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Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook has heroics, Cavaliers have collapse

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There’s only a handful of days left in the NBA season, and the key games Sunday had meaning — either in the standings or personal. It was a wild day around the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook breaks Oscar Robertson’s record with 42nd triple-double — and he wasn’t done being amazing. Russell Westbrook has played with a ferocity this season that is just hard to fathom. Yes, we all knew he’d put up numbers — he scored 50 points and put up an NBA record 42nd triple-double this season on Sunday in a win over Denver — but his relentlessness has been mind-blowing.

“To do what he’s done — both he and Harden, and to do it every night,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said shaking his head. “It’s a credit to him, and just being around him with Team USA, the spirit and competitiveness that he has, that drive, to do all the things that he has done and to still have that hunger and drive every year is amazing, it’s what makes him special.”

Here’s the thing — that 42nd triple-double may not have been the most impressive thing Westbrook did on Sunday. By the time he set the record the Thunder were mathematically locked into the sixth seed, and remember he had locked up averaging a triple-double for the season before this game even started. There was literally nothing left to play for and the Thunder were down by 13. Nearly every player in the league would have packed it in at that point.

Not Westbrook. He sparked and 18-4 run that included him scoring the final 13 points in the game, capped off by this game-winning three.

Go ahead and say he’s chasing stats, but the Thunder are 33-9 when Westbrook gets a triple-double and 13-25 when he doesn’t. He’s been clutch for them all season — he’s had nothing short of a legendary season.

BONUS THING WE LEARNED: The playoffs are now set in the West, because Westbrook’s three eliminated Denver from playoff contention. Your matchups are:

1. Golden State vs. 8. Portland
2. San Antonio vs. 7. Memphis
3. Houston vs. 6. Oklahoma City
4. L.A. Clippers vs. 5. Utah (home court in this not formally decided)

Yes, that means Harden vs. Westbrook in the NBA playoffs. Which means who should be MVP in the minds of a lot of fans will be influenced by a series that took place after the voting deadline.

2) How did the Cavaliers blow that lead? Cleveland was in cruise control, up 26 early in the fourth quarter and coasting in for a win over the Hawks. And then the wheels came off. Cleveland took its foot off the gas and Atlanta started to chip away. The Hawks got good bench play, once again that has proven a weakness for the Cavaliers.

Still, Cleveland was up 14 points with just 3:37 left, but the Hawks went on a run and the Cleveland starters fumbled. And still the Cavaliers were up five with 10 seconds left when LeBron James — who had a triple-double — was called for the foul on a Paul Millsap three. He sank all three free throws making it a two-point game with 8.3 left. Cleveland inbounded the ball to Kyrie Irving but the Hawks trapped him in the corner and Kent Bazemore was able to tie him up forcing a jump ball with 4.8 seconds left. In a scramble after the jump ball Mike Muscala came up with it, Millsap gut the shot and tied the game at the buzzer forcing overtime.

From there, the Hawks got the win.

After the game, the Cavaliers took issue with the officiating, but that’s not what cost them the game. Their bench, their lack of ability to focus for 48 minutes cost them. They flat-out were outplayed for a quarter. And it’s games like this that make you question if they can flip the switch in the postseason.

3) Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell drains game-winner, dedicates bucket to his grandmother who passed away that morning. D'Angelo Russell spent the day trying to book a flight to Louisville, playing for the Lakers Sunday night was the last thing on his mind. He found out that morning his grandmother had passed away in Louisville, and he said he looked into booking a flight and going to be with family. Except he couldn’t get one he could make. Eventually, at the urging of his family, he decided to play Sunday night and head out Monday.

The Lakers needed him — Russell’s game-winning bounced through the rim just as time expired, giving the Lakers the win, 110-109. After the shot, Russell ran over to hug his family.

“I knew (playing was) what my grandma would have wanted,” Russell said. “My dad, brothers, and everyone wanted me to play. I wanted to get away from basketball. I didn’t want to express myself through basketball but it was the only option I had and I tried to take advantage of it.”

“I get goosebumps even talking about the way the game ended,” coach Luke Walton said. “How awesome for him on such a tough day where obviously basketball is nothing in the big picture of what he’s dealing with.”

Derrick White didn’t lose teeth, passes concussion test after nasty fall in USA loss

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There were plenty of ugly things for Team USA in its loss to Australia on Saturday — most of them on the defensive end — but later in the day on Saturday there was some good news.

It sounds like point guard Derrick White will be fine after his nasty fall and face plant during the game, reports Tom Osborne of the San Antonio Express-News.

In the middle of the fourth quarter, White was pushing the ball upcourt after an Australia miss and either got clipped from behind — there was a foul called — or stumbled over his own feet. I lean clipped, but the video is not conclusive.

White fell and faceplanted, with his head bouncing off the court. If he got away with just stitches, that’s good news for Team USA. If White had a concussion it is possible he would have missed the start of the World Cup, and the USA is not deep at the point guard spot on this roster (Kemba Walker and White are the only true point guards, a couple of players such as Marcus Smart can play a few minutes there but aren’t really suited to the position).

Team USA has one more exhibition game against Canada, then opens World Cup play on Sept. 1 in China against the Czech Republic.

Grizzlies officially waive Dwight Howard, first step on his path to Lakers

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Lakers fans are uncomfortable with it, but the Lakers did a good job hedging their bet with a non-guaranteed contract: Dwight Howard is coming to the Lakers.

That process started on Saturday with the Grizzlies officially waiving Howard.

In theory, any team could claim Howard off waivers. In practice, no team is picking up his full $5.6 million salary.

Howard gave back $2.6 million in his buyout with the Grizzlies, which is exactly how much his veteran minimum contract with the Lakers will pay him.

Howard and JaVale McGee will have to tag team to play all the minutes at the five the Lakers need. Anthony Davis is their best center (and it’s not close, he’s arguably the best center in the NBA) but he wants to play the four most of the game, so for 30 minutes a night the Lakers need another big body at the five.

Howard has the potential to fill that role. For three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in averaging 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use. The problem was Howard was never happy those years just playing that defense/set-a-pick-and-roll/rebound role. He wanted more touches and particularly in the post, which led to disruptions as he pushed for a larger role. It’s why he bounced around. Then last season he played just nine games due to more back and hamstring issues.

Howard is saying all the right things about accepting that role, and he convinced the Lakers to a degree, but that non-guaranteed contract shows the Lakers go into this eyes wide open. If Howard is up to his old antics, the Lakers can cut bait and move on.

It’s among the many things to watch in what should be an entertaining Lakers’ training camp this year.

On Mamba Day (8/24), former Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti talks about what made Kobe great

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Kobe Bryant’s work ethic is legend.

It takes talent to become an MVP, 15-time All-NBA, 18-time All-Star, and lock future Hall of Famer. However, it was how Kobe got the most out of his talent that separated him from his peers. Long-time Lakers trainer Gary Vitti retired a couple of years ago and will soon publish an autobiography, “32 Years of Titles and Tears from the Best Seat in the House: What I Learned about Happiness, Greatness, Leadership and the Evolution of Sports Science.”

Vitti joined Hall of Fame photographer Andrew D. Bernstein this week on an episode of Legends of Sport to discuss his upcoming book, and he talked about Kobe (hat tip to CNBC).

“He was talented, but what if I told you he wasn’t the most talented guy out there? I’m telling you, and I’ve had them all, there’s nothing really special about Kobe. I mean he’s a big guy, but he’s not that big. He was quick, but he’s not that quick. He’s fast, he wasn’t that fast. He was powerful, but he wasn’t that powerful. I mean, there were other players that had more talent than he did, so what was there about him that more talented players had zero rings and he ended up with five?…

“He was tough in the sense that he took ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ out of his lexicon and he just believed that he could do it. Kobe taught me that talent is the most overrated thing in life; it’s what you do with your talent.”

Nobody in NBA history did as much with the talent they had as Kobe.

On Mamba Day, enjoy his ultimate mixtape highlights above and remember what it took for Kobe to get there.

 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: ‘I am not Russell Westbrook. I’m just going to try to be myself.’

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Thunder fans are going to love Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Clippers did not want to give him up in the Paul George trade but had no real choice — Gilgeous-Alexander was a prize get for OKC. As a rookie last season he started 73 games, averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game for a 48-win playoff team. Playing the most difficult position to learn in the NBA. Gilgeous-Alexander grew as the season wore on and has a promising future.

But he is taking over for Russell Westbrook as the point guard for the Thunder, so the comparisons are inevitable. Even though they have radically different games. Gilgeous-Alexander handled the question well when asked, as reported by Erik Horne at The Oklahoman.

Gilgeous-Alexander smiled and said he could compete with Westbrook’s fashion sense. He also deflected any notion of pressure to live up to the legacy of the 2016-17 Most Valuable Player. “He set the bar pretty high,” Gilgeous-Alexander said…

“I am not Russell Westbrook,” Gilgeous-Alexander said with no malice. “I do not have the same name, same body type, stuff like that. So, I’m just going to try to be myself and be the best me and everything else will take care of itself.

“I’m just a basketball player. Regardless of the situation, I’m going to continue to work hard and play my game. I know that eventually it will come out. I don’t worry about starting. I’m not worried about accolades or things like that. I just work hard, keep my head down and (stay) true to who I am.”

That attitude is part of why Thunder fans will love him. Gilgeous-Alexander is confident but not cocky, and he knows his game.

That game is more traditional point guard, more game manager, than the dynamic and explosive Westbrook. Gilgeous-Alexander learned for a season under a smart, player-friendly coach in Doc Rivers, who built his point guard’s confidence up as the season wore on. Rivers showed the rookie how to be a professional, how to prepare, and most of all trusted Gilgeous-Alexander — and that trust included being matched up on Stephen Curry in a playoff series. Through it all, Gilgeous-Alexander showed real promise.

Whatever is next in Oklahoma City — and there is a lot of rebuilding to do with that roster, a lot of picks to be made still — Gilgeous-Alexander can help lead it. He will be at the heart of what is next for the Thunder.

Just don’t expect him to be Westbrook. There is only one of those.