Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook’s sprained ankle could alter West race

Associated Press
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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) Russell Westbrook sprains ankle, potentially changing the complexion of the West. The poet laureate that is Steven Adams summed it up best: “It’s s—. Just real s—. Feels bad.”

In the third quarter of what was ultimately the Thunder’s fifth straight win Monday night, Russell Westbrook went up for a rebound next to Anthony Davis and when he came down rolled his left ankle. Badly. As in drop to the ground, screaming in pain, have to be helped back to the locker room badly.

What we know for sure is that it’s an inversion sprain, that the Thunder are calling it a “high ankle sprain,” and that X-rays were negative. As is the case with most sprains, it will take until the next day and an MRI to determine the actual severity.

If it’s a grade 1 sprain, Westbrook likely misses a week or two. If it’s a grade 2 sprain, he could be out a month or more. Westbrook has an incredibly high pain tolerance and will want to be back on the court tomorrow, but it becomes more questions of stability and mobility. Bottom line, the Thunder are wed to Westbrook with his new max contract for a long time and they are not risking the future (or this becoming chronic) for a few wins now.

The Thunder are 7.7 points per 100 possessions better when Westbrook is on the court and have won five straight. They are not the same team without Westbrook and will now have to ask a lot more of Dennis Schröeder. The good news is they move into a relatively soft part of the schedule for a couple of weeks (Cleveland, Dallas, Phoenix twice, the Knicks) so they should be able to hold their ground.

However, if this is a Grade 2 sprain, if the Thunder have to go a month or more without the former MVP, it could alter the shape of the West playoff chase. It’s watching and waiting now with Westbrook’s ankle.

2) Jamal Murray drops 48, Nuggets would like you to know they are for real in West. Unfortunately, the end of this game became the story — Jamal Murray had 48 points, the Nuggets were up by 12 and there were only a few seconds left on the clock, the classy thing to do would be to dribble it out and walk off winners. Murray jacked up a three trying to get to 50 points. It pissed off the Celtics, and even the veterans and coach on the Nuggets pulled Murray aside after the game and told him not to break the unwritten rule.

Whatever. That was so Jamal Murray it was almost funny. If the Celtics really want to be upset it should be about the fact Murray owned them and dropped 48 in the first place.

The Nuggets are no fluke — a 9-1 start that includes handing Golden State its only loss and now a win over Boston. Denver has a top-10 offense, as we expected (it will probably climb up from its current ninth), but it’s the team’s third-ranked defense that has both surprised and not fallen off the map as expected. Even Nikola Jokic is playing pretty good defense (at least he’s a big body in the right spot much of the time).

Boston’s level of execution stunned the Nuggets at the start of the game, a 10-2 run that had coach Mike Malone calling an early timeout. It was right then Murray got hot — he hit a couple of threes out of the timeout and it was on. Still, Boston led by 18 in the first quarter, it was in the second that a 19-8 Nuggets run got it close, and we had a game.

The difference was Murray had 19 in the fourth quarter, and once he got rolling nothing Brad Stevens and Boston could throw at him mattered. Murray did much of his damage in one-on-one situations off a pick-and-roll where he got a matchup he liked. Which by the end seemed to be any matchup. But Murray has become a strong one-on-one scorer, providing a balance Denver’s offense needs.

The Nuggets are not going to maintain this pace (Cleaning the Glass currently projects them at 66 wins, that’s not happening). But they are for real — a team that may well not only host the first playoff round but will be a tough out for anyone in the second round. It’s time to take Denver seriously, if you weren’t already.

3) Zach LaVine drops 41 in Madison Square Garden, including game-winning free throw in double overtime. Count me among the people who ripped the Bulls for giving Zach LaVine four-years, $78 million this summer. I thought it was a serious overpay.

Count me among the people eating my words.

LaVine is averaging an efficient 27.9 points per game, has an impressive true shooting percentage of 60.2, and looks like an All-Star. He still can’t defend but is offense has covered that up and then some. The season highlight came on Monday night when LaVine dropped 41 on the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, including the game-winning free throw with 0.2 seconds left in double overtime.

Give the man his due, he’s been amazing so far.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.

 

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.

 

Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.