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.