The Extra Pass: The biggest deadline acquisition? Russell Westbrook.

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In just a few short hours, the NBA trade deadline will pass. If history is any indicator, we’ll see somewhere in the range of eight trades go through.

Some will be big, and some will be small…and none will have as big of an impact on the title picture as the return of Russell Westbrook will.

Whether Westbrook returns from knee surgery and plays in the marquee matchup against the Miami Heat remains to be seen, but let this sink in: the team with the best record in the league will welcome back one of the best players in the league. Every other addition has no chance to be anything but overshadowed. We know the level Westbrook is capable of playing at.

It’s just been a while since we’ve seen it. Westbrook rattled off a triple-double in his last game on Christmas day before going under the knife again, and plenty has changed since.

Kevin Durant, improbably, got even more effective and more efficient. Jeremy Lamb stepped up as a viable option on the wing. Reggie Jackson showed he’s more than capable of stepping in when needed. Scott Brooks even took out Kendrick Perkins at the right time. No, really.

If the Thunder looked better, it’s because, well, they got better. That makes sense, as the improvements just didn’t stop while Westbrook was away. Bigger roles and responsibilities were thrust upon the whole team, and the response was certainly encouraging.

But it was also a bit misleading. Not in the sense that Oklahoma City’s success was a fluke, or that Durant couldn’t sustain this type of performance, but rather in the sense that Westbrook should be viewed as anything but completely essential to the Thunder’s title hopes.

There’s a tendency to think that sort of thing when a team succeeds without a player. Call it the Ewing Theory or whatever you will, but it’s common place in the NBA.

You can hear the murmurs already. Every pull-up jumper that clanks off the rim with 18 seconds left on the shot clock will feel like lost money more than ever before. Every 4-for-16 game will be met with more disapproval than ever before. Every face Durant makes after a Westbrook shot will be over-analyzed. You’re crazy if you don’t think most people want to see Westbrook fail.

If it were any other player, you might be worried about the pressure or the scrutiny bleeding over to on-court performance. It could certainly cause someone to be less assertive, and to maybe deviate from the way they once played. We’ve seen that happen.

The chances that happens with Westbrook, though? Slim to none. More than ever before, he’ll need that confidence and aggressiveness he’s displayed throughout his career, primarily because he’s coming off multiple surgeries. There is very little room for doubt in the mind of a professional athlete, and Westbrook has never exhibited anything but the utmost confidence in his abilities. He’s equipped perfectly to handle these current circumstances.

Ultimately, that’s good for Oklahoma City. It may cost them a few wins in the short-term as Westbrook shakes off the rust and everyone readjusts, but make no mistake: the Thunder are undoubtedly a much better team with Westbrook back in the lineup.

It’s just something to keep in mind during deadline day. The bar is about rise, and fellow title competitors may want to act accordingly.

Stephen Curry scores 29, leads Warriors’ rally over Spurs 110-98

Associated Press
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Stephen Curry scored 29 points, Klay Thompson had 23 and the Golden State Warriors rallied from a 22-point deficit in the opening quarter to beat the San Antonio Spurs 110-98 on Wednesday night for their ninth straight win.

Golden State extended its lead over San Antonio to 3 1/2 games for the league’s best record, beating the Spurs for the first time in three meetings this season.

Kawhi Leonard had 19 points and five assists for San Antonio. Leonard shot 7 for 20 from the field while being guarded by a rotation of defenders.

The Spurs had a five-game winning streak halted in inglorious fashion. San Antonio got off to its best start of the season two days after dismantling Cleveland in a 29-point victory. The Spurs raced to a 33-17 lead in the opening quarter, matching their largest lead of the season after the first quarter.

Andre Iguodala‘s 20-foot fadeaway jumper off one leg in the final seconds kept the Warriors from matching a season-low for points in the opening period.

Iguodala finished with 14 points.

Golden State rallied from that horrendous start, overcoming a 22-point deficit in the first quarter to take its first lead at 59-57 on Thompson’s 3-pointer 1:20 into the second half.

The Warriors outscored the Spurs 93-65 after the first quarter.

Golden State finished 13 for 26 on 3-pointers after shooting 2 of 5 on 3-pointers in the first quarter. San Antonio had 14 turnovers in the final three quarters.

Warriors forward David West, who was met with a chorus of boos upon entering the game, finished with 15 points. West signed with Golden State in the offseason after playing for San Antonio last season on a discounted contract.

Manu Ginobili had 18 points for San Antonio, and LaMarcus Aldridge added 17.

TIP-INS

Warriors: Golden State forward Kevin Durant worked out on the court before the game, but remains sidelined by an injured left knee. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said there is no update on a possible return, but is encouraged that Durant is moving well and progressing. Durant played a “hard” 1-on-1 against Golden State assistant coach Willie Green earlier in the day. “Kevin got him pretty good,” Kerr said. “It’s a good sign. If Willie had beaten him, I would have been worried.” … Curry has 289 3-pointers this season, second-most in league history, surpassing the 286 he made in 2015. Curry set the league record with 402 3s last season. … Golden State has seven winning streaks of at least seven games in three seasons under Kerr.

Spurs: Ginobili has played 987 regular-season games in his career, tying Hall of Famer David Robinson for third all-time in franchise history behind Tony Parker (1,136) and Tim Duncan (1,392). … PG Patty Mills has 582 career 3-pointers, one more than Hall of Famer Michael Jordan. … San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said rookie Dejounte Murray is progressing slowly, but remains out with a left groin injury. … San Antonio has eight games remaining, including four at home. … The Spurs are 106-57 overall against the Warriors.

 

Grizzlies beat slumping Pacers, who fall into tie for final playoff spot

AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Mike Conley matched his career high with seven 3-pointers on his way to 36 points, helping the Memphis Grizzlies rout the Indiana Pacers 110-97 on Wednesday night.

Vince Carter had 21 points and eight rebounds, and Zach Randolph finished with 17 points as Memphis snapped a four-game losing streak. Conley went 13 for 21 from the field.

Paul George led the Pacers with 22 points, Aaron Brooks, who provided an early spark from outside the arc, had 18 points, and Thaddeus Young finished with 16.

Indiana lost for the fourth time in five games.

Memphis played without All-Star center Marc Gasol, who missed his third straight game with a left foot strain. But Conley helped the Grizzlies get off the fast start, and Pacers were never able to catch up.

Memphis led by as many as 22 in the second quarter and carried a 72-53 advantage into the break. Conley scored 22 points in the first half, and the Grizzlies went 10 for 17 from beyond the arc in the first two periods.

Brooks made four 3-pointers and scored 14 in the first half for Indiana.

The Grizzlies led 96-79 after three, and the sliding Pacers never threatened in the fourth.

Indiana (37-38) dropped into a tie with Miami for the last spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Both are two games behind Milwaukee and Atlanta.

The Heat, Bucks and Hawks all won Wednesday night.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Brooks made a 3-pointer in the first quarter to reach 800 for his career. … Indiana dropped to 0-8 in road games on the second night of a back-to-back.

Grizzlies: JaMychal Green was out with left shoulder soreness. That caused Memphis to use its 22nd different starting lineup this season. … Memphis scored 38 points in the first quarter, matching its highest point total for any quarter this season. … Memphis has made at least 10 3-pointers in 36 games. … In the third quarter, Carter passed Ray Allen (24,505) for 22nd in NBA history for career points scored. … Reserve guard Andrew Harrison left in the third quarter with a right ankle injury.

PACERS HOMECOMINGS

Pacers forward Thaddeus Young played high school basketball in Memphis and still lives there. Pacers guard Monta Ellis has a home in the Eads community east of Memphis.

HOME STRETCH

Memphis (41-34), which sits seventh in the Western Conference playoff race, has a beneficial schedule down the stretch. Of its seven remaining games, five are at home, and five are against teams with losing records.

UP NEXT

Pacers: Visit Toronto on Friday.

Grizzlies: Host the Dallas Mavericks on Friday.

Three Mavericks teammates restrain Devin Harris, who still gets ejected (video)

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Dallas guard Devin Harris was ejected from Wednesday night’s 121-118 loss to New Orleans after angrily protesting calls made by official Ben Taylor.

Harris was assessed two quick technical fouls by Taylor, the first after Harris protested Taylor’s decision to whistle him for a personal foul when he collided with Pelicans’ guard Jordan Crawford.

The impact with Crawford sent Harris crashing to the court, marking the second time in the period that Harris had gone down hard. The first time, no foul was called when a collision with Pelicans’ guard E'Twaun Moore left Harris flat on his back.

When Harris was assessed the first technical, he went into a tirade and had to be restrained by teammates as he advanced toward Taylor. That triggered his ejection.

Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon beats shot clock, Celtics with dagger (video)

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Who should win Rookie of the Year?

Joel Embiid has been, by far, the best rookie while on the court, but a season-ending injury will limit him to just 31 games. Malcolm Brogdon has been next best over the full course of the season. Dario Saric is making a heck of a finishing kick, and with a couple weeks left, he can still catch Brogdon.

But Brogdon got his own late signature moment in the Bucks’ 103-100 win over the Celtics tonight.

With the Bucks up one in the final seconds and the shot clock nearing expiration, Brogdon hit an off-balance jumper with 3.9 seconds left to produce the final margin.

Milwaukee’s win drops Boston (48-27) to second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Cavaliers (47-26). The Bucks (39-36) keep pace with the Hawks in a tie for fifth.