Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

This year, can an underdog win the NBA title?


Bill James, the legendary baseball statistician, has said the problem with the NBA is the best team almost always wins.

In baseball, the summer-long 162-game season gives you the best teams in each division, but the best-of-seven playoff series involves a lot of luck and favors hot pitchers and bullpens. In the NFL the playoffs are single elimination, favoring the hottest team not always the best team. Same with the NCAA college basketball tournament.

But the NBA, with its best of seven, heavily favors the heavily favorite. Put simply, at the start of the NBA season you can name the five teams most likely to win an NBA title and 9 times out of 10 your champion comes from that group.

Which makes this season’s NBA playoffs interesting. Sure, we may still wind up with Lakers vs. Celtics in the finals, but this year there will be upsets and new faces.

Could an underdog actually hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season?

Well, define underdog. Do you mean a team that is an underdog in its first-round playoff matchup? Then no. Look, maybe the Knicks get by the Celtics, or the Trail Blazers knock off the Mavericks, but do you really think New York or Portland are making a run all the way to the NBA finals? I like LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace as much as the next guy, but Portland would have to get past the Lakers and the Spurs just to reach the finals. The Knicks would still have the Heat and Bulls just to get to the finals. So, no, that’s not really happening.

But, could someone we didn’t expect at the start of the year win the title?

The Chicago Bulls fit that bill. And if defense wins championships then they have a real chance because nobody defends like them, taking away what other teams are comfortable with, closing out on shooters. They get enough offense from Derrick Rose, at least they did during the regular season. That will be the test, when teams start trapping Rose and daring anyone else to beat them who will step up. The Bulls will still execute better than anyone on defense, but will their offense be up to the task.

Out west, the Oklahoma City Thunder fit the bill. There were everybody’s darling when they were running up and down the court and pushing the Lakers to six games last year. Now they are more mature and they added Kendrick Perkins to address a need in the paint. They are on the verge of a breakthrough, and they should get past Denver in the first round.

They likely face San Antonio in the second round, and that will be their big test — the Thunder are the more athletic team, but have they matured in how to use that athleticism enough overcome the calm, efficient execution of the Spurs. Will Kevin Durant be a playoff assassin, will Russell Westbrook use his quickness within the system. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was worried they could and said last week that his team would be challenged trying to run up and down the court with the Thunder.

If the Thunder defend, if they get Durant and Westbrook going, they can beat anyone. They can beat the Spurs, they can beat the Lakers. They are contenders.

Still, maybe not this year. But in a couple of years, expect to see a Thunder vs. Bulls finals. But by then they will be the favorites.

Gasol gets double-double as Bulls beat Spurs 92-89

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CHICAGO (AP) — Pau Gasol punctuated his big block on LaMarcus Aldridge with a triumphant yell.

The ugly final four minutes went to Gasol and the Chicago Bulls.

Gasol had 18 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots, and the Bulls snapped San Antonio’s five-game winning streak with a 92-89 victory over the Spurs on Monday night.

Jimmy Butler scored 14 points and reserve Doug McDermott had 12 for Chicago, which was coming off a 104-92 loss at Indiana on Friday night. Joakim Noah contributed eight points, seven assists and 11 rebounds despite battling foul trouble in the final minutes of the opener of a four-game homestand.

“Everyone contributed tonight in a positive way,” Gasol said. “Jo was outstanding and almost had a triple double off the bench with his energy, making plays offensively as well as defensively. Everyone really contributed and it was good to see.”

Gasol rejected Aldridge on a drive with 1:06 left, and then hit one of two foul shots on the other end for a 90-89 lead. After Manu Ginobili missed for San Antonio, Butler hit two free throws with 10.6 seconds to go.

The Spurs had one last chance, but Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker each missed 3-point attempts in the final seconds. Parker’s try was partially blocked by Derrick Rose, who finished with 11 points and six assists.

“We had a play for Kawhi, and an option for Manu, it just didn’t work out,” Parker said. “That happens sometimes. It was good defense by Chicago.”

Leonard had 25 points and eight rebounds for San Antonio, which had won nine of 10. Aldridge added 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Parker had 13 points and nine assists.

The Spurs had just one field goal in the final four minutes.

“We are not good offensively, and may not be until March,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “Offense will take a while. We have a lot of guys getting used to each other, and how to play together.”

The Spurs led 73-70 after three quarters, but the Bull opened the fourth with an 11-2 run. Tony Snell sparked the surge with a 3-pointer and a driving layup.

Chicago played without guards Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks. Brooks has a left hamstring injury, and Hinrich is recovering from a hip pointer.

“It was one of those nights where everybody that stepped out on the floor not only contributed but contributed in a big way,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.



Spurs: Tim Duncan had 12 rebounds, but San Antonio was hurt by a 51-47 deficit on the boards. … The Spurs went 2 for 14 from 3-point range, compared to 6 for 16 for the Bulls. … San Antonio went 13-3 in November.

Bulls: Noah played in his 557th game with Chicago, passing Dave Corzine for ninth on the franchise list. … The Bulls had an 8-4 record in November.


Stephen Curry’s step-back three beats Jazz, Warriors now 19-0

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Credit the up-and-coming Jazz, they played well and were a fantastic stylistic match against Golden State. Utah played big, slowed the game down, limited transition looks, hit key shots (Derrick Favors was fantastic with 24, Gordon Hayward had 24), and were the right mix of gritty and smart.

And Golden State still won.

Stephen Curry got the sliver of daylight he needed in the last minute to step back and drain the three that proved to be the game-winner. Draymond Green was the other stud in this game — 20 points, nine boards, seven assists, plus his hustle plays were the difference down the stretch.

Golden State is 19-0, a record start, and they made the plays they needed to make. But Utah made them work for it.

Report: Sixers’ Jahlil Okafor to be shadowed by security guard now

2015 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot

In the run-up to the NBA Draft, there were no questions — at least publicly — about Jahlil Okafor‘s character. But of late there has been a run or incidents since then: He allegedly had a gun pulled on him outside a club in October; in November he was ticketed for driving more than 100 mph on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge; then he had an altercation with a guy outside a club in Boston that the police in that city are now investigating.

Okafor publicly apologized for the incidents. Multiple times.

The Sixers are making sure a security guard follows Okafor around when he steps out now, reports Chris Broussard at ESPN.

After being involved recently in a few embarrassing and potentially dangerous off-the-court incidents, Philadelphia 76ers star rookie Jahlil Okafor will now be accompanied by a security guard whenever he goes out, according to league sources.

The request for security came from Okafor’s handlers, who asked the 76ers to make a security guard available to their first-round draft pick out of Duke. The Sixers did not return a phone call seeking comment, but two sources said the club will honor the request.

Earlier in the day a source had wondered to John Gonzalez of why there wasn’t already security around the young core of the team when they went out.

Another front office member for another team questioned “why the Sixers won’t surround those guys with security.”

“Damn near every team does that,” the executive said, “especially with their top guys. I guess the Sixers know more than everyone else again.”

The Sixers head of security is supposed to be notified when players went out. Apparently that was not happening.

Okafor is 19, has money, and (at the very least) is putting himself in situations where bad things are more likely to occur.

We all made a lot of mistakes at that age, maybe not as potentially serious, but the bottom line is 19-year-olds don’t make good decisions. This is a Sixers team lacking in veteran leadership in the locker room, and while it’s debatable how much that would help in the wee small hours of the morning when Okafor seems to find trouble, it couldn’t hurt.

This is a smart move by Okafor’s friends/posse/handlers/whatever you call them. Get in his face now, tell him he can lose a fan base whether he’s scoring 17.5 points a game a night or not. Tell him to grow up. Then have someone around him to make sure he does the right thing (or those looking to draw him into trouble are kept away).

Watch Rasheed Wallace hit two simultaneous three pointers, one with with each hand

NBA Finals Game 7:  Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers
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Ball don’t lie.

The ball has always loved Rasheed Wallace, and that hasn’t changed since he stopped playing in the NBA. Check out this shot, courtesy Brandon Jennings.

I love everything about this, including the fact Sheed’s wearing the same thing he wore around the NBA for years. I love that Wallace is still a trick shot master, just like always.

(Hat tip to Dan Devine at Ball Don’t Lie.)