NBA Playoffs: Four guys who could make the West wild

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russell westbrook.jpgWith ABC and TNT covering the playoffs you can count on a couple things. One is more Closer/V promos than you can stomach. Second is more star hype — Kobe, LeBron, Howard, Wade — than you can stomach. Basically, you might want to keep the Pepcid AC on hand.

You and I both know that it’s usually the unheralded guy who wins the series. It’s Robert Horry with the big shots. We’re taking a look at a few guys in the West who can change the course of their first round series (and maybe beyond).

Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder): If you are going to knock off the defending NBA champions you are going to have to attack where they are most vulnerable, and that means at point guard. The Lakers Derek Fisher cannot defend quick point guards any better than an orange traffic cone, and his help off the bench in Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are not really that much help. Westbrook can be that point guard. Look at it this way: In the three Laker wins this season over the Thunder Westbrook shot 38.8 percent (9-21, 5-16, 5-12) but in the Thunder’s blowout win he was   10-13. That’s not a coincidence.

For the Thunder to win this series Westbrook is going to not only have to get into the paint but also finish at the rim. Andrew Bynum is going to be there, protecting the rim with his albatross wing span, Plus Pau Gasol (and even Lamar Odom) will be there and probably making better rotations defensively than they did at the end of the regular season. Westbrook has the reputation of being able to get by anybody but taking terrible shots in the lane if he can’t get all the way to the rim — he needs to be smarter about that, hit open spot up shooters with a pass and not miss the opportunities he creates.

Kevin Durant is going to get his because he is Kevin Durant. But Westbrook is the one who could change this series.

Marcus Camby (Portland Trail Blazers): At some point during this series, Marcus Camby is going to end up in an Amare Stoudemire poster. If you try to defend the rim against Phoenix that is going to happen now and again. Hazard of the job.

But Camby is going to be the guy matched up on STAT, and if the Blazers (without Brandon Roy) are to have any chance Camby is going to have to win that battle. He is going to have to be the man on the pick and roll that slows Nash and Amare. Camby is one of the few players in the Association with the skills to pull this off — he can show out on Nash and still recover well, he is long and plays smart. Nobody stops the Suns, but Camby could make them less efficient. That’s a start, then all the Blazers need to do is find some scoring.

J.R. Smith (Denver Nuggets): When J.R. Smith comes in off the bench, he will change the game. Sometimes it’s with electrifying dunks and plays that ignite the crowd and his team. Sometimes it is with a series of missed threes that suck the life out of the Nuggets offense. But he does change the game.

When he is on, he is as unstoppable as anyone in the league. He can hit the three (or from a few feet back of the arc) with a hand in his face, but if you run out on him he will put it on the floor and drive well past you. When he is playing like this, he makes no bad decisions because there are no bad options. The problem is, even on his off days, he plays with that same mindset.

Utah and Denver are going to have a tight series. Smith can swing games with his play and may well decide this series. But which way he swings it remains to be seen.

Rodrigue Beaubois (Dallas Mavericks): Some guys are just fun to watch play. They are smooth and make the impossible seem effortless. They wow the crowd and have even opposing fans buzzing. That is Beaubois, and that is what he did the other night in a start against the Los Angeles Clippers. For a while, he stole the show (really saved the show, there wasn’t much of one without him).

The question is, will he get the minutes to do that in the playoffs? With a veteran team heading into the playoffs, will Rick Carlisle give Beaubois the burn?

As our own Rob Mahoney pointed out to me, last year the Mavericks knocked the Spurs out of the playoffs in part because JJ Barea was seemingly unstoppable. Beaubois is a better version of Barea — faster, better shooter, more athletic. Beaubois can score. He will be very hard for the Spurs to stop and can be a real spark for Dallas.

If he gets on the court.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.

Watch every one of Jimmy Butler’s career-high 14 assists in win over Bucks (VIDEO)

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler seems to be thriving without backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade. On Sunday in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler dished out a career-high 14 assists to go along with 20 points, six rebounds, and three steals.

Butler, 27, helped Chicago to a 109-94 win over the Bucks. He looked good doing it, dropping dimes off of both the pick-and-roll and while coming off screens.

The NBA put together a handy little video to be able to check out all of Butler’s assists.