It’s only March, but I think we have the winner for “Best Headline of 2017” already: “Lawyer’s Pants Catch On Fire During Arson Trial.” Beyond that, here are the takeaways from a Thursday around the NBA.
1) Russell Westbrook‘s 31st triple-double ties Wilt Chamberlain, lifts Thunder past Spurs. Anytime you’re mentioned as doing something as well and as often as Wilt Chamberlain, you’re in impressive company. (And I know where your mind just went, but I’m going to be classier than that. Just this once.)
Russell Westbrook had been putting up big numbers lately, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops or wins and had dropped four in a row, all to teams under .500. Thursday night Billy Donovan finally decided to put Taj Gibson in the starting lineup (over rookie Domas Sabonis), and that helped. So did the fact Steven Adams had his best game in a while, getting touches early, going right at the Spurs’ Dewayne Dedmon, and being engaged on both ends. Victor Oladipo would score 20, and Enes Kanter added 14. More importantly, this was the best defensive game from the Thunder in a while. It all helped, but as always this is Westbrook’s team and for them to win he had to put up numbers — he tied Wilt for second most triple-doubles in a season with 31, putting up 23 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing out 13 assists.
For the Spurs, this may have been a little reminder that they want to actually chase the Warriors and the No. 1 seed in the West (they are two games back and the teams play head-to-head Saturday in San Antonio). Granted, Thursday was not the full Spurs experience — no Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker, plus Kawhi Leonard went to the locker room in the third quarter after a blow to the face and did not return — but the road for the No. 2 seed in the West is going to be much tougher than the top seed.
Think about it. Win the top seed and a team faces either Denver or Portland in the first round, two terrible defenses, then in the second round gets the beatable Clippers or Jazz. Come in second and the first round is either Westbrook and the Thunder or the very physical and talented Memphis Grizzlies, followed by James Harden and the Rockets in the second round. Yes, the Spurs would beat the Thunder and very possibly the Rockets in a seven-game series (although it would be interesting with Houston), but the road to the conference finals is exponentially harder for the two seed.
2) LeBron James got zero help Thursday night, and the Cavaliers have dropped three straight. The individual +/- stat for a game is rarely useful. There’s a lot of noise in that statistic, a lot of factors beyond how the player performed that make up that number.
However, every once in a while it tells the story. The Cavaliers were + 18 in the 39 minutes LeBron James played against the Pistons Thursday, they were -23 in the nine minutes he rested. This is a little trend.
J.R. Smith returned to the Cavaliers lineup, which will be a boost but on Thursday he was trying to shoot his way out of feeling rusty. Kyrie Irving had 27 points, Channing Frye 15 on seven shots, but the fact is the Cavs shot 26.7 points when LeBron sat. He’s not a Terminator, he’s a human and LeBron still needs rest, but when he played he did put up a triple-double of 29 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.
Credit Detroit for a good game and a big win. This was the best Reggie Jackson has looked maybe all season, scoring 21 and dishing out five assists, leading six Pistons players in double figures in scoring. Andre Drummond had 20 points and 16 boards. This looked like the Pistons team we expected this season, and the win moved them into the seven seed half-a-game ahead of the slumping Bulls and a full game up on the Heat and Bucks, who are knocking on the door. Detroit needs more games like this down the stretch to ensure a playoff visit.
3) Jusuf Nurkic has been a revelation in Portland, lifts Trail Blazers past Sixers. In Denver, Jusuf Nurkic was the odd man out — Nikola Jokic was the big man of the future (as he should be), Jokic and Nurkic couldn’t play well together, and that left Nurkic the odd man out. Denver wanted to get rid of Nurkic so badly they sent him and a valued 2017 first round pick to Portland (for Mason Plumlee and a second rounder).
Since his arrival in Portland, Nurkic has done things he didn’t show in Denver (or refused to do) and has been the big man has sparked a four-game winning streak (Nurkic said “I played minutes for first time in my life”). Thursday night he had 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists, six blocks, two steals and the game-sealing defensive play in overtime to help the Blazers beat the Sixers in overtime. Portland is now just half a game back of Nurkic’s former team in Denver for the eighth seed in the West.
Nurkic has averaged 16.5 pts, 9.6 rebs, and 4.5 assists per game since coming to Portland, giving the Blazers far more than Plumlee did — and more than they expected in the deal. Plus the Blazers got a first rounder out of this.
If Portland makes the playoffs, Nurkic will be a key reason.