Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors

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


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, Thunder prepare for life without Kevin Durant

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 11:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a preseason game at American Airlines Center on October 11, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Maybe life after Kevin Durant won’t be so bad for the Thunder.

After the longtime face of the franchise left for Golden State, crestfallen Oklahoma City fans were worried it was just a matter of time before the team’s co-star, Russell Westbrook, would follow suit. In a move that shocked many, Westbrook re-signed with Oklahoma City. The former scoring champion and two-time All-Star MVP’s return gives the team hope.

New faces such as shooting guard Victor Oladipo and forward Domantas Sabonis, both acquired in the deal that sent Serge Ibaka to Orlando, might take some time to fit in. Westbrook believes the team is talented enough to succeed if it is focused and the new pieces blend with the old ones who helped the Thunder reach the Western Conference Finals last season.

“Just play hard, man,” Westbrook said. “I don’t know, win or lose. The only thing I know is that as long as we play hard, we give ourselves an opportunity to win.”

Westbrook could post historic numbers. He averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds last season and had 18 triple-doubles, the most since Magic Johnson had 18 during the 1981-82 season. Without Durant, more of that could be on the way.

Sabonis, a rookie out of Gonzaga who played for Lithuania’s Olympic team, played with the starters throughout the preseason. Oladipo averaged 15.9 points and 4.0 assists in three years with Orlando. He joins Westbrook to form arguably the most athletic backcourt tandem in the NBA.

“Defensively, I think we can be the best defensive backcourt in the league because we can do different things with our size and using our length and our speed,” Westbrook said.

Here are some things to watch for the Thunder:

Steven Adams

The 7-footer from New Zealand was already a top-notch defender and rebounder before stepping up his offense and averaging 10.1 points during the playoffs last season. In his final two preseason games, he scored 20 points against Minnesota and 17 points against Denver. He could be a breakout star.

“I think we’ve had an opportunity these last two nights (against Minnesota and Denver) how good he is around the basket, how smart he has become and how much of a presence he is in the middle,” Westbrook said.

Enes Kanter

The natural expectation was that Ibaka’s departure would prompt coach Billy Donovan to move Kanter, who finished third in balloting for the league’s sixth-man award last season, into the starting lineup. Instead, Donovan started Sabonis throughout the preseason. Perhaps Donovan knows best – Sabonis showed he can hang with the starters, and Kanter averaged 17.8 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 61.7 percent in the preseason.


Oklahoma City’s defense could slip with Ibaka in Orlando. Sabonis has great potential, but he’s young, and NBA defense takes some time to learn. Donovan said Sabonis has caught on quickly, but there still could be a dip early because Ibaka’s level of play is difficult to replace – he was a three-time first-team All-NBA defender and a two-time blocks leader.


The Thunder added several foreign players to the roster who will add depth – Spain’s Alex Abrines, France’s Joffrey Lauvergne and Turkey’s Ersan Ilyasova. Donovan said he likes the maturity foreign players add to a team. Abrines played for Spain’s national team that earned bronze medals at the Olympics. Lauvergne played for France in Rio.


Andre Roberson has shifted from the starting shooting guard to starting small forward. That means the Thunder still have Roberson’s dynamic athletic ability, defensive prowess and nose for the ball on the boards in the lineup. He was a liability on offense in the past, but he started becoming more of a factor on offense during the playoffs last season.

“I think he feels more comfortable and confident offensively,” Donovan said. “He’s put forth effort in that area. It’s just him continuing to grow offensively and trying to put him in situations where he slashes to the basket and he can cut and he can get out in transition and he can take his open corner threes.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter (at)CliffBruntAP

Raptors’ Jared Sullinger to have foot surgery, miss “extended time”

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 19:  Jared Sullinger #7 of the Boston Celtics looks on from the bench against the Atlanta Hawks in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on April 19, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Raptors are counting on Jared Sullinger to cover for the loss of Bismack Biyombo by crashing the boards, helping them space the floor on offense, and just being solid.

But they are going to have to get by without him for a while, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports, and confirmed by the team.

There is no timeline for Sullinger’s return, but it’s going to be a while. Sullinger had battled a stress reaction in his foot a year ago, this is likely an extension of that problem.

This certainly hurts the Raptors’ depth up front, but it’s also not a massive setback for a team with lofty aspirations this season. Patrick Patterson will get more minutes, which is a good thing, plus the Raptors need to play DeMarre Carroll more at the four. They can wait for Sullinger (who they signed this summer after Boston let him walk in the wake of signing Al Horford.

Heat waive Beno Udrih, Briante Webber, two others to keep Rodney McGruder

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 09:  Beno Udrih #19 of the Miami Heat drives on Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs during a game  at American Airlines Arena on February 9, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Beno Udrih sacrificed $90,000 last season to get the Heat an additional $2.7 million last season.

They repaid him with more than $1.5 million this season (though less than $1 million of it from their own pockets).

And that’s all they gave him.

Miami won’t even give Udrih a regular-season roster spot, waiving him to allow Rodney McGruder to make the team.

Heat release:

The Miami HEAT announced today that they have waived Vashil Fernandez, Luis Montero, Beno Udrih, Brianté Weber and Okaro White.

To recap: Out for the rest of the final season of his guaranteed contract due to injury, Udrih took a buyout that lowered his compensation by $90,000 last season. That brought the Heat under the luxury-tax line, preventing them from paying the repeater rate and allowing them to receive about $2.5 million given to non-tax-paying teams. Miami then re-signed Udrih this offseason, giving him a one-year, $1,551,659 fully guaranteed contract. Most players with guaranteed salaries stick into the regular season, but it seems the Heat paid Udrih for a reason other than their faith in him as a backup point guard.

Here’s the kicker: Because Udrih was a 12-year veteran on a one-year minimum contract, the league – funded by the very teams that rightfully protested Miami’s arrangement – has to fund $571,228 of his salary.

The Heat seemed high on Briante Weber, but he’s young and needs polish. McGruder, who went undrafted out of Kansas State in 2013, is probably more capable of helping now.

This leaves Miami without a clear backup point guard behind Goran Dragic, but combo guards Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson can handle the role.

Chris Paul hopes Clippers develop real home court advantage this year

PLAYA VISTA, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers, Blake Griffin #32 and DeAndre Jordan #6 share a laugh during media day at the Los Angeles Clippers Training Center on September 26, 2016 in Playa Vista, California.  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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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At Clippers home games, you generally wouldn’t use the word “rockin'” to describe the atmosphere. With that, the Los Angeles Clippers are a good team at home, but not a whole lot better than they are on the road. Last season the Clippers won 29 games at Staples Center, 24 away from home. The season before they won 30 at home. The Clippers don’t defend their home court like other elite teams: The past two seasons combined the Clippers have won 19 fewer home games than the Warriors, 15 fewer than the Spurs, five less than the Cavaliers.

Chris Paul wants that to change.

Staples Center can get loud — it has for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Chris Paul isn’t laying the blame on the building or Clippers game operations, he told Dan Woike of the Orange County Register it’s on the players to give the fans something to cheer about.

“One of the biggest things for us is our home court hasn’t really been a home court,” Paul said. “I don’t know. For some reason we just haven’t made it a tough place to play.

“ … Obviously it’s our mentality. We’re the ones playing. We have to give our crowd something to cheer about, something to get behind. We’ve got to make Staples Center, for our home games, a tough place to play.”

“I feel like sometimes we’re a better road team than we are a home team, and that’s not good,” center DeAndre Jordan said. “I mean it’s good, but we want to be a great team at home and a really, really, really good team on the road. We need to figure out how to transition that, and we’ll be fine, but we’ve got to pick it up at home.”

Los Angeles is a city visiting players circle on the schedule — there’s a lot of fun to be had in the City of Angels. That can have opposing players less focused and not at 100 percent when they take the floor for the game, but the Clippers don’t seem to have that advantage. Do the Clippers relax more at home? Are they too comfortable?

The Clippers are an elite team, but if they are going to advance to the Western Conference Finals it’s not going to be one big thing but a lot of little ones that take them to the next level. Having Staples Center become a real house of horrors for opponents is one of those things. We’ll see if things are different for the Clippers this year.