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Three things we learned Monday: In game of Westbrook vs. World, the world won

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We know you were busy finishing your holiday shopping Monday night — yes, you can just buy your dad a bottle of bourbon — so here are the big takeaways from the night in the NBA that you missed.

1) Russell Westbrook needs a little help — from teammates, officials, anyone really. Russell Westbrook is pretty much turning into the exasperated kid on the playground yelling, “little help here” as the ball rolls away, only to have to go get it himself anyway.

Monday night Westbrook didn’t get the help he wanted from his teammates for 47 minutes or from the referees in the final one, and the result was a 110-108 Atlanta win in Oklahoma City. It was a night of Westbrook vs. the World, and the smart money was on the world. Not coincidentally, this is the fourth game in a row Victor Oladipo has missed with a sore right wrist — he will not need surgery, but he’s going to miss more time — and the Thunder are 1-3 in that stretch.

Westbrook made plays. He shot 16-of-33, was attacking the rim and getting to the line (11-of-13), but also was knocking it down from the midrange, where he was 8-of-14. The problem was the other Thunder starters combined to shoot 30.8 percent for the game. It forced Westbrook to take on more and more. The result was a lot more Westbrook isolation, and Atlanta’s defense made the shots for Westbrook tougher and tougher as the night went on — he still hit 8-of-16 contested shots (stat via NBA.com).

But in the final minute, the referees swallowed their whistles and Westbrook did not get the calls he wanted. After Paul Millsap had given Atlanta the lead on a short jumper (where Westbrook and Andre Roberson messed up the switch), Westbrook brought the ball up and attacked the basket but didn’t get the call, did get his own rebound, but couldn’t hit the follow-up. The Thunder still had 2.9 seconds, and Kyle Singler got the ball into Westbrook who took a contested three — and tried to sell the foul call but didn’t get it. Steven Adams got the rebound, but rather than flipping it up quickly to the bucket he tried to dunk it, and time expired before he got it off. Ballgame.

Needless to say, after the game Westbrook was more than a little frustrated.

Give the Hawks credit here. On a night Dwight Howard was out, Mike Budenholzer started a small lineup and got the first 30-point game of the season from Paul Millsap, who was his All-Star self, seeming to score at will. But the real star was Dennis Schroder, who had 31 points and eight assists, who took advantage of mismatches off switches on the picks all night and seemed to get into the lane whenever he wanted. This was a good win for a Hawks team that could use a couple of those after their recent slump.

2) Nikola Jokic has a coming out party, and Denver is just half a game out of the playoffs. Denver coach Mike Malone’s new starting lineup and frontcourt rotation — a lot of Nikola Jokic and no Jusuf Nurkic — has won the Nuggets three games in a row and has the team just half a game back of stumbling Portland for the last playoff slot in the West. After an ugly start to the season, Denver’s postseason goal is still well within reach.

And if Jokic keeps playing like this they may get it. The second-year big man had 27 points, 15 rebounds, and 9 assists as Denver beat Dallas 117-107. He did most of his damage near the basket (9-of-13 shooting within eight feet of the rim) but was 4-of-4 outside the paint, including hitting his only three. He was getting his buckets using his varied game — as the roll man, on the offensive glass, cuts off the ball and more.

It’s not just Jokic on this win streak. Gary Harris had a career-high 24 points Monday. The up-and-down Emmanuel Mudiay was on the upswing again with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Wilson Chandler in the starting lineup has been a veteran influence the team needed. A lot of things are going right for Denver the last few games — we’ll see if they can sustain it. But the Nuggets are playing an energized brand of basketball in this homestand.

3) Honest Stan Van Gundy is the best Stan Van Gundy. You sick of coach speak? Tired of hearing “I think it was just an off night” or blaming the schedule after a blowout loss? Then we present to you Stan Van Gundy after his Pistons got blown out by the Bulls Monday night.

The Pistons’ had a couple of blowout losses leading into this game, which sparked “players only” meeting where defense and ball movement were stressed. It worked about as well as SVG suggested. The Pistons didn’t do either of those things, and the result was a blowout 113-82 loss to the Bulls (who had lost three in a row before this game). The Pistons are still in the playoff mix in the East and likely will stay there — just four games separate the three seed Celtics from the 12-seed Magic. That’s 10 teams that have playoff dreams, but six spots. There’s a lot of basketball to go, and the Pistons are too talented to not be in the postseason. But they have stumbled since Reggie Jackson‘s return (it’s not all on him), and it’s going to take more than words — from Van Gundy or the players — to right the ship.

Steve Kerr says he’s not ready to coach in NBA Finals, at least not yet

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Steve Kerr has been a regular presence at Warriors practices, he’s traveled with the team to playoff games, he’s been part of the planning/strategizing sessions for the team — basically, he’s been everywhere but the sidelines.

He’s not ready to return there. Yet.

Interim Warriors’ coach Mike Brown was knocked down by the flu on Monday, so Kerr ran the Warriors practice then spoke to the media, but said he still is battling issues from his back surgery and is not ready yet to return to the sidelines. Via Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

The Warriors brought in Mike Brown last summer just for this type of situation — he’s a veteran NBA coach who has led a team to the Finals (the Cavaliers, with LeBron James), and the Warriors thought it possible Kerr could miss time. With Luke Walton in Los Angeles, Golden State wanted a veteran on the bench. Brown is that.

He’s not as creative as Kerr is addressing matchups and challenges, but if Kerr is in the film sessions and practices, then his influence is still there. That may be enough for a more talented and more rested Warriors team (than a year ago) heading into the Finals starting Thursday night.

Stephen A. Smith, who has incorrectly predicted last six NBA Finals, picks Warriors

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ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith has incorrectly predicted the last six NBA Finals – an incredible streak even if he were trying to guess wrong. But at least his picks led to the fun video above.

His prediction this year? Warriors in 7:

Congratulations, Cavaliers!

Warriors, Cavaliers reached NBA Finals with unprecedented combined playoff dominance

AP Photo/Peter J. Carroll
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The Warriors cruised into the NBA Finals in historic fashion, going 12-0 in the first three rounds and outscoring opponents by 16.3 points per game. The Cavaliers (12-1, +13.6) weren’t too far behind.

But, at 24-1, they don’t have the best combined playoff win percentage by NBA Finalists.

In 1957, the Celtics (3-0) and St. Louis Hawks (5-0) were undefeated entering a series Boston won in seven.

The Hawks, Minneapolis Lakers and Fort Wayne Pistons all went 34-48 in the regular season to tie for the Eastern Division crown. St. Louis won a tiebreaker against each team and advanced to the Western Division finals, beating Minneapolis, 3-0.

Meanwhile, the Celtics won the Eastern Division outright and received a bye to the divisions finals. They swept the Syracuse Nationals to reach the NBA Finals.

Obviously, three rounds present a much bigger hill to climb than a single series (even with a couple tiebreaker games). Golden State and Cleveland are unmatched in modern times.

Here’s every NBA Finals sorted by combined playoff record entering Finals:

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Combined point difference per playoff game really shows how much Golden State and Cleveland overwhelmed their conference foes.

The Warriors and Cavs have averaged a +15.0 point difference per game in the playoffs (averaging both teams’ point difference per game equally, so as not to weigh the lesser team more). In the next-best Finals, 1986, neither the Celtics (+12.4) nor Rockets (+8.1) hit that mark alone – let alone averaged.

Here’s every NBA Finals, sorted by the teams’ average point difference per game in previous playoff games:

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Finals Point differences Combined
2017: GSW-CLE GSW (+16.3), CLE (+13.6) +15.0
1986: BOS 4, HOU 2 BOS (+12.4), HOU (+8.1) +10.3
1971: MIL 4, BAL 0 MIL (+15.4), BAL (+4.6) +10.0
1950: MNL 4, SYR 2 MNL (+12.1), SYR (+7.6) +9.9
1974: BOS 4, MIL 3 BOS (+6.2), MIL (+13.6) +9.9
2013: MIA 4, SAS 3 MIA (+9.6), SAS (+10.1) +9.9
2016: CLE 4, GSW 3 CLE (+12.6), GSW (+6.4) +9.5
1957: BOS 4, STL 3 BOS (+12.0), STL (+6.8) +9.4
1985: LAL 4, BOS 2 LAL (+13.6), BOS (+4.8) +9.2
1958: STL 4, BOS 2 STL (+10.8), BOS (+7.0) +8.9
1967: PHI 4, SFW 2 PHI (+11.1), SFW (+6.4) +8.8
1996: CHI 4, SEA 2 CHI (+13.9), SEA (+3.5) +8.7
1991: CHI 4, LAL 1 CHI (+12.5), LAL (+4.9) +8.7
2001: LAL 4, PHI 1 LAL (+15.5), PHI (+1.8) +8.6
1989: DET 4, LAL 0 DET (+8.0), LAL (+8.9) +8.5
2015: GSW 4, CLE 2 GSW (+8.1), CLE (+8.8) +8.4
1954: MNL 4, SYR 3 MNL (+8.8), SYR (+7.8) +8.3
1949: MNL 4, WSC 2 MNL (+9.0), WSC (+7.2) +8.1
1984: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+7.0), LAL (+9.1) +8.1
1948: BLB 4, PHW 2 BLB (+4.5), PHW (+11.0) +7.8
2014: SAS 4, MIA 1 SAS (+8.0), MIA (+7.0) +7.5
1987: LAL 4, BOS 2 LAL (+15.0), BOS (0.0) +7.5
2012: MIA 4, OKC 1 MIA (+7.9), OKC (+6.7) +7.3
1956: PHW 4, FTW 1 PHW (+8.4), FTW (+5.2) +6.8
1992: CHI 4, POR 2 CHI (+5.8), POR (+7.6) +6.7
1953: MNL 4, NYK 1 MNL (+6.4), NYK (+6.8) +6.6
1964: BOS 4, SFW 1 BOS (+8.4), SFW (+4.9) +6.6
1973: NYK 4, LAL 1 NYK (+5.6), LAL (+7.6) +6.6
1998: CHI 4, UTA 2 CHI (+6.7), UTA (+6.4) +6.5
2005: SAS 4, DET 3 SAS (+7.1), DET (+5.8) +6.4
1997: CHI 4, UTA 2 CHI (+7.8), UTA (+5.0) +6.4
2003: SAS 4, NJN 2 SAS (+5.4), NJN (+7.3) +6.3
1969: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+5.4), LAL (+7.3) +6.3
1962: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+5.6), LAL (+7.0) +6.3
1999: SAS 4, NYK 1 SAS (+8.2), NYK (+4.3) +6.3
1982: LAL 4, PHI 2 LAL (+10.8), PHI (+1.7) +6.2
1968: BOS 4, LAL 2 BOS (+3.8), LAL (+8.6) +6.2
1970: NYK 4, LAL 3 NYK (+5.3), LAL (+7.0) +6.1
1955: SYR 4, FTW 3 SYR (+7.3), FTW (+4.8) +6.0
2011: DAL 4, MIA 2 DAL (+7.1), MIA (+4.7) +5.9
1972: LAL 4, NYK 1 LAL (+2.6), NYK (+8.8) +5.7
2009: LAL 4, ORL 1 LAL (+6.6), ORL (+4.8) +5.7
1966: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+7.1), LAL (+4.3) +5.7
1947: PHW 4, CHS 1 PHW (+6.0), CHS (+5.0) +5.5
1951: ROC 4, NYK 3 ROC (+8.9), NYK (+2.0) +5.4
1961: BOS 4, STL 1 BOS (+10.8), STL (0.0) +5.4
2008: BOS 4, LAL 2 BOS (+4.3), LAL (+6.4) +5.4
2006: MIA 4, DAL 2 MIA (+4.8), DAL (+5.9) +5.3
1975: GSW 4, WSB 0 GSW (+5.7), WSB (+4.7) +5.2
1988: LAL 4, DET 3 LAL (+4.6), DET (+5.4) +5.0
1980: LAL 4, PHI 2 LAL (+3.7), PHI (+6.0) +4.9
1993: CHI 4, PHO 2 CHI (+8.5), PHO (+1.1) +4.8
2004: DET 4, LAL 1 DET (+5.7), LAL (+3.8) +4.7
2010: LAL 4, BOS 3 LAL (+4.0), BOS (+5.3) +4.6
1983: PHI 4, LAL 0 PHI (+4.9), LAL (+4.4) +4.6
1963: BOS 4, LAL 2 BOS (+5.6), LAL (+3.0) +4.3
1960: BOS 4, STL 3 BOS (+3.3), STL (+4.7) +4.0
2007: SAS 4, CLE 0 SAS (+3.4), CLE (+4.2) +3.8
1981: BOS 4, HOU 2 BOS (+4.0), HOU (+3.3) +3.7
1977: POR 4, PHI 2 POR (+3.9), PHI (+3.2) +3.6
2000: LAL 4, IND 2 LAL (+3.8), IND (+2.9) +3.4
1990: DET 4, POR 1 DET (+7.7), POR (-1.4) +3.1
1994: HOU 4, NYK 3 HOU (+4.8), NYK (+1.2) +3.0
1978: WSB 4, SEA 3 WSB (+2.4), SEA (+3.5) +2.9
1995: HOU 4, ORL 0 HOU (+1.8), ORL (+3.2) +2.5
2002: LAL 4, NJN 0 LAL (+2.3), NJN (+2.3) +2.3
1965: BOS 4, LAL 1 BOS (+2.9), LAL (+1.7) +2.3
1952: MNL 4, NYK 3 MNL (+3.7), NYK (0.0) +1.8
1959: BOS 4, MNL 0 BOS (+6.3), MNL (-3.0) +1.6
1976: BOS 4, PHO 2 BOS (+2.3), PHO (+0.5) +1.4
1979: SEA 4, WSB 1 SEA (+1.6), WSB (-0.1) +0.8

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Josh Jackson a better prospect than Lonzo Ball?

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Josh Jackson, at this point, seems to be the consensus best prospect not named Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball.

He’s 6-foot-8. He’s super-athletic. He’s competitive as hell. He’s skilled enough to play the point in a pinch and tough enough that he played the four at Kansas. On paper, he’s Andrew Wiggins physically with all the intangibles that we wish Wiggins had.

Then there’s the other side of it.

Jackson’s jump shot, which went in at a 37.8 percent clip from beyond the arc last season, has enough of a hitch in it that there is legitimate concern about just how good of a shooter he’ll end up being without a complete overhaul of his stroke. There’s also the mental side of the game: Jackson’s an instinctual playmaker that has a bad habit of being a space cadet defensively.

I’m not here to tell you those red flags don’t exist. They do. He has room to grow there.

But I am here to tell you that Josh Jackson is closer to being the best prospect in this draft than the third-best, and by the time I’m done here, you’ll be agreeing with me.

Height: 6’8″
Weight: 207
Wingspan: 6’10”
2016-17 Stats: 16.3 points, 7.4 boards, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 37.8% 3PT

STRENGTHS: The reason that Jackson is so coveted as a prospect are the things that he does that you cannot teach.

It starts with his competitiveness. Jackson is a fiery, he’s intense and it manifests itself in the way that he plays, almost to a fault; Jackson picked up four fouls in 11 of 35 games as a freshman and picked up a handful of technical fouls after interactions with officials. There’s also a toughness to him that outweighs his 207 pound frame. He’s not afraid to get into tangles for loose balls, he’s not going to get backed down easily and he’s more than willing to put his body on the line to take a charge. Simply put: I’d rather try to keep the reins on a player that may care just a little too much than have to find a way to fire up an apathetic talent.

Then there are the physical tools. Athletically, he’s a bouncy, quick-twitch player that can move laterally with terrific body control and the ability to changes speeds on the move. He’s quick enough to stay in front of point guards and explosive enough to block shots, catch lobs and throw down tip-dunks, and his 6-foot-8 size allows him to be a versatile, multi-positional defender. I hesitate on saying he has a elite physical tools due to his wingspan and frame, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Lastly, there are his instincts. He’s a read-and-react player, a guy that can make plays defensively by jumping passing lanes, getting weak-side blocks and taking charges. He has a knack for getting easy buckets cutting to the rim and is aggressive on the glass on both ends of the floor.

Those are things that cannot be taught. You either have it in you or you don’t, and Jackson has it.

He also has some skills. We’ll get into the issues with his jump shot in a minute, but Jackson did make 37.8 percent of his threes as a freshman, including a 25-for-52 stretch to close the season. He utilizes ball-fakes and has a good enough first step to attack close outs, and while he isn’t the best or most creative finisher at the rim, he is capable of using both hands and has shown that he can make a floater.

Josh Jackson (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

What’s more promising, however, is that Jackson has the potential to be a secondary ball-handler and creator. He has above-average vision and is an unselfish player and willing passer, averaging 3.0 assists as a freshman. He can operate in pick-and-rolls and is capable of bringing the ball up against pressure.

He’s still raw offensively — he makes some bad decisions, commits some turnovers — and, at times, looks like he hasn’t been coached all that much defensively, but the skills he does have combined with the things he does that cannot be taught are a fantastic foundation for an NBA organization to work with.

In a sport that is becoming increasingly positionless, Jackson provides starpower potential with versatility on both ends of the floor.

WEAKNESSES: The biggest issue with Jackson as a prospect is his jump shot. Yes, he shot 37.8 percent from beyond the arc, but it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s just the result of Jackson getting hot in a small sample of catch-and-shoot jumpers.

According to Synergy, Jackson shot just 57 percent from the free throw line, 35.9 percent on all jump shots, 32.3 percent on jumpers off the dribble and just 20.8 percent on two-point jumpers. The main concern is that Jackson has a hitch in his release that creates a lot of moving parts in his stroke, resulting in different release points. You can see it in the video below, there is a slingshot action in his release:

The question marks surrounding Jackson’s jumper sink his stock because, despite his height, he doesn’t project as a guy that can play the small-ball four role in the NBA the way that he did at Kansas. Jackson’s 6-foot-10 wingspan is relatively short — for comparison’s sake, Draymond Green has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and Kawhi Leonard has a 7-foot-3 wingspan — and his slender frame makes it hard to project just how much more muscle mass his body can hold.

Put another way, Jackson can guard twos and threes — and potentially ones — at the next level, but he’s not guarding fours. He’s going to be playing a position where he either needs to be an knockdown shooter or capable of creating in isolation in the half court, and Jackson scored just 0.609 points per possession in isolation as a freshman, the 23rd percentile, despite being guarded predominantly by college four-men on a team with three three-point snipers around him.

It begs the question: Is he ever going to be great at anything on the offensive end of the floor?

And that’s before you factor in that he turned 20 years old in February; he’s older than one-and-done freshmen drafted in 2016.

The other issue you’ll hear mentioned with Jackson is that he has bad habits defensively and he gets beaten on the dribble more easily than you would expect from someone with his athleticism. The bad habits — specifically, the tendency to lose focus on who he is guarding — seems to me to be a result of Jackson trying a little too hard to be a playmaker off the ball, and getting beaten off the dribble has a lot to do with his overactive, choppy feet.

Neither are all that concerning to me, particularly when you factor in his intangibles on that end of the floor. Those issues can be coached away, and there’s not better place for that to happen than in the NBA.

NBA COMPARISON: The easy — and lazy — comparison to make is Andrew Wiggins, who is another 6-foot-8, freakishly-athletic small forward to come out of Kansas, and it’s not the worst comparison I’ve ever seen. The two have similar physical tools and question marks about their jump shots. The problem with that comparison, however, is that the things that make Jackson so intriguing are precisely the skills that Wiggins struggles with.

Jackson is a tough, versatile defender and a fiery competitor that is well-rounded offensively: unselfish with promising court vision and a knack for making instinctual, read-and-react plays. His ceiling is as a player that can average more than 20 points, act as a secondary ball-handler and play maker while potentially being a shutdown defender for twos and threes. Andre Igoudala, before he landed with Golden State and turned into a role player in the twilight of his career, had a seven-year stretch where he averaged 12 points, five boards, five assists and 1.5 steals, scoring more than 17 points per game in four of those seasons.

OUTLOOK: The way I see it, Josh Jackson is the the second-best prospect in this draft. I’d draft him over Lonzo Ball, and I think the gap between Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson is smaller than the gap between Josh Jackson and Ball, who would be third on my draft board.

Jackson has some issues that need fixing — his jump shot, his tendency to be a space cadet defensively — and there are some valid concerns about his age and the fact that his slender frame may not be able to hold all that much more weight, but those issues are coachable. What isn’t coachable, however, is his competitiveness, his intensity, his unselfishness, his instincts and his ability to read the game and be a playmaker, both offensively and defensively.

He’s a gifted athlete that is going to fight — quite possibly in the literal sense — for the team that he’s on. If he puts in the time to develop his jumper, his body and his focus on the defensive side of the ball, I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could average 25 points, five boards and five assists as a shutdown wing defender.