The Extra Pass: Is the second tier in West ready to challenge Thunder, Spurs?

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We know Oklahoma City is a contender — despite their little three-game blip as they re-adjust to Russell Westbrook in the lineup, they are still 21-7 when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both play this season, they have a top-10 offense and defense when you look at points per possession. The same is true of the Spurs, and while they have had struggles against the NBA’s elite during the regular season last season’s run should remind you not to read too much into that. When the Spurs are healthy and focused they can compete with anyone.

But what about the next tier in the West? What about the Clippers? The Rockets? The Trail Blazers? Can any of those rise up and truly challenge OKC (the current bar for Best in the West).

Defining a contender can be a bit nebulous. It’s more like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart effort to define test for obscenity — we know it when we see it. I don’t see it with Portland, I think the Clippers and Rockets are on the cusp but may not be there yet.

Here are a few numbers to help us get an idea, using NBA.com stats (including some from the Sports VU cameras).

• Portland came back to earth some in February — they had a point differential of +4.4 per 100 possessions, which is good enough for ninth in the NBA but more in the Charlotte/Washington/Toronto range than contender status. Their defense remained 11th in the NBA and their offense, now without LaMarcus Aldridge, can’t bail them out. I’ve not been sold Portland is ready to knock on the door of the contenders all season, nothing right now is changing my mind.

• The question with the Clippers remains defense — in February they allowed 105.6 points per 100 possessions, ranked 22nd in the league. Because of a stellar offense (114 per 100) they remain fourth in point differential through those 11 games, but that doesn’t mask the question of if they can get enough stops to win in the postseason.

• Opposing teams get a league-high 10.4 shots a game at the rim when DeAndre Jordan is on the court — he defends it well and they only hit 51.5 percent of them, but they get there.

• Glen Davis may actually help the Clippers defense — it’s not that he’s a great defender, he’s just better than Ryan Hollins and that is who loses minutes with Davis in the fold. Same with Danny Granger, who is no great wing defender but will be taking minutes from Jared Dudley.

• Houston on the other hand has the sixth best defense in the NBA since Feb. 1. They give up a lot of points per game because they play at the fourth fastest pace in the league but they defend their possessions well and are a very good transition defensive team.

• In February, teams finished a very high 63.2 percent at the rim against the Rockets — but they never get there. The Rockets gave up just 250 attempts at the rim in the month, only Charlotte did better (247, but they played one less game than Houston). (And yes, using raw numbers for a moth is a rough gauge, go the last 15 Rockets games and they are 20th in shots allowed at the rim and teams shoot 62.3 percent.)

• The Rockets are maybe the best first half team in the NBA — they are disciplined in forcing their style and sucking other teams into a pace the opponent is not comfortable with. It leads to big quarters, like the 42 they dropped on Sacramento this week. However in the playoffs that element of surprise goes away. Will the Rockets in the halfcourt suddenly be too much James Harden in isolation, and too much Dwight Howard in the post? Both of those can disrupt the Rockets’ offensive flow.

• The question with the Rockets in February was the toughness of the schedule — we will learn more soon. They lost to the Clippers on Wednesday but that was the second night of a back-to-back and their tired legs showed as their transition defense was not what it normally is. That said, their next eight games port the Rockets include the Heat twice, the Pacers, the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Bulls. That’s a legit test.

• My sense is the Rockets are closer — they are now getting quality minutes out of Omer Asik off the bench, he gives them depth of defense that the Clippers just do not have. That the Trail Blazers do not have. Houston also is starting to find its identity. They may need to learn a hard lesson in the playoffs this season, they may need to tweak the roster some, but they have grown toward being a contender this season in a way I haven’t fully seen with the Clippers yet.

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.

Tristan Thompson expected to return to Cavaliers Tuesday, come off bench

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson could play for the first time since Nov. 1 on Tuesday against Atlanta.

Thompson has been sidelined with a strained left calf. The team initially said Thompson would be out for up to four weeks, but he said Monday that timeline was inaccurate and that his injury was more serious. Thompson did not divulge any other details about the injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue says Thompson will not start when he returns, meaning Kevin Love will remain at center. Thompson says he’s fine with a reserve role and made it clear he’s willing to do whatever Lue needs.

The Cavaliers have won 14 of 15 and their defense has improved dramatically over the past month.

Thompson says he’ll have the same mindset on the floor as always and “just be myself. Being myself has worked out pretty well for me.”