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.

Coach Tyronn Lue says not to expect LeBron James to have “rest” games

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LeBron James has not missed one Cleveland Cavaliers game this season. At age 33 in his 15th NBA season, LeBron is fourth in the league in total minutes played, third in the league in minutes per game at 37, and is top 10 in the NBA in usage rate.

Don’t expect that to change.

LeBron doesn’t want to take games off — he even dominated the All-Star Game — and do you really think Lue is going to force him to sit while the Cavaliers try to adapt to a radical roster shakeup at the trade deadline? From Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

“I just think being the leader of this team, I don’t think he thinks he can take games off, because, you know, guys being hurt and going through a rough patch, and now new guys coming in,” Lue said before the Cavs’ 112-89 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. “So, I think he’s trying to lead and lead by example … I think we still got to be smart about the situation, but [the training staff] say he feels good.”

LeBron said this last month and things have not changed.

“I told you I want to play every game,” James said. “If my health continues as it is right now, then that’s what it is.”

While “load management” is a buzzword around the NBA — one ignored in Minnesota — LeBron has responded to his increased workload with an MVP level season. LeBron is averaging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game, is shooting 35.9 percent from three, and has the highest value over replacement player in the league. (His less energized play in January likely cost him any real shot at his fifth MVP.) With the league emphasizing not resting players — particularly in nationally televised games, which the Cavaliers have a lot of — LeBron is not getting much if any rest. He wants to play in a full 82.

The only concern is will he wear down. LeBron is going to have to dominate in the playoffs for the Cavaliers to come out of the East. How much gas will LeBron have in the tank come May? There’s a reason Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and a lot of other elite coaches give players a night off. That’s not going to happen with LeBron, at least not likely in a meaningful way.

Consider it something to file away and remember if the Cavaliers and LeBron look a step slower in the postseason.

Watch Kyrie Irving drop 31 on Knicks in Celtics’ win

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kyrie Irving had 31 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, leading the Boston Celtics over the New York Knicks 121-112 on Saturday for their second victory in two nights since the All-Star break.

Irving scored 15 points in a dazzling third quarter and then helped the Celtics finish it off with his passing in the fourth, highlighted by a behind-the-back dish to Jaylen Brown for a dunk that made it 115-106.

Brown had 24 points for the Celtics, who went into the break with three straight losses but came back with a victory in Detroit on Friday.

Trey Burke scored 26 points off the bench for the second straight game for the Knicks, but they couldn’t win this one after beating Orlando on Thursday to end an eight-game skid.

Irving was just 1 for 6 behind the arc in the first half but showed no lack of confidence in the third. He scored 14 straight Boston points, hitting four 3-pointers and pushing the ball right at the Knicks.

His last 3-pointer in that spurt gave the Celtics a 10-point lead, but the Knicks chipped away while he rested and it was a two-point game by the time he returned with 8:14 remaining.

Irving soon made another 3, and passed to Al Horford for a 3 that pushed the lead back to double digits.

Horford finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

 

Damian Lillard scores 40, hits game-winner to beat Suns (VIDEO)

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PHOENIX (AP) — Passing the ball inbounds at a critical time proved too big a challenge for the sputtering Phoenix Suns. So, Damian Lillard got one final chance.

Of course, he came through.

Lillard scored 40 points, the last two on a driving layup with nine-tenths of a second to play, and the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from 15 down in the final 7 1/2 minutes to beat Phoenix 106-104 on Saturday night, the Suns’ ninth straight loss.

Lillard called it one of his “more significant performances” of the season.

“Obviously, Damian was huge, showed his leadership, showed his talent,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We overcame a horrendous shooting night for most of the night and found a way.”

Lillard, who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, got the final chance because Phoenix’s Troy Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds on a five-second call that turned possession over to Portland with 20.6 seconds to play.

“We knew they didn’t have any time outs left,” Stotts said, “so we gave it a shot and made some good reads and didn’t give them any outlets.”‘

Devin Booker scored 30 points for the Suns, losers of 14 of their last 15.

His two free throws gave Phoenix its biggest lead, 93-78, with 7:26 to play. Lillard triggered the subsequent 18-4 outburst that caught the Suns at 97-97 on his 3-point play. Booker’s fifth and final 3-pointer gave the Suns a 100-97 lead with 2:19 to go. Lillard’s 3 tied it at 100 with 1:10 left.

Booker’s powerful driving basket put Phoenix up 104-102 with 33.6 seconds to go. But, after a timeout, Lillard’s step-back 15-footer tied it at 104-104 with 28 seconds left. The Suns called time out to set up the play but, on the sidelines, Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds for the five-second call.

“We had no timeouts. I didn’t see anybody open. If I did, I would have thrown it obviously,” Daniels said. “I’ve been in that position a lot of times, but like I said, it’s tough to be in that position when you have no timeouts. You learn from and you get it better.”

On the play, Portland’s CJ McCollum said “I just tried to take away Booker.”

“I saw how they were set up and I just guarded him normal and when I turned and saw him run toward half-court I just shaded toward him,” McCollum said.

Booker never broke open, Daniels decided not to chance it, and the last opportunity was gifted to Portland.

“There was 20 seconds left and I just wanted to make sure I got the last shot,” Lillard said. “I really just wanted to get the clock down, keep it towards half-court where it is further out and I can get downhill. I took a peek, the clock was at six and I got downhill.”

The Blazers, coming off a win at Utah the previous night, have won three straight and five of six.

The game was tied 10 times before Portland finished the first half with a 7-2 spurt take a 55-50 lead at the break.

But the Suns turned it on in the third quarter, outscoring the cold-shooting Blazers 31-16. Portland scored the first five of the second half to take its biggest lead, 60-50. But Phoenix overwhelmed the Trail Blazers 29-5 to go up 79-65 on Booker’s 3.

 

Russell Westbrook, Paul George call out Zaza Pachulia for “dirty” fall on Westbrook

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Zaza Pachulia has a reputation. The league even created a rule — the “Zaza rule”  — after he stepped under Kawhi Leonard last playoffs and twisted the forward’s ankle, ending Leonard’s playoffs and the Spurs chances.

Then Saturday night, as the Warriors pulled away in the second half and routed the Thunder, this play happened, where Pachulia fell on Westbrook’s leg.

While there was some contact, was that really enough to knock Pachulia over? It doesn’t look like it, it looks intentional, but remember Pachulia falls into a lot of guys — including Kevin Durant last season. This, however, was ugly.

After the game Westbrook and Paul George called Pachulia out.

Even the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving chipped in on this.

It will be interesting to see if the league does follow up. There is some history here.