Russell Westbrook injury throws race in West wide open

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The Oklahoma City Thunder were already no lock to make the NBA finals. They were a slight favorite to make a return trip to the big stage but the Spurs (if healthy, and they are starting to look it) have always been a threat, plus there were the Grizzlies and Clippers as dark horses (just ones beating each other up in the first round).

But with Russell Westbrook out indefinitely to have surgery on a torn left meniscus, the race in the West is wide open. The Thunder are not out of the mix by any means, but they are no longer the frontrunner, either.

We don’t know if Westbrook will be back these playoffs (we will not have a timetable until after the surgery), but he’s certainly out for the second round. How fast he returns will depend on the kind of tear then how they choose to repair it. Look at it this way, Andrew Bynum had his meniscus repaired and missed a season; Metta World Peace did and missed 12 days. Different types of tears, different surgical approaches to the repair (plus Westbrook is more explosive than World Peace so he needs to be more cautious). I would say 4-6 weeks is more likely.

The Thunder and Westbrook need to think long term here — he’s 24 and Oklahoma City’s championship window is a long one. Don’t rush him back for these playoffs.

The Houston Rockets can make this series a little tougher on the Thunder now, but I still see OKC closing this out in five games, maybe six.

It’s the next round when things get interesting — the Grizzlies or the Clippers.

This is particularly true against the Clippers — Westbrook was a +6.9 (per 48 minutes) against the Clippers in their three meetings this season. If this is the matchup, the Thunder could really have used the athleticism of Westbrook to counter and challenge what Chris Paul brings at the point for the Clippers. I like Reggie Jackson, he’s solid, but it’s not the same. Also, the Clippers are a deep team and run a lot of fresh bodies out there, the Thunder will find it hard to cover the massive minutes he plays (Westbrook played the entire second half Wednesday after the injury).

Memphis is a grinding, defense-first team that would make if very tough on  Durant as the Thunder’s first option. Durant will still get his — we’re talking about the best pure scorer in the game today — but he’s going to have to work a lot harder and likely be less efficient. You beat teams like Memphis with your second, third and fourth options and those are less impressive for the Thunder with Westbrook out.

If they reach the conference finals and take on the San Antonio Spurs, again they could have used his athleticism against Tony Parker and to break down a generally stout Spurs defense — he was a +5.9 per 48 minutes against San Antonio this season.

The finals are an entirely different matter, but needless to say the Thunder’s chances against the Heat without Westbrook are slim.

But the Thunder have to get there first, and to do that it’s going to fall on Kevin Durant. He will be the focus of the offense — and the opposing team’s defense — every trip down. He’s a very efficient scorer and an improved playmaker, but he’s going to have to be every bit of that and more for the Thunder to reach their goals without Westbrook in the lineup.

Anthony Davis rattles rim with dunk on Juan Hernangomez (video)

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A sweet-shooting stretch four, Juan Hernangomez has a bright future in the NBA.

It’s not because of his rim protection.

Video Breakdown: How to ICE the pick-and-roll on defense

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NBA teams can defend the pick-and-roll game in many ways, but one of the most common is called ICE. This method sometimes goes by the name of Blue, Down, or Black, and it is ubiquitous as way to defend in the most popular offensive action in the modern NBA.

The basic idea is that the screener’s defender — usually a big man — stays parallel to the baseline and below the screen itself. The goal is to force the dribbler east to west, and to defend the paint while allowing for a lower percentage long range jumper.

The dribbler’s defender — usually a guard or a wing — fights over the top and pressures the shooter from above, ensuring that he cannot take a 3-pointer.

ICE pick-and-roll coverage has two main goals:

  1. Stop the ball handler and force the offense to move to another action.
  2. Stop a shot in the paint or at the 3-point line.

This varies from other kinds of pick-and-roll defense, including the hedge, the show, and the blitz. We’ll cover those in future videos, but you can get a little taste of them in a defensive glossary video I’ve done previously.

Meanwhile, get the full breakdown on ICE pick-and-roll coverage with the video breakdown above.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

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.