Associated Press

Three things we learned Thursday: Memphis, Marc Gasol just win every close game

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Here’s what you missed Thursday around the NBA while you were drinking homemade glow-in-the-dark beer with jellyfish genes in it (no, you try it first, I insist)…

1) Don’t play Memphis in a close game, they just find a way to win.
Last week, when Mike Conley went down with a back injury and was going to miss six weeks (give or take), we questioned if Memphis could keep their heads above water. They promptly went out and lost to a very good Toronto team.

Since then they have won five in a row, capped by an impressive 88-86 win over Portland Tuesday. Impressive because:

• Memphis is now 12-0 in games that were within 3 points in the final minute. You get in a close game with Memphis, you lose. (Statistically, we know some of that is luck, that there will be some regression to the mean, but that stat has propelled a team has been outscored by nine points this season, one that should be 12-12, to the 16-8 record they have.)

• Memphis trailed Portland 79-68 with less than five minutes to go, and still won.

Marc Gasol had 36 points and has been an absolute beast since Conley went down, doing whatever it takes to win.

• Toney Douglas — a guy the Grizzlies just picked up off the street this week, basically — comes in and is clutch down the stretch for them, including hitting the game-winning free throws with 0.5 seconds left (Damian Lillard tried to argue the call, to no avail).

The schedule gets tough for Memphis the next couple of weeks — Golden State, home-and-home with Cleveland, then Boston and Utah looming not long after — but do not doubt the Grizzlies. No team is as resilient as this bunch.

2) Bulls prove Spurs aren’t perfect on the road. It was bound to happen, the San Antonio Spurs were 13-0 on the road, they were going to stumble at some point. That point turned out to be Thursday night in Chicago, where the Spurs came out of the gate like they went out and had a big pregame meal of Lou Malnati’s pizza — 32 points on 30.6 percent shooting in the first half for San Antonio. The Spurs didn’t defend poorly, for example Kawhi Leonard held Jimmy Butler to no first-half points — in fact, midway through the first quarter Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez had scored almost all the Bulls’ buckets — but the San Antonio offense was dreadful. Throw a little credit to the Chicago defense if you want, but this was more San Antonio stumbling than a Chicago return to the Thibodeau era.

The Bulls were up 12 at the half and were able to hang on despite a strong second 24 minutes from Leonard (17 of his 24 came in the second half) and get the win. Dwyane Wade had 20 points and hit a couple of key buckets late to stabilize Chicago. For a Bulls team that is going to be in a playoff battle all season — they are the seven seed right now, one game ahead of the Pacers in ninth — these kinds of wins at home can prove huge.

3) What is it with Minnesota and second half? On the road, the Minnesota Timberwolves had played the Toronto Raptors even for the first 24 minutes — it was 59-59 at the half. And yet, there was a sense of dread for Timberwolves fans because all season their young team has just come apart in the third quarter — and then Toronto opened the second half on an 11-2 run. Minnesota, to their credit, crawls back into it, but midway through the fourth the Raptors go on a 17-4 run sparked by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and the Raptors pull away for the 124-110 win. The Timberwolves lost another game because they can’t defend well.

Minnesota shows flashes of the kind of brilliance that has everyone thinking they might be a contender in a few years. But we all expected too much too soon from this group. Those impressive stretches are followed by ones where they play like a young team, they don’t defend well, and they throw those good efforts away. Not that they were going to beat a good Toronto team on the road, but the Timberwolves can be frustrating to watch. Patience is hard, and Minnesota fans are being asked to show a lot of it. We can debate if it’s time to bring Ricky Rubio off the bench and let Kris Dunn sink or swim, but that’s not the core problem. Ultimately, the Timberwolves are young and playing like it. They don’t know how and aren’t putting in the effort to defend well yet. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, they can be the core of a contender eventually, but there is a lot of learning to do along the way. Tom Thibodeau can teach them. But it’s going to require patience.

Russell Westbrook dogs Warriors, Damian Lillard after Paul George misses All-Star roster

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Ah yes, let the mud-slinging begin.

Russell Westbrook is on a team with three huge stars in the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was always going to be difficult for all of them to make the 2018 NBA All-Star team out west.

But that doesn’t matter to Russ.

After Tuesday night’s win over the Brooklyn Nets (where Westbrook hit the game-winning shot, no less) the reigning NBA MVP had some thoughts about teammate Paul George missing out on the All-Star Game, calling it “outrageous”.

Westbrook wasn’t too happy with teams getting “four people” onto the team (a dig at the Golden State Warriors) and that players are, “Talking about getting snubbed until they get in.”

That last part seems to have taken aim at Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, one of the most talked about snubs in recent years who finally got another All-Star bid.

Via Twitter:

Westbrook also said that George was “Top 2 at his position” which really colors the underlying issue at hand: Russ likes PG and wants him to stay in OKC.

Nobody reasonable would say that George is a Top 2 player on the wing. Not while LeBron James and Kevin Durant are alive, at least. And Westbrook’s comments about folks being stars vs. not stars, even if the voting goes one way says a lot.

The Warriors are the best team of all time. A bunch of guys getting on All-Star teams in their heyday makes sense, even if one of those guys is Klay Thompson (sometimes). We all have Warriors fatigue, I guess.

Meanwhile, Lillard is one of adidas’ biggest athletes when it comes to basketball, the face of a franchise, and has put up numbers deserving of making the team in years past. He’s also a big personality and a rapper. Lillard’s name is in lights each and every night. The issue with him sees to be that nobody watches him consistently east of the Cascades.

But all this arguing gives legitimacy to Westbrook’s point, which is mostly personal. George’s numbers have taken a dip in some areas, particularly when it comes to things like VORP, assist percentage, and true shooting. They’ve gone up in others, like 3-point shooting. He’s still a very good player and very valuable to the Thunder.

Each year, guys get left off the All-Star team for various reasons. Sometimes it’s just their turn to be on it or be off it. Nice of Westbrook to stop by with some takes.

Here’s hoping for him that George stays in OKC.

Russell Westbrook hits game-winning shot to beat Nets (VIDEO)

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Spencer Dinwiddie hit the game-winning shot for the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night. At least, many thought he did.

But that honor actually went to Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook, who had hit the real game winner with a little more than three seconds to go.

Westbrook’s bucket came on after a sideline inbounds play led to a hard drive to the right side of the bucket for the reigning MVP.

Then, Dinwiddie got the ball and had appeared to make a 3-pointer to win the game for the Nets. However, it clanged off the side of the rim, moving the net in a way that many watching on TV and in the arena thought had gone in.

Via Twitter:

OKC beat Brooklyn, 109-108.

Here’s LeBron James scoring the 30,000th point of his career (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is officially the youngest player to ever reach 30,000 points in an NBA career.

The Cleveland Cavaliers great, who preemptively congratulated himself in a weird Instagram post earlier in the day, got points 30,000 and 30,001 at the age of 33 years and 24 days, edging Kobe Bryant by a year and 80 days.

The play came with just a second to go in the first quarter while the Cavaliers played on the road against the San Antonio Spurs.

Dribbling on the left arc against Danny Green — a formidable defender — LeBron gave a hesitation dribble before stepping just inside the 3-point line for a pull-up jumper.

Via Twitter:

LeBron still has Dirk Nowitzki, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ahead of him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

Where he ends up might just depend on how long Nowitzki plays.

Top five 2018 All-Star Game snubs

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We fans love to talk about who gets snubbed. There are 68 teams in the NCAA tournament and we argue about who was 69th and deserved to be there.

With the NBA All-Star game, there are always legitimate snubs — and with the Western Conference so ridiculously deep this season good players were going to get left out. Just picking my reserve choices for a podcast felt brutal.

We now know the All-Star Game starters and reserves, so who got snubbed. Here are the top five.

1) Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers. Los Angeles has been devastated by injuries this season (not to mention losing Chris Paul in the off-season) yet they are still in the playoff hunt in the West and the main reason is Lou Williams. The leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate is averaging 23.3 points per game, 5,3 assists a night, and is shooting better than 40 percent from three. He had a red-hot January so far, averaging 29.2 points per game. This may be a case where Damian Lillard got the nod from the coaches for his multi-year body of work (he’s been good a long time), but Williams is having his best season ever and has a great case.

2) Chris Paul, Houston Rockets. He likely didn’t get selected because he has missed 17 games this season — but Stephen Curry missed 15 and is a captain. When CP3 has played he’s been brilliant, averaging 19.1 points and 8.9 assists per game, he’s been crucial to improving the Rockets defense this season, and when he is on the court the Rockets outscore opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions. The Rockets are 23-5 when he plays. Houston is the second best team in the NBA, they should have more than one representative tonight.

3) Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons. The coaches went with four guards for the East reserves, and that left just three frontcourt spots and four deserving players. Drummond is the odd-man out. Which sucks — he is averaging 14.3 points per game on 54 percent shooting, and he remains the best rebounder in the game today pulling down 15 a night. He has improved his defensive play as well, but what everyone notices is he hitting his free throws (62.9 percent) and that means Stan Van Gundy can play him at the end of games and not sub him out.

Drummond was more than a little frustrated he didn’t make the cut.

4) Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder. George has played well on both ends this season next to Russell Westbrook. He is averaging 20.8 points per game and shooting 42.9 percent from three on one end of the floor, and defensively he is averaging 4.4 deflections per game and has 93 steals — both tops in the league. George is a four-time All-Star and it feels weird to see him left out, but he came to the ridiculously deep Western Conference and good players were not going to make it. He’s the odd man out in the frontcourt.

5) Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets. Could have got a lot of directions here – Ben Simmons and Goran Dragic can make their cases on appeal — but people have been sleeping on just how well Walker has been playing this season. Walker is averaging an efficient 21.8 points per game, dishing out 5.9 assists per night, and when he is on the court the Hornets outscore teams by 5.1 points per 100 possessions (that’s better than the Celtics or Timberwolves net ratings for the season). The problem is when he sits they fall apart, and Walker pays the price for his team struggling this season. His name has popped up in trade rumors, and he is the best guy available right now (not that he gets moved in a tight market). Walker was an All-Star last season and had a very strong case to be one again.