Five Things We Learned in NBA Wednesday: Russell Westbrook trying to will Thunder into playoffs

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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 checking out mashups of NBA team logos with the Larry O’Brien trophy

1) Russell Westbrook drops 45, trying to will Thunder into playoffs. It’s this simple — Russell Westbrook should be in the conversation when you’re discussing the bottom couple slots of the MVP ballot this season. He missed games at the start of the season, but since his return he has been as good as anyone in the league.

He made his point Wednesday. This home-and-home against the New Orleans Pelicans are not must-wins for the Thunder, but it’s the kind of opportunity that, if blown, would certainly dim OKC’s playoff chances. (They were three games back of Phoenix and two back of New Orleans entering the night.) Then came the news that Kevin Durant couldn’t go Wednesday because of his toe injury. Didn’t matter. Westbrook’s relentless athletic attack went right at the Pelicans from the opening tip — he had 19 points in the first quarter on 8-of-10 shooting. He kept that going all game, including nine points in the fourth quarter to give him 45 for the game and the Thunder the win over the Pelicans on the road. This season Westbrook (once he got healthy) has taken on more of the Oklahoma City offense — he uses 37.6 percent of the team’s possessions when on the court, the highest percentage in the league — and he is scoring 24.9 points a game, dishing out 7.6 assists a night, and on the other end getting 2.3 steals as well. He was too much for the surprisingly weak Pelican’s defense and, if the Thunder can win the rematch Friday, he will have put OKC a lot closer to the playoffs.

2) Once Stephen Curry gets going, all your defensive plans are moot. Dallas likely thought they were going to get the upset on the road when they started the game on a 24-4 run. But like playing baseball in Denver, no lead is safe against the Warriors at Oracle. Golden State’s bench fought back to make it close in the second quarter. Then Stephen Curry started doing Stephen Curry things — he had 26 points in the third quarter on his way to 51 in the game. Golden State got the win, in large part because Curry was hitting heat check shots. This is why Dallas went and got Rajon Rondo, to defend guys like Curry, but on a night like this it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

3) No Dwight Howard means the James Harden show in Houston, and sometimes that’s enough. The question is how far will the current three seed in the West Rockets fall with Howard out for the next month. Wednesday night against Chicago was the kind of game that will be a test for the next month — but they passed this one thanks to James Harden dropping 27 and leading the offense. He looked like an MVP candidate, too, and if you don’t believe me ask Jimmy Butler, who is a superb defender and was made to look awkward by The Beard with this wicked step back.

4) Despite Hassan Whiteside, Miami doing its best to fall out of the playoffs. In the East. Once again Hassan Whiteside was the best thing Miami had going — 24 points on 12-of-13 shooting, plus 20 rebounds, he was a team-best +11 — and yet after the game all you could think was “why didn’t Eric Spoelstra play him even more?” Well, you thought that, and you thought Norris Cole has lost his mind? How do you let this happen with the game on the line?

So Cole, what did happen? (From Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel.)

“I’m not really sure,” Cole said when asked what happened. “They didn’t score off it, so it allowed me to rest my mind a little easier. I’m not sure. I’ll have to look at the film. They didn’t score off of it, so it’s not the reason why we lost the game.”

Bottom line, Miami is now the eight seed, behind Charlotte, and only half a game ahead of Brooklyn, 2.5 up on Detroit. Miami is going to battle for its playoff life the rest of this way.

5) It’s just fun to have Ricky Rubio back in the league. Are you not entertained?!?

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.

Under new anti-tampering rules, Adam Silver empowered to suspend execs, take away picks, void contracts

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LeBron James publicly courted Anthony Davis. Many free agents seemingly struck deals before free agency even began. Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly sought prohibited extra benefits from teams.

The NBA finally reached its breaking point on tampering and circumvention.

After late apprehension, the league will enact stricter enforcement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m not surprised this passed unanimously. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted this to happen and wasn’t going to have owners vote unless he knew it’d pass. At that point, any protest-voting owners would just put themselves at odds with the commissioner. Not worth it.

We’ll see how long this crackdown lasts. I think that anonymous general manager represents many. If nobody is tampering, it’s fine not to tamper. But if some teams tamper, nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

This could slowly creep back toward the old status quo. But if there’s a clear violator early, Silver will have an opportunity to send a message. We’ll see whether he takes it.

This should be less about which communication is or isn’t allowed. It’s about fairness.

That’s why it’s important the NBA has rules it will enforce and only rules it will enforce. That hasn’t been the case. If it is now, this will be a success.