Five Things We Learned In NBA Wednesday: One half of Durant, Westbrook is all you need

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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 thinking maybe you don’t want to go swimming in Australia

One half of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook is all you need. Okay, maybe we didn’t learn that so much as get reminded on Wednesday. Oklahoma City has now won four in a row and, finally with everyone healthy, are starting to play like the legit title contender we thought they were. And all of that is because of Westbrook and Durant, who turned it on in the second half after a sloppy second quarter from the Thunder when they shot 4-of-22 as a team (OKC was down a dozen at the break). In the second half the best one-two punch in the NBA just took over — Westbrook had 25 in the second half, Durant 21. When Westbrook was using his athleticism to attack he was dangerous, when he settled it was a win for Washington — in the second half Westbrook was 8-of-9 shooting in the paint and 2-of-11 outside it. Which is why when he attacked and didn’t settle he got the overtime game winner.

No matter how well Durant and Westbrook are playing it’s not going to be easy for Oklahoma City to catch Phoenix. The Thunder are just three back of the Suns for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, and if you look at Phoenix’s schedule and see eight quality playoff teams in a row lined up you think they will lose a few and OKC will close that gap easily. Nope. The Suns started out this gauntlet beating Portland Wednesday night to make it four straight win. The three guard attack of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas combined for 76 points, while Gerald Green scored another dozen. Oklahoma City may well catch Phoenix at some point but this is not going to be easy for them.

Kyle Korver can dunk. The Hawks sharpshooter is a borderline All-Star because he’s having as good a shooting season as anyone has in the history of the NBA — he’s shooting 53.5 percent from three this season. But what he really wants to do is dunk — for the first time in two years Korver threw it down on Wednesday. We wouldn’t believe it either, but there is video evidence.

Andre Drummond vs. Nikola Vucevic could be a fun matchup for years to come. Brandon Jennings was the story in the Pistons’ win over the Magic — 24 points and 21 assists — but what I was watching in this game was a matchup of potential All-Star centers from the East in Andre Drummond and Nikola Vucevic. It’s a contrast of styles (which is why they weren’t matched head-to-head all game long). Vucevic scored a couple times on Drummond (and missed a couple) on traditional post ups but the strength of his game is that he can pop out and hit the 15-18 foot jumper, something Drummond didn’t always contest (to be fair he had rim protecting duties on a lot of those and needed help rotations). Drummond on the other hand got the ball in the post more and was 4-of-5 by my count on Vucevic in that setting. The bottom line is Vucevic ended up with 26 points and 15 boards, Drummond 26 points and 17 boards. These are two of the best young centers in the game and we would be watching them battle for many years.

Head-to-head, the Sixers are tanking harder than the Knicks. The real losers here? Anyone who paid for tickets to this game. Philadelphia met New York and unfortunately for two tanking teams someone had to win. Sure, the players didn’t see it that way but you can be sure parts of the fan bases (and front offices) did. The Sixers sat Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel and that was enough to give the Knicks the edge and the win behind 27 from Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks have a two-game winning streak and they are just half a game (two in the loss column) behind the Sixers.

Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu not expected to be back for Magic when games restart

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Jonathan Isaac was having a breakout season for Orlando. He had become a go-to defensive stopper for the Magic, a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. He was going to get All-Defensive team votes this season and looked like a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate. (On offense he’s averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests, but he is still a project.)

He hyperextended his knee and suffered a bone bruise in January, but it looks like neither he nor veteran Al-Farouq Aminu (torn meniscus) will be on the court for the Magic when games restart in July, reports Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel.

Injured forwards Jonathan Isaac (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee) most likely will not be healthy enough to return…

“Not a whole lot of news there,” [Magic president of basketball operations Jeff] Weltman said when asked about the possibility of Isaac or Aminu returning. “As always, we’re going to wait and see how they respond to rehab. They’re both working very hard.

“There’s a difference of being healthy and then being safely healthy. It will have been a long, long time since those guys played and you know organizationally that we’re never going to put our guys in a position where they’re exposed to any sort of risk of injury. So that being said, we’ll just continue to see how they progress.”

Put plainly, the risk is not worth the reward. Isaac is a key part of what the Magic want to build in the future and they do not want to push him too hard to return for this handful of games.

Come July, the Magic will head down the street to the Walt Disney World resort complex in Orlando as the eighth seed in the East with a 5.5 game lead over the ninth-seeded Wizards (who will not have John Wall back). If Washington can close that gap to four games or fewer during the eight “seeding games,” then there will be a two-game play-in series between the teams, with the Magic just needing to win one of the two to advance (assuming they are still the eight seed).

After that, it’s on to the first round of the playoffs and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Isaac’s defense would be helpful against Bradley Beal and/or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Magic are thinking bigger picture.

Winning percentage will determine final seedings in NBA restart; regular tiebreakers used

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Heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando, the Trail Blazers are the nine seed in the West, followed by the Pelicans and Kings. All three of those teams are 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed, however, Portland gets the nine seed because it played two more games than either New Orleans and Sacramento, went 1-1 in those two games, and that gives Portland a slightly better winning percentage (.439 to .438).

That winning percentage matters because it’s how the league will determine seeding in a situation where teams have played a different number of games, reports Tim Bontemps of ESPN.

In practical terms, this may not matter much.

In the West, if Portland and New Orleans both went 8-0 in the seeding games then winning percentage would play a role with the Blazers getting the higher seed. However, that scenario is highly unlikely. More likely is wins and losses in Orlando will decide this and other tiebreakers (New Orleans beat Sacramento in their one head-to-head meeting, but our projected schedule for those teams has them playing twice, so the head-to-head tiebreaker is still up in the air). Because of how the records shake out, tiebreakers are irrelevant to Portland — it will not tie any teams, winning percentage will decide their seed.

In the East, winning percentage is irrelevant for the playoff chase — either Washington gets within four games of Orlando hand forces play-in games for the final playoff spot, or it doesn’t and Orlando is in.

Eight teams not headed to Orlando considering mini-camps, summer games to help players

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Nine months is a long time to go without playing a basketball game.

That’s what the eight teams not going to the NBA season restart in Orlando — Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Golden State, Minnesota, and New York — face. And for all of those teams except the Warriors, developing young players to be the future core of the franchise is their goal, and no games from March to December will set that effort back.

Which is why the teams are talking about “mini-camps” — think college spring football — with two teams at least playing each other during those camps, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Among the front-office ideas presented to the NBA, sources said:

• A combination of voluntary and mandatory workouts for two weeks in July.
• Regional minicamps in August that include joint practices for a period of days and approximately three televised games.

Those teams also want other “voluntary” team workouts and to start their training camps for next season earlier than the teams headed to Orlando.

The NBA isn’t going to grant teams everything on their wish list, but there should be some allowance for organized mini-camps and scrimmages/exhibitions. This would be particularly important to New York (and maybe Chicago), where a new coach will be installing a new system and trying to start a new culture.

Those eight teams missed out on 17 or so “meaningless” games with their season put on hold, games that would have meant something in terms of developing young players and giving guys key minutes. The league should — and almost certainly will — take steps to allow those off-season camps and scrimmages, helping teams get their player development programs back on track.

Gregg Popovich’s powerful statement: ‘Our country is in trouble and the basic reason is race’

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As protests continue across the nation — sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, but really the culmination of decades of systemic and, sometimes, overt racism across the United States — NBA voices have spoken up. Players, coaches, and staff have done more than take to social media, they have participated in and led marches across the nation, and put their money where their mouth is.

One of those voices is Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

He had spoken to Dave Zirin at The Nation, and on Saturday he released a powerful video statement through the Spurs.

Popovich has been at the forefront of NBA voices willing to speak out on social issues and criticize President Donald Trump. Popovich’s voice carries a lot of weight, both as a leader of men, and as a former Air Force officer who underwent intelligence training and specialized in Soviet studies.

In addition to coaching the San Antonio Spurs, Popovich will coach the USA Basketball team in the Tokyo Olympics, now set for July of 2021.