Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook takes a break on the court against the Houston Rockets in the second half of their Game 2 NBA Playoffs basketball game in Oklahoma City.

Russell Westbrook injury throws race in West wide open


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.

Special pass: Cavs’ Kyrie Irving to give championship ring to dad

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) — Kyrie Irving is prepared to make a most memorable pass.

Cleveland’s star point guard said he’s going to give his diamond NBA championship ring to his father, Drederick. Irving, whose 3-pointer in the final two minutes of Game 7 helped the Cavs complete their historic comeback over Golden State in the finals, said following Saturday’s practice that he intends to give the keepsake to his dad.

“I give my dad almost everything,” he said. “So, every accomplishment, every MVP award, every trophy that I’ve had since I was probably about 13 or 12, I’ve given to my dad.”

Irving and his father, who was playing professionally in Australia, where the point guard was born, have an exceptionally tight bond. Kyrie’s mom died when he was young, pulling him closer to his dad.

The Cavs will receive their rings before Tuesday’s home opener against the New York Knicks. That’s also the night the Indians, who play next door to Quicken Loans Arena in Progressive Field, will host Game 1 of the World Series.

With the championship banner for any Cleveland team since 1964 also being raised, the Cavs moved the starting time up to 7:30 so fans would be able to watch the ceremony before the Indians play.

Earlier this week, superstar LeBron James and Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said they expect the ceremony to be emotional. Irving, too, said it will be great to reflect on the team’s accomplishment before beginning a new season.

“There definitely is a special aspect to it,” he said. “You don’t want to shy away from that, but it also is the start of a new journey. So you just try to find a middle ground between that and just try not to get too high or too low. The crowd will be very enthused, not only for us getting our rings but the world series is starting, which is unbelievable. So, I just try to stay even keel with it, not get too high or too low. I’m excited to give my dad the ring and really gift it to him, and now it will be time to turn over a new leaf.”

Irving is expected to play in the opener. On Tuesday, he left an exhibition in Columbus with a tight left calf but said he’s better.

Expectations sky-high as Jazz look to break playoff drought

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 05:  Gordon Hayward #20 (second from right) of the Utah Jazz stands with teammates in a huddle during the first half of the preseason NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 5, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Joe Johnson had options of where to chase a ring in the twilight of his career and the seven-time All-Star chose to sign a two-year deal with a Utah Jazz team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2012.

Johnson, 35, bought into the widespread belief that the Jazz will improve from young up-and-comers to a competitive playoff team.

“It was the talent level and knowing from talking to (coach) Quin (Snyder), they wanted some veteran guys around these young guys and help lead the way,” Johnson said. “That was probably the biggest part.”

That’s the story on the Jazz entering the 2016-17 season: a team no longer on the cusp, but one with postseason expectations.

Snyder and general manager Dennis Lindsey have tried to temper those expectations, but the offseason moves to add veterans spoke volumes. The Jazz traded for George Hill and Boris Diaw and signed Johnson – ending the slow rebuild. The league, however, won’t see what this roster looks like at full strength for some time.

Gordon Hayward is out for an unknown amount of time with a broken finger on his non-shooting hand. Derrick Favors played just one preseason game due to a knee issue. Key reserve Alec Burks still hasn’t returned from arthroscopic surgery to his knee and ankle in June.

So the Jazz didn’t get to fully integrate the new veterans with the established players during the preseason.

“I feel like we’ve got a lot done in spite of (injuries),” Snyder said. “(Diaw, Hill and Johnson) have probably played more preseason minutes than I intended. … It has given them a chance to get acclimated. Their roles, particularly Joe’s, will probably change and evolve when Gordon comes back. Outside of that, there’s challenges. You just don’t know. Certain players, certain lineups. … I don’t think we were able to build quite the connectivity that we’d like at this point. But I felt like this was a team that was going to take a while to develop, too. Hopefully it doesn’t set us back too much.”

The Jazz begin the season on the road against the Trail Blazers on Tuesday. Eight of their first 11 games are on the road.

Things to watch as the Jazz prepare to tip off the season:

STIFLING TOWER: The 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert has already established himself as one of the best defensive centers in the game, averaging 2.27 blocks over the last two seasons, but he’s shown off a little more offense this preseason. He seemed to catch and finish better than in the past and averaged 14.8 points in six games. The most notable improvement has been Gobert’s free throw shooting. He shot 56.9 percent last year and 74.5 percent this preseason.

RETURN OF EXUM: Dante Exum is back for regular season games for the first time since tearing his ACL in the summer of 2015. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft is fully healthy and still an upper echelon defender on the perimeter with his 6-foot-6 frame. He looks to become more active on the offensive end with a better floater in the lane and improved 3-point shooting. The point guard showed the ability to log minutes at shooting guard next to Hill during the preseason.

GROWTH AREAS: The Jazz hope the additions and another year of growth will affect three areas in particular. The Jazz were No. 28 in the league with a scoring average of 97.7 points per game. That must improve. Johnson, Hill and Diaw already improve the depth. The team also struggled in close games, finishing 14-28 in games that were within five points with five minutes or less left.

IMPRESSION TIME: Not making the playoffs could not only be disappointing, but a detriment to the future. Hayward has a player-option on his contract after this season and is expected to use it to become a free agent. There will be a large market for his services, so the Jazz need to prove they’re an organization that can compete for championships in the near future. Gobert will become a restricted free agent in July if he doesn’t sign an extension by Oct. 31. Favors is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2017-18 season.

Follow Kareem Copeland on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/KareemCopeland

Cavaliers move up ring ceremony 30 minutes so it doesn’t conflict with World Series

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers holds the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after defeating the Golden State Warriors 93-89 in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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It’s a good time to be a Cleveland sports fan. Finally.

Next Tuesday, Oct. 25, will be one of the great sports days in the history of the city — the Cavaliers will get their championship rings, and the Indians will open the World Series at home.

Only one little problem: the two events were going to overlap.

So in the spirit of city unity the Cavaliers have moved up the start time of their ring ceremony by 30 minutes, and the game by 30 minutes as well. The ring ceremony now begins at 7 p.m. Eastern, with tip-off against the Knicks at 7:30 (both will be broadcast on TNT, followed by the Spurs at the Warriors).

First pitch for the World Series is at 8 Eastern.

Fans attending the Cavaliers ring ceremony will be given a special silicone ring, which if viewed on their phone through the Cavs app will look like a virtual championship ring. Kind of cool idea.

Tuesday is going to be a great day to be a Cavaliers sports fan (just don’t bring up the Browns). A lucky few will be at these events.

Although personally, I’d rather watch them both on a television while eating the brisket and having a beer at the bar at Mabel’s BBQ.

Warriors first team favored over the field for championship entering season since Michael Jordan’s Bulls

7 Jun 1998:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls walks on the court during the NBA Finals Game 3 against the Utah Jazz at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.  The Bulls defeated the Jazz 96-54. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport
Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport

When asked my prediction for the 2017 NBA champion, I say the Warriors have about a 50-50 chance. Some call that a copout answer – but it’s really not.

For a team to have even odds against 29 others combined entering the season is extraordinary.

Just how rare is it?

David Purdum of ESPN:

Jeff Sherman, head NBA oddsmaker at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, remembers the 1997-98 Bulls team, which was coming off a 72-win season, being around a minus-125 title favorite entering that season.

But Sherman and other sports betting industry veterans struggled to recall another team — in basketball, baseball or football — that was an odds-on favorite to start the season.

Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen led Chicago to the championship in 1998 (which was actually two seasons removed from the 72-win year).

Will Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson also meet their oversized expectations and deliver a title this year?

Flip a coin.