Posts Tagged ‘Russell Westbrook’

Thunder thrive on the good, shrug off the ugly in opening win

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Thunder weather Grizzlies’ rally to take Game 1

OKLAHOMA CITY – As the dust settled on one of the stranger wire-to-wire victories you’ll see, the Oklahoma City Thunder had to be wondering if what just happened really happened.

In the span of three quarters of Saturday night’s 100-86 Game 1 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder, once again with Russell Westbrook riding postseason shotgun next to Kevin Durant, showed the world their magnificence, and their warts.

Westbrook started with a turbo blast and it looked like the Thunder might never look back. The lead was 20 before the second quarter was half over. It was 25 — 56-31 — with 6.6 seconds until halftime. Durant and Westbrook had already combined for 33.

Less than five minutes into the third quarter, the lead was down to nine. Nine minutes later Mike Miller drained a 3-pointer and it was Thunder 74, Grizzlies 72.

“They were going to make a run,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I didn’t anticipate the type of run they had in the third quarter.”

The sellout crowd moaned and groaned and hence the very reason Memphis and Dallas clobbered each other for four quarters and an overtime in the season finale for the right to call their shot against the roller coaster erraticism of the No. 2-seed Thunder over the precision performance of the Western Conference’s top-seeded Spurs.

Brooks went on to say it doesn’t matter how you win as long as you win. And that’s true. And maybe the Thunder, so fast, so athletic, so frenetic at either end for stretches of unpredictable length and fury that it’s simply impossible to maintain such a level throughout a 48-minute game; that a letdown is inevitable and that a quality opponent, as the Grizzlies are, will sense an opening.

“We want to play with that type of intensity,” Brooks said. “No question, it’s hard to play it for four quarters, 48 minutes, 85 or 90 offensive possessions, but we want to strive for that. Tonight in that third quarter, probably seven or eight minutes of that wasn’t as well as we would have liked. But, we fought back, we kept the lead and we extended it down the stretch.”

The Grizzlies have to believe they’re in trouble in this matchup. They’ve lost backup point guard Nick Calathes to a 20-game drug policy suspension and Tayshaun Prince left Game 1 early in the first quarter, too ill to continue on. In the third-quarter desperation to keep clawing, first-year coach Dave Joerger stuck with his four starters and Tony Allen for the entire quarter and deep into the fourth.

Marc Gasol played 45 minutes and all but 47 seconds of the second half with Game 2 approaching quickly Monday night. Zach Randolph logged 39 minutes. Together they went 14-for-40 from the field as the Thunder slacked off whatever outside threat Memphis could muster and hunkered down.

What should not be lost in the Thunder’s first step in getting back to the NBA Finals, a mission sabotaged right about a year ago when Westbrook tore the meniscus in his right knee, is how much deeper and more complete this Thunder squad is than the 2012 team with James Harden and last year’s club that entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed.

Ten players logged at least 12 minutes. Caron Butler put in 30. Rookie center Steven Adams played 12 minutes and had three blocks in his first six minutes. Serge Ibaka was spectacular with 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting, nine rebounds and four blocks, two being skywalking power blocks that will replay on every highlight show over the next 24-hour news cycle. His eight-point third quarter saved the Thunder’s lead.

Westbrook, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds, and Reggie Jackson combined for 18 rebounds, one more than Gasol and Randolph. Durant finished with 33 points on 13-for-25 shooting, seven assists and eight rebounds. Just 8-for-18 from the field, he closed the game 5-for-6 in the fourth quarter.

“We just stayed together and we made plays in that fourth quarter,”  Durant said. “The third quarter was tough for us, but we stayed together. We didn’t stray away. We talked it through and made it work on offense and the defensive end and were able to pull away in that fourth quarter.”

Nitpick if you like. Yes, the Thunder again showed their warts, but they also showed how magnificent they can be. This is a dangerous team, now healthy and eager, that would suggest it is just getting started.

Grizzlies disappointed, moving on with Udrih

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Memphis Grizzlies backed suspended guard Nick Calathes, but a sense of disappointment was also prevalent as the No. 7-seed Grizzlies prepared for tonight’s Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the No. 2 Thunder.

“It’s obviously an unfortunate situation,” Grizzlies guard Tony Allen said following the team’s Saturday morning shootaround at Chesapeake Energy Arena. “As long as he keeps his head high and keeps his nose clean for the remainder of his career, the kid’s got potential. So, it’s just another case of just a bad decision. Hopefully  he’ll learn from it. But we’ve got his back I’m supporting him; he’s a good kid. That’s all I can say about that.”

Calathes, a 6-foot-6, 25-year-old rookie who had bided his time overseas since being drafted the Dallas Mavericks in 2009, was suspended for 20 games by the NBA Friday night for testing positive for the banned substance Tamoxifen. His absence pushes Beno Udrih, claimed off waivers on Feb. 26, but mostly relegated to the bench, into the backup point guard role behind Mike Conley.

According to a report by ESPN, Calathes is mounting a defense of the ruling, citing it as unfair, but there apparently is nothing that can prevent Calathes from serving the full ban.

“[It was] an over-the-counter supple to treat a private but common medical condition; the NBA rejected it because it doesn’t require a prescription,” attorney David Cornwell, who is representing Calathes, told ESPN.

“Our tests identified Tamoxifen in a supplement Nick [used] for a legitimate medical condition and our tests confirmed that Nick did not have testosterone or any other PED in his body. Despite this irrefutable, objective scientific evidence, the NBA’s response was, ‘Oh well.’ This is indefensible because no legitimate purpose is served by suspending a man who the NBA knows was not cheating.”

 

The league stands by its ruling. Rick Buchanan, the NBA’s executive vice president and general counsel, issued this statement: “Under the NBA’s Anti-Drug Program, like all other state-of-the-art sports drug testing programs, the presence of Tamoxifen is sufficient for a positive drug test. There is no requirement that it be found in conjunction with any other performance-enhancing substance, because Tamoxifen itself can be taken to increase testosterone to enhance performance and because its use may lag the use of other performance-enhancing drugs. NBA players are reminded jointly by the NBA and NBPA each season to avoid the use of supplements or other drugs without a valid medical prescription, including through posted warnings about supplements in every NBA locker room, and that they are fully responsible for whatever substances enter their bodies under the Anti-Drug Program.”

“Nick has had a great year,” said Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, who called the situation an NBA matter and did not get into further details. “You know, we’ve had a lot of adversity all season long so everybody’s got to step up their game because it’s the playoffs, but also now because you’re missing a guy who’s really developed and become a big part of what we’ve been doing.”

Calathes, booed by the home fans earlier this season as he struggled to find his footing, had come along at a rapid pace in the second half of the season as the Grizzlies charged up the Western Conference playoffs to earn a playoff berth.

He played in 71 games and averaged 4.9 ppg, 2.9 apg — third on the team behind Conley and Marc Gasol — and 1.9 rpg in 16.5 mpg. He shot 45.7 percent from the floor, but 49.2 percent on 2-point shots, which accounted for the majority of his attempts. The steady, 6-foot-3 Udrih has played in just 10 games with Memphis after being released by the New York Knicks where he averaged 19.0 minutes in 31 games. He averaged 5.6 ppg and 3.5 apg.

Joerger said he continued to play Calathes over Udrih, in his 10th season, to further the younger player’s development for the playoffs. Udrih, who spent his first three seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, last played in the postseason when he got into eight games during the Spurs’ 2007 championship run.

“Without Nick being here it’s going to be tougher on me,” Conley said. “Just with the amount of minutes I’m playing, the amount of energy being able to exert at times. He was playing, I think, the best basketball of the season for him. He had found his rhythm and had really been a vital part of our success lately. It’s going to be different without him, I can tell you that much. We feel for him and hope this passes over and we’ll be able to get Beno acclimated and ready to go.

“I expect to play a lot. I got to get mind ready for it.”

Udrih, 31,said he’s ready.

“I worked a little bit extra to get back in shape, where I wanted to,” Udrih said. “But I’m ready. I’m ready in any kind of way to help this team be successful. Whatever I get out there, I’m going to give my best and see what happens.”

The Grizzlies defeated the Thunder in last season’s conference semifinals four games to one, but Oklahoma City was without Russell Westbrook. In 2011, the Thunder knocked off the Grizzlies in seven games to advance to the West finals.

“It ain’t really going to boil down to too much scheming. obviously we know them and they know us, so it’s going to boil down to us coming out there, sticking to the coaches’ game plan and hanging our hats on the defensive end in the best way possible.

Grizzlies’ Calathes suspended 20 games

Memphis Grizzlies backup point guard Nick Calathes has been suspended by the league for 20 games starting with Saturday night’s Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder for violating the league’s drug policy.

The league announced late Friday night that Calathes, a 2009 draft pick of the Dallas Mavericks who slowly carved out a niche with the Grizzlies in this, his first season in the NBA, tested positive for tamoxifen. The drug is used to treat fertility in women, but is also known to be used by athletes in conjunction with steroids.

A spokesman for the Grizzlies said the organization would not comment on the suspension at this time.

The 6-foot-6 Calathes played in 71 games and averaged 4.9 ppg, 2.9 apg — third on the team behind Mike Conley and Marc Gasol — and 1.9 rpg in 16.5 mpg. He shot 45.7 percent from the floor, but 49.2 percent on 2-point shots, which accounted for the majority of his attempts.

Calathes’ absence will add more to starting point guard Conley’s load and shooting guard Courtney Lee will likely be pressed into more ball-handling. Conley averaged 33.5 mpg during the regular season. Beno Udrih, who the Grizzlies claimed off waivers from the New York Knicks in February, may also be able to help shoulder the load.

The No. 7-seed Grizzlies won 50 games after starting the season 13-17. They begin their first-round series at OKC on Saturday night (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Memphis beat the Thunder without Russell Westbrook in five games in last year’s conference semifinals.

This is not the way they hoped to begin the rematch.

Numbers preview: Thunder-Grizzlies

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Taking a closer look at the Thunder-Grizzlies matchup

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies both survived injuries that knocked out key players for big chunks of the season. Their reward is facing each other in the first round.

This is a rematch of last year’s conference semifinals, a series won by the Grizzlies in five games. Oklahoma City will have Russell Westbrook this time, but the Grizzlies aren’t the same team either. They’ve made some upgrades on the wings and still have one of the league’s best defenses.

Here are some statistical nuggets regarding the 2 and 7 seeds in the Western Conference, as well as the four regular-season games they played against each other.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23)

Pace: 97.9 (9)
OffRtg: 108.1 (7)
DefRtg: 101.0 (5)
NetRtg: +7.1 (3)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Memphis: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Thunder notes:

  • The only team that has ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency each of the last three seasons.
  • Best second quarter team in the league, outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions.
  • Won 14 of the 31 games they trailed by 10 or more points. That winning percentage of .452 led the league and was more than twice the league average (.214) for situations when teams trailed by at least 10.
  • Kevin Durant grabbed 74.9 percent of his rebounding chances, the highest mark in the league.

Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)

Pace: 92.2 (30)
OffRtg: 103.3 (16)
DefRtg: 102.1 (8)
NetRtg: +1.2 (14)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Oklahoma City: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Grizzlies notes:

The matchup

Season series: Thunder won 3-1 (2-0 at home)
Pace: 94.6
OKC OffRtg: 106.5 (7th vs. MEM)
MEM OffRtg: 98.6 (21st vs. OKC)

Matchup notes:

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.

Most Improved Player: Gerald Green

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Suns forward Gerald Green has provided plenty of highlights this season

No question, the Kia Most Improved Player Award is the most difficult of the awards to choose, and consequently the most debatable. It can keep the picker tossing and turning for nights on end.

What exactly are the parameters here? And, frankly, whatever the parameters, there’s a sizable group of guys who certainly seem eligible.

Should Kevin Love, already an All-Star, be under consideration because he missed the majority of last season with a twice broken hand and has come back with the best statistical season of his career? Or is such improvement expected from an establishled All-Star?

What about New Orleans’ second-year forward-center Anthony Davis. What a season he’s had. Except, do we also expect such improvement from the No. 1 overall pick?

Should Suns second-year center Miles Plumlee get a serious look? He’s been a solid starter from Day 1 after sitting for 68 of 82 games as a rookie with Indiana. There’s simply no data for comparison. Or, is that the ultimate comparison?

Electrifying dunk artist, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, has past data to compare, and this season compares remarkably favorably. Then there’s Oklahoma City point guard Reggie Jackson, Indiana’s Lance Stephenson, Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and Pheonix’s Goran Dragic.

Speaking of Phoenix, it realistically has four candidates — Plumlee, Dragic, Markieff Morris and Gerald Green.

Wait, stop right there: Green.

Yes. The, lanky 6-foot-8 wing debuted in the league in 2005. Eight years later, he’s rocketed straight out of the blue. That’s improvement.

Green, 28, was the 18th overall pick of the Boston Celtics. After two seasons he was traded to Minnesota, then traded to Houston, waived by Houston, signed by Dallas and out of the league before he turned 24. Out of options in the NBA, he played in Russia for two years and another in China. He came home, played in the NBA D-League and finally got another shot in the NBA in the second half of the 2011-12 lockout season with the Nets.

He played well enough to sign a three-year contract with Eastern Conference power Indiana. He fell out of the rotation last year, and just prior to this season got traded, along with Plumlee and a first-round draft pick, to rebuilding Phoenix.

Poof. Green is legit.

Once a freakish athlete that lacked court awareness, Green still isn’t exactly a textbook on fundamentals, but he is more mature and more in control as he mixes gravity-defying dunks with dribble drives, high-rising mid-range fallaways and deep, deep daggers.

“Gerald Green, if he’s hot, he can score with the best of them in this league,” Mavericks sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki said.

How’s this for scoring: Since the All-Star break, with every game mounting in importance as Phoenix still guns for a playoff spot entering Monday night’s crucial Game No. 81 against Memphis, Green is averaging 19.1 ppg on 45.4 percent shooting overall and 43.1 percent from beyond the arc in 29.6 mpg. His effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) — adjusted to account for 3-pointers being more valuable than 2-pointers) in that span is 54.8 percent.

Green’s season scoring average (15.9 ppg) is more than double what it was last year with the Pacers (7.0). He’s played in all 80 games, starting 47 times in injury situations. In Indiana’s slower, halfcourt-based offense, Green shot 36.6 percent overall and 31.4 percent from beyond the arc. Unleashed in first-year coach Jeff Hornacek‘s up-tempo attack, he’s blistering opponents from deep at 40-percent clip, while shooting 44.5 percent overall.

Hornacek has proven to be the perfect coach for Green, patient through mistakes and poor decisions, and always keeping the shooting light green.

“We wanted to go up and down [the floor], and try to make the team younger and more athletic and shoot a lot of 3s,” first-year Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said earlier this season. “And Gerald checked all of those boxes.”

Check.

Five contenders

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers – The sixth-year center has come of age, leading the league in field-goal percentage (67.5 percent) and rebounds (13.7 per game) — practically doubling his total rebounding from last season (7.2). He’s also averaging a career-best 10.4 ppg.

Goran Dragic, Suns – “The Dragon” has had a brilliant season after making room for fellow point guard Eric Bledsoe. Dragic easily could have been a Western Conference All-Star as he’s been the Suns’ MVP, 20.4 ppg and 5.9 apg while shooting 50.6 percent overall and 41.5 percent from deep.

Markieff Morris, Suns – Also a Sixth Man of the Year Award candidate, averaging career-highs by a wide margin with 13.7 ppg and 6.1 rpg. He’s transformed himself into a dangerous mid-range shooter, making 48.3 percent of his shots, up from 40.7 percent last season and 39.9 percent as a rookie.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers – Who had Stephenson pegged as the league-leader in triple-doubles or the Pacers leading rebounder at 7.2 rpg? He notched his fifth triple-double with Sunday’s 17-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist effort to knock of Oklahoma City to break a triple-double tie with All-Stars Stephen Curry and Joakim Noah.

Reggie Jackson, Thunder – He got his training on the fly during the 2013 postseason. Since then, he’s provided the Thunder with stability and scoring off the bench … and as a starter during Russell Westbrook‘s injuries this season. Jackson is averaging 13.2 ppg, 4.2 apg and 3.9 rpg in 28.5 mpg. He averaged 14.2 mpg last season.

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.

Heat’s margin of error has vanished

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron James did his usual work for the Miami Heat in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – With the start of the playoffs just 10 days away, I never expected to be questioning the Miami Heat.

Normally, you’ve earned the benefit of all doubt when you smash your way to three straight Finals, win back-to-back titles and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are capable of handling any challenge thrown your way on the road to that sort of success.

And yet I cannot get the words of TNT’s Steve Kerr out of my head. He was the first to fire off a warning about the perils of the sort of journey the Heat are on, the taxing nature of not only chasing a three-peat, but the exhausting grind of playing to the final day of the NBA season four years in a row. It’s a grueling process that has worn down the best of the best before, so why shouldn’t it do the same to the Heat?

“There’s a reason these teams don’t do it,” Kerr said in September. “Emotionally, it’s just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny on the team, and then you factor in the injuries with Wade and Bosh and their health. I don’t think Miami will get out of the East this year.”

Even if they get out of the East (which I think they will), their margin of error in The Finals — which was razor-thin last season — has vanished. They were on the ropes against the San Antonio Spurs, 30 seconds away from going down in Game 6 before they found the magic needed to survive that game and the energy to finish the Spurs off in Game 7.

It’s asking too much for the Heat to muster that sort of energy and effort again … especially after they’ve already spent a considerable amount of energy and effort dominating the way they have for four seasons running.

This Heat team, the one where LeBron James does the nightly heavy lifting while Chris Bosh does his part and Dwyane Wade helps (when he’s healthy and feeling good enough to suit up) reminds me of the 2011 group that lost to the Dallas Mavericks in The Finals.

It’s a game-to-game thing with the Heat now. Things appear to be fine after a win against a contender from the Eastern or Western Conference, while a loss to a contender starts the chorus of concern all over again. We’ll see it again in the next 48 hours. Losing to Memphis Wednesday night raised all the same red flags about the Heat’s ability to answer the bell against a desperate team. But a win Friday night (7:30 ET, NBA TV) in their fourth and final battle of this regular season against the Indiana Pacers will silence the cynics — at least for a few hours.

A year ago, the Heat were in the midst of a stunning finish to the regular season that saw them win 27 straight games as they chased the Lakers’ NBA-record 33-game win streak. No one had any doubts that they were ready for the playoffs, ready to handle the rigors of winning back-to-back titles and solidifying their status as the league’s preeminent force.

These days, each outing offers more and more signs of decay. It’s a natural erosion that comes with the Heat pounding the rock every night since James, Wade and Bosh joined forces. You don’t have to be a Heat hater to see it either. You simply have to watch, study and give an honest assessment of what we’re seeing out of Miami as the regular season ends.

The same way Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.com did after that loss to the Grizzlies:

The other somewhat troubling sign Wednesday was how quickly the offense went from free-flowing with great ball movement in the first half to a stagnant, LeBron-or-nothing affair that played very much into Memphis’ hands.

James happened to keep Miami in the game because he had his jumper going. But the entire offense came to a standstill on several possessions, leading to forced drives into traffic and easily convertible turnovers.

“It’s something you always have to stay conscious of,” Spoelstra said. “Even as beautifully as we move the ball sometimes, it’s a game you have to work at. You have to do it under duress, when the defense steps up their pressure, which they did.”

LeBron says he would rather play the ball-movement game and keep his teammates involved. But when he’s got it going, he can also take the offense out of rhythm when calling his own number.

“That is a fine balance in this league,” Spoelstra said. “Because he, along with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, they’re the best end-of-possession, bail-you-out options for the offense.

“But that can’t be your offense, and we understand that.”

Ultimately, this comes down to Wade. Will he be able to navigate a healthy path and play at an elite level long enough during the postseason to give the Heat that extra playoff edge they’ve had their last two playoff runs?

Because asking LeBron to carry the load without that help this time around might not be feasible.

Flipping that Heat playoff switch is not an option, either. Not when the margin of error has vanished before the postseason has even started.


VIDEO: A desperate Grizzlies team was too much for LeBron James and the Heat

With Sefolosha’s return, OKC starting to return to full strength

By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com

(Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

After missing 17 games, Thabo Sefolosha is back in the Thunder’s lineup. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Business as usual.

“I thought Thabo was good,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks was saying Tuesday night at Sleep Train Arena, after his shooting guard, Thabo Sefolosha, returned to action in a 107-92 victory over the Kings. “It’s hard to do in this league, to miss six or so or however many games or weeks he missed and come in and play an NBA game, but I thought he did a good job. He was moving well. He was active on defense. Those are the things we love about Thabo.”

Sefolosha made a pretty smooth transition after missing 17 games with a strained right calf. Russell Westbrook has still not been cleared for back-to-backs in the recovery from the lingering problem with his right knee, but his time restriction has been increased to about 34 minutes, or close to no time restriction unless Oklahoma City plays two nights in a row. And, Kendrick Perkins has been in the lineup three games in a row, albeit for no more than 14 minutes, after sitting 17 games himself because of a strained left groin.

The playoffs are coming, and so are the Thunder. Wins in eight of the last 11, including against the Spurs and in Chicago on the second night of a back-to-back, a big meeting tonight with the Clippers (10:30 ET, ESPN) with No. 2 in the Western Conference in play, Westbrook at 24 points and 48.3 percent from the field his last five appearances and expected to play in Los Angeles, and the health. Of course the health.

Sefolosha’s absence didn’t get nearly the attention of OKC missing Westbrook, understandably, or Perkins, because Sefolosha doesn’t usually get attention. Eight years in the league, 5 ½ as a Thunder starter, an important part of the defense. Just no spotlight.

“He has a mindset,” Brooks said. “He has a great knowledge on players that he plays against, teams that he plays against. He’s a long defender. He’s a multiple-position defender. He can guard some fours in the league and he’s done a great job. He’s one of the premier defenders in this league. Obviously his experience and his toughness adds to our team. He has been that guy for us for a lot of years.

“I think it’s just good to have your entire roster together. We’re moving in that direction. Perk came back a few games ago, Thabo’s coming back, Russell will be back. Thabo gives us another very good defender, and we all know we have to defend as a team and we can obviously do a better job of that than we have in the past. But I like where we’re going, I like how the spirit of our team is right now. It helps when we have all of our guys.”

Sefolosha said he had no pain or discomfort during his 15 minutes against the Kings and may even jump right into back-to-backs by playing tonight in Los Angeles. From there, he thinks he will be able to get his game legs in time for the playoffs. He thinks, in other words, it will be possible to make the same contribution this postseason as in the past.

“Basically the same impact I’ve been having with this team for the last four, five years,” he said. “Playing defense the way I play defense and communicating with my teammates and spacing the floor while making shots.”

So, basically business as usual.

“Business as usual.”