Pelicans, not Thunder, show they’re ready to tangle with West’s best

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Stephen Curry’s final shot rimmed in and out.

Now, the Pelicans go from out to in.

New Orleans outlasted the Warriors in a thriller, 103-100, tonight to jump the Thunder – who got blown out by the Spurs – for eighth place in the Western Conference. The Pelicans (42-35) both lead Oklahoma City (42-36) by a half game and hold the tiebreaker thanks to a 3-1 advantage in the season series.

After tonight, New Orleans might also claim the backing of unaffiliated basketball fans.

The Pelicans won’t beat Golden State in a seven-game series, but they could sure create a few fun games.

New Orleans still runs through Anthony Davis, who had 29 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and two steals tonight. But with role players like Quincy Pondexter (20 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-4 from beyond the arc) stepping up, New Orleans is a more complete team than the Thunder.

Sure, Russell Westbrook if a force. But slow him, and Oklahoma City crumbles.

San Antonio jumped to a 35-10 lead tonight while frustrating Westbrook to 1-of-6 shooting. The Spurs cruised to a 113-88 win, and Westbrook finished with just 17 points, two assists and two rebounds.

The Thunder have lost four straight overall and eight straight to Western Conference playoff teams.

The Pelicans haven’t been much better against top teams, using a recent four-game winning streak over the Kings, Timberwolves, Lakers and Kings to get back in the postseason race. But tonight’s win shows New Orleans might be blossoming at the right moment. Given its remaining schedule compared to Oklahoma City’s, it might have to be.

Pelicans:

  • at Grizzlies
  • vs. Suns
  • at Rockets
  • at Timberwolves
  • vs. Spurs

Thunder:

  • vs. Kings
  • at Pacers
  • vs. Trail Blazers
  • at Timberwolves

There are parallels between these Pelicans and the 2009-10 Thunder, who, as the No. 8 seed in their first postseason in years, pushed the top-seeded Lakers to six games. New Orleans has that same type of potential.

As good as Westbrook has played since Kevin Durant’s season-ending injury, can he alone really steal more than a game against the Warriors? As Golden State has shown all season, beating a complete team is much more difficult than beating an elite individual (though the Warriors have the advantage of possessing both).

The Pelicans might have needed a bad call to win tonight – and, more broadly, that bad call to make the playoffs. But they didn’t need that a favorable whistle to challenge Golden and create an exciting environment in New Orleans.

Once Durant and Serge Ibaka get healthy, Oklahoma City should be a force again next season. Westbrook will still have a major say in how this season ends for the Thunder, who are far from eliminated.

But right now, it looks like the Pelicans’ time.

Pistons claim Christian Wood off waivers

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The Bucks waived Christian Wood late last season to ensure avoiding the luxury tax. The Pelicans claimed him. Wood had played well in limited minutes with the 76ers, Hornets and Bucks and in the NBA’s minor league since going undrafted in 2015.

New Orleans gave him his biggest opportunity yet. In 24 minutes per game over eight games, he averaged 17 points and eight rebounds.

But the Pelicans filled their roster for next season and waived Wood.

Detroit will take advantage.

Pistons release:

The Detroit Pistons announced today that the team has claimed forward/center Christian Wood off waivers.

Wood’s $1,645,357 minimum salary is unguaranteed until the regular season. So, Detroit could still waive him before the season. But it seems he’ll at least go to training camp and get a shot at a regular-season roster spot.

The Pelicans also could’ve kept him through the preseason then waived him before the regular season. They seemingly did him a favor of allowing him to get somewhere he has a realistic chance of sticking.

Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond will start in the frontcourt for the Pistons. Markieff Morris and Thon Maker appear to be first in line is backups.

But don’t be surprised if Wood earns playing time. At minimum, the 23-year-old should provide nice depth at both power forward and center.

The Pistons have also now acquired four members of last year’s Bucks – Tony Snell, Thon Maker, Tim Frazier and now Wood.

Knicks: Reggie Bullock has spine injury

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Reggie Bullock had his agreed-upon salary cut by more than half with the Knicks. He’ll reportedly miss at least a month of the regular season.

All because of a mysterious health issue.

The Knicks have finally disclosed what’s happening.

Knicks release:

Reggie Bullock underwent successful surgery today at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York for a cervical disc herniation. The team will plan to provide an update on his rehab and progress around the start of training camp.

Bullock is a good shooter from the wing. New York could use him. Many teams could use him.

But Bullock must get healthy first.

At this point, we probably shouldn’t expect much from him any time soon. The best indication: how eagerly his agent praised the Knicks for their handling of this situation. Again, Bullock settled for less than half his initially agreed-upon salary.

Report: Suns signing Cheick Diallo to two-year contract

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The Suns went old in the draft, picking 23-year-old Cameron Johnson at No. 11.

Phoenix will go younger in free agency with 22-year-old Cheick Diallo.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Barring another move, the Suns have only the minimum available. Diallo will get $1,678,854 next season and $1,824,003 the following season.

The No. 33 pick in the 2016 draft, Diallo worked his way into the low end of the rotation during his three years with the Pelicans. He’s a hustle big, committed rebounder and athletic player. But at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, he’s not strong enough to bang with most centers. His skill level is low for power forward.

Phoenix will stick him behind Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky in the frontcourt. Diallo might receive situation minutes, but he must develop further to hold staying power.

Report: Chris Paul increasingly expected to start season with Thunder

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Last week, the Thunder had an expensive point guard who’s into his 30s and didn’t fit a team shifting into rebuilding without Paul George.

Same story now.

Oklahoma City traded Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul to acquire draft picks and shed long-term salary. Getting Paul as a player was of minimal concern. That’s why the Thunder worked with him to flip him. But a team like the Heat wanted draft picks just for taking the three years and $124,076,442 remaining on Paul’s contract.

So, Oklahoma City might hold onto Paul, after all.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The 34-year-old Paul is past his prime. But he’s still good. It’d be interesting to see him once again as his team’s best player after he spent so much time stuck in the corner watching James Harden.

Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams could form the core of a solid team this season. Paul can run an offense, and Adams (pick-and-roll) and Gallinari (pick-and-pop) offer nice complementary skills. If Andre Roberson is healthy or if a young player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nerlens Noel, Terrence Ferguson or Hamidou Diallo takes the next step, Oklahoma City could make real noise.

The Thunder’s biggest challenge: They play in the loaded Western Conference. That makes it far more difficult to make the playoffs. But in terms of team quality, Oklahoma City could be in the thick of competitiveness.

If Paul and Gallinari stay healthy. That can’t be assumed, though Adams can do some dirty work to keep those two clean.

The Thunder have tremendous draft capital – so much of which is tied to the fates of the Clippers, Rockets, Heat and Nuggets. Oklahoma City could tank and improve its draft position further and sooner. But owning so many picks from other teams allows the Thunder to try to win now while simultaneously rebuilding. They don’t necessarily have to waste seasons in the basement just to build themselves back up.

It will probably be easier to trade Paul on Dec. 15. That’s when most free agents who signed this summer become eligible to be traded. Right now, too many teams have untradable players, making it difficult to match Paul’s high salary. Generally, the more of Paul’s contract the Thunder pay out, the easier it’ll be to trade him.

But if Paul declines sharply or gets hurt, his value could diminish even further. There’s risk in waiting, though an injured Paul might allow Oklahoma City to tank anyway.

The Thunder must also cut a few million of salary before the final day of the regular season to avoid the luxury tax. That’s a priority.

So, Oklahoma City will make some move – Paul or otherwise.

But it appears likely we’ll see Paul play for the Thunder. It’ll be a return to Oklahoma City after he played home games there with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets following Hurricane Katrina.

This isn’t the reunion Paul or the Thunder appeared to desire when the Westbrook trade was agreed upon. I still think it could be pretty cool.