Author: Kurt Helin

Russell Westbrook

No Kevin Durant, no Serge Ibaka, and Thunder still likely will be West’s eight seed

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There was a time a couple weeks back when it looked like Oklahoma City could become the most dangerous eight seed in NBA history. Russell Westbrook was (and is) playing at an MVP level, Kevin Durant was coming back and they not only had the core of a team that went to the Western Conference finals a season before, but also had improved the bench.

But now Kevin Durant is out indefinitely (and may well miss the playoffs) because of his Jones fracture not healing right. (This is not uncommon, there is not great blood flow to that area.) Serge Ibaka is out until sometime around when the playoffs start. Enes Kanter is banged up. The threatening Thunder are no more.

Despite all that, the Thunder are still the favorites to be the eight seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

The Thunder currently have a one-game lead over the Pelicans and a two-and-a-half game lead over Phoenix. There are three reasons the Thunder likely hold on to the eight seed.

1) Oklahoma City has the easier schedule the rest of the way. Both, the Thunder and Pelicans, have 14 games remaining. The Thunder have eight of those games at home, the Thunder six. The Thunder have eight games remaining against teams over .500, three of them on the road; the Pelicans have nine games remaining against + .500 teams, five of those on the road. It’s going to be tough for the Pelicans to make up that game against a tougher schedule.

2) Oklahoma City still has Russell Westbrook. You’ve certainly heard this but here is a reminder: In his last 10 games Russell Westbrook has averaged 35 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.3 assists a game. He has been the best player in the league. I hear your complaints, that he’s not shooting a high percentage (40 percent), and he’s turning the ball over more than Scott Brooks wants to see (6.4 a game). But that’s the price of how much he has to handle the ball and how much offense he has to generate. Plus the Thunder are playing at a better rate their last 10 games than the Pelicans (something Kevin Pelton broke down at ESPN Insider). He is playing at a level that can carry this team to the playoffs. (If you’re saying “the Pelicans have their own star in Anthony Davis” you’d be right — except he missed Thursday night and is expected to be out Friday with a sprained ankle. And without him the Pelicans are not the same.)

3) Phoenix threw in the towel on this race back at the trade deadline. Thinking they could not keep pace with the surging Thunder (who then seemed likely to keep rolling and stay healthy), back at the trade deadline the Suns shipped out Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. The Suns made moves they saw as needed for the long term (we can debate that another day). Since the trade deadline the Suns are 7-8, and at that pace they are just not going to make up the needed ground on the Thunder or Pelicans.

When the playoffs start April 19, it’s likely we will see Russell Westbrook and the Thunder as the eight seed, facing Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder will be huge underdogs — not the serious threat they looked like a month ago — but they likely get to go to the dance.

Despite everything.

Thunder’s Enes Kanter out of lineup Friday vs. Hawks with sprained ankle

Oklahoma City Thunder v Dallas Mavericks
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The injury gods continue to show Oklahoma City no mercy.

No Kevin Durant, maybe not for the entire season. No Serge Ibaka, likely until around the start of the playoffs. And now, no Enes Kanter.

The Turkish big man has averaged 16.5 points and 10.4 rebounds a game for OKC since he was acquired from the Jazz at the trade deadline, but a sprained ankle suffered Wednesday night will sideline him in a showdown with the Hawks Friday, reports Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman, getting the word from Thunder GM Sam Presti.

This could be another good night to have Russell Westbrook on your fantasy team.

The Thunder are one game ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans and 2.5 up on the Phoenix Suns for the final playoff spot in the West. The rash of injuries to the Thunder would seem to give the Pelicans a chance to move up the standings, but New Orleans was without Anthony Davis Thursday night and he likely is out Friday as well. The Pelicans are just not near the same team without him.

All of which means with 14 games left the Russell Westbrook show might be enough to get the Thunder the eight seed.

NBA prospects in NCAA Tournament: Seven guys to watch Friday/Sunday

Jahlil Okafor
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The NCAA Tournament, with its orgy of games the first weekend, is a hoops junkie’s dream. It is also when a lot of fans of an NBA team fall in love with a particular player they hope their team can draft come June. NBA scouts and GMs already have far more formulated opinions on players by this point; they want to see how players so against better competition, and under the pressure of a lose-and-go-home situation.

Here seven NBA prospects to keep an eye on from the Thursday/Saturday games. We reached out for some expert opinions from Ed Isaacson of Rotoworld and NBADraftBlog, as well as Rob Dauster of our NBC sister site CollegeBasketballTalk.

We have to start with the likely No. 1 pick.

1) Jahlil Okafor, Duke. He’s as skilled a post player and scorer as you’ll ever find at age 19 — he is going to put up points as a rookie in the NBA. Where he’s improved as this season has worn on is his recognition and passing out of double teams. Where he continues to struggle is the defensive end of the floor.

From Ed Isaacson:  “We may have to go all the way back to Tim Duncan to see someone with such a pure, back-to-the-basket post game that Okafor has. He’s ready. Whoever ends up picking him he’ll come in and he’ll do well right away, at least as a scorer. What Okafor is really missing is that mean streak. It comes out once in a while, but on defense he really needs to learn to be a battler.”

2) Montrezl Harrell, Louisville. He’s a bit undersized at the four in the NBA, he doesn’t have a steady jump shot, his post game lacks polish, yet this is a guy that fans will gravitate toward — he plays hard every possession. Energy is a skill and Harrell has that, and it will help him at the next level.

From Rob Dauster: “No one in college basketball plays as hard or with as much emotion as Harrell. He’s an aggressive rebounder and a more mobile defender than he gets credit for, but at this point he doesn’t seem to be much more than an undersized four with a mediocre jumper and a limited post game. I think he has a future in the league in a Kenneth Faried kind of role.”

3) Justin Anderson, Virginia. He’s a junior swingman and a highly-regarded prospect who never seemed to put the entire package together at Virginia. He’s athletic and and can defend, he also can finish at the rim. His jumper has been up and down over the years, but it’s something he seemed to work on this season.

From Rob Dauster: “I don’t know if Anderson is going to be a first round pick, but I think he has quite a future in a 3-and-D role at the next level. He’s a terrific athlete that has played his college ball in a system that teaches you how to defend, before fracturing the pinky on his left (shooting) hand, Anderson was hitting 48.5 percent from three, a drastic improvement for the career 30 percent shooter. If that’s a permanent thing or just a fluky year remains to be seen.”

4) Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin. He is one of the leading candidates for national player of the year, a rock solid big man who helped lead the Badgers to a No. 1 seed. He is comfortable playing on the block or out on the perimeter, which makes him a challenging matchup.

From Ed Isaacson:  “He’s a skilled seven-footer with the ability to score in the post or from the perimeter, Kaminsky posted career highs of 55 percent from the field, and 40 percent from three-point range this past season. Though not particularly strong or quick, Kaminsky uses strong footwork and nice shooting touch to create scoring chances in the post, and his ability to shoot from the perimeter makes him a great option in pick-and-pop situations. Defensively, Kaminsky is average.… As with many seniors, there may not be a lot of upside with Kaminsky, but he is the kind of player who could contribute quickly in many different NBA offenses.”

5) Kris Dunn, Providence. He is one of the most entertaining players in the nation — he will grab a rebound and push hard from coast-to-coast, putting a lot of pressure on the defense. He can make the spectacular play, but with that comes some misques and turnovers. Finally healthy, he averaged 15.8 points, 7.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds a game this season.

From Ed Isaacson:  “I think Chris Dunn would be a fantastic backup point guard at the NBA level, or the third guard in a three guard rotation…. He’s a good ballhandler with excellent vision, Dunn can be a spectacular passer, though his decisions can often leave a lot to be desired. He thrives when Providence pushes the tempo, doing a great job getting the ball up the floor quickly and finding open teammates for easy scores. He’s not as good in the half court.”

6) Kelly Oubre, Kansas. Oubre is a bit of a project as a 6’6” wing player. He is a freak athlete (as good as anyone in this class) who is long and has potential as a jump shooter. His ceiling is insanely high. However, his handles need work, he needs time on the court to get a better feel for the game. There’s a lot of work to be done here, is he willing to put in the effort? (And how patient will the team be that drafts him?)

From Rob Dauster: “I’ve soured a bit on Oubre as a prospect as the season has gone along, but I still think that he’s worthy of being a lottery pick. His height, length, explosiveness and shooting ability are all terrific for a wing, but he’s still learning how to play. He gets lost defensively at times, his handle is suspect and at this point, he’s essentially a spot-up shooter and straight-line driver. His ceiling is higher than, say, Devin Booker, but he has longer to go to get there than I thought when I saw him in high school.”

7) Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga. He is the son of Lithuania/Soviet legend Arvydas Sabonis. He is skilled and has polished footwork, he can work out of the post or hit shots out to the arc. He’s not athletic by NBA standards, and he needs to get stronger.

From Rob Dauster: “I love Domas as a college player. He’s tough, he’s athletic, he’s aggressive on the glass, he’s really good at scoring over his right shoulder (left hand). He’s a bit of a long term prospect, but he plays extremely hard and he’s not one to back down from anyone, which are two skills that are quite valuable to have.”

Rockets’ Terrence Jones spent night in hospital, out “a while” with rib injury

Houston Rockets v Portland Trail Blazers
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It happened in the middle of the first quarter: In the scramble for a loose ball, Wilson Chandler pushed the Rockets’ Terrence Jones, who fell forward and hit his ribs on the knee of Kenneth Faried.

Jones left the game not to return and spent Thursday night at the hospital for observation.

Fortunately it doesn’t appear to be anything worse than that, but Jones likely misses a few games for this. He will be missed as he has had some strong games recently, such as 16 points against the Clippers and 17 against the Trail Blazers.

Three Things We Learned in NBA Thursday: It’s not always pretty, but Harden is serious MVP candidate

James Harden
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If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while watching your NCAA Tournament bracket go up in flames…

1) James Harden gives us 50 reasons he’s an MVP candidate. If you’re going to base your MVP choice on who has the most aesthetically pleasing game, pick Stephen Curry. James Harden’s game isn’t pretty. He isn’t the explosive athlete that Russell Westbrook is. Yet Harden is effective — very effective. He dropped a career-high 50 points on the improved Nuggets, shooting 12-of-27 and getting to the free throw line 25 times (hitting 22). That’s what he does; he attacks and you can’t guard him without fouling. It’s not always pretty, just look at is shot chart.

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However, thanks to Harden the Rockets have held on to the three seed in the West without Dwight Howard in the lineup. That’s Harden. That’s the work of a guy you have to consider for MVP.

2) Ugly game sets Pelicans’ playoff chances back. And the game of basketball. The Pelicans won four in a row without Anthony Davis not all that long ago, but if you watched the Suns and the Pelicans play Thursday you’d have to ask “how?”Here is all you need to know about the New Orleans vs. Phoenix game: The Suns shot 34.9 percent overall and 9.1 percent from three and won. The real issue for the Pelicans was this is the kind of game they really needed, they are now one game back of the Thunder for that final playoff spot in the West (and the Thunder likely get Kevin Durant back this week).

3) Utah keeps racking up wins since All-Star Game. The Jazz are now 12-4 since the All-Star break and have played the best defense in the league during that time. That said hopefully you watched Kentucky’s game, or caught up on the new season of House of Cards, or something else rather than watching this game. It wasn’t pretty. Utah won 80-73 behind 22 from Gordon Hayward, and the Jazz will take the win. Now let us never speak of this game again.