-33, respectively.

That makes 13 teams assured of playoff slots with eight more aspiring to, even if five are in the farcical East race.

Lining the bottom of the cage are the seven marking time until the lottery (Lakers, Knicks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Magic, Kings, Nuggets).

That leaves the Jazz and Detroit, another team of comers that started late. The Pistons’ problem didn’t turn out to be paying Josh Smith $30 million to leave, but waiting until they were 5-23.

That’s all there is — with five weeks until the playoffs. In other words, thank heavens for the NCAA Tournament.

Yes, I’d say the NBA season is a little on the long side.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Miami’s Hassan Whiteside felt bad enough to phone up Boston’s Kelly Olynyk to offer an apology. And after what Olynyk said to Whiteside, the Heat center felt even worse. … The Raptors broke through for their second victory in three weeks and old-school Charles Oakley was there to witness it – and sneer at today’s lack of physicality the way Oak does. … The Clippers have gone 9-6 without Blake Griffin, whom they hope to get back as soon as Sunday vs. Houston. They’ve also gone 42-24 without Spencer Hawes, essentially. … It’s impossible to separate Eric Gordon‘s recent swell shooting from the New Orleans guard’s recent swell health. …

Morning shootaround — March 12


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Rivers: Griffin ‘very close’ to return | Presti shoots down Durant trade talk | Gores backs Van Gundy’s vision for Pistons

No. 1: Rivers says Griffin ‘close’ to return — The Los Angeles Clippers have played the last 14 games without All-Star power forward Blake Griffin as he recovers from a staph infection. The team has held things together nicely in his stead, though, going 9-5 during that stretch thanks in large part to the play of All-Star point guard Chris Paul. But there is apparently some good news on the horizon, writes Dan Woike of the Orange County Register, as Clippers coach Doc Rivers says Griffin is nearing a return:

The last time Rivers spoke to the media before his team played in Oklahoma City, he delivered the brutal news that the team would be without Griffin for some time because of a staph infection.

Wednesday, about 41/2 weeks later, Rivers stood outside of the same locker room, in front of the same backdrop, and said almost the exact opposite.

“I think Blake is very close,” Rivers said.

Rivers has referred to Griffin as “close” in the past week, but Wednesday was his first use of “very,” and he left it open as to whether Griffin would be with the team Friday when it plays Dallas.

Griffin was not with the team in Oklahoma City, and when Rivers was asked why, he went to that modifier again.

“Because he wasn’t very close enough. He didn’t come because he wasn’t ready yet,” Rivers said. “We’d rather for him to stay back and get his workouts in.”

And while it’s “very” now, team officials still expect the earliest Griffin would return to be Sunday against Houston.


VIDEO: Chris Paul guides the Clippers to a big win in OKC

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Morning shootaround — March 9


Video: Highlights from games played March 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook joins historic company | Here come the Spurs | Still no love between Warriors, Clippers | Rajon Rondo is willing to stay in Dallas

No. 1: Westbrook joins historic company — At this point, perhaps we just expect it. The last few weeks, with his teammate Kevin Durant out and the Oklahoma City Thunder fighting for their playoff future, the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook just keeps carrying the Thunder. Last night against the Raptors, Westbrook posted his fifth triple-double in the last six games. Luckily for the Thunder, Westbrook, who is averaging a triple-double since the All-Star break, shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. In the meantime, writes Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman, Westbrook is keeping some historic company…

Another short list — make that three lists — of achievement with legends of the game. This time Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan.

“It’s been crazy,” said teammate Anthony Morrow. “I nicknamed him Maniac Russ. He’s incredible. His ceiling is so high.”

Westbrook’s ceiling is so high, his numbers against Toronto didn’t even move the meter: 30 points, 11 rebounds, a career-high-matching 17 assists, four steals.

Eyebrows rose only when you learned that only Magic has posted those minimum numbers in an NBA game. And when you learned that Westbrook joins Robertson as the only players ever with at least 200 points, 50 rebounds and 50 assists over a five-game span. And Westbrook joined Jordan as the only players in the last 50 years to average 33 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists over a 10-game span.

It’s not crazy to ask if anyone has ever played basketball like Russell Westbrook is playing it.

This is a national phenomenon. Nightly must-see NBA TV. Forget the playoff race. Forget even the MVP debate. Who needs a trophy? America has spoken. Basketball can’t take its eyes off Russell Westbrook.

“If you find somebody who has slowed him down, let me know,” said the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan.

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No. 2: Here come the Spurs — They’ve spent most of the season dealing with injuries and trying to keep above water. While other teams have made headlines, the San Antonio Spurs finally have everyone healthy and — talk about good timing — according to Gregg Popovich, are finally playing their best basketball of the season. Yesterday against the Bulls, the Spurs were able to withstand Tim Duncan‘s first-ever zero field goal performance thanks to a big game from Tony Parker. Don’t look now, but with five straight wins under their belt, the Spurs are looking strong, writes Jeff MacDonald in the San Antonio Express-News

Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard are joined by Finals MVP awards, and for a large chunk of December shared space on the injured list.

After the Spurs claimed their fifth consecutive victory Sunday, this one a 116-105 handling of admittedly short-handed Chicago at the AT&T Center, no two players have been as vital in the champs suddenly looking like the champs again.

“When the ball is moving and we’re making shots, everything is easier,” said Parker, who poured in a season-high 32 points. “The energy is good and we’re playing defense. We’re pushing the ball. Everybody is playing better.”

Sunday’s victory, combined with the L.A. Clippers’ loss at Golden State, moved the Spurs (39-23) into a virtual tie for fifth in the Western Conference.

It doesn’t take a basketball savant to pinpoint the pair whose revival has sparked the Spurs’ recovery.

Asked before the game to diagnose the Spurs’ resurrection after a rough February, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau began his answer this way:

“It looks like Parker’s getting back to being Parker.”

Backing up Thibodeau’s point, Parker had everything working for a national television audience on ABC.

Parker buried a jumper on the Spurs’ first possession, albeit after dribbling off his foot. He had his spin move working. He wiggled for tough shots and — most importantly of all — knocked down the open ones.

Parker finished 13 of 19, putting further distance between himself and a ragged rodeo trip. When he was done, Parker had his highest-scoring outing since Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference semifinals against Portland.

“He’s been in that mode for the last two or three games, and feeling very confident about his health,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “I think he is where we’d like him to be.”

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No. 3: Still no love between Warriors, Clippers — The Clippers are still waiting for the return of Blake Griffin, which seems to still be uncertain, but in the meantime, the Clippers ran into their longtime Western Conference foe the Warriors yesterday. And while the Clips gave them a good run, the Warriors won, 106-98. But, as usually happens when these teams square off, these teams once again almost squared off. During the postgame interview with Golden State’s Draymond Green, Clippers forward Dahntay Jones delivered a bump to Green. Later, Green told reporters he was taking the high road, writes ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss

During the segment, Clippers guard Dahntay Jones walked into view of the camera, bumping Green as he went past. Green did not take the gesture kindly, and told reporters as much in the locker room.

“I think he wanted a reaction from me, but he don’t play,” Green said, taking note that Jones is averaging a career-low 4.6 minutes per game this season.

He explained his lack of reaction, saying, “Me getting suspended and him getting suspended, it’s different.”

He added, “If [Dahntay Jones] gets suspended they may not even notice.”

Green expressed that the bump should warrant scrutiny, saying, “I definitely expect that to be reviewed by the NBA. For him to look at me, look at me again, and bump me when I’m doing a postgame interview; that’s really smart, too, when it’s on ABC. The postgame interview is the highlight of that segment and you bump somebody.”

Green wasn’t finished with Jones. In explaining the shooting guard’s behavior, he said: “He got some camera time, which he needed because there wasn’t much celebration from their bench today, so you didn’t see him much. He got the camera time he was looking for.”

Jones denied that the bump was intentional, telling reporters, “That’s not how you bump somebody if you purposely want to bump them.”

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No. 4: Rajon Rondo is willing to stay in Dallas — The Dallas Mavericks made a splash a few weeks ago when they traded for Rajon Rondo, with the idea that Rondo would re-sign with the Mavs this summer and give the Mavs an All-Star level point guard. But it hasn’t been that simple. While the Mavs have remained above-average with Rondo, their offense has had growing pains, some of which have bubbled over into the public consciousness, including an on-court showdown between Rondo and coach Rick Carlisle that resulted in a Rondo suspension. Still, as Rondo told Yahoo’s Marc Spears, he’s still open to staying in Dallas beyond this season…

Q: What do you think about the perception that you want to depart from Dallas?

Rondo: “First of all, I’m misunderstood in general. I don’t mind because I’m very quiet and I stay to myself. People are going to say what they want to say. I don’t talk, so I don’t know why they would say that. I don’t think I play as if I don’t want to be here. I give it all when I’m out there on the court.

“I’m always in communication trying to learn and get better and learn what’s better for the team. All I care about is winning. I made a lot of sacrifices, I believe, coming here. I try to give up the ball and move without the ball a lot more. It’s hard to adjust. But for the sake of the team to win that’s what I’m trying to.”

Q: So you are open-minded to re-signing with Dallas?

Rondo: “Why would I not be? There are a lot of things that I really love. Even the practices, we listen to music, my type of music. It’s the little things. Say we are going to California, we will play Too $hort and West Coast music. If we are going to Houston we might play chop and screw, Bun B or something like that. If we are going to New Orleans we might play Lil Wayne at practice, during shooting 30 minutes before practice. It’s a cool way they run it. We get our work in.

“It’s a player’s organization. Players first, from our plane, the way we travel. I don’t take that for granted. We eat good. We stay at the best hotels. Of course, it’s the NBA. But this organization has the best. They have PlayStation in the lockers. I don’t play games, but it’s nice to know I got a PlayStation. TVs in your own locker. I heard about it – [Brandon Bass] and J-Terry [Jason Terry] told me – but seeing it and experiencing it.

“I love it here. I don’t dislike anything. I’m not uncomfortable. Of course, the system is different, but I’ve been here for two months. It’s going to take time. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.”

Q: Are you excited about being an unrestricted free agent for the first time next offseason?

Rondo: “Not really. I never had it, but I want to live for today. When it’s going to come is when it’s going to come. One thing that will help me is that when I tore my ACL that made me realize to live in the moment. Don’t think about next month or think about two months from now. Life isn’t guaranteed. Enjoy the situation you are in now. We’re blessed and what is going to happen is going to happen.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Would the Knicks trade their first-round pick? … Erik Spoelstra says George Karl is already having an impact on the Sacramento Kings … The Heat have signed Michael Beasley to a second ten-day contract … Danny Ainge says Ray Allen still has basketball left in him … Swaggy P is going to be out for at least a few more games

One Stat, One Play: Russ in transition


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Westbrook in transition

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Russell Westbrook‘s game was already ridiculous, but he’s taken things to a new level in the last few weeks.

Westbrook won Western Conference Player of the Month honors by averaging 31.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 10.3 assists in February. And after missing a game to recover from a broken face, he put up 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in his first game of March, an overtime win over the Sixers on Wednesday. It was his fourth straight triple-double and it made him the league’s leading scorer at 27.0 points per game.

The highlight of Westbrook’s performance was a coast-to-coast drive for a two-handed flushafter a timeout. It was Russ at his best, getting the ball on the defensive end of the floor, taking off in a full sprint, and not slowing down until he’s thrown down a vicious dunk.

Those were two of Westbrook’s 16 fast break points against Philly. Of the 25 other teams who played on Wednesday, only eight of them had as many fast break points as Westbrook had himself.

The 16 boosted Westbrook’s average to 7.8 fast break points per game, by far the highest average for any player since 1996-97 (when we could start tracking fast break points).

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The video above is the latest installment “One Stat, One Play,” a quick look at Westbrook in transition.

It starts with defense. The Thunder rank 11th in defensive efficiency, but second in opponent field goal percentage. They force missed shots better than any team but the Golden State Warriors.

Westbrook rebounds a lot of those missed shots. He’s grabbed 15.6 percent of available defensive rebounds, the highest rate of his career and a rate which ranks third among point guards who have played at least 1,000 minutes.

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And when Westbrook gets the rebound himself, the break has started before his comes back down. So get your butt back on D and hope you can slow him down.

Westbrook takes his triple-double streak and his transition game to Chicago at 8 p.m. ET Thursday for the first game of TNT’s double-header.