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Three Things to Know: 2017-18 Western Conference ties record with 10 winning teams

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) This year’s Western Conference is special. The Clippers beat the Spurs last night, moving to 42-36 and clinching the 10th winning record in the West. The only other time a single conference produced so many winning teams – the 2001 Western Conference.

The standings that year:

1. San Antonio Spurs (58-24)

2. Los Angeles Lakers (56-26)

3. Sacramento Kings (55-27)

4. Utah Jazz (53-29)

5. Dallas Mavericks (53-29)

6. Phoenix Suns (51-31)

7. Portland Trail Blazers (50-32)

8. Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)

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9. Houston Rockets (45-37)

10. Seattle SuperSonics (44-38)

The Bucks (106-102 over the Celtics) and Heat (101-98) winning last night also clinched all eight Eastern Conference playoff teams having winning records. So, there will be 18 teams this season above .500. The only other time that happened: 2005, when the 42-40 Cavaliers and 44-38 Timberwolves missed the playoffs.

All this points to a deep and fun postseason – except for the two Western Conference teams that don’t make it. Which leads to…

2) The Clippers and Nuggets aren’t going away. The Clippers trailed San Antonio by 19 and by seven with three minutes left. By snapping Indiana’s five-game winning streak, Denver has won three straight – last night’s narrow 107-104 victory and overtime wins over the Bucks and Thunder.

Just three Western Conference teams – Rockets, Warriors and Trail Blazers – have clinched playoff berths. The rest of the race:

4. Utah Jazz (45-33)

4. San Antonio Spurs (45-33)

6. Oklahoma City Thunder (45-34)

7. Minnesota Timberwolves (44-34)

8. New Orleans Pelicans (43-34)

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9. Denver Nuggets (43-35)

10. Los Angeles Clippers (42-36)

In their final four games, the Nuggets and Clippers each face three teams in the mix – including each other. Here’s the closing four for Denver and L.A.:

Nuggets:

  • vs. Timberwolves tomorrow
  • at Clippers on Saturday
  • vs. Trail Blazers on Monday
  • at Timberwolves next Wednesday

Clippers:

  • at Jazz tomorrow
  • vs. Nuggets on Saturday
  • vs. Pelicans on Monday
  • vs. Lakers next Thursday

Should be a fun finish.

3) The Cavaliers beat the Raptors, 112-106 – which means everything, nothing or something in between. Great analysis, I know.

Cleveland acting coach Larry Drew called a comeback win over Toronto a couple weeks ago a potential turning point. How big a message is another win over the first-place Raptors?

The Raptors have been the East’s best team this season, but they’ve also struggled in the playoffs the last few seasons and gotten eliminated by the Cavs the last two years. Even with Cleveland holding a worse record this year, a LeBron James team is always dangerous. Last night’s result could instill doubt in Toronto.

Or it could be an isolated event. After watching Villanova win the national championship the day before in San Antonio, Kyle Lowry scored five points on 2-of-11 shooting. He’ll be better-rested in the postseason.

On the other hand, the Cavaliers were missing starting point guard George Hill – though replacement Jose Calderon (19 points on 11 shots) played well. Of course, LeBron (27 points, 10 rebounds and six assists) and Kevin Love (18 points and 15 rebounds) did the heavy lifting.

Let’s just say not to read too much into a single regular-season game but not completely discount its importance, either.

Watch Russell Westbrook score season-high 45, help Rockets beat Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Russell Westbrook scored a season-high 45 points and had 10 assists, and the Houston Rockets overcame another tough night from James Harden to rally past the Minnesota Timberwolves 131-124 on Friday night.

Westbrook helped key a second-half comeback after Minnesota led by six points in the third quarter. He finished 16-of-27 shooting, was 13 of 13 from the free-throw line and added six rebounds. Eric Gordon scored a season-high 27 points off the bench for Houston, which won its second straight game following a season-long, four-game losing streak.

Harden, who went 1 for 17 from 3-point range in a home loss to Oklahoma City on Monday night, was 3 of 13 overall and 0 for 6 from beyond the arc against Minnesota. He finished with a season-low 12 points. Harden also left the game for part of the third quarter, limping badly to the bench before returning in the fourth.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 30 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which has lost eight straight. Andrew Wiggins scored 28 points for the Timberwolves.

Minnesota’s streak prompted some frustration after Wednesday’s 117-110 loss at Chicago, when coach Ryan Saunders said the team is simply not playing well. Saunders also challenged Wiggins at halftime of that game to be more productive.

The Wolves started strong while Houston was missing shots. Minnesota led by six in the opening quarter. The Rockets hit just two of their first 11 shots and Harden was 1 of 5. The Rockets also trailed in Minnesota in November before recovering for a 125-105 win.

Led by Westbrook, Houston led by as many as 13 on Friday, but the Wolves didn’t fade.

Minnesota cut the Rockets’ lead to 110-108 with 6 minutes remaining.

Houston had the finisher in Westbrook. He scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 after the Wolves closed within two.

Kawhi Leonard racks up first career triple-double, lifts Clippers past Heat

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MIAMI (AP) — Kawhi Leonard got his first career triple-double and scored 33 points, Landry Shamet added 22 and the Los Angeles Clippers shrugged off an early 15-point deficit before hanging on to beat the Miami Heat 122-117 Friday night.

Leonard finished with 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He was first credited with the triple-double in the third quarter — briefly, because one of his rebounds was taken away after a stat review. He then officially got it on a rebound with 3:55 left.

Lou Williams scored 16 points, Montrezl Harrell had 15 and JaMychal Green added 14 for the Clippers.

Jimmy Butler led Miami with 20 points. Butler left midway through the fourth after appearing to turn his right ankle for the second time in the game, capping a night when he also got inadvertently popped in the eye during the first half.

Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Herro scored 19 points each, Bam Adebayo had 18 and Duncan Robinson added 16 for Miami. The Heat fell to 20-2 at home – 0-2 against teams from Los Angeles. Their only other home loss was to the Lakers.

Miami was down by 18 with 8:34 left, then went on a 24-9 run and got within three on a 3-pointer by Dion Waiters with 34 seconds remaining. But they got no closer, and Leonard sealed it by going 4 for 4 from the foul line in the final moments.

Leonard flirted with a triple-double on two other occasions this season, missing it by two rebounds on Oct. 26 at Phoenix and by one assist on Nov. 11 against Toronto.

The Clippers were without Paul George (left hamstring) for the eighth consecutive game and Patrick Beverley (right groin) for the second straight game, though Beverley tried lobbying his way into the lineup.

Miami was without two point guards – Kendrick Nunn missed the game with left Achilles soreness and Goran Dragic was out with a sore left calf, something that flared up after he got kicked in Wednesday night’s overtime win against Washington.

So, down to 10 available players, Miami had no choice: Dion Waiters played for the first time this season.

Waiters, who had been suspended three times for various issues since October and embarrassed himself and the organization when he ingested at least one cannabis-infused edible and needed medical attention when the team charter plane wrapped up a Phoenix-to-Los Angeles flight in November, played 18 minutes and scored 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting, 4 for 9 from 3-point range.

Miami ran out to a 24-9 lead after seven minutes. The Clippers were within eight by the time the first quarter was done, and 65-63 at halftime. Then they outscored Miami 38-20 in the third to take total control.

Zion Williamson has big dunk, block, scores 15 but Pelicans still fall to Nuggets

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Zion Williamson is still making plays — his first NBA dunk and a dramatic block shot came in his second NBA game — and he is still facing a minutes limit, much to the frustration of fans in the arena.

And the Pelicans are still looking for their first win with Zion in the lineup.

Williamson had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, plus six rebounds, in his second NBA game. One highlight was his first NBA dunk, finishing an alley-oop from Jrue Holiday just :40 seconds into the game.

However, the most eye-popping of his second game highlights was a fourth quarter blocked shot of Malik Beasley.

Williamson played just 21 minutes, about three more than his first game but still under a tight minutes limit. The crowd chanted “we want Zion” late in the fourth, but the Pelicans are wisely bringing their No. 1 pick along slowly as he recovers from surgery to repair his torn meniscus.

The Pelicans also lost the game 113-106 to a Denver team led by Nikola Jokic‘s 27 points and 12 rebounds.

New Orleans is now 0-2 with Williamson in the lineup. When the team won 11-of-16 just before his return, the Pelicans pulled back from trade talks for Holiday, Derrick Favors, and J.J. Redick to make a playoff push. New Orleans now sits 4.5 games out of the playoffs in the West and would need to leap four teams to get in — if the wins don’t start coming soon (and a lot of them), David Griffin and company will have to reconsider what they do at the trade deadline.

Watch Zion Williamson get his first NBA dunk, an alley-oop finish from Jrue Holiday

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Zion Williamson was impressive in his NBA debut, but he did it from three, not with dunks.

That changed just 40 seconds into his second game.

It was a lob from Jrue Holiday against a Denver defense that did not get back fast enough. Zion and the Pelicans wanted to do this in his debut but give the Spurs credit, they got back in transition and cut off these opportunities. The very shorthanded Nuggets did not.

There will be a lot more Zion dunks — and a lot more spectacular ones — but you never forget your first.