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?!?

Anthony Davis, Patrick Beverley, more return to sweet home Chicago for All-Star Game

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CHICAGO — For Anthony Davis, it means a lot of things. Like snow.

“I don’t get to see the snow as much now. Me and my cousins would go outside and have snowball fights almost every day after school,” Davis said. “I kinda miss that.”

And deep-dish pizza.

“Giordano’s pizza is my go-to,” Davis said.

For Patrick Beverley, it means grit.

“My Chicago grit goes everywhere with me,” Beverley said. “It’s something, when I get on the court, I try to represent. That’s just a part of my game.”

For a handful of players — Davis, Beverley in the Skills Challenge, Miami’s Kendrick Nunn in Rising Stars, Detroit’s Derrick Rose (who had to pull out of the Skills Challenge due to injury) — the NBA All-Star weekend of events is a chance to come back home, to the city where they grew up and learned to play the game.

“Really excited to be back home, really excited to see my friends, the high schools I went to,” Beverley said. “I’m really excited to smell the Chicago air. I’m so happy to be back home right now…

“It’s an emotion I really can’t explain. It’s surreal to me, I find myself trying to pinch myself. I think the last All-Star Game (in Chicago) was 32 years ago, so I wasn’t even born yet. You know me, I represent Chicago, the grit of Chicago, I’m just fortunate to be able to represent the city the right way.”

“It’s good to be back home, spend time with my family, my friends…” Davis said. “Just trying to stay warm. But to get back here and play in front of the fans in the place I grew up, the place I had my first big-time game, the McDonalds game at UC (United Center). It’s been great to get back here and re-live some of the high school memories I had here in Chicago.”

Davis didn’t attend one of Chicago’s basketball powers. Kind of the opposite. He went to Perspectives Charter School — which didn’t even have a gym on campus at the time. They played at a church nearby. Davis entered school as a 6’2″ guard who was relatively unremarkable, but he grew 8 inches in 18 months, bringing those guard skills with him, and suddenly he was on the top of everyone’s recruiting lists.

Davis could have transferred to any of Chicago’s power schools, like Rose’s Simeon Career Academy, but he stayed at Perspectives.

“I was just being loyal, it was my junior year and I didn’t want to leave and have to sit out a year, so I kinda just stayed around and tried to stick it out,” Davis said. “My dad always gave me the saying ‘no matter where you are they’ll find you,’ and I kind of took that to heart and kept doing what I was doing, working hard, and eventually someone would come see me. Then Coach Cal [Kentucky’s John Calipari] came to one of my games and the rest is history.”

Chicago influenced all of their games.

For Beverley, he said it was another Chicago guy, Will Bynum, who served as a mentor. Plus, when Beverley was in elementary and heading into middle school, it was the Michael Jordan Bulls era.

“There were a lot of parades at that time, the city was on fire. Literally on fire,” Beverley said. “Seeing all that made you want to go out and play basketball. I guess that was every kid’s dream.”

When Davis was having his growth spurt and starting to emerge in high school, Derrick Rose was drafted and took over the NBA — right there in Chicago.

“Derrick Rose is still one of my favorite players to watch,” Davis said. “He was the guy every guy underneath him looked up to. The things he did for the city, and him getting drafted to the Bulls and that whole run, it was just inspiring for all of us.”

All-Star weekend is not a time Davis is going to get to chill on the couch with family and friends. The games, the charity events, the sponsor events — and not to mention a few parties — pull the players in the events a lot of directions.

“I haven’t been able to take it all in, I’ve been running around,” Davis said.

But they are still home. They get to smell the Chicago air, see some friends.

And maybe throw in a slice of pizza.

Fellow NBA players think Aaron Gordon was robbed in Dunk Contest, too

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Aaron Gordon got robbed.

At the conclusion of the best NBA All-Star Saturday night Dunk Contest in years, Orlando’s Aaron Gordon jumped over 7’5″ — without shoes — Tacko Fall, and still got a 47 score that cost him the contest to Derrick Jones Jr.

“Jumping over somebody 7’5″ [note: without shoes] and dunking is no easy feat,” Gordon said, stating the obvious. “What did I get, like a 47? Come on, man. What are we doing?”

Gordon’s fellow NBA players have his back.

There was one dissenter: Andre Iguodala thinks the judges got it right.

NBA loses hundreds of millions of dollars in China, may return to play preseason games in 2020

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CHICAGO — The NBA’s damaged relationship with China hit the league’s bottom line hard, and the relationship is not yet back to normal, but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is convinced it will get there. Eventually.

The fallout from a Tweet from Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey supporting the protestors in Hong Kong — and the league’s refusal to publicly punish him or remove him from office — has hit the league’s pocketbook hard, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver admitted Saturday night.

“I think that the magnitude of the loss will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Silver said in his annual All-Star Weekend press conference. “Certainly, probably less than $400 million, maybe even less than that.

“It’s substantial. I don’t want to run from that. We were taken off the air in China for a period of time, and it caused our many business partners in China to feel it was, therefore, inappropriate to have ongoing relationships with us. But I don’t have any sense that there’s any permanent damage to our business there, and as I’ve said before, we accept the consequences of our system and our values.”

That financial hit has impacted the league’s bottom line, and the salary cap.

After a slow and rocky start, the NBA eventually backed Morey’s right to express his opinion on the political matter of the protests in Hong Kong. However, that is a third-rail issue for the Chinese government, and the fact Morey apologized and soon removed the Tweet was not enough — the Chinese government pushed for him to be fired. The Rockets and the league made no such move, Morey remains the Rockets GM.

As a result, NBA games are still not broadcast on state-run television in China, although they are available for streaming (and the viewership is similar to past years), Silver said.

Silver struck an optimistic tone that the NBA’s relationship would return to normal, eventually. That includes the possibility that the league will play preseason games there next fall, something it has done most years for a long time.

“There were two sets of games that may be potentially played in China,” Silver said. “There have been discussions about pre-Olympic games. So this would be USA basketball playing in China. So there are ongoing discussions there, and there also are ongoing discussions about whether we will return for preseason games next year.”

Silver said that the outbreak of the Coronavirus has put all those talks on hold as China focuses on that health crisis.

“It’s almost hard for us to be having conversations about the broadcasting of games when there’s a major national, if not global, health crisis happening,” Silver said. “So the answer is I just don’t know sort of next steps in terms of the process. We’ve had lines of communication open for a long time with counterparts in China, and as I said, I think there’s a mutual interest in returning to normalcy in terms of the distribution of our games.”

Silver added that the league has helped, donating to relief efforts tied to the virus, as it does in the wake of disasters around the world.

For now, all the league can do is be patient and wait.

Aaron Gordon dunks over 7’5″ Tacko Fall, somehow still robbed of Dunk Contest win

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CHICAGO — Aaron Gordon cannot catch a break in an All-Star Dunk Contest dunk-off.

In the best Dunk Contest since 2016 — when Gordon controversially lost in a dunk-off to Zach LaVine — Gordon lost another dunk-off, this time despite dunking over 7’5″ Tacko Fall for the final dunk of the night.

“Jumping over somebody 7’5″ [note: without shoes] and dunking is no easy feat,” Gordon said, stating the obvious. “What did I get, like a 47? Come on, man. What are we doing?”

Yes, Gordon got a 47 out of 50 for that dunk and the crowd in the United Center was not happy with the judges, but that was a theme for the night. The judges, for their part, apparently were conspiring to send the dunk-off to a third round but screwed it up.

 

Gordon, who now has lost three Dunk Contests, two in dunk-offs, leaves the peoples’ champ but he is not coming back.

“It’s a wrap, bro. It’s a wrap. I feel like I should have two trophies,” Gordon said when asked if he would do another Dunk Contest.

Gordon should have gotten a 50 and won on that last dunk, but make no mistake, Derrick Jones Jr. earned the win — most of the night his dunks were cleaner and, to my eyes, right there with Gordon’s.

Jones — who turned 23 on Saturday — started the final round by leaping over two people and taking the ball between the legs.

Then went off the side of the backboard, between the legs and threw it down.

Jones was ready for the extra dunks.

“I got a whole lot in my arsenal,” Jones said of the couple extra dunks. “I knew every dunk that I was going to do even if it went to overtime. I planned this.”

This was a great dunk contest because it wasn’t just the two finalists who were throwing down epic dunks.

One of the most entertaining dunks of the night came from the Bucks’ Pat Connaughton — the white guy in the contest leaned into it and went with the White Men Can’t Jump dunk. He did it over the Brewers Christian Yelich, but somehow only got a 45.

Connaughton won the crowd over again with his second dunk, taking the ball from Giannis Antetokounmpo, tapping backboard, and then dunking. That got him a deserved 50.

Dwight Howard broke out the Superman dunk again, but this time as a tribute to Kobe.

The NBA history books will record this as a Derrick Jones Jr. win. But everyone who watched this contest knows who won.