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.

LeBron James, Cavaliers Rick-roll intro video for ’80s night

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) shoots over Miami Heat's Rodney McGruder (17) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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The 1980s were back in Cleveland Friday night. Well, not completely, Bernie Kosar wasn’t leading the Browns to contention (although man, could they use him now).

No, the ’80s were back in the form of the throwback orange Cavaliers uniforms. And to complete the theme, the Cavaliers players dressed up and Rick-rolled the intro video — they did the complete “classic” Rick Astley hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” And it was awesome.

The Cavaliers won the game 114-84 over the Heat behind 28 from Kevin Love, but that was secondary to the intro video.

Best dunk from Friday night? Houston’s Sam Dekker. Yes, Dekker. (VIDEO)

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Second-year forward Sam Dekker is finding a comfort zone in the Mike D’Antoni offense in Houston. Healthy this season, he is coming off the bench for 18 minutes a night, and his game where he is quick and can also hit the three is fitting perfectly with Houston’s system, leading him to 6.7 points a game.

Also, he can run the floor. And finish.

As Enes Kanter found out when he hustled, got back in transition defense, and wasn’t going to stop Dekker from getting to the rim.

That’s a quality dunk.

The Rockets went on to win the game 102-99, despite Russell Westbrook‘s seventh-straight triple-double.

LeBron James passes Elvin Hayes, moves into ninth on all-time scoring list (VIDEO)

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LeBron James has been climbing the NBA’s All-time scoring list fast the past couple years, passing Hakeem Olajuwon last season to move into the top 10.

Friday night LeBron passed another legend, Elvin Hayes, who spent the prime of his career with the Washington Bullets and was an NBA champion, six-time All-NBA and 12-time All-Star from the late 1960s through the early 1980s.

LeBron passed Hayes with a vintage LeBron bucket, bringing the ball up in transition, then just using his quickness and strength to power to the rim.

LeBron’s not done, he should pass Moses Malone in the next week or so. Here is the NBA’s All-time scoring Top 10. (As a side note, if you count ABA scoring in the mix LeBron is 11th because Julius Erving and Dan Issel both pass him. For now.)

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 38387
2. Karl Malone 36928
3. Kobe Bryant 33643
4. Michael Jordan 32292
5. Wilt Chamberlain 31419
6. Dirk Nowitzki 29552
7. Shaquille O’Neal 28596
8. Moses Malone 27409
9. LeBron James 27315
10. Elvin Hayes 27313

Carmelo Anthony scores 33 to help Knicks hold off Kings 103-100

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Carmelo Anthony scored 33 points, including two free throws with 14.8 seconds remaining, and the New York Knicks held on to beat the Sacramento Kings 103-100 Friday night.

Kristaps Porzingis added 17 points and 10 rebounds for New York. Brandon Jennings scored 13 in place of injured Derrick Rose, and Kyle O'Quinn had eight points and 11 rebounds to help the Knicks beat the Kings for the second time in six days.

New York went cold from the field down the stretch but made six free throws over the final 2:09 to hang on.

The Kings missed multiple shots in the waning moments, including an uncontested driving layup by DeMarcus Cousins with 22 seconds left that would have given Sacramento the lead.

Rudy Gay missed a potential tying 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining, and Cousins also missed a desperation heave from beyond midcourt that hit the rim at the buzzer.

Anthony had 23 points and five rebounds in the first half, then came up big from the stripe to help seal the Knicks’ fifth win in six games. He shot 9 of 22 from the floor and made his first 12 free throw attempts before missing two with 2.6 seconds left.

Cousins finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Gay added 13 points for the Kings.

Things got chippy during a timeout with 2:23 remaining. Darren Collison of the Kings and Courtney Lee of the Knicks appeared to get into a heated exchange before players from both teams stepped between the two. Collison and Lee received technical fouls.

TIP-INS

Knicks: Anthony scored 15 points in the first quarter. He also was called for a technical foul while driving for a layup attempt in the fourth. . Jennings shot 5 of 10 and had five rebounds with seven assists. He also shot an air ball on a free throw in the fourth quarter.

Kings: Collison scored six straight points in the fourth quarter and made a layup that briefly put Sacramento up 94-92. . Cousins was whistled for a technical foul midway through the third quarter, his eighth of the season.

A REST FOR BARNES

Matt Barnes did not play for the first time this season, although Kings coach Dave Joerger said it had nothing to do with the ongoing investigation stemming from an altercation in a bar that Barnes and Cousins were allegedly involved in while the team was in New York last weekend. Joerger called it a scheduled rest for Barnes, adding that he plans to do it more frequently for the remainder of the season.