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.

Back to the drawing board for Thunder against Spurs

SAN ANTONIO,TX - APRIL 30: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs scores against the Oklahoma Thunder during game one of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 30, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas. 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 Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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There was a possession where LaMarcus Aldridge grabbed a defense rebound, outlet-passed to Manu Ginobili, who then turned and fired a 70-foot strike to Kawhi Leonard for a dunk.

The whole play took about 3 seconds. And the ball never touched the floor.

Not everything came that easily for San Antonio in the opener of the Spurs’ Western Conference semifinal series against Oklahoma City. It only seemed that way, as they rolled to a 124-92 win and will now look to take a 2-0 lead when the series resumes in San Antonio on Monday night.

“Now we’ve got to get back to the drawing board and see what we’ve got to do better to get ready for Game 2,” Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook said. “Come out and play with a different mindset.”

That would be a start.

The three worst playoff losses of Kevin Durant and Westbrook’s time together in Oklahoma City all have one thing in common – they all happened in San Antonio.

The Spurs won by 35 on May 21, 2014, followed that up eight nights later with a 28-point win and now added a 32-pointer for good measure. And the Game 1 margin was the biggest defeat Thunder coach Billy Donovan has dealt with in more than 17 years.

It was Feb. 10, 1999 – 660 games ago for Donovan – when his Florida Gators lost 91-56 to Tennessee. That Gator team recovered and won four of its next five games, and if the Thunder are going to get out of this series they’ll have to do something similar.

“I think the guys in that locker room are pretty competitive,” Donovan said. “I think they’re going to want to come back and respond.”

The key for the Thunder in Game 2 will be stopping Aldridge. They had no answers for him in Game 1; Aldridge scored 38 points and didn’t even play 30 minutes.

When the Spurs acquired him, it was evident that San Antonio would again be a major title favorite. It’s working out exactly as San Antonio planned.

“I don’t know an exact date,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said when asked how long it took Aldridge to get comfortable with the Spurs. “It was a progression. Any new player in a new program, it’s a progression. It takes a little bit of time to get comfortable with the system and secondly, with teammates – who does what, when, where, how, all that kind of thing. It was just a steady kind of improvement and recognition as the year went on.”

If players get asked to play big minutes Monday, that shouldn’t be an issue. Game 3 isn’t until Friday night in Oklahoma City.

A look at Game 2:

Thunder at Spurs, San Antonio leads 1-0. 9:30 p.m., TNT

It’s been long established that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are one of the league’s all-time trios. But the sheer margin by which they’re separating themselves from some of the others on that list is getting to be staggering.

Consider:

Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won 600 games together for the Los Angeles Lakers. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish won 632 in their days as Boston Celtics teammates.

It took a long time for those numbers to be passed. It’s going to take a real long time before anyone even comes near what Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have done – now with 700 wins together after Saturday’s Game 1 triumph.

Everything worked for the Spurs in the opener. They had 39 assists and all but one of their players who got minutes had at least one – the exception being Andre Miller. And the Spurs are now 43-1 at home this season, 34-0 when Duncan is in the lineup.

And for all the adjustments Oklahoma City will make, figuring out how to get better against Leonard’s defense probably should be foremost. Leonard spent much of Game 1 guarding Westbrook, helping force him into a 5 for 19 night from the floor. Meanwhile, Leonard and Aldridge combined to make 28 of 36 shots.

NBA report admits referees missed Raptors’ DeRozan’s foul on Pacers’ Mahinmi

TORONTO, ON - MAY 01:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors is congratulated by Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers following the final whistle of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 01, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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It was one of the most discussed plays in the final minutes of Toronto’s thrilling if sloppy Game 7 win against Indiana. The Pacers were down three with less than 20 seconds left (after Frank Vogel had taken a poor timeout messing up a four-on-two transition chance) and ran a play for a quick two that resulted in Paul George driving on the right side and Bismack Biyombo coming over to help. George could have gotten off a shot but instead threw a lob to Ian Mahinmi at the rim.

Except that DeMar DeRozan can in and fouled Mahinmi, pushing him out of the way. The ball flew over Mahinmi’s head and became a turnover on what was Indiana’s last decent offensive possession of the game.

Monday the league admitted DeRozan committed a foul, saying:

DeRozan (TOR) makes body contact with Mahinmi (IND), dislodging him and affecting his ability to catch the alley-oop pass.

This, of course, changes nothing.

There were a number of other questionable calls in this game, but the league said every other one in the last two minutes of the game was correct, save for the fact Myles Turner should have been called for a foul on Biyombo with 2.6 seconds left, but that would not have changed the outcome. The NBA’s report does not look at close calls outside the final two minutes, such as Paul George’s offensive charging foul on DeRozan with 3:51 left.

Ultimately, it’s not the referees that decided this game. If Pacers fans want to be frustrated, they need to look at the fact their team let Toronto grab the offensive rebound on 35 percent of their missed shots, and the seven George turnovers (including a couple of key ones late). Those are the things that turned the game.

Report: D-League All-Star, Magic call-up Keith Appling arrested with loaded AK-47 in strip club

Orlando Magic's Keith Appling (15) makes a shot in front of Philadelphia 76ers' Jerami Grant (39) and Nerlens Noel (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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If you’re on the fringe of the NBA, trying to get teams to take a chance on you, this is the opposite of what you should do.

Former Michigan State star Keith Appling, who last season was a D-League All-Star for the Erie Bay Hawks and got a couple of 10-day contracts with the Orlando Magic, has reportedly been arrested and is still in jail in Dearborn, Michigan, for allegedly taking a loaded assault rifle into an area strip club. (Dearborn police have not yet responded to NBC’s request for confirmation. Some Michigan outlets with sources in the area do have confirmation but few details.) This is how the story broke:

If true, Appling has much bigger problems then getting an invite to an NBA training camp next fall.

Byron Scott says he felt “a little” blindsided by Lakers’ firing

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott watches play against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Lakers fans were demanding it. Logic dictated it — even the questionable talent did not fully explain why Byron Scott could not get the Lakers to defend, they had one of the two worst defenses in the NBA each of his two seasons as coach.

Still, Byron Scott said he was blindsided by his firing by the Los Angeles Lakers, something he said on the Dan Patrick Show this morning (video above).

Scott makes a couple of valid points. First, the Lakers did take their time after the season (letting good coaches get snapped up elsewhere) while making this call, giving the impression Scott might be safe.

Second, the Lakers did not give Scott much talent to work with. I don’t care if you resurrected Red Auerbach and John Wooden and had them tag team as the coach, these Lakers were not making the playoffs. Scott was brought in to both shepherd the Kobe farewell years — he did that exactly as management wanted — and start to develop the young talent on the team, building a foundation for the future. That is where he fell short, both in terms of building a defensive foundation or forming a strong relationship with the young Lakers, most notably D'Angelo Russell.

Scott discussed his relationship with Russell, too.

It’s far too early to say how good a coach Luke Walton will be for the Lakers, but it’s safe to say he’s an upgrade over Scott. In that way, the Lakers made the right move.