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Last Weekend of Hope: Western Conference

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On Tuesday the 2010-2011 NBA season begins. From that point on, the reality will be set for 30 teams in the NBA. One team will wind up in possession of the trophy which defines careers, while 29 others will find themselves deeply disappointed in themselves, their teammates, their organization, or all three. The fans, likewise, will go through a similar process of understanding exactly how good their respective teams are, and are not. For most, it is a bitter, sobering process, tinged with those moments of fleeting success wherein they take comfort in the overtime, come-from-behind win, or the outright smackdown of a top team. You’ll hear a lot of “They are what they are.” But right now? This weekend? These precious, painful few days? These teams could be anything. They could far surpass expectations, and bring outright exuberance to their fans, players, and the people that work behind the scenes to make them great. They could shock the world, even if that means a second round playoff exit in a sweep. This is the last weekend of hope before the journey begins. And while that journey is fun, and it’s why we watch, this moment should be documented, particularly because this may be the last hopeful weekend we have in a while, as the specter of imminent lockout looms over us like a raven, just waiting for the season to die.

In that uplifting, comforting spirit, here then, is the hope of the Western Conference.

(Note: Do not confuse the hope enlisted with the opinions of the author. We’re just conveying what appears to be the best-case outlook for the various squads.)

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki has aged about as well as any star of his ilk can. Jason Kidd actually shot better from the arc. Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have a full training camp of work with the team to get adjusted. And Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones are legit. There’s no reason this team shouldn’t finally crack their way back into the Conference Finals. And once there, with the Mavericks size, speed, and talent, they’ll just need to get two games at Staples to have a shot. This can be done. It’s got to happen sometime, right?

Denver Nuggets: Sure Carmelo’s thinking about leaving. But when we bust out to a big start, he’ll change his mind. He has to. This is the team that drafted him. He’s not like LeBron. And we have a much better team, with Chauncey, KMart, Nene, and Lawson. We were in the Conference Finals two years ago! How could you leave a team like this for a lottery team? This team underwent a series of disasters it couldn’t have predicted last year, but it also played the Lakers tight. All it’s got to do is stay focused. And when Melo signs the extension, they can do just that.

Golden State Warriors: Cohan’s gone. Theyhave the best sophomore player in the league in Stephen Curry. Monta Ellis is ready to stop being a problem. They got David Lee and a new head coach that wants the team to actually play defense. There’s no way this team isn’t considerably better than last year’s. It’s nearly physically impossible. Better talent, better coaching, better ownership. Things finally look up in the Bay.

Houston Rockets: 24 minutes a game. There’s absolutely no reason this team can’t stay healthy with Yao only playing 24 minutes a game. They’re deep. They’re versatile. They’re extremely well coached and now have some offensive firepower. This team was painfully close to taking out the Lakers two years ago, but all of a sudden with a better team they’re also-rans? In Morey everyone should trust. All the team needs is for a series of things not to go wrong. That can’t be that hard to avoid. Sure, Yao’s injury-prone. But that’s why the minute limit exists. And it will get this team to the playoffs where there isn’t a team that matches up with them.

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin. Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin.

Los Angeles Lakers: Count the rings, y’all. Count the rings.

Memphis Grizzlies: The team might have a bench! With Xavier Henry, Tony Allen, and an improved Sam Young, if the team can just hold leads on nights when all the starters aren’t on fire, it’s possible they could sneak into the playoffs. They overpaid for Rudy Gay, but he’s also the franchise star. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph make up one of the best frontcourt tandems in the league and Lionel Hollins is a decided advantage. With a fast-break team that got wins over a lot of playoff squads last year, why can’t they take a step forward and win a playoff series?

Minnesota Timberwolves: The media just hates us. And David Kahn. They’re just too simple to see the truth. This team is primed for a breakout. They say Kevin Love is such a terrific talent, but the Timberwolves won’t use him despite trading Jefferson to make room for him.They say Michael Beasley is such a waste, but he tore up the preseason. They say they overpaid for Darko but then talk about the lack of legitimate centers in the league. If the media would get over themselves, they’d see that Wes Johnson is  a star in the making, Kevin Love is already a star, the team has better depth, and all this before Rubio comes. But after this season, there’s no way he’ll stay away. Then the media will see how great Kahn’s plan is.

New Orleans Hornets: Chris Paul’s back, so the Hornets have Chris Paul, to go along with David West, Okafor, Thornton, and now Bayless. The Hornets almost made the playoffs without CP3 playing. How good will they be with him on board, and a better wing in Ariza. It’s time for everyone to remember how great CP3 is. Now if we could only get the team sold…

Oklahoma City Thunder: Sorry! Can’t talk right now! We’re having a party over how great our team and its future is for the next four years! PS Kevin Durant is the MVP!

Phoenix Suns: Okay, losing Amar’e is going to hurt. But hurt enough to lose a playoff spot? Did the Suns lose Steve Nash, too? Oh, no, they didn’t. They’ll be fine. The team won last year with slightly decent defense and a tougher brand of offense. Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress will help in their positions and the team is still deep enough to win as long as Nash is healthy. Never count out Steve Nash.

Portland Trailblazers: Pritchard’s gone, but Cho looks great so far. Freak injuries were the only things that delayed progress last season. And Greg Oden will be a franchise player. He just has bad luck. And bad luck passes. When he gets healthy, he’ll become the All-Star he was before the injury. Brandon Roy will bounce back, the back court depth has improved and been cleaned up. There’s been every indication that the team will only improve this season, and with Nate McMillan at the helm, they can survive until everyone gets healthy. The team isn’t a young squad anymore, but it’s deep and versatile. And all it needs is a few things to go its way, for once. That’s go to happen sometime.

Sacramento Kings: Looks like Thunder. Feels like Thunder. Loaded like Thunder. Why can’t the Kings make a huge leap with two superstars they drafted? Tyreke Evans is the best sophomore in the league, the team is coming together, DeMarcus Cousins will be a beast, and they have some depth to go along with the talent. There’s no reason this team can’t make a push for the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs: Greatness doesn’t age. It endures. A healthy team and this is the Western Conference Finals. A few things go right and the Spurs are in the playoffs. Is there any question that this team can’t compete with the Lakers in a seven game series? One more ring for Timmy. Something to keep Parker home. The Blair Bear. Jefferson’s fitting in. James Anderson was another steal. Pop’s got one more ring in him. Duncan needs one to put him ahead of Shaq once and for all. The window hasn’t closed, and the youth on this team could prop it open just long enough to steal gold.

Utah Jazz: Lost Carlos Boozer. Added Al Jefferson. Lost Kyle Korver. Added Raja Bell. Lost Ronnie Brewer. Added Gordon Hayward. This is the definition of a reloaded team, and one that may be better than the one last season. The team has faced nothing but heartbreak in the playoffs. But anything can happen in sports. That has to be how it is. What’s the point, otherwise?

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*