NBA Playoffs: Westbrook sits, maturity level now tested

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Russell Westbrook was emotional, he was hot when taken out in the third quarter. The plays that the Thunder were supposed to be running nobody was executing so he was left solo, and that led to some ugliness. He was yelling and we’re guessing they were words on George Carlin’s list. He was hot enough that assistant coach Mo Cheeks had to come down the bench and calm him down. He stayed out of team huddles. Then Westbrook sat the entire fourth quarter.

And none of that matters. Not if the Thunder are about winning. Not if Westbrook is mature. The question isn’t why it happened, because it has happened to a lot of guards.

The question that matters is does it bother Westbrook going forward?

He said all the right things after the game, saying when the team is winning — and the bench unit, including backup point guard Eric Maynor with Kevin Durant was playing more cohesive basketball than the Thunder starters — then go with the hot hand. It worked; the Thunder beat the Mavericks 106-100 and evened the Western Conference finals at a game apiece.

“I know you all want to ask the same question and I’m going to give you all the same answer: We were winning,” Westbrook said in a locker room interview broadcast on ESPN.

Westbrook now joins a long line of great point guards who sat for the fourth quarter of big playoff games. Chuck Daly once sat in-his-prime Isiah Thomas in the fourth quarter of a Game 5 against the Bulls because Vinny Johnson and Joe Dumars had it going. That’s just the top of a long list. (Thomas dropped 33 in Game 6.)

“I’ve done it a few times during the year,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of sitting Westbrook after the game in a news conference broadcast on NBA-TV. “Doesn’t happen often, Russell is an incredible player, he’s our starting point guard, but we weren’t getting a lot of things done and his time was to come out then I stayed with Eric.”

The guess here is Westbrook was over this by the time he hit the bus.

Westbrook is not a guy that comes to the NBA as a super-pampered player. He didn’t start in high school until he was a junior, and he went to Leuzinger in the greater Los Angeles area (Lawndale), not exactly a basketball powerhouse. At all. Then he went to UCLA where Ben Howland sat him. Then, when he was getting some good run, he benched himself for a stretch. He dealt with all of it and came out better on the other end.

Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe the constant questions he will be asked about this leading up to Game 3 on Saturday will wear on him. Maybe this will be a clubhouse issue, but I doubt it. There are few clubhouses with teammates as tight together as OKC. It’s something that will be discussed for the next few days to no end.

But Westbrook (who had 18 points and played pretty well) and the Thunder have probably already moved on. They better if they plan on winning this series.

Three Things to Know: Who’s your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) LeBron is your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers. It’s early in the season, but the narratives for the race for MVP are taking shape, and right now LeBron James — having a season similar in many ways to the ones he had recently in Cleveland, just now doing it in a much brighter spotlight — is near the top of a lot of lists, with a compelling narrative around him that he has turned around the worst run of Lakers’ basketball in franchise history. (If the vote were taken today Giannis Antetokounmpo would win, but LeBron would be in the mix… just my sense talking to other voters and what one straw poll found.)

James Harden, who is the reigning MVP, has put up very similar offensive numbers to last season — 30.8 points, 8.3 assists, and 5.5 rebounds a game with a 61.8 true shooting percentage and a 27.3 PER — yet his name is not mentioned in the race.

Thursday night on TNT he threw his hat back in the ring with a 50-point triple-double (10 rebounds, and 11 assists) pushing the Rockets to a 126-111 win over the Lakers, the kind of win that makes you think maybe the Rockets can turn it around.

That was Harden’s fourth 50-point triple-double, an NBA regular season record (moving him past former teammate Russell Westbrook).

It was a vintage Harden performance — he only had 26 shot attempts to get to 50 points, and he got to the free throw line for 18 shots. Lakers coach Luke Walton joined the long list of coaches who picked up a technical foul yelling at the referees that Harden was getting all the calls while his team didn’t get those same whistles (Harden is the master and drawing contact, then when he feels it throwing back his head, flailing his arms, and essentially flopping for the call… it works). LeBron and Lonzo Ball actually tried defending with their hands behind their backs for a stretch, trying to make a point to the officials. But what Harden does is just smart and practiced — he’s the master at it, and if you don’t foul he’s good enough to still put up ridiculous numbers.

Harden’s offensive skills have never been in question. However, he’s not mentioned in the MVP race because of the other end of the court — Houston is 13-14 with the second worst defense in the NBA, and Harden is part of the problem on that end. Last season the Rockets were a top-10 defense and they switched everything with the hope that the other team would then try to exploit the mismatch of Harden (or Chris Paul) guarding a big man, post up said big up and let him go to work. Except, Harden is very strong, especially in the lower body, and it’s difficult to back him down in the post and go to work. Harden is a good post defender.

This season, teams have largely abandoned that approach, they are working to exploit Harden in space or his help defense, both of which are terrible. Again. Harden is playing defense this season like the meme-worthy guy of 2014-15. Harden is not the only problem on the Rockets’ defense (Clint Capela looks a step slower, as does Chris Paul, and they miss the switchable wings they let walk last season in free agency, the communication is lacking, and much more) but he is a part of the problem. And it’s obvious.

That said, if the Rockets start to turn it around, string together some wins, get into a playoff position in the West, and Harden keeps putting up these numbers, he’s going to get some MVP votes. For now, the Rockets need more games like this from Harden to get them back into the West playoffs.

2) Dirk Nowitzki is back on the court, but the Mavericks suffer an ugly loss to Phoenix. For the 21st season in a row, Dirk Nowitzki — the future Hall of Famer, the best European player in NBA history, the talisman of the franchise — was back on the court in a Mavericks uniform. He was limited, playing just 6 minutes and scoring only one bucket, but it was good to see (just ask Mark Cuban).

Nowitzki is not why this game was a national TNT broadcast on one of the league’s showcase nights: they wanted Deandre Ayton vs. Luka Doncic. A 2018 NBA Draft showdown.

This was not vintage Doncic (the current clear leader in the Rookie of the Year race), who had 13 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists but added 4 turnovers. A couple of reasons for that, but at the top of the list is something the league tries to avoid on Thursday night showcases: it was Dallas’s third game in four nights, the second night of a back-to-back, and Doncic looked dead-legged (as did all the Mavericks). Also, Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. seemed to take turns, trading off who would attack, rather than letting the more skilled Doncic just take over.

Ayton was not himself either, scoring 7 points on 3-of-13 shooting, matched up with the athletic veteran DeAndre Jordan. Ayton usually puts up good counting stats — he’s averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds a game — but his offense is limited, half his shots come right at the rim and 75 percent of his shots are set up by someone else, and his defense is dreadful. He’s got potential as an NBA big man, but he also has a lot of work to do to live up to being a No. 1 pick.

Phoenix snapped it’s 10-game losing streak with a 99-88 win.

3) The NBA tries to win over Mexico by sending them… Orlando and Chicago? If you’re an NBA fan living Mexico City fan and you get to see a couple of games in person a year, you can’t be faulted for thinking Nikola Vucevic is a legend.

The NBA put its best foot forward in Mexico City Thursday night… okay, it put a foot forward, giving them a regular season game between the Magic and Bulls. Vucevic, who is playing at an All-Star level for the Magic this season, was the best player on the court, dropping 20 points and 10 boards, leading the Magic to a 97-91 win.

The most interesting news out of Chicago is that Bulls new coach Jim Boylen will be allowed to so something Fred Hoiberg was not — bench Jabari Parker. Despite Chandler Hutchison being out, Parker got four first-half minutes and that’s it. He’s not going to be part of the regular rotation going forward. This was one of the front office’s big moves this summer, spending $20 million to bring in Parker (when no other team was offering near that much), but with Lauri Markkanen back there just shouldn’t be minutes for Parker. (Hoiberg didn’t really get to coach Markkanen this season due to injury, so he had to play Parker, even starting him a lot at the four.)

Bulls management has made some smart moves the past 18 months, but there have been a few head-scratchers, too. Parker is at the top of that list.

Report: Jabari Parker is ‘no longer expected to see regular minutes’ in Bulls’ rotation

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The Chicago Bulls inexplicably outbid everyone in the market this past offseason for Jabari Parker. Gar Forman and John Paxson decided to pay the Chicago native a whopping $20 million per season for two years when it didn’t appear anyone else was willing to go that high for a middling player coming off two ACL tears in the same knee.

Needless to say, it has not worked out.

Parker started the season inauspiciously by the saying that he wasn’t paid to play defense, and things devolved from there. Set aside all of the locker room issues in Chicago — Parker has simply not played well on the floor. Despite a potential bigger piece of the pie off offensively, Parker has seen his percentages dip and his advanced statistics are horrifying. Entering his fifth season in the league, Parker has a negative win share for the season, his 3-point shooting is down seven percent, and his turnovers rate has gone up by 36 percent despite having the same usage.

On Thursday, a report surfaced from ESPN before Chicago took on the Orlando Magic that said Parker would be taken out of the Bulls rotation, and that after the Magic game, Parker would “no longer see regular minutes”.

Just to reiterate, Parker is Chicago’s highest paid player.

The response online was immediate, and our compatriots over at NBC Sports Chicago had a particularly great reaction.

Via Twitter:

How soundly would Adam Silver sleep if Jerry Reinsdorf, Jim Dolan, and Robert Sarver all decided to simultaneously sell their teams? The NBA’s BRI since the lockout has continued to climb but if the Bulls and the Knicks were well-run organizations there’s no telling where the league could expand.

I don’t know where Chicago is headed, but it’s nowhere good.

Report: Lakers unwilling to give up youth in exchange for Trevor Ariza

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The Los Angeles Lakers would like to have Trevor Ariza back in the Forum blue and gold. However, it might not be that easy.

Ariza is due a significant amount of money from the Phoenix Suns this season, and in order to make a trade work the Lakers would need to get rid of some players of their own. Their preferred current roster member would be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, although several teams are reluctant to take him. Of course, teams want something in return if they are going to help facilitate any deal between the Lakers and the Suns, which has helped put a stop on any movement.

According to a recent report, the Lakers are unwilling to include any of their young core in a trade for a reason. That apparently means Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram are unavailable in a deal with Ariza as currently constructed.

Via LA Times:

The Lakers have informed teams that have called about trade proposals that they will not give up any of their young core unless it’s for a superstar player, one person said.

The Suns were turned down when they sought to get one of the Lakers’ young players in exchange for Ariza, and Phoenix also rejected a three-team deal that was discussed with the Lakers.

The Lakers and Suns have continued to pursue trade scenarios that make sense for both teams.

Phoenix and Los Angeles are still reportedly trying to get a deal done for Ariza, but nothing is imminent. It does make sense that LA wouldn’t want to give up some of their younger players for an aging Ariza, who would fit well next to LeBron James but whose value has declined as we’ve seen the variance in his play between last season with the Houston Rockets and this year with the Suns.

I would still put my money on Ariza playing as a member of the home team at Staples Center this season. Typically when LeBron wants to add a veteran he likes around him, a deal gets done. For right now, we don’t know what a potential trade might look like, unless someone decides to relent in their asking price.

Phoenix woman roasts Suns owner Robert Sarver at city council meeting, calls him “so tight he squeaks” (VIDEO)

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The Phoenix Suns aren’t going to move. Owner Robert Sarver made a poorly-calculated threat to relocate the team to either Seattle or Las Vegas this week, something that was quickly walked back.

On Wednesday the Phoenix city council decided to postpone a vote on whether to help renovate Talking Stick Resort Arena, where the Suns play. Sarver has been lobbying for the renovations for some time, and wants public funding to do it.

But this is 2018, and people are wary of that sort of thing. The public is less likely to fork over the kind of unfettered public funds that most owners want, and people want a better return for their tax dollar these days.

Greta Rogers, a local area resident, voiced her concerns Wednesday night to the city council about them dealing with and potentially bending to Sarver’s will. Rogers’ comments to the council quickly became the thing of legend, with her calling Sarver “so tight he squeaks when he walks”.

Via Twitter:

That’s the right call in today’s day and age. Owners have far too much sway, and their stewardship of a public trust like a sports team shouldn’t allow them to influence taxpayers in the manner Sarver is attempting. In fact, it should be much the opposite.

Thanks to TV deals, Big 4 sports franchises are basically a license to print money. People don’t even need to show up to the stadium anymore — just look at most MLB parks. Owner-favorable tax deals, at least on the scale most cities hand out, are just bad business at this point.

On Thursday Sarver issued a video via the team Twitter account that didn’t say much of anything, despite the intention. In it, Sarver said he was committed to keeping the Suns in downtown Phoenix, building a new practice facility, and renovating the stadium. He didn’t mention anything about paying for it himself, which you would think he could do with a rumored net worth of $400 million. Or the team could just do it, since it’s a billion-dollar enterprise that can take out loans like any other business. Because, you know, that’s how capital expenditures work.

Sarver’s clumsy attempt to bully money out of the city of Phoenix in a post-SuperSonics NBA was pretty laughable. Hopefully more folks like Greta Rogers keep the council’s feet to the fire.