Three things we learned Wednesday: Blazers struggles open door for Kings, Nuggets

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1) Portland is a mess, has lost 8-of-9, falls into a virtual tie with Sacramento, Denver. We’re deep enough into the season to say this: Barring a catastrophic injury, there are seven teams in the West that appear playoff bound. The top four that seem obvious — the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Clippers — but also the Grizzlies, Jazz, and Thunder are all on pace to win 48 games or more and make the postseason.

Notice the Trail Blazers were not on that list. That’s because the team that came into this season with high hopes of building on their 44-win, second round of the playoffs effort a year ago is a mess. Portland played as bad a half of basketball Wednesday night as we have seen in the league this season, and the team has now lost 8-of-9. There seems to be a real chemistry issue — they don’t help each other on defense (which remains the worst in the NBA), and their ball movement has dried up on offense.

The end result of that was a loss at home Wednesday to the Dallas Mavericks. Portland was getting blown out early in this one — they shot 37.6 percent, had 11 turnovers, and were down by 24 at the half — then came back on the strength of Damian Lillard.

It wasn’t enough. Good defense by former Blazer Wesley Matthews on Lillard on the game’s final play caused the missed shot that gave the Mavericks the win, 96-95. No Lillard heroics this time.

Meanwhile, over in Salt Lake City the DeMarcus Cousins show rolled on — no ejections (or unejections) this time around — as he had 21 points and eight rebounds to lead the Kings to a 94-93 upset win over the Utah Jazz.

The result of all this is that Portland, Sacramento, and Denver are all in a virtual tie for the eighth seed in the West. On paper, the Trail Blazers should pull away from that group and secure the final playoff spot, but they are simply not good enough. Not with that defense. This could be a race that continues on into early April, that goes down to the wire, to see which team gets to be fodder for the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

One other note from that chase: Sacramento hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade, and owner Vivek Ranadive desperately wants to do so in the team’s first season in its new building in the heart of the city. Which means, if you’re expecting a Cousins trade during the season, you might as well be expecting “Suicide Squad” to win the Best Picture Oscar. Even moving Rudy Gay seems less likely — despite the fact they will get nothing in return when he walks this summer — because he’s their second-best scorer. As long as the Kings can sniff the playoffs, making it is the goal.

2) Russell Westbrook outduels Anthony Davis on an entertaining showdown. The results were what we expected: Oklahoma City beat New Orleans 121-110. But that’s not why we tuned in. We wanted the scoring showdown between Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. We were not disappointed. Davis had 34 points, but Westbrook had 42 (10 rebounds, 7 assists) as the pair put on a show.

3) Cavaliers pick up the win over Bucks, but they are going to miss J.R. Smith. Not sure why the schedule maker decided the Milwaukee Bucks needed to be involved in all of the league’s home-and-home series (or at least it seems that way), but after an overtime game on Tuesday night, the Cavaliers got an easier win Wednesday at home, 113-102.

It was Cleveland’s first game without J.R. Smith, who will be out indefinitely after needing surgery to repair a broken thumb. Tyronn Lue inserted DeAndre Liggins into the starting lineup — with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Richard Jefferson, and Tristan Thompson — and that group was +17 in 17 minutes of action. (Kevin Love is out with a bruised knee but is not expected to miss extended time.) The starters shot the ball well (65.2% eFG%), defended will, and owned the offensive glass.

The question is, can they sustain it. Tyronn Lue has leaned heavily on his starting five of Irving, Smith, LeBron, Love, and Thompson — that group has been on the court 300 minutes this season, no other five-man group more than 46 minutes heading into Wednesday night. The Cavaliers are still going to win games — they still have LeBron, Irving, and Love — and they will hold on to the top spot in the East, but it’s going to be an adjustment.

And they’re going to miss Smith in games like Sunday, when the Warriors come to town.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.