Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors

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.

Gallinari, Faried lead Nuggets to 121-113 win over Magic

Denver Nuggets v Portland Trail Blazers
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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Danilo Gallinari scored 21 points, Kenneth Faried had 19 points and 10 rebounds off the bench, and the Denver Nuggets defeated the Orlando Magic 121-113 on Saturday night.

Jusuf Nurkic added 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds for the Nuggets, who lost their previous two games. Will Barton scored 16.

Faried was 9 of 10 from the field and Denver shot 57 percent in sending the Magic to their third straight loss.

The Nuggets outscored short-handed Orlando 64-34 in the paint. Magic center Nikola Vucevic did not suit up because of an injury.

Evan Fournier led Orlando with 24 points. Serge Ibaka had 22 points and four blocked shots.

After trailing by four in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets bounced back with big baskets from Nikola Jokic and Faried. Denver, which led by as many as 11 in the third, went ahead 109-106 on a 3-pointer by Gallinari with 4 minutes left and never trailed again.

Sparked by Ibaka’s block on Nurkic and 3-pointer at the other end midway through the third quarter, the Magic fought back from an 11-point deficit to take a 95-92 lead going into the fourth.

Taking advantage of numerous defensive breakdowns by Orlando, the Nuggets took a double-digit lead during the second quarter before settling for a 65-58 lead at halftime. Gallinari had 12 points while Faried and rookie Juancho Hernangomez both scored 12 off the bench for Denver.

The Nuggets, who led by 11 in the second period, shot 55 percent from the field and nearly 56 percent from 3-point range in the first two quarters. Coming off a loss to Charlotte on Friday night and playing their fourth game in five nights, the Magic seemed a step slow as Denver was allowed to drive the lane at ease in the first half.

Led by big men Jokic and Nurkic, the Nuggets scored 36 points in the paint compared to just 20 for Orlando and won the rebounding battle 25-16 in the first 24 minutes.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Hernangomez shot 4 of 5 on 3-pointers in the second quarter. … Denver’s bench outscored the Magic’s reserves 34-16 in the first half.

Magic: Vucevic (sore shoulder) and fellow center Bismack Biyombo (sore back) were game-time decisions after coming out of Friday night’s loss at Charlotte banged up. Biyombo started and had 12 points in 34 minutes. … The Magic recalled rookie center Stephen Zimmerman from the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Development League.

UP NEXT

Nuggets: Their six-game road swing ends Monday in Dallas. The Mavericks have won five of the last six regular-season matchups.

Magic: Orlando visits Atlanta on Tuesday night. The Magic have lost 17 of their last 22 games against the Hawks.

Pistons send Stanley Johnson, 2 others to D-League

Stanley Johnson
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) The Detroit Pistons assigned forwards Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson and guard Michael Gbinije to the team’s D-League affiliate in Grand Rapids.

The moves came before Grand Rapids hosted Delaware on Saturday night. The Pistons were off Saturday. Detroit hosts the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night.

Johnson, a first-round draft pick in 2015, has averaged only 3.3 points in 21 games this season after showing potential as a rookie. Ellenson, who was drafted in the first round this year, has appeared in only six games this season.

Check out Tim Duncan’s giant new back tattoo

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San Antonio Spurs great Tim Duncan is apparently enjoying his retirement. He’s cutting loose, one could say.

And what’s the first thing you do when you try to cut loose? That’s right, get a tattoo that spans from traps to sciatica.

In a post shared by Elite Custom Tattoo in Arizona, it appears that Duncan got a full-length back tattoo on one side of his back.

The tattoo is elaborate, with a yin-yang symbol and a lot of mechanical underpinnings meant to look like Duncan is more machine than man.

I wonder where he got that idea?

#tattooing the #legend #wip #mechanicaltattoo #yingyang #turbo #gears

A photo posted by Christopher Escobedo (@elitecustomtattoo) on

Joel Embiid shows off custom “Trust the Process” shoes on Snapchat

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid reacts to the call during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, in Philadelphia. The Cavaliers won 102-101. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid has a certain sense of humor, one that has embraced former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie’s motto of “Trust the Process” as a kind of personal mantra and brand.

Embiid has apparently taken it a step further, showing off custom sneakers on Snapchat of his “Trust the Process” shoes.

You read that right.

The inside tongue of a pair of kicks Embiid was rocking on Saturday read in all lowercase letters the phrase we now associate with the Cameroonian center.

Embiid famously dubbed himself “The Process” and even filed for a trademark on the language in order to sell merchandise no doubt to be with us shortly.

Keep it coming, Joel. Absolutely each and every one of these are great.