Three Things We Learned Wednesday: Warriors, Russell Westbrook make statements


You missed Wednesday night’s NBA action because you were busy watching videos then making your favorite foods seen on television shows and movies — like the ratatouille from Ratatouille — and we can respect that. Here’s what you missed around the NBA while you were cooking.

1) Warriors end doubt about who will finish with top seed in West, make playoff statement by coming from 22-down to beat Spurs. The Golden State Warriors, with a healthy Kevin Durant (as we saw the middle of this season) is the most talented team in the NBA, and it will be difficult for any team to beat them in a seven-game series.

Wednesday night we had to ask: Are the Golden State Warriors without Kevin Durant still the most talented and best team in the NBA?

The answer the last two nights has been yes. First, the Warriors beat the Rockets and hold James Harden in relative check. Then the next night the Warriors come from 22 down to beat the Spurs in San Antonio, dominating the game’s final three quarters. That ninth-straight win all but assured the Warriors the top seed in the West. It also was a statement from Golden State — nobody is better than us right now… and by the way, we get to add Kevin Durant

It also was a statement from Golden State — nobody is better than us right now… and by the way, we get to add Kevin Durant back to the mix in a couple of weeks.

It didn’t look like the Warriors were going to make a statement early in this game.

However, in the NBA a massive first-quarter lead is almost never safe against a good team that can shoot the three. Those leads get blown all the time. And by the second quarter, the Stephen Curry (29 points for the game) and Klay Thompson (23 points) shooting exhibition was on. By the third quarter, the Warriors were in the lead and looking to take command.

The guy who plunged the daggers into San Antonio was former Spur David West, who was fantastic in the fourth quarter and finished with 15 points.

Yes, Golden State looked like the team to beat heading into the playoffs last year, and all they did was have a chance to win it all in the final minutes of Game 7 of the Finals (Cleveland closed that out better). Those Warriors were a very good team — and this year’s version may be better. The ultimate test of that is ahead. But the statement they are the team to beat has been made loud and clear the last two nights.

2) Every time you don’t think Russell Westbrook can do more… he set an NBA record with a 57-point triple-double in Thunder comeback win. I don’t know if Russell Westbrook is going to win the NBA MVP award — I get the sense a lot of voters are swayed by the numbers/efficiency/wins James Harden is putting up — but I know I can’t stop watching him.

Wednesday night was another show — and I don’t just mean the 57 points, the 13 rebounds, and the 11 assists, becoming the first player ever in the NBA with a 57-point triple double. I mean leading a team back from a 21-point third quarter deficit, then hitting the game-tying three to force overtime when everyone in the building knew he would take it but he pulled up from 30 off the dribble and drained it anyway. I mean the rim-rattling dunks, but also the seven points in overtime to secure the win. I mean the smart passes when the entire Orlando defense seemed to collapse on him. Westbrook did it all.

I keep hearing about how Westbrook is chasing stats. Maybe somewhat. However, what I see is a guy chasing wins and knowing the only way the Thunder get those is if he is nothing short of brilliant — the Warriors have a .815 winning percentage when Westbrook gets a triple-double and .333 when he doesn’t. The Thunder need him to play this way, they are a bad team when he is off the court. When he is on it, you can’t take your eyes off him.

3) Milwaukee shows why it will be a tough out in playoffs, beats Boston and knocks Celtics back into a tie with Cavaliers. The single best moment on Wednesday night was when Giannis Antetokounmpo and Isaiah Thomas had to face off for a jump ball.

It may be a little bit on the nose, but that was a good metaphor for this game — Milwaukee is a big, long team loaded with athletes and on this night Boston could not overcome them. Thomas has a strong game with 32 points and kept things close — Marcus Smart missed a three to tie at the end — but the Bucks had better balance and depth (the Greek Freak had 22, Khris Middleton added 19).

I’d still pick the Celtics in a seven-game series (although the Bucks look to be the Raptors’ first-round problem) but let this game serve as a reminder that the Bucks will not go quietly into that good night. Also, you may want to avoid jump balls with them.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.

LeBron James on NBA play-in tournament: “No, no, no. That’s wack.”

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It’s a long way off, but there has been some discussion in the league office — and some momentum built up in some corners — for a play-in tournament for the NBA playoffs. While multiple variations of how this would work are in play, it involves some combination of teams seeded seven to 10 in a few single-elimination (or home-and-home) games to see who gets into the 16-team playoffs. The goal is to keep more teams — and more fan bases — engaged in the playoff chase longer.

LeBron James is not a fan. Via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“No, no, no,” James said Wednesday. “That’s wack. That’s wack. Why? You got to earn your spot to be in the postseason. No consolation for finishing last. That’s corny. That’s corny. That’s wack. To play for what? What are they playing for?”

So, how do you really feel?

“[Make the playoffs by winning the tournament], even if my record is better than yours? Nah, that’s wack,” James said.

As fans, we love drama and unpredictability — it’s what we love about March Madness, the upsets that ruin our bracket — and a play-in tournament would bring some to the often predictable NBA table.

However, LeBron has a point. Using the Western Conference and the current standings as an example, how excited are fans and the front offices of the Jazz and Nuggets going to be about an extra game or two for the right to get smacked down by Houston in the first round? Or for the Timberwolves to maybe be out after a game where they lose to the Clippers in a play-in, rather than getting to take on Golden State? Will this really sell well?

The only way this gets backing of most players and the union is if it could help shorten the season — if television and other revenue from these games allowed the 82 game season to drop to 72 (or whatever) and keep the money the same, then players would listen. However, that much money seems unlikely.

Maybe a mid-season NBA Tournament held in one city could generate the needed revenue to shorten the season. Maybe. But that seems more likely than a play-in.

Kyle Korver to miss Wednesday vs. Toronto after death of his brother

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I can’t imagine what this is like.

Cavaliers’ sharpshooter Kyle Korver will not be with the Cavaliers for an interesting showdown with Toronto on Wednesday night due to the death of his younger brother, Kirk. Korver has been given a leave of absence from the team.

Kirk Korver, 27, played four years of college ball at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

There are four Korver brothers, all of whom played college basketball or at a higher level. Kirk was the youngest of them, he reportedly fell seriously ill about a week ago.

Our thoughts are with the entire Korver family.

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