First half of NBA season awards, second half predictions

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So much for the little rest stop in Orlando. It was fun.

The breakneck pace of the NBA’s condensed post-lockout season picks up again Tuesday night. The pedal goes to the metal and we head for the playoffs.

Before the engines fully rev up again, we’re going to take stock. But rather than just give you some midseason awards, we’ll give you some thoughts on if these players and teams can keep it up.

MVP: LeBron James, Miami Heat
In the second half: LeBron should be able to keep up his pace because what he’s done — 27.1 points per game on 54.7 percent shooting with 8 rebounds and 6 assists per game — is not happening just because he’s simply on a hot streak. He’s matured his game, he’s getting better looks in transition with the Heat’s up-tempo offense and because he’s traded in some threes for shots in the post. If he does falter a little, Kevin Durant is there to scoop up the pieces, with Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose lurking.

Top Team in East: Miami Heat
In the second half: The East is a two team race, Miami and Chicago. The Bulls may have the better record right now but the Heat have been the better side of late. If both teams are fully healthy, I think the Heat are the better squad, but the gap is so narrow that nagging little injuries, a hot bench player, just about anything can swing that series. The Eastern Conference Finals are going to be epic.

Top Team in West: Oklahoma City Thunder
In the second half: The Thunder are one of the true elite teams, one of the NBA’s contenders. Yet, there are moments you wonder about OKC and their end-of-game execution, their play that seems to go a bit too isolation, there is a feeling among some scouts in the league they can be stopped. Except nobody has really done it. Who in the West can really best them? San Antonio? Dallas? The Lakers? None of them without making a trade. The Clippers may be the most likely, but they strike me as OKC a year ago, a team learning to win. The Thunder likely will come out of the West and they will push anyone in the East in the finals.

Most Disappointing Team: Boston Celtics
In the second half: You knew that the condensed schedule would be hard on the Celtics older legs (as we expected and have seen with the Lakers and for stretches the Mavericks and Spurs). But in Boston, it’s not just the losses (or 15-16 record), it’s how the losses are happening that gives you feeling they held on too long and there is no way to salvage this short term. Rajon Rondo seems more testy than normal (throwing the ball at the ref? Really?). The defense is still good but come the playoffs will that be enough? Danny Ainge may make a big move, if he can find one he likes.

Biggest surprise player: Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks
In the second half: Lin may not keep dropping 20 a night consistently, but he doesn’t have to — he has to learn to mesh with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire and now J.R. Smith. If he can, the Knicks could be the third best team in the NBA entering the playoffs (not by record, but by how they are playing). But Deron Williams said over the weekend that other point guards are seeing the hype around Lin and they are gearing up for him. It’s something to watch.

Coach of the year: Doug Collins, Philadelphia 76ers
In the second half: The Sixers started out playing fantastic team ball — good defense and a balanced offense. But that has fallen off since Spencer Hawes got hurt, he is the guy who made their offense work because he moved the ball side-to-side quickly. The ball gets stuck now and they are easier to defend. And Hawes is going to be out at least another couple of weeks. My guess is the Sixers slip and we can move Gregg Popovich into the coach of the year spot — he has the Spurs playing fantastic ball this season, as he did last year. He deserves it.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George call out Zaza Pachulia for “dirty” fall on Westbrook

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Zaza Pachulia has a reputation. The league even created a rule — the “Zaza rule”  — after he stepped under Kawhi Leonard last playoffs and twisted the forward’s ankle, ending Leonard’s playoffs and the Spurs chances.

Then Saturday night, as the Warriors pulled away in the second half and routed the Thunder, this play happened, where Pachulia fell on Westbrook’s leg.

While there was some contact, was that really enough to knock Pachulia over? It doesn’t look like it, it looks intentional, but remember Pachulia falls into a lot of guys — including Kevin Durant last season. This, however, was ugly.

After the game Westbrook and Paul George called Pachulia out.

Even the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving chipped in on this.

It will be interesting to see if the league does follow up. There is some history here.

After two lopsided losses to OKC, Kevin Durant leads Warriors rout

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kevin Durant scored 28 points for Golden State while avenging an embarrassing home loss to his former Oklahoma City team earlier this month and another on the road in November, leading the Warriors past the Thunder 112-80 on Saturday night.

Stephen Curry added 21 points with five 3-pointers, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals as Golden State put on the kind of defensive performance coach Steve Kerr has been seeking from the defending champs.

Russell Westbrook had 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists for Oklahoma City, which failed to reach 100 points for the first time in the last five games. The Thunder had scored at least 100 in 14 of their last 16.

Durant’s pretty layup off a perfect pass by Curry with 3:06 left in the third put the Warriors up 75-66. That was part of a 37-11 Golden State run that included 30 points over the final 8:48 of the third – when Zaza Pachulia subbed in to relieve JaVale McGee.

The Warriors held Paul George to five points. George’s 3-pointer at the 7:52 mark of the third with Durant’s hand in his face was his first basket after going 0 for 9 to begin the game. He finished 1 for 14 after going off for 38 points in the last meeting when Oklahoma City left Oracle Arena with a 125-105 rout on Feb. 6.

Golden State also lost at OKC by 17 on Nov. 22.

Draymond Green added 10 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He picked up his 15th technical of the season with 1:04 left in the first half, moving him within one of an automatic suspension. That came after Durant and Carmelo Anthony pushed, shoved, yelled from close range and had to be separated, receiving double technicals.

It was a testy rematch after the Warriors received five technical fouls in the previous meeting. That prompted general manager Bob Myers to address the importance of keeping poised.

Durant announced his decision to join the Warriors and leave OKC on July 4, 2016, making him an instant villain in his former city.

He scored 33 in the Feb. 6 meeting but got plenty of help this time.

Earlier this month against the Thunder, Curry and Klay Thompson were a combined 11 of 27 from the floor and 4 for 15 on 3-pointers as the Warriors lost for the third time in four games. Thompson had 11 points Saturday, shooting just 1 for 11 from deep.

The Warriors on Saturday improved to 8-1 this season in the next game against an opponent after losing the previous meeting.

After Shaun Livingston‘s jumper at the 8:47 mark of the second quarter, Golden State went nearly five minutes without scoring before Curry’s basket at 4:51 started a 7-0 burst.

The Thunder grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the opening quarter to score 10 second-chance points, with Westbrook getting eight boards and George five. But Oklahoma City went 2 for 11 on 3s in the initial 12 minutes – Anthony, George and Westbrook a combined 1 of 8.

 

Steve Kerr “disappointed” in alma mater Arizona; wants to see NCAA follow new model

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Before he was the coach of the Golden State Warriors, before he was a five-time NBA Champion playing next to Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, Steve Kerr was one of the great players the University of Arizona ever produced. The crowd would echo the announcer after ever made three — “Steeeve Keerrr” — where he was an All-American and helped lead a team (with future NBA players Sean Elliott and Tom Tolbert) to the Final Four.

There is a crisis around Arizona basketball right now. Coach Sean Miller was caught on a federal wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for star recruit Deandre Ayton (expected to be a high lottery pick in June, possibly the No. 1 pick). Miller did not coach Saturday and changes are coming to Arizona.

Kerr was asked about it before the Warriors took on the Thunder Saturday.

Kerr said he was “disappointed” in his alma mater over the incident. Which is understandable.

Not to completely excuse it, but what Miller got caught doing is commonplace — money is funneled to families or the players of top recruits on a regular basis. What is more troubling (in my mind) is the money paid under the table to AAU coaches, family members, and others close to elite recruits to funnel them to a specific “financial planner” or agent, or a specific university. People in positions of trust with the player are bought and paid for.

Kerr put out one solution that would certainly be a big step forward: follow the Olympics model and let elite players get sponsorships that don’t end their college eligibility.

This system has its flaws as well, but it gets some of the dirty money out in the open. It would be better than the hypocritical facade of amateurism the NCAA has hit behind for years.

Joel Embiid has 28 points, 14 rebounds leads Sixers to Seventh straight win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid had 28 points and 14 rebounds, and the Philadelphia 76ers extended their season-high win streak to seven with a 116-105 victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

Six 76ers scored in double figures. Ben Simmons had 17 points and seven assists, and 3-point specialist J.J. Redick added 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting – and just one 3-pointer. Marco Belinelli had 15 points, Robert Covington had 12 and Dario Saric scored 11.

Aaron Gordon led Orlando with 20 points, including four 3s, to go with seven rebounds and seven assists. Evan Fournier scored 16 points, and former Sixer Nik Vucevic had 15 points and nine rebounds for the Magic, who have lost five straight.

Philadelphia led 58-40 at halftime and 71-49 in the third when Orlando used an 11-2 burst, capped by Aaron Gordon’s 3-pointer, to close within 13.

But the Sixers put on a show to finish the quarter.

Embiid overpowered a few Magic defenders for a slam, and then gestured to the crowd after being fouled while soaring to the hoop on a dunk attempt. After Embiid and Trevor Booker swatted consecutive shots in the final seconds, T.J. McConnell used a crossover move to finish a drive at the buzzer and give the Sixers an 87-71 lead entering the fourth.

Orlando used a late 15-2 run to get within nine and nearly cut it to six with 1:21 left, but a 3-point attempt by Mario Hezonja spilled out.

Midway through the first quarter, Philadelphia had more turnovers (three) than field goals (two) and trailed 15-6. The Sixers then erupted for a 21-3 run and ended the quarter up 27-18.

E-A-G-L-E-S

Orlando head coach Frank Vogel wore an Eagles Super Bowl champions T-shirt during his pregame media availability. A native of Wildwood, New Jersey, Vogel makes sure to get a taste of home when he returns to the Philadelphia area.

“Cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, Yuengling beer if we beat the Sixers,” Vogel said. “Wawa coffee, but I get Wawa in Orlando now. I did get a cheesesteak today.”

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz rang the ceremonial Liberty Bell before the game.

“I think it’s awesome,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He can come over and ring as many bells as he chooses.”