Morning Shootaround

Shootaround (Nov. 17): Russell Westbrook wraps up win with daring play

NBA.com Staff

Westbrook’s dunk clinches victory | Nowitzki sees franchise-player potential in Barnes | Report: Noel to continue rehab work in Philly | Thabeet reflects on career

No. 1: Westbrook’s big dunk seals key win for OKC — A look at the box score from last night’s Thunder-Rockets matchup in Oklahoma City reveals another monstrous game from Russell Westbrook. He had 30 points (his eighth 30-point game this season), seven rebounds, nine assists and two steals in a typical tour de force that has marked his season so far. Westbrook also capped off the win with perhaps the play of the night, a driving, one-handed power jam over Clint Capela with 5.5 seconds left that sealed the win. Royce Young of ESPN.com has more on that play and the game at large that was such a typical Westbrook performance:

Almost the first thing Victor Oladipo did when he got back to his locker following the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 105-103 win over the Houston Rockets was grab his phone.

“Dunk him!” Oladipo roared.

He was watching the same Vine pretty much everyone else in the NBA world was: Russell Westbrook putting Clint Capela on a vicious left-handed poster. But it was a special kind of poster: It came with five seconds left and the Thunder up by only three points. The rare, elusive, dagger poster.

And to make it even better, Westbrook had called his shot.

“I told Vic before the game that I’d get a left-handed dunk today, didn’t know when,” Westbrook said. “But I guess I saved the best for last, right?”

Oladipo confirmed that Westbrook made the lefty promise: “He told me that before the game. Yes, he did. I don’t know where it came from, but the fact he did it the very last play is incredible. His memory is outstanding.”

The interesting wrinkle to the play is that it was wholly unnecessary, and in many ways, very unwise. The Thunder led by three with possession, 12 seconds left and no shot clock. The Rockets had to foul, and the Thunder needed only one free throw to ice the game. Rookie Alex Abrines ended up with the ball and inexplicably went to the rim, missing a stumbling layup. The Rockets couldn’t control it, though, and the Thunder got the ball back. Westbrook curled off a screen and took the inbound pass, and like Abrines, went to the rim. But unlike Abrines, he was going to make sure he ended it.

“Yeah, I thought about it,” Westbrook said of the situation. “That’s why, you’ve got to make it. That’s the risk you take.”

Westbrook paused for a moment.

“At least,” he said, grinning a bit, “that’s the risk I take.”

The Thunder locker room was jovial after the game, with players talking about how the dunk energized them. The Thunder had lost four straight after a 6-1 start, including back-to-back losses against lesser opponents in the Magic and Pistons. And late in the third quarter, down 10, the Thunder were facing the prospect of a fifth straight.

Westbrook threw it into gear, and the Thunder defense that was so problematic against the Magic and Pistons slapped the cuffs on James Harden and the Rockets. Houston didn’t score for the final six minutes, until Eric Gordon hit a meaningless 3 with 0.9 seconds left, missing 13 of their final 14 shots from distance and scoring only 13 points in the quarter. At the heart of it was Andre Roberson, who is often panned for his offensive issues. He almost exclusively guarded Harden; the Thunder barely switched on screen-and-rolls, keeping Roberson on Harden as much as possible. The payoff: Harden scored a season-low 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting, plus he had six turnovers (and to be fair, 13 assists).

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No. 2: Nowitzki sees franchise-player potential in Barnes — After last night’s loss in Boston, the Dallas Mavericks are 2-8 and just one game ahead of the disappointing New Orleans Pelicans in the Western Conference. As the losses and injuries have piled up for the Mavs early on this season, one bright spot has been the play of Harrison Barnes, whom Dallas added as a pricey free agent. He has lived up to the task of taking on the Mavs’ scoring load — especially while star forward Dirk Nowitzki mends — and received praise from Nowitzki about his potential to lead the team in years to come. Mitch Lawrence of The Sporting News has more:

Dirk Nowitzki can’t run these days, a victim of a nagging Achilles that is driving Mr. Maverick up the wall. Out for six of Dallas’ first nine games, he sees his depleted team already losing ground in the Western Conference and can’t do anything about it.

However, he did manage to smile — broadly — when the subject turned to his new teammate, Harrison Barnes, during a recent interview with Sporting News. This was after the Mavs, minus Nowitzki, Deron Williams and Devin Harris, mustered all of 77 points against the Knicks, one of the NBA’s worst defenses. After signing some sneakers and Mavs paraphernalia for Ben Stiller, one of many celebrities hoping to see Nowitzki play in his favorite road venue, Nowitzki paid Barnes the ultimate compliment.

Nowitzki said Barnes can step into his shoes when the 38-year-old retires.

“He has the complete package,” Nowitzki told SN. “I’ve worked out with him a couple of times after practices, and he’s got every shot in the book. And he’s looked like a franchise player here the last few weeks. He’s shown us moves that are very impressive, not only shooting the ball, but driving the ball, both ways. He’s got left(-hand) hooks and left runners. He’s shown strong post moves. He’s athletic. He’s a hard worker. He wants to win. So I think the sky is the limit for him.”

Now in his 19th season, Nowitzki has set a high bar for Barnes. The Mavs made their only two trips to the Finals (in 2006 and 2011) and won their only title in 2011 because Nowitzki carried them there. He’s the reason they’ve been to the playoffs 14 out of the last 15 seasons, as he’s climbed the all-time scoring ladder to his current No. 6 position.

Nowitzki’s best supporting cast was with him before he did all of his big winning, when the Mavs had Steve Nash running the show and had Michael Finley slashing from out on the wing. Then Nash returned to Phoenix, and a year later, the Mavs decided that Finley was done and waived him.

“So when I took over, it was kind of by default,” Nowitzki told SN. “It was always Steve and Mike and myself at the beginning. But then Steve leaves and Mike is gone and the next thing you know, I was the only guy still out there. So it was my team and I took it and ran with it. At the beginning, when you’re “the guy’ it’s different. You have to work through stuff and you make mistakes that you regret, but you learn from those. You get better. Harrison has shown he can already do that.”

To become Nowitzki’s heir, Barnes will have to show the kind of mental toughness that Nowitzki made famous. He had come back from back from several gut-wrenching playoff failures, from 2007-10, to make Dallas NBA champions. Can Barnes carry a team, night in and night out? So far, Nowitzki has seen what he likes.

“The thing is, a player has to be put in that position to find out if he can be that player and deal with all the mental stuff,” Nowitzki said. “And he’s been doing that for the first few weeks. He’s been playing a strong game, knowing the team is counting on him, as I’ve been out and other players have been out, too. So far, he’s stepping up in the locker room and talking after games about what has to be done. He’s doing what you want to see. We’ve loved everything we’ve seen so far.”

From owner Mark Cuban to team executives and teammates, the Mavericks love that Barnes comes off losses working harder and trying to improve. He’s had plenty of opportunities to do those things, as Dallas started off the season with a franchise-record five-game losing streak and has lost seven of its first nine games. They play the Celtics in Boston on Wednesday, and it’s likely that Barnes won’t be able to team with Nowitzki once again. So again he’ll take the floor as “the man” in what is clearly more than an audition. It’s his job to lose.

“We felt like he was a system player who, when you gave him the opportunity to be himself, he could be much bigger and much better,” Cuban said. “He played to the system. Now he has to be the system. So that will be his challenge. Does he have that f— you in him?”

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No. 3: Report: Noel to return to Philadelphia this week — Philadelphia 76ers big man Nerlens Noel had a minor procedure on his left knee on Oct. 21 and has suited up for a game this season. He was sidelined with an injury the same time guard Jerryd Bayless (left wrist) was, but Bayless is slowly working his way back and could play again soon. Could Noel’s return not be far behind? According to Derek Bodner of Philadelphia magazine, Noel is set to return to Philly to continue his rehab work there this week:

Sixers center Nerlens Noel, who underwent surgery to repair an inflamed plica in his left knee on October 25th, is expected to return to Philadelphia later this week to continue his rehabilitation, a source with knowledge of the situation informed Philadelphia magazine.

Noel has been undergoing rehabilitation of the injury with Kevin Wilk of Champion Sports Medicine in Birmingham, Alabama up to this point. Noel had previously worked with Wilk when going through rehabilitation to return from the torn ACL he suffered in college.

The Sixers sent personnel down to Alabama to check on Noel at least twice over the last few weeks, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Once Noel rejoins the Sixers he will resume his rehabilitation with the team, and his plan to return to basketball activity will be revised at that time.

Noel will not be ready to play immediately upon rejoining the team.

Set to be a restricted free agent next summer, Noel has yet to appear in a regular season game this year because of his injury.

An ACL injury at Kentucky cost Noel the entirety of the 2013-14 season, which would have been his first in the NBA.

Noel voiced his unhappiness with the Sixers frontcourt situation before training camp began. “I think something needs to happen,” Noel said before the season.

The Sixers used top draft picks on natural centers in 2013 (Noel, 6th overall), 2014 (Joel Embiid, 3rd overall), and 2015 (Jahlil Okafor, 3rd overall). The Sixers also have second-year center Richaun Holmes fighting for minutes.

Earlier in the day Sixers head coach Brett Brown did not have an update on Noel, claiming that he was not the right person to ask about the situation.

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No. 4: Thabeet holding out hope for another NBA shot — About a month or so ago in this space, we had a story on former No. 2 overall pick Hasheem Thabeet and his hopes of getting back into the NBA. He hasn’t appeared in an NBA game in two-plus seasons, but continues to work out and maintain hope that he can latch on to a team before too long. In a telling Q&A with Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated, Thabeet talked about that and, perhaps more revealing, how he found himself out of the league so quickly:

When people say, they say you’re a draft bust, how do you feel about that?

I try not to let that part get to me. I couldn’t help how I was drafted. I’m in the green room sitting there, like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ I had no idea. Then I’m getting drafted No. 2. My name gets called and it’s very strange. They say, ‘From Connecticut … ’ I’m like, what? I can’t help that part. I just come over here work hard and see what’s going to happen.

If I get an opportunity, maybe they will see more. But I feel like I haven’t even been playing basketball that long even though I was up there.

So, do you think you’re almost a victim of your draft selection?

Very true. And, the thing is, like, I can’t help it, you know?

You didn’t ask the Memphis Grizzlies to draft you second …

I didn’t ask. I didn’t even work out for Memphis. So I’m getting drafted, and everybody is expecting something. I have no idea where I’m getting accepted to. Five years in the U.S., and then I’m already one of the biggest draft choices … I’m like, ‘This is really happening?’

How fast did everything seem to be going for you?

I went from one day with the [AAU] coach and we go to practice the very first time, I walk in and I see these college coaches come in. And the next thing [then-Connecticut coach Jim] Calhoun is coming to practices. And I ended up going to UConn. In two years. I came from Tanzania, where I never played organized basketball. You play with friends. You dunk, your friends are happy.

The first time they hand me the ball I was already tall. ‘Go dunk.’ I was already athletic. I go dunk, so everybody is happy, my friends are happy. The next thing I know, I’m playing basketball. Took me five years to get drafted No. 2 pick and I’m still learning the game.

So I got to the league to Memphis, and I’m not playing as many minutes and I’m like, ‘I was one of the best players in college.’ I was punishing myself. Next thing, I’m getting traded, things start, I wouldn’t say [going] downhill, but I kind of felt like I wasn’t happy. So I was so down, and my contract was done. [I went] to OKC, playing on a winning team. You know, you got Memphis, Houston, Portland, they weren’t winning like that. Then you get to OKC, I get back to the great vibe again because I’m back on the winning side.

Can you reflect on your final NBA days?

I was traded to Philly [from the Thunder], then waived. I’m like, ‘What happened?’ I’m kind of down, feeling down. I just went home [to Oklahoma City], I was just hanging at home, you know. After I went through it, I go to Detroit training camp. Did great at training camp, and then before preseason games going, before game one, they bring in Joel Anthony, who wasn’t even in camp.

I was like, ‘What? I was here the whole time.’ I was so hard on myself that I wanted to go back to Tanzania. If I go back home, I can still live great. I’m already doing well for myself. I have businesses going on. I can go back home, and live and be great. I’m like, ‘Man, I’m too young. Learn the game.’ I love the game. I love my teammates. Even when I wasn’t playing I would hang out with Kevin. We would talk about all the games. I’m in it, but I’m not in it. I’m having all kinds of struggles over there, and one day I’m like, ‘I’m still here watching these games those guys they are playing. I can compete with these guys.’

So what kept you from giving up on the NBA?

I still have time. I’m a young man and I just decided that if you want different results, a better me, be better mindwise. You have to invest. I made a few calls to a few people, and they recommended me to Frank Matrisciano. I’m in a great state of mind. I’m happy with everything. I know in my heart that I worked. I worked at very high level …

I watch games. I know all the plays. Just from just watching. I don’t even have to be in it. I learned over the years that I didn’t play there for long. So, everything was like a learning experience. Now, I understand. I know what I need to do. An [NBA] GM [general manager] say, ‘You’re not working hard. You don’t have the game.’ I’m like, ‘Damn, all these things they are saying about me, I gotta show in a different way. What I can do.’

What kept you from moving home to Tanzania?

When I go home, I get this reception that’s like, ‘You are our savior.’ Everybody believes in me over there. And, I don’t want to let those people down. I’m too young to leave. I’m here. I’m blessed. I can go over there and live good. My mom is happy. My little brother is happy. My sister is here and she just got her MBA. Everything is going well. But I’m too young. What am I going to do when I go home?

I’m still a young man. I believe I can do so much for so many teams. I watch the games even though I’m not on any team. It’s something that I feel that I’m working on.

So, why haven’t you been signed by another NBA team?

I have no idea, to be honest. Maybe they wanted to see more. See me playing more. You just invited somebody for two days, a workout, you just look at guys. Maybe it didn’t mean that much to them, but at least I’m grateful for the opportunity to go and showcase.

Anything you could have done differently?

I could have done it very different. I could have just been the same quiet guy and just all about what I want to do. Just be patient, everything will happen …

I just wish I was told by a GM, and the people who got rid of me, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Nobody ever told me what I’m not doing right. You’re just there until you are gone. ‘Why? Why am I leaving?’

I know it’s all business, but I wish there was some honesty. Like, ‘Hey you’re not doing this right.’ And, ‘You might not be here.’ You know, I wish people were honest. If I were to change something, that would be the only thing.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks is wanting more effort team-wide from his squad … Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love doesn’t regret signing his contract when he did … Damian Lillard is feeling pretty good overall about how the Portland Trail Blazers’ season has started … Could Derrick Favors’ balky left knee keep him from an extension with the Utah Jazz? … Speaking of the Jazz, here’s a great Q&A with new point guard George Hill … How the movie “Space Jam” influenced a generation of NBA players … Highlights of former first-round pick Jimmer Fredette putting in some work in China … President Barack Obama needs a little help pronouncing Giannis Antetokounmpo’s name … Carmelo Anthony’s new commercial for Foot Locker dropped yesterday … The Philadelphia 76ers do their best “Rocky” impressions for the team’s upcoming Rocky Night … Brandon Knight is slowly getting used to his sixth man role in Phoenix …

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