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Three Things We Learned Thursday: Russell Westbrook’s 31st triple-double ties Wilt, beats Spurs

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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.

Report: Duke guard Frank Jackson undergoes foot surgery before NBA draft

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Duke guard Frank Jackson declared for the 2017 NBA draft with an outside shot of going in the first round and a likelihood of getting picked in the second-round.

This won’t help his stock.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Duke’s Frank Jackson, a well-regarded point guard in the 2017 NBA draft class, underwent right foot surgery and is expected to be fully recovered sometime in July.

When Jackson recovers will determine whether he plays in summer league, and that can affect transition to the pros as a rookie.

The bigger questions: Will this hinder his athleticism long-term? Does this put him at greater injury risk?

Jackson, a 6-foot-4 scoring guard, relies on a strong first step to attack the basket and high elevation on his jumper.

Report: 76ers, with No. 3 pick in NBA draft, like PGs De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr.

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If there’s consensus on the top prospects in the 2017 NBA draft, it’s:

1. Markelle Fultz

2. Lonzo Ball

3. Josh Jackson

That squares nicely with the Celtics picking Fultz No. 1 and the Lakers taking Ball No. 2.

But what about the 76ers, who pick No. 3? They already have a playmaking forward with a shaky jumper in Ben Simmons. Jackson isn’t the cleanest fit. Even if they plan to deploy Simmons at point guard, they could still use a traditional point guard for support/insurance.

Enter De'Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr.

Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

https://twitter.com/SBondyNYDN/status/867526157184491521

The 76ers could also get a workout with Ball. There will be point guard options.

I’m just unsure any of them, assuming Ball is off the board, trump Jackson.

Philadelphia’s starting small forward is Robert Covington – a nice player, but not someone who should influence draft decisions. We can lightly pencil Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons into the 76ers’ starting lineup the next time the team gets good, but the rest of the lineup is open. Pondering Jackson’s fit into a half-blank canvass is overthinking. Embiid is an excellent outside shooter for a center, and Philadelphia’s eventual guards (or shooting guard and power forward if Simmons plays point guard) could be good shooters.

The 76ers’ should draft the best prospect available. If that’s Jackson, so be it. They should consider Fox’s and Smith’s fit only if those point guards are in the same tier as Jackson.

That said, don’t rule out the possibility of Fox and Smith working their way into that level. They’re intriguing players.

Thunder’s Enes Kanter: ‘I don’t like Golden State, so I want Cleveland to win the championship’

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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When Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors, Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter jumped fully on board the pro-Russell Westbrook, anti-Durant bandwagon.

That ride doesn’t stop with his former teammate facing the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.

Kanter, via Fox Sports Radio:

I don’t like Golden State, so I want Cleveland to win the championship.

Kanter never misses an opportunity to take a shot at the Warriors – except when Zaza Pachulia laid out Westbrook and stood over him.

Dwane Casey: Masai Ujiri assured me I’ll return as Raptors coach

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Galit Rodan
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Raptors president Masai Ujiri didn’t mince words at his season-ending press conference: Toronto’s playing style had become unacceptable.

It sounded as if he might have been planting the seed for firing Dwane Casey.

But the coach says Ujiri assured him he’d return next season.

Casey on TSN (hat tip: Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic):

I think people mistook Masai’s comments for that. We had a good meeting before that meeting, and we’ve had meeting since then – with all the coaches – as far as plans for next year and the culture reset, which I think every corporation and every team should do periodically to get the culture back in focus and that type of thing. It’s not like we’re in total chaos or anything like that. It’s just good to have roles defined, things we can do better in each of our roles.

We’re doing some good things and some things we can do much better with. And that’s what we’ll plan on doing this summer and also this fall, when we go to training camp.

The Raptors’ offensive rating has dropped from regular season to the playoffs by 8.5, 7.2 and 11.7 the last three years. Their isolation-heavy style is just easier to stop when defenses see it in consecutive games.

The big question: What does Toronto do about that?

It’d be difficult to move on from the two players most responsible for the style, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. DeRozan is signed long-term, and if the Raptors don’t re-sign Lowry, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, they won’t have the cap space to land a comparable replacement.

The best bet is probably changing schemes from the bench and hoping the players can adjust – and maybe Casey can handle that responsibility. Hiring a new coach obviously would been the clearest path to a shake up, but maybe Casey can evolve. I’d want to see a plan from him before committing to keeping him, but maybe Ujiri got that.

Casey has played a key role in Toronto’s improvement, it’s nice to give him an opportunity to coach differently before hiring a different coach.