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.

Sixers’ Joel Embiid officially has knee surgery, expected to be back on court in summer

Associated Press
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“The… follow-up MRI of Joel Embiid‘s left knee appears to reveal… the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced in this most recent scan.”

When Philadelphia’s chief medical director Dr. Jonathan Glashow said that in a statement announcing Joel Embiid was being shut down for the season, the chance of knee surgery to clean up that meniscus was possible. Friday it became a reality, the team announced.

CSNPhilly.com had the details.

The team expects Embiid to resume basketball activities during this summer, according to Sixers director of performance research and development Dr. David T. Martin. Embiid will begin his rehab in Los Angeles with specialists and Sixers medical and training staff members.

“The overall status of Joel’s lateral meniscus and his cartilage is very good,” surgeon Dr. Neal S. ElAttrache, M.D., who performed the surgery, said in a statement. “Today’s procedure focused on removing a small portion of the meniscus that was responsible for his symptoms.

“The recovery program that has been established targets Joel transitioning back to full weight-bearing in approximately two weeks, at which point a conservative approach to his rehabilitation will be introduced.”

After Embiid missed two seasons with foot issues, there is a tendency to lump everything together and call him injury prone. This, however, was a minor surgery with a relatively short recovery period, even as the Sixers bring him along slowly. There is reason for concern, but this shouldn’t be an issue by next training camp.

Embiid averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game despite a minutes restriction all season. He was incredibly efficient in getting his numbers — he had an All-Star level PER of 24.2 — and when he was on the court the Sixers outscored their opponents by 3 points per 100 possessions. He’s still likely a top three finisher in Rookie of the Year balloting despite playing in just 31 games.

Devin Booker demolishes youthful scoring records

AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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When a 20-year-old LeBron James scored 56 points in a game, he called it, “probably the best game of my life.”

Devin Booker just topped him with 70 points in a game at age 20.

LeBron has obviously gone onto bigger and better things since dropping 56 in a loss to the Raptors during his second year, but that game was a harbinger. Booker – whom LeBron singled out before the season as an under-the-radar rising star – could be on a similar track.

Or Booker could be following Brandon Jennings, who scored 55 in his seventh game, also at age 20.

The future is bright – and unknown – for the second-year Suns guard.

What’s clear: His accomplishment last night is unmatched, and nobody else has come close. Here are the highest-scoring games in NBA history by someone under age 21:

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This is the result of Phoenix going so young and Booker playing so well. Not every team would provide such an opportunity, but Booker seized it.

Not only is he the youngest player ever to score 70 points in a game, he’s the youngest to score 60 in a game.

Somebody ought to buy him a drink to celebrate – in October, once it’s legal.

Union: Joakim Noah would not have been suspended under next CBA

Elsa/Getty Images
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Selective Androgen Receptor Modulator LGD-4033 was not banned by the current Collective Bargaining Agreement when it was enacted.

The next CBA will offer a new challenge policy for failed drug tests.

Perhaps Joakim Noah, whom the NBA suspended 20 games, just tested positively at the wrong time.

SARM LGD-4033 (Ligandrol) was added to the banned list after the current CBA was signed in 2011. The drug is also banned by the next CBA, which will take effect July 1.

But the next CBA would also allow Noah an opportunity to contest his suspension – which his union says he would have done successfully..

National Basketball Players Association:

“After a thorough investigation, the National Basketball Players Association believes that Joakim Noah did not intentionally or knowingly violate any policy of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).  Under the recently negotiated CBA effective July 1, a player’s unintentional ingestion of a prohibited substance would be taken into consideration, and we believe the conduct here would not result in discipline.  Unfortunately, the current CBA does not permit such consideration.”

“Joakim was completely forthcoming and cooperative throughout the investigation and we believe that this isolated occurrence was a regrettable mistake.  Joakim has offered his deepest apologies for this infraction, and neither he nor the NBPA will pursue an appeal.”

Unlike the current CBA, the new CBA allows a player to challenge a suspension if he “did not know or suspect, and could not reasonably have known or suspected, even with the exercise of considerable caution and diligence, that he was taking, ingesting, applying, or otherwise using” the drug. He must also establish how the drug entered his system.

That’s obviously a high burden. The CBA even defines it as an “unusual circumstance.”

Could Noah have presented such convincing evidence? Maybe, but it’s far easier to make that claim in a statement than actually convince an arbitrator.

Stephen Curry with touchdown pass to Andre Iguodala, who finishes with reverse lay-up (VIDEO)

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The 49ers may want to give Stephen Curry a call, because I’m not sure Brian Hoyer can throw that pass.

Curry showed a soft touch on a touchdown pass over a defender to the streaking Andre Iguodala, who had to finish with the reverse layup, a little no-look flip. It was vintage Warriors, a little playground in transition.

The Warriors beat the Kings 114-100 behind 27 from Curry. With the win the Warriors are 2.5 games up on the Spurs for the best record in the West, but Golden State has a tough road back-to-back this week in Houston than San Antonio. Get at least a split there and the Warriors will be tough to catch.