Nobody is playing harder, nobody brings a more fierce game to the arena every night than angry Russell Westbrook. In the wake of Kevin Durant‘s exit, stage left, Westbrook has been unleashed — 31.8 points, 9.8 assists, and 9.5 rebounds a game. He’s playing at an MVP level, carrying the Thunder to a 7-5 record on the back of a good defense and him as the offense.
Michael Jordan likes what he sees — and what he sees is a little of himself.
Jordan introduced Westbrook when the latter was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame this week, and the GOAT had some serious praise for Westbrook (hat tip Ball Don’t Lie):
“I am truly a fan of his. If you can ever say, being that we’re so many years apart, that when I watch him play, I see a lot of resemblance of his passion for the game of basketball [to] the way I played the game of basketball…
But the thing about him that very few basketball players have is his passion for the game of basketball. Every time I played the game of basketball, when I stepped onto that floor, I always felt like there was someone there that never saw me play the game of basketball, and that motivated me every single night. This kid has the same passion, and you can’t get that.”
Comparing someone to himself is the highest praise from Jordan, and only a few (Kobe Bryant most recently) have gotten that. It’s fitting for Westbrook, because nobody plays with a bigger chip on their shoulder than Westbrook in today’s game, and that’s what he most has in common with MJ.
Westbrook, of course, wasn’t about to go down that road and said Jordan was the greatest ever.
More impressively, Westbrook talked about bigger issues in his acceptance speech.
Westbrook used his platform tonight not to talk about basketball, but to speak about something more important. Passage from his speech: pic.twitter.com/IUjEAxVaCl
Thursday night in Portland The Beard bounced back — 26 points, 14 assists, 12 rebounds, and the Rockets picked up a quality road win. The Blazers are not a good defensive backcourt (to put it kindly) and they had nobody who could begin to check Harden. He had his way.
Then to celebrate, he danced.
Three things we learned Thursday: Andrew Wiggins unleashed is a good thing
1) Fear Andrew Wiggins, for no one in the land seems able to slow him. The Philadelphia/Minnesota game Thursday was billed as the battle of two rising teams in the NBA, which is nominally true but Sixers coach Brett Brown summed it up best, “They’re two years ahead of us.” The Sixers should get there, but the Timberwolves today are starting to look like a team that can challenge for a playoff spot this season (they are a 4-7 team with the point differential of a 7-4 team). Minnesota got the win 110-86.
While everyone rightfully talks about Karl-Anthony Towns game, people seem to be overlooking the leap Andrew Wiggins has made — he dropped 35 on the Sixers and showed off all the ways he has developed into an elite wing player in the league.
Wiggins hit 3-of-6 from three — he’s shooting 53.5 percent from there on the season. He’s not going to sustain that level, but he can hit the long ball and you can’t ignore him there anymore. His handles have dramatically improved over the past two seasons, which has allowed him to use his insane athleticism to blow by his man and get to the rim — where Wiggins draws fouls. He only took four free throws against Philly, but he’s averaging 8.5 a game. He’s become a quality pick-and-roll ball handler, to the point the Timberwolves now run their late-game offense through him. He’s shooting 51.9 percent when posting guys up, an excellent percentage for a wing. He destroys guys in isolation. And he’s doing all of it efficiently — look at his shot chart against the Sixers:
The Timberwolves are still figuring out how to defend as a team, but does anyone doubt Tom Thibodeau will get them there? As they find their way, Wiggins is going to give them enough offense to get a win.
2) Road warriors? Chicago grinds out win in Utah. The Bulls are on the last circus trip ever — no longer will they be forced on a two-week road trip each year so clowns can take over the United Center — and this final one was going to be a test: Just how good are these Bulls?
So far they are 2-0 on the trip, and the win they picked up in Utah was telling — they beat the Jazz at their own game. This was a slow (89 possessions), defensive game, which is largely how Utah wants to play, and Chicago had just eight assists total for the night. But it was the Bulls defense that held Utah to 29 percent shooting in the third quarter and started to pull away, and it was the Bulls that got key shots from Dwyane Wade (18 points) and Jimmy Butler (20) hit key shots late that snuffed out attempted Utah runs. Butler was the team leader Chicago needed, not just in points but he had the Gordon Hayward defensive assignment much of the night and Hayward shot 3-of-15 from the field. Late in the game, it was Butler that buried the dagger.
There are 70 games left in the Bulls’ season, it’s far too early to declare anything certain. But at 8-4 the Bulls look to have answered the questions about their lack of shooting and spacing, and the team is just getting wins. They look legit.
3) Bradley Beal returns, Wizards get a win. Coincidence? Actually, somewhat yes. But his return certainly helped.
There were a lot of factors in the 119-112 Wizards win that wasn’t as close as that score makes it seem. There’s the fact the Knicks were flat most of the night — and their defense is terrible when the team plays like it cares. There was the fact John Wall was motivated by embarrassment — the night before the Wizards lost to a Sixers team resting Joel Embiid — and the point guard had 23 points and 11 assists. There’s the fact Markieff Morris did a good job defending and harassing Kristaps Porzingis all night (so Derrick Rose decided to take on more, but it was Brandon Jennings who had 15 in the fourth and tried to lead the comeback).
Make no mistake, however, Beal’s return from three games out with a hamstring injury helped. He had 18 points on 5-of-11 shooting, and he hit 3-of-6 from three. With Beal back in the starting lineup, that group was +21 in 20 minutes, playing fast and playing very good defense (the starters had a defensive rating of 81.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). The Wizards were +17 on the night in the 28 minutes Wall and Beal were paired, and the team’s offense clicked with them together.
The Knicks are a nice warm-up run, but the Wizards are going to need a lot more of this to get their season going in the right direction. And even then, this slow start may be too much to overcome if the goal in Washington is the playoffs.
Bonus thing we learned: James Harden is still very good at basketball. A night after Andre Roberson and the Thunder made him look human, Harden rebounded with a triple-double and a win against a Blazers team that had no defensive answer for him — 26 points, 14 assists, 12 rebounds. Watch the beard go to work for yourself.
Draymond Green on Defensive Player of the Year: “I want that award”
The Golden State Warriors defense has not been good this season — they are giving up 105.8 points per 100 possessions, 23rd in the NBA. While the Warriors have won five in a row, that’s all about their offense — their defense is surrendering 107.5 per 100 in that stretch.
While Draymond Green is an elite defensive player because of his ability to guard just about every position on the court, when he is on the court the Warriors are still giving up 104.9 per 100 this season.
“That’s something that I want to win,” Green told ESPN in an exclusive interview this week. “And if there’s anything I’ve ever been selfish about, it’s that award. Like, I want that award.”
“That doesn’t bother me to say I’m selfish in that regard. I want that award bad,” Green reiterated to ESPN. “And that’s because I view myself as a defender. It’s like if I view myself as a scorer then I want to win the scoring title. If I am a scorer and I say I’m a scorer and that’s what I do, I want to win the scoring title because it says I was the best in this year at what I do. So that is something that I want to win.”
Kawhi Leonard has won that award two years running. While one could make a case that two seasons ago Green was more deserving than Leonard for DPOY — based on Leonard missing time due to injury, mostly — it’s hard to argue the voters’ choice. Leonard is a lock-down defender.
Green has not seen a huge drop off this season defensively — he is still the reason the Warriors can switch everything, he’s blocking 1.7 shots per game, and he’s made plays. Leonard, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan are in the mix as well as Green.
But much like players on teams under .500 do not win MVP, it’s hard to imagine someone from an average or below NBA defense winning DPOY. If Green is going to be in the mix for this award, the entire roster is going to have to pick it up.
And you can bet Green is in their face telling them to do just that.
PBT Podcast: Lakers, Andrew Wiggins, and the rest of your Twitter questions
There are a lot of questions to start the NBA season, and Kurt Helin and Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports answered yours on twitter n our latest Pro Basketball Talk Podcast. They also talk Justise Winslow‘s jumper, Seattle expansion rumors, and more.