No. 1: Westbrook ties history, pulls Thunder from their funk -- Russell Westbrook awakens this morning with something in common with Wilt Chamberlain. In racking up his 31st triple-double last night in a win against the San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder star is tied with Chamberlain for the second-most triple-doubles in a single season. Best of all, the kind of triple-double he delivered gave OKC a much-needed win and was the right balance of all three categories. Royce Young of ESPN.com explains:
During the four-game skid, Westbrook was a scoring maniac, averaging 45 points, trying to use his legendary competitive spirit to will the Thunder to wins. There was an overall lack of cohesion, though, and while Westbrook's individual play was remarkable, the team as a whole wasn't functioning well. The four straight losses wasn't the only streak, either: Westbrook hadn't had a triple-double in a week.
That changed on Thursday against the San Antonio Spurs, with Westbrook producing one of his best overall performances of the season, notching his 31st triple-double with 23 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in 35 minutes as the Thunder won 102-92.
This season, the Thunder are 25-6 when Westbrook records a triple-double, and 11-23 when he doesn't. It's an eyebrow-raising stat that suggests ... something.
The most important element probably is the assists. When Westbrook has 10 or more, the Thunder are 28-9, but 8-20 when he doesn't. In Westbrook's six highest-scoring games, the Thunder are 1-5. When he shoots 30 or more times, they're 4-8, but when he takes between 20 and 24 shots, they're 16-6. It seems simple: When Westbrook balances his game and distributes more and scores less, the Thunder are at their best.
Where Westbrook's responsibility falls is in trying to help the pieces around him produce at a high level each night. He can't make Doug McDermott make shots, or make Steven Adams rebound. But he can keep his team engaged, and do his part to utilize the roster around him. And when he does, the Thunder quickly become a competent, solid team.
Thursday was Westbrook at the peak of his powers, using every tool in the belt to carve apart the Spurs. When he plays that way, he has a look of being possibly the best player in the world. It's hard to consistently replicate because it requires a synergy from his teammates for that to happen. The Thunder always have played to their potential when Westbrook manages more than takes over, but there have been plenty of games this season when he has rescued them with individual heroics. He's not perfect, and he often makes bad choices. But Westbrook is always willing to try, for better or worse.
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No. 2: Leonard's status vs. Warriors uncertain -- If the San Antonio Spurs have any designs on somehow overtaking the Golden State Warriors for No. 1 in the Western Conference, the clock is ticking. Just 18 games remain in the season for the Spurs after last night's 102-92 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a game in which San Antonio star Kawhi Leonard took a hit to the head. Leonard left that game in the third quarter and did not return and his status for Saturday's showdown with the Warriors (8:30 ET, ABC) remains unknown. Tim Griffin of the San Antonio Express-News has more:
Kawhi Leonard's status for Saturday's huge game against Golden State is uncertain after he sustained an apparent head injury late in the third quarter of the Spurs' loss to Oklahoma City Thursday night.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he wasn't sure what happened, or the exact nature of the injury to his All-Star forward.
"I haven't checked yet, but he's just a little bit ... I don't want to say what he was, because I don't know," Popovich said. "He got hit in the mouth or the cheek or the head or something. I'm not sure which. So the trainer thought he should sit."
The Spurs' loss dropped them two games behind the Warriors heading into Saturday's game. Popovich said he's won't know of Leonard's availability for that game until later.
"I'll have to find out," Popovich said. "I know it was a blow or a hit of the head of some sort. So we'll have to see."
Later, Spurs medical personnel confirmed that Leonard had sustained a head injury, although he did not sustain a concussion.
Leonard did not talk to the media after the game, which is standard protocol for players who are injured earlier.
His teammates weren't sure what happened, either.
"I'm still wondering what is going on," Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. "I haven't seen him, so I just know he came out and didn't come back in."
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No. 3: Tucker finding his way in Toronto -- As one of the few players actually dealt at the NBA's trade deadline, P.J. Tucker landed in Toronto with the expectation that his defense will be needed in a playoff run. Like any player acquired at midseason, though, Tucker has tried to learn where he fits into the Raptors' defensive plan as games are going on. An extended period of practice has allowed him to pick up the Raptors' system as tonight's showdown with the Hawks in Atlanta (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) looms. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star has more:
After two days of familiarity-building practice and a shootaround preceding Wednesday night’s game here against the Pelicans, Tucker knows the offence and his teammates well enough that he doesn’t have to ask, or be told, what to do in specific situations.
“A lot of stuff was on the fly: just people talking on the court, coaches yelling to me from the sidelines, literally the other team hearing them telling me what I’m doing,” Tucker said after the team’s shootaround at the Smoothie King Arena. “It still worked out, but knowing the sets, knowing that we can call things on the fly, especially late in the game, it will be an advantage.”
Tucker has only played six games with the Raptors since being acquired at the NBA trade deadline for Jared Sullinger and a couple of future second-round draft picks.
He was thrown immediately into the Raptors rotation — finishing games and averaging 25 minutes a night — while trying to fully understand the team’s schemes and nuances of the players around him.
A couple of solid days of practice in Miami marked the first concentrated time he’d had to figure things out.
Tucker’s role is likely to increase as the final 19 games of the regular season unfold and the playoffs arrive. His ability to defend multiple positions and knock down corner threes will guarantee substantial time, and with DeMarre Carroll currently hobbled by a sprained ankle — out of the lineup Wednesday — Tucker’s going to be asked to play an even bigger role.
Tucker’s ability to defend both forward positions, and some centres in some small lineups, provides huge versatility for coach Dwane Casey.
“I’ve never been on a team like that,” Tucker said of a defence that can switch almost anything. “You see teams do that now. Golden State does it a lot, Cleveland does it a lot, so now if we can do that it gives us another upper hand on people.
“You can go small with big fours at the five, or small ball with the fours and threes, and be able to switch it all. It’s huge.”
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No. 4: Bulls face delicate balancing act -- To make the playoffs or to develop the youngsters? That is the question the Chicago Bulls, their fans and their front office seem to be wrestling with most as the 2016-17 season begins to fade. The Bulls host the Houston Rockets tonight (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) in what will surely be a challenge for the team and whichever path it selects from here on out. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune has more:
Joffrey Lauvergne replacing Nikola Mirotic in the rotation and playing the entire fourth quarter of Wednesday's loss in Orlando, Fla., is the latest example of the youth movement management said would take hold in the wake of last month's trade of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Thunder. It's a tough task trying to balance a playoff push with player development.
That's what coach Fred Hoiberg is undertaking now.
"Continue to try to develop and also put ourselves in the best position to win," Hoiberg said.
Using an 11-man rotation is just one example of the difficulty. Hoiberg is facing just that for Friday's matchup with the Rockets after Wade practiced fully Thursday and is on track to return from his injury.
"What Joffrey has shown in practice is he's a guy who knows how to play," Hoiberg said. "He competed and moved his feet well at (power forward) against quicker, more athletic guys. He used his smarts and anticipation to cut off the driver. And he's a big, physical body out there who, as we continue to get more comfortable with him, can use in duck-in opportunities. He's a guy that I think everybody around here likes."
Bobby Portis averaged nine points and 4.5 rebounds and shot over 50 percent in the last two games without Wade. Jerian Grant averaged 10 points and five assists. Cameron Payne averaged 9.5 points and 1.5 assists. Cristiano Felicio averaged 7.5 points and 2.5 rebounds and shot 7-for-11.
Paul Zipser and Denzel Valentine had little impact the last two games, but both are locks to be back next season.
An underrated aspect to management's desire to remain competitive and make the playoffs is the experience under pressure it would provide to such a young roster.
"We have to worry about today, and I thought our guys were locked in," Hoiberg said of a spirited practice. "We worked on some things we obviously need to get better at, especially in fourth quarters. We've got to go out and focus on Houston, who is a team that's as good offensively as any in the league. They're going to pressure us defensively, and then we move on to the next one. So you've just got to take it day by day with our group."
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James has some pretty fond memories of the Palace of Auburn Hills ... Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner hasn't had a double-double in 17 straight games ... Former Portland Trail Blazers star Cliff Robinson has been hospitalized with an undisclosed illness ... Jabari Parker is remaining upbeat about his latest injury setback and subsequent recovery plan ... Mike Conley says the Memphis Grizzlies are lacking discipline right now ... The LA Clippers are still trying to find some consistency on defense ... Steven Adams says he's definitely struggling of late on defense ... How Brandon Jennings may pay off in a big way for the Washington Wizards ...