No. 1: Westbrook shines in clutch vs. Jazz -- After last night, the Utah Jazz have to be glad they won't see Russell Westbrook again this season. Not only did he notch his 30th triple-double of 2016-17 (43 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists), but he upped his season averages vs. the Jazz to 36.0 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.3 assists and led OKC to a 2-1 season-series win. Barry Trammel of The Oklahoman was on hand for the game and recounts how Westbrook keyed a critical win for the Thunder:
Then Westbrook happened. Again. The Thunder beat Utah 109-106 as Westbrook produced more amazement in this remarkable season. He overshadowed the hottest shooting this city had ever seen.
The Thunder had scored but two points in more than six minutes during an 18-2 run that put OKC in a 99-96 hole with 2:13 left.
Then Westbrook, who has become the NBA's premier closer, scored on five straight possessions. A 14-foot jumper. A drive for a layin over Jazz skyscraper Rudy Gobert. Two foul shots after another drive into the lane. A 3-pointer that pulled the Thunder within 106-105 with 38.1 seconds. And finally a breakneck drive for a bank shot that also drew a foul from George Hill. That three-point play gave the Thunder a 108-106 lead with 15.5 seconds left, and two defensive stops later, OKC had its fourth straight victory and had drawn within two games of the fourth-place Jazz in the Western Conference.
“He's got a great ability as the game's going on to put whatever's happened behind him,” Billy Donovan said. “Obviously, Russell made some excellent plays down the stretch.”
The Thunder far and away leads the NBA in clutch-time — tight game late — performance. Someone asked Donovan why. But we all know why.
“We have a player in Russell that has great internal belief in himself and great internal belief in his teammates,” Donovan said. “He's always playing with a great deal of optimism, a great deal of enthusiasm and a never-say die attitude.”
The Thunder is a season-high 10 games above .500, 35-25, and riding a wave of optimism. Especially after the first-half shooting barrage. The Thunder made all six of its first-quarter 3-point shots, then made its first six in the second quarter.
In the fourth quarter, the Thunder went 11 possessions with only one score, a Westbrook fast-break layup. That's to be expected, perhaps, against an elite defensive team like Utah.
But then Westbrook came to the rescue, and this Thunder season reached a high-water mark. New players to fortify. In the thick of the West race more so than ever. And a superstar who is becoming reliable as a fourth-quarter closer without peer.
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No. 2: Next step in Bosh-Heat saga looms -- On February 9, 2016, Chris Bosh played in his last game with the Miami Heat before he was sidelined with a second round of blood clot issues. Starting today, the process for the Heat to waive Bosh because of his injury begins, but as with most things between Bosh and the Heat since his injury, this is hardly setting up to be a simple transaction. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel explains in detail just what lies ahead for both parties:
Beginning on Feb. 9, the one-year anniversary of Bosh's last game appearance before being sidelined by a second bout with blood clots, the Heat became eligible to apply for salary-cap relief for the final two-plus seasons on Bosh's contract.
Among the reasons for the delay is the caveat in the current collective-bargaining agreement that if a player deemed to have a career-ending or life-threatening ailment returns to play 25 games in any season, including playoffs, his salary would be reinstated to a team's cap.
Because of that clause March 1 -- or more to the point, anytime after March 1 -- had set up as the most likely starting point for the Heat to begin the waiver process with Bosh, 32. Players waived after March 1 are not eligible for postseason rosters, thereby precluding the possibility of appearing in 25 games before the Heat can utilize regained salary-cap space in this summer's free agency.
Against that backdrop, while appearing as a studio analyst during TNT's NBA coverage on Monday night, Bosh not only did not rule out an NBA return, but indicated potentially training toward one.
While not asked specifically about a potential return to the NBA, Bosh said early Tuesday morning in TNT's studio of his health, "It's been great."
The use of blood thinners typically returns a blood-clot sufferer to general health, although the use of blood thinners is contraindicated for those attempting contact sports.
The Heat, according to a source close to the situation, in recent days have attempted to reach out to Bosh in hopes of an amicable resolution, without response.
Bosh remains with a stall in the Heat locker room at AmericanAirlines Arena, but has not been around the team this season, in contrast to his presence after being sidelined the previous two seasons.
Once the Heat waive Bosh, an independent physician, selected in conjunction with the NBA and its players' union, then will rule on Bosh's fitness going forward. By rule, Bosh, in order to collect the remainder of his contract, must avail himself to that process.
No matter the ruling of the selected medical expert, Bosh will collect all of the remaining $23.7 million on his contract for this season, as well as the $25.3 million he is due next season and the $26.9 million he is owed in 2018-19, with insurance already kicking in to pay a significant amount of that payout.
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No. 3: Knicks players face triangle test rest of season -- New York Knicks president Phil Jackson was perhaps best known for his triangle offense during his coaching days. Yet when Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek as coach last summer, the talk was that Hornacek wouldn't be held to running the triangle (but Hornacek said early on he would have concepts of it in his game plan). Fast-forward to today with the Knicks perhaps looking ahead to 2017-18 and there comes word, writes Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, that the team will evaluate its players based in large part on how they grasp the triangle offense:
For whatever reason, Phil Jackson (don’t bother trying to get answers from him) deviated from the triangle last summer when he hired Jeff Hornacek and acquired ball-dominant point guards Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings.
It jolted the Knicks for a little while, with a faster-paced offense that was heavier on pick-and-rolls. But like most everything the Knicks attempted over the last 15 years, the direction veered into a tire fire.
So it’s back to Square One. Or should we say, Triangle One.
Jeff Hornacek confirmed Tuesday that management is using the remaining months to evaluate who fits the system, which has been re-emphasized as more of a traditional triangle since the All-Star break. Hornacek even made it sound like they were placing players in two different hats: the triangle yays, and the triangle nays.
“As times goes on, you say can they get it? Are they getting better at it? If they’re not, you go, OK,” Hornacek said. “End of the year comes and we’re having our discussions and you say, ‘Can this guy play this offense? We’ll say either yay or nay or he’s getting it, he’s getting better. So I’m sure that’s part of evaluations this summer.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Kurt Rambis said almost the exact same thing last season in April as interim coach: “The decision with management is to get players who fit into the system.” It’s backwards logic in a league where star power is paramount, but the Knicks haven’t tried to fit into any standard-functioning box. Only a triangular prism.
Since being triangle-inclined is the criteria, it’s safe to say Rose does not have a future with the Knicks. He’d need to be waived by the deadline today if he wanted to join a playoff roster, but there were no indications they were going that route. Jennings, another point guard who is triangle averse, was waived Monday.
The Knicks hope to cultivate undrafted rookies Chasson Randle and Ron Baker as triangle point guards. Porzingis remains the franchise cornerstone, and there’s a deep draft upcoming.
Then there’s Carmelo Anthony, who refuses to even use the word ‘triangle,’ and who reiterated that he’s prioritizing his family when deciding whether to waive his no-trade clause.
Former Knicks coach Larry Brown had some thoughts on the change, particularly that Jackson should coach the team if this is the offense he likes. Ian Begley of ESPN.com has more on that:
"I can't figure out how you can hire a coach and tell him how you want him to play. I can't figure out how you can draft players for a coach that you know coaches a certain a style, and has been successful doing that style, and get him to play a style that you feel comfortable with," Brown said in an interview on Sirius XM NBA Radio, alluding to Jackson and Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek.
"Then you coach. You're talking about one of the greatest coaches in the history of our sport. Let him coach. If he wants to do the triangle, put it in, let him coach it, and then teach everybody around and get the players that are comfortable playing it."
Earlier this season, Hornacek, in his first season in New York, de-emphasized the triangle, saying at one point that the club was running it "much less" than 50 percent of the time. Hornacek said late last week, though, that the club has been running the triangle more often in games after the All-Star break. He added that Jackson was not behind the decision.
Current Knicks have privately complained about the triangle as well, bemoaning its slow pace and predictable nature. It's worth noting, though, that the Knicks have been competitive in their past two games while running more of Jackson's preferred offense.
"It helps us to balance and make the other teams work a little bit," he said.
The Knicks, of course, have struggled on both ends of the floor for much of the season. They enter play Tuesday 5.5 games out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference, having lost seven of their past 10 games.
Regarding Brown's suggestion that Jackson coach, the 71-year-old has said on several occasions that he doesn't plan to return to the bench. New York ranks 16th in offensive efficiency and 25th in defensive efficiency, performing well below internal and external expectations entering the season.
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No. 4: Report: Cavs likely to cut Liggins or McRae next -- Since Feb. 9, the Cleveland Cavaliers have signed free-agents Derrick Williams and Deron Williams to their roster and will reportedly add veteran center Andrew Bogut once he clears waivers. Cleveland's roster tune-up for the season's final few weeks and the playoffs means someone will have to go on the roster to make room for Bogut. Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com says one of two youngsters on the Cavs are the primary target:
UPDATE, 2:26 p.m. -- The Cavs will cut McRae to make room for Bogut, who won't be with the team in time for tonight's game vs. the Celtics ...
A team source tells ESPN the Cavs will waive Jordan McRae to create a roster spot to sign Andrew Bogut. He will not be w/ CLE for BOS game— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) March 1, 2017
Andrew Bogut will sign with the Cavaliers if he clears waivers at 5 p.m. Wednesday, a source with direct knowledge of Bogut's intentions told cleveland.com.
Signing Bogut, the 32-year-old 7-footer from Australia who faced the Cavs in the last two Finals with the Golden State Warriors, would complete a months-long roster upgrade project undertaken by general manager David Griffin on the cheap -- one that, barring injury, has positioned Cleveland for a realistic shot at repeating as champions.
On Monday, the Cavs signed his Dallas teammate, free-agent point guard Deron Williams. Both Bogut and Williams will make $407,000 for the remainder of the season -- the prorated amount from the $1.55 veteran's minimum the Cavs can pay them as a team that's (way) over the $94 million salary cap.
In January, Cleveland traded for Kyle Korver, one of the NBA's all-time great 3-point shooters, and reduced its tax burden in the process. Earlier this month the Cavs signed Derrick Williams, a former No. 2 overall pick.
Bogut is a big man Cleveland has coveted all season. He will sign later this week and probably won't play on this three-game road trip, a source said.
To clear a roster spot for Bogut, the Cavs will have to waive someone, and may do so Wednesday so that player can be eligible for the playoffs with a different team. The Cavs will likely waive either Jordan McRae or DeAndre Liggins, two young players whom they did not draft that are making about $1 million a piece this season.
Bogut is the last piece for a Cavs team with stars at the top of its roster in LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Love, an all-time great 3-point shooter in Korver and Finals-tested pros in Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
Deron Williams is a five-time All-Star point guard, Derrick Williams has thrived since joining the Cavs Feb. 9, and now Bogut enters the fray.
The Cavs hold a four-game lead over the Celtics in the East, and now have the depth James coveted to reduce their stars' minutes and even rest them entirely on some nights.
It's a roster with perhaps no holes, constructed to stand eye-to-eye with the Warriors in a Finals rematch.
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No. 5: Jazz, Hill table contract talks for now -- A key piece in the Utah Jazz's surge this season as one of the Western Conference's top teams can be attributed to the steady point guard play George Hill has provided. Hill and the Jazz have expressed fondness for each other throughout this first season together and both sides engaged in talks yesterday on a contract extension. Although a deal was not reached, Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune points out there may not be reason to fret in Jazzland:
According to league sources, Hill and the Jazz engaged in discussions concerning a contract renegotiation and extension in recent weeks, but both sides agreed to resume discussions in July, when the free agency period begins.
The deadline for an extension is 9:59 p.m. MST Tuesday.
That doesn't mean Hill doesn't want to stay with the Jazz, sources tell The Tribune. In fact, Hill is fond of the franchise and Salt Lake City. He has been a leader in Utah's locker room and is very close to Jazz star Gordon Hayward — both are from the Indianapolis area. He has developed friendships off the court in Salt Lake, and he enjoys playing for the Jazz.
The Jazz, sources say, are prepared to do whatever it takes to keep Hill with the franchise. For a team that has lacked steady point guard play since Deron Williams' departure in 2011, Hill's play has coincided with Utah's rise in the Western Conference standings.
His impact on the Jazz has been noticeable. Utah is 25-9 with Hill in the starting lineup. The Jazz have won 22 of 28 games Hill and Hayward have played in. By most metrics, Hill, Hayward and Rudy Gobert have been Utah's three most important players this season.
Hill is in the final season of a contract that will pay him $8 million. He's never been an unrestricted free agent, and sources tell The Tribune that Hill has as many as 12 teams that will look to acquire his services once free agency commences.
However, the Jazz will have a significant opportunity to keep Hill. And both sides are expected to sit down at the bargaining table as soon as free agency starts.
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