NBA Playoffs: If the Lakers are inevitable, do you want them early or late?

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Take a look at our NBA’s Race to the Playoffs. Go on. Acquaint yourself. It’s a mess. Particularly the Western Conference.

There are seven teams that could end up in the 8th spot, staring down the Lakers (we’re tossing out the Grizzlies, love them as I do. No way anyone’s going in the tank like they need them to). Denver, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio, OKC, Portland. Any one of them could wind up under the crosshairs of the defending champions.

One of the things Greg Popovich has talked about extensively is the imperative of avoiding that eighth seed, of not ending up in a tussle with LA in the first round. It’s a fairly easy idea. Try and avoid the best team as long as possible, hope someone else does the dirty work for you, hope they get tired, hope they get banged up, go as far as you can, get as much playoff money as you can, stay away from the big, bad Lakers.

And pardon me if I sound like Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums (“What this book presupposes is… ‘What if he didn’t?'”), but I do keep having the same thought.

Isn’t it better to get LA sooner rather than later?

Hear me out. LA has shown three things this season. One, when they’re plugged in, they can beat anyone in the league, with only the possible exception of Cleveland. Two, they are prone to long periods of boredom and uninspired play. Three, they don’t respond well to adversity, often going into the tank if it feels like things aren’t going their way.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Rockets series last year, going seven games without Yao Ming for much of it. Or take a look at the blowout to OKC, or the Cleveland games. They have a counterpunch, but if that counterpunch is met and matched, they struggle to trade blows.

So why not try and get them early? Imagine this scenario. The Spurs get the Lakers in round one. The mighty Lakers, facing a Spurs team that’s given them some trouble, but really, hasn’t been all that good this year. And the Spurs come out, and unload in Game 1. Drop everything they possibly have. Empty both barrels.

Now, obviously the Lakers will respond, because when put in a corner, they fight back. Because nobody puts Baby Gasol in a corner. The Spurs should rope-a-dope Game Two. Let ’em have it. Lay down. Let them go up by 30. Get comfortable. Allow them to blow you out completely. Because giving them that confidence is a good thing. You want them thinking the first game was a fluke and they have it on lockdown. Because if you can respond in Games 3 and 4, you can push them.

Isn’t that a better approach for any team, not just the Spurs? Dallas, Phoenix, Portland, any team with playoff experience. Face the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and they have their playoff legs under them. Kobe smells that fifth ring. Your guys are tired. And the Lakers are expecting you. And if you lose, well, you were going to lose regardless.

Give yourself the best chance. Go at them early. Don’t run from the Lakers. Draw the line in the sand, and challenge them to maintain focus in April, not May and June, when they’re used to it. It’s a risky scenario, but given the success they’ve had, the talent, the advantages, isn’t it time to think outside the box a bit?

Russell Westbrook’s 5th straight triple-double lifts Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) dunks ahead of New Orleans Pelicans forward Terrence Jones (9) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. Oklahoma City won 101-92. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook became the first player with five consecutive triple-doubles since Michael Jordan had seven straight in 1989 and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the New Orleans Pelicans 101-92 on Sunday night.

Westbrook finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists. The Thunder have won all five games during Westbrook’s triple-double stretch. It was Westbrook’s 10th triple-double of the season and the 47th of his career.

Enes Kanter had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Victor Oladipo added 15 points for the Thunder.

Anthony Davis, the NBA’s leading scorer, had 37 points and 15 rebounds for the Pelicans. Buddy Hield, who led nearby Oklahoma to the Final Four last season, scored 16 points in his first game back in the state.

Oklahoma City led 49-41 at halftime. Westbrook had 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists at the break, and Davis kept the Pelicans in it with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Westbrook threw down a vicious right-handed jam on a drive down the middle in the third quarter that gave Oklahoma City a 57-47 lead. He clinched the triple-double on an assist to Kanter for a dunk with 2:14 left in the third quarter. The Thunder took a 78-66 lead into the fourth quarter.

Hield drained a 3-pointer to cut Oklahoma City’s lead to four with just under two minutes to go, but Westbrook’s 3 with 51.3 seconds to go bumped the Thunder’s lead back to 99-92.

TIP-INS

Pelicans: Hield got a standing ovation when he checked in late in the first half. … G Jrue Holiday started for just the third time this season. He missed the first 12 games while his wife, former U.S. women’s national team soccer player Lauren Holiday, recovered from surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.

Thunder: Made 14 of 15 2-point shots and missed all nine of their 3-pointers in the first quarter. … C Steven Adams sprained his left ankle in the first quarter and did not return. … The Thunder missed all 15 3-point attempts in the first half, then made 6 of 13 in the second. … Westbrook leads active players in career triple-doubles. … Thunder are 26-2 the past two seasons when Westbrook has a triple-double.

 

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.

Serge Ibaka lifts Magic over Pistons 98-92 in return of Reggie Jackson

Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka, left, and Jeff Green (34) celebrate against the Detroit Pistons in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. Orlando won 98-92. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — For about ten minutes on Sunday night, it appeared the Detroit Pistons had solved the Orlando Magic’s lock-down defense.

Like the rest of the NBA, they will have to keep searching for answers.

Orlando gave up 27 points in the first 9:30 but then shut the Pistons down in a 98-92 victory.

“I’m proud of our guys, because that team was averaging 118 points their last three games, and that was on the road,” Orlando coach Frank Vogel said. “We held them to 92, and most of that was our second-half defense. They were at home, and they got 42 points on 37 percent shooting in the second half.”

Serge Ibaka scored 21 points and blocked four shots, while Nikola Vucevic added 16 points and eight rebounds.

The Magic have held 10 of their last 11 opponents under 100 points.

“We just changed our mindset,” Ibaka said. “We knew we could play defense, and now we’re playing for each other on offense. We knew we could play this well. We just had to keep working.”

Pistons guard Reggie Jackson made his season debut after missing Detroit’s first 21 games with knee tendinitis. He had 18 points in 23 minutes. Marcus Morris led Detroit with 21 points.

“I felt good out there, but I wish we could have gotten a win out of it,” Jackson said. “I think there might have been a little rust, but I was able to do everything I need to do. I wouldn’t be out there if I was going to be physically limited.”

Orlando won for the third time in four games while Detroit had its three-game winning streak snapped.

“We were terrible on defense,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Our offensive numbers were good enough to win, especially against that defense, but we didn’t guard anyone. We just didn’t want to put in the effort.”

On Jackson’s first possession, the Pistons went to their bread-and-butter play – he and Andre Drummond running a high pick and roll. Jackson came off the screen and hit a 3-pointer, bringing a cheer from the small crowd. Jackson played the first 5:50 of the quarter as Detroit built a 16-10 lead.

Morris had 14 points in the first 7 minutes but didn’t get much support from his teammates. The Magic scored 35 points in the second quarter to take a 58-50 halftime lead. Orlando shot 62.5 percent from the floor in the half to Detroit’s 51.2 percent and only turned the ball over four times.

“We’re starting to see the value of the pass on the offensive end,” Vogel said. “If we pass with good timing, good intent and good delivery, it will help us shoot the ball, and we’ve got good shooters.”

The Magic led by 11 late in the third, but the Pistons narrowed the gap to 78-73 at quarter’s end. Orlando moved the margin back to double figures with nine minutes left, with the Pistons struggling to get open looks against one of the NBA’s best defenses.

Ibaka ended a Pistons run with a 3-pointer to make it 90-80 with 5:32 to play, then blocked Drummond’s dunk attempt at the other end.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to pull the Pistons within 95-90, but Jeff Green clinched the game with a turnaround jumper.

TIP INS

Magic: Former Piston Jodie Meeks had seven points in 15 minutes in his second game of the season. Meeks only played three games last season for Detroit due to chronic foot problems.

Pistons: Jackson spent most of the game matched up against D.J. Augustin, the main player given up by the Pistons in the three-team trade that brought him to Detroit in 2015.

TROUBLE FROM THE LINE

The Pistons were 0 for 5 from the free-throw line in the first half, with Drummond missing four in a row. He came into the game shooting 47.4 percent from the line after setting a league record at 35.5 percent in 2015-16.

RARE STREAK

The Magic have won two straight road games for the first time this season. They beat the Philadelphia 76ers 105-88 on Friday.

ONLY A SINGLE-DOUBLE

Vucevic fell two rebounds short of his seventh straight double-double. He had a nine-game double-double streak in 2012-13.

 

Brilliant dig: Knicks fans chant “Derek Fisher” as Kings’ Matt Barnes inbounds ball

Sacramento Kings' Matt Barnes (22) reacts during an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets in New York, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016. (Photo/Andres Kudacki)
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I had hoped never to write of this again, but alas… remember when Matt Barnes got in a fight with then Knicks’ coach Derek Fisher over the latter spending time with Barnes’ estranged wife? It cost Barnes a couple of game suspension.

Barnes is playing well for the Sacramento Kings this season, who were making their annual stop in Madison Square Garden Sunday. As Barnes was inbounding the ball in the fourth quarter, some Knicks fans started a “Derek Fisher” chant.

It’s not original, some Pacers fans had done it before. But it’s still a Cameron Crazies worthy ploy.

The Knicks got 20 points each from Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose to get the 106-98 win, despite 36 from DeMarcus Cousins.

Zaza Pachulia steals ball, starts break, blows open layup against Suns (VIDEO)

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Zaza Pachulia is riding the Golden State Warriors train for all it’s worth, in the good and the bad. In November, Pachulia hit a mid-range jumper and did a horse dance. If that was the zenith, Saturday night against the Phoenix Suns was the nadir.

Particularly because Pachulia blew a breakaway layup in which he definitely should have scored.

Instead, the Warriors big man stuffed the ball between the iron and the backboard, clumsily squandering his opportunity:

*Sad trombone*