Semaj Christon

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Russell Westbrook changes conversation in win over Rockets

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The Great Russell Westbrook Debate can shift topics. “Is he clutch enough” is the new “Is he too selfish?”

Westbrook went 3-of-6 on free throws down the stretch, and the Thunder blew a 10-point lead in the final minutes. But James Harden missed a 3-pointer just before the buzzer, allowing Oklahoma City to escape with a 115-113 Game 3 win over the Rockets on Friday.

“I’ve got to make a free throw,” Westbrook grumbled to begin his on-court interview before seemingly realizing stewing was a bad look and expressed pleasure his team trimmed the series deficit to 2-1.

And, yes, Westbrook clearly cares how he looks, no matter what pretenses he puts up.

His cartoonish fourth quarter of Game 2 – shooting 4-for-18 while his teammates shot 3-for-11 – invited deep criticism of his ball-hogging. Westbrook showed a different approach from the jump tonight, making a concerted effort to find his teammates. He had eight assists in the first half and 11 through three quarters.

Even though Westbrook added no assists in the fourth quarter, he kept looking for his teammates – sometimes to a fault. They just didn’t connect.

Houston cut the margin during an excruciating few minutes Westbrook began the final period during the bench. Even as the Rockets went on a late 15-5 to tie it, Westbrook sought floor balance.

His teammates reveled in his faith in them. They made 9-of-18 3-pointers, and Westbrook — who was 5-for-22 from beyond the arc in the first two games — attempted only one. Steven Adams tipped in a Westbrook miss with 35 seconds left to put Oklahoma City up good, though Westbrook’s dicey free-throw shooting kept it tense.

Like every game in this series, it will be seen as a referendum in the already-decided, not-yet-revealed MVP race. The final lines:

  • Westbrook: 32 points on 24 shots and 10-of-14 free throw shooting, 13 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals, five turnovers, W
  • Harden: 44 points 21 shots and 18-of-18 free throw shooting, six rebounds, six assists, seven turnovers, L

Both players will insist the final letter is most important, but Harden can bank on a couple of those Ws from Games 1 and 2. The Thunder still have their back against the wall.

This felt like a team energized by its first home playoff game of the year, though Billy Donovan made some smart adjustments – mainly tightening his rotation, including deactivating second-string point guard Semaj Christon.

The Thunder will go as far as Westbrook takes them, and tonight, that was to their first playoff win without Kevin Durant since moving to Oklahoma City.

Now, it’s Harden’s turn to answer.

Watch Russell Westbrook pass Oscar Robertson to get triple-double No. 42

AP
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Russell Westbrook is now the sole owner of one of the NBA’s most prestigious statistical records. On Sunday, the Oklahoma City Thunder star grabbed his 42nd triple-double of 2016-17 NBA, pulling him out of his tie with Oscar Robertson for most triple-doubles by a player in a single season.

The play came late in the fourth quarter in Colorado as the Thunder took on the Denver Nuggets. Westbrook drove and kicked to Semaj Christon for a corner 3-pointer.

Westbrook had 32 points to go along with 13 rebounds at the time, and was aching for one final assist to get him to double digits.

Here’s what the play looked like on the floor:

Westbrook stands atop the triple-double throne for a single year. Will his feat ever be matched? And will history be enough to catapult him over Houston Rockets star James Harden for MVP this season?

Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, Westbrook ended Denver’s playoff hopes with an amazing 35-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer in the fourth quarter to give Oklahoma City the victory, 106-105.

How Rockets, Thunder, Cavaliers, Spurs play with and without their MVP candidates

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The Rockets play like a 58-win team with James Harden on the court, and the Thunder play like a 52-win team with Russell Westbrook on the court.

A clear advantage for Harden in the MVP race?

Not quite.

Houston still plays like a 51-win team when Harden sits, and Oklahoma City drops to an 18-win pace without Westbrook. How much should each factor – the level a team reaches with a player, how far it falls without him – matter?

And what about about LeBron James? The Cavaliers play like a 61-win team with him and a 19-win team without him. Don’t forget about Kawhi Leonard, either. The Spurs reach a 63-win pace – better than the other three main MVP candidates’ teams hit with them on the court – when Leonard plays.

In the NBA’s most fascinating MVP race in years, the on-off win pace for the four major candidates adds perspective. To calculate win pace, I used Pythagorean win percentage multiplied by 82, the number of games in a standard NBA schedule.

Here’s the Rockets’, Thunder’s, Cavaliers’ and Spurs’ win paces with their MVP candidate off (below the bar) and on (above the bar) and the difference (in the bar):

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These are rounded to the nearest win. Hence, Leonard’s seemingly off, but not actually off, marks.

This is meant to be only one piece of a complex picture. Other things to consider:

Should backups matter? Should rotations matter? Should luck matter?

These are not easy questions, but MVP voters must reconcile them.

I see win pace as a useful reference point when comparing these players with elite individual production. Then, it’s about placing the win paces into the appropriate contexts – and going back to individual production, then back to on/off-court impact, then adding adding more context, then…

There’s no easy answer here.

There’s also no easy choice for fifth on the MVP ballot, but I made a similar chart for the main candidates:

image

Three Things We Learned Monday: Golden State has found some fight, its groove again

Associated Press
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Not happy with the NBA coverage tonight? Then #justaddzebras. As for us, here are the big takeaways from Monday.


1) Stephen Curry is knocking down threes, Warriors showing fight, look like old selves routing Thunder.
This was supposed to be the second “Kevin Durant returns to Oklahoma City” game, except KD is still in street clothes following his knee sprain/bone bruise (he is taking some jumpers now, but no timetable on his return worth trusting yet).

Don’t think for a second that relieved the tension.

That shoving match between Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Draymond Green, and Semaj Christon led to all four of them getting technical fouls (that’s 15 this season for Westbrook, one more this season and he gets suspended for a game). However, by the time it happened at the end of the first half this game was all but over, and after Curry responded to the incident with a buzzer-beating three to end the half that put the Warriors up 20, it was over.

Golden State found it’s groove again. Yes, that means that Curry and Klay Thompson combined to drain 14 threes, and the Warriors as a team shot 45.3 percent from beyond the arc. However, more than that, it means the Warriors are playing good defense again — the Thunder shot just 8-of-36 (22.2 percent) outside the key in this one. Westbrook was 4-of-16 for 15 points, one of his roughest outings of the season. A lot of fans don’t realize the Warriors have the second best defense in the NBA this season, it had gone missing for a few games but it was back on Monday, and with it so were the Warriors the rest of the league should fear.

2) James Harden looks like an MVP with 39 points, 11 assists, coast-to-coast game winner.
While Westbrook had an off night, the beard was looking every bit the MVP for the Rockets in a tough game with a desperate Denver team trying to make the playoffs. That includes going coast-to-coast for the game winner.

Harden was 13-of-29 from the field on his way to 39 points, plus he dished out 11 assists. The key is that his team won — his MVP claim is both based on great statistics and that he is lifting his team to higher heights than Westbrook with the Thunder. While Westbrook likely will average a triple double for the season, his team is on pace to win 47 games and be the six or seven seed in the West. Harden has the Rockets on pace for 57 wins and they look like a potential contender, a team that could well make the conference finals (that second round Rockets/Spurs matchup that seems to be lining up will be fantastic). Those wins appear to be swaying media voters toward Harden for MVP. So do nights like this one.

3) Celtics may have solidified two seed in East with win over Wizards. There were a few games with playoff implications on Monday — Denver’s loss helps Portland, Indiana’s win while Atlanta lost makes the 5/6 race in the East tighter, the Clippers win while Utah and OKC loss is a boost for L.A. — but the biggest one was Boston beating Washington 110-102.

The Wizards had dreams of catching the Celtics and getting the two seed in the East, but the return of Isaiah Thomas and his 25 points helped Boston to a crucial win.

The win was key because it puts the second-seeded Celtics 2.5 games up on Washington with just a few weeks left to play in the regular season. Combine that with the Celtics having an easier schedule than the Wizards down the stretch, and it’s tough to see how Washington closes that gap. Boston will get the two seed.

The win was also critical for the Celtics’ confidence. This is a potential second-round playoff matchup, and the Wizards had won two-of-three between the teams already this season. Boston not only evened the season series it showed that it is playing well at home, where they have won 11-of-12 — and if the Celtics and Wizards meet in the second round the Celtics will have the home court advantage.

That potential (likely?) series is more than a month away and Boston will be challenged to slow the Wizards backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. However, they did a reasonable job Monday — Wall and Beal combined for 35 points on 10-of-25 shooting — and that should be a confidence boost.

Klay Thompson’s 34 help Warriors roll Thunder in chippy game

Associated Press
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Klay Thompson scored 34 points to help the Golden State Warriors beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-95 on Monday night in a heated matchup filled with trash talking, physical play and technical fouls.

It was Golden State’s second visit to Oklahoma City since former Thunder star Kevin Durant signed a free agent contract with the rival Warriors last summer. Durant has been out since February with a left knee injury and sat on the bench with his team.

Even with Durant out, the negative energy from the first meeting was still there. Stephen Curry exchanged shoves with Oklahoma City’s Semaj Christon just before halftime, and both were issued technical fouls. Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Golden State’s Draymond Green also got technical for their roles in the skirmish.

The Warriors were overpowering in this one, leading by as many as 27 points while completing a sweep of the four-game season series.

Curry scored 23 points for the Warriors, who won their fourth straight and halted Oklahoma City’s win streak at five games.

Westbrook scored 47 points the last time the teams met in Oklahoma City. This time, he had 15 points on 4-of-16 shooting.

The Warriors took control in the second quarter, outscoring the Thunder 34-17 to go up 20 at the break.

Westbrook scored eight points in just over three minutes at the start of the third quarter to help the Thunder trim Golden State’s lead to 12, but the Warriors bounced back and pushed their lead to 78-55 with just under five minutes left in the period. Westbrook didn’t score again after his early third quarter surge.

TIP-INS

Warriors: Curry hit a 3-pointer at the end of the first half and ran down the tunnel to the locker room with the Warriors up 59-39. … Green’s technical was his 13th of the season. … Matt Barnes was called for a flagrant foul in the third quarter.

Thunder: Westbrook’s technical was his 15th of the season. He’ll be suspended for a game if he gets another. … It was the first loss for the Thunder with Taj Gibson as a starter.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.