Archive for Net Proceeds

More of a grip

Halfway through the preseason, and the Thunder looked a bit more cohesive on defense on the way to a 113-101 win. The Timberwolves, assuming they can solve the Jimmy Butler problem, should provide some serious competition four times in the regular season, especially if things keep going wrong with Andre Roberson’s rehab, but the Wolves’ specialty, drawing fouls, didn’t help as much as it usually does; OKC, at least in this incarnation, seems to have learned more about defending without fouling.

Paul George was back, and he was up to Paul George levels of ferocity. Perhaps more entertaining, though, was the Thunder bench, which rolled up more than 50 points and kept the Wolves from catching up. Tulsa fans should enjoy the Sunday matinee against the Atlanta Hawks, though we’re still in the preseason and probably shouldn’t expect a whole heck of a lot.


Callous thenics

NBA preseason, as always, means Not Much in the grand scheme of things. The Pistons came to town with one new weapon — head coach Dwane Casey, dismissed by the Raptors after last season — and one finely-tuned old one, the busy Andre Drummond, who poured in a game-high 31 points as Detroit won it by six, 97-91.

We did learn one thing: Dennis Schröder makes a good pick-and-roll partner for Steven Adams. (Schröder led the Thunder scorers with 21; Adams dropped in 17.) It’s difficult to say anything much beyond that, though you really can’t go through life missing two out of every three dunks. The rhetorical exercise continues in the Twin Cities on Friday.


Capped off

The Friar is not joining whatever Warriors bandwagon might be forming:

Neil Paine at Fivethirtyeight outlines how the Golden State Warriors are playing games with the National Basketball Association salary cap in order to stock players that will increase their immense chances of winning another NBA title.

I’m looking forward to when this detonates in the face of the millionaires who’ve thrown the rule book out the window along with their checkbook balances. The NBA already puts a product on the floor that’s not worth watching unless you have an interest in one of the teams playing. As the Warriors render the regular season increasingly meaningless, at some point people will quit watching the way they do when you know the end to a story you’re not enjoying all that much anyway.

The second paragraph is agreed to. The first one is literally true but perhaps misleading: the Warriors are making room for all these high-zoot players by getting them to take less. This is how the Miami Heat did it when LeBron took his talents to South Beach: King James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all could have made more money elsewhere. (Then again, Florida has no state income tax, and you can’t tell me these guys didn’t know it.) The biggest of the big spenders, at least once all the new contracts go through, is Oklahoma City, which is obligated, barring some rather startling moves, to fork out three hundred million dollars in luxury tax and payroll and more luxury tax. Old-timers on the Thunder beat will recall that the entire franchise was obtained for only $350 million.

There is, yes, a problem, but it’s geographical: all the superstars seemingly have migrated to the West. If DeMar DeRozan makes noise about DeParting the Raptors, it’s gonna be pretty dire for every team east of Minnesota. (DeRozan isn’t going anywhere — Toronto has his name on a contract through the spring of 2021 — but who else is there in the East?)

If the Warriors are truly making a mockery of the salary cap, well, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in spring 2024, though either side can opt out the year before. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, is done to curb the Dubs.

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Resplendent in purple and gold

Bark M. explains how it is, and why it is, that LeBron James became a Laker:

James is 33 years old. To put that in perspective, Magic Johnson retired at 32 (with a couple of short comeback attempts afterward). Charlie Parker died at 34. Mozart kicked it at 35. Even Jesus was nailed to a cross around his 33rd birthday. Greatness doesn’t tend to last on this planet. And perhaps none of those greats have had the same amount of wear and tear on their body that James has had (although Bird’s coroner’s report estimated him to be around 60 years old).

See also Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”: “He says his body’s too old for working / I say his body’s too young to look like his.”

He’s played in the NBA for 15 seasons. His teams made the playoffs thirteen of those seasons, adding 239 games to his body. He’s also played in the Olympics three times, played in the World Championships, Pan Am Games, etc. He’s played enough basketball to last multiple lifetimes for most pros.

So when he decided to sign with the Lakers over the weekend, I don’t think that it had much to do with basketball. The Lakers were 35-47 last season with a roster of talent that was the sixth youngest in the league and included future stars like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma. Adding James to that mix is compelling, to be certain, and might improve the team by as much as 10 wins for next season. Unfortunately, that doesn’t even make the playoffs in the West. But let’s say he improves the team by 15 wins, which would be extraordinary and nearly unprecedented for one player to make such an impact. Well, they’re still no better than the third best team in the conference, and the new version of the Lake Show would be approximately even with such squads as Portland, Utah, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans. The chances of James winning a championship in LA seem remote, at best.

In other news, Kyle Kuzma is a future star.

But yeah, 50-32 gets you maybe a third seed in the West. (The Trail Blazers, third-seeded in the 2018 playoffs, were 49-33.) Still, weirder things have happened: Oklahoma City, in its inaugural year, went 23-59; the next year they were, yes, 50-32. And lost to the Lakers in the playoffs.)

Putting James on the [Houston] Rockets makes them a potentially all-time great team. But he didn’t go there. He chose a young team that is a couple of years away from competing, and if these last two years showed us anything, it’s that James can’t win a title by himself — at least not while the Golden State Warriors are constructed as they currently are.

Therefore, it’s fairly obvious that James didn’t go to LA to win championships. He went there for life after basketball, plain and simple. James wants to build a business empire — some combination of entertainment, athletic wear, maybe restaurants. Who knows? You can’t do that in Cleveland—or, at least, not as easily. But by putting yourself on display 41 nights a year at the Staples Center, you bet you can. And when his contract expires, and James is 37 years old, he’ll be ready to enter that next phase of this life. And who better to teach him how to do that than his new boss, Earvin “Magic” Johnson?

Who, indeed?

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Bigger things for Becky

Last time we dropped in on Becky Hammon, we did a brief recap of her basketball career, and threw in a couple of gratuitous photos to let you know that she was attractive, a matter that actually means nothing to her day job: assistant coach to the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, working under Gregg Popovich himself.

This year, there’s a new wrinkle. The Milwaukee Bucks sacked head coach Jason Kidd midseason; assistant Joe Prunty took over on an interim basis, but with the Deer safely out of the playoff hunt, management is looking for someone new, and that someone might well be Becky Hammon.

Spurs stalwart Pau Gasol thinks this is a swell idea:

One, she was an accomplished player — with an elite point guard’s mind for the game. And two, she has been a successful assistant for arguably the greatest coach in the game. What more do you need? But like I said — I’m not here to make that argument. Arguing on Coach Hammon’s behalf would feel patronizing. To me, it would be strange if NBA teams were not interested in her as a head coach.

Gasol will tell you that she knows the game as well as anybody:

This year, in a practice a few months back, I was drilling the pick-and-roll with Dejounte Murray. It was a standard drill, just the two of us alone at one basket: I would set the screen and either pop out for the jumper or roll to the lane. If I popped, Dejounte would hit me with a chest pass. If I rolled, a bounce pass. Like I said, a very standard drill — we’ll do this a million times.

But what I remember about this particular drill is that, at some point during it, Coach Hammon stopped us mid-motion. Coaches Hammon, Borrego and Messina walk over, and Becky says to Dejounte, “D.J., O.K. — your bounce pass? It’s too low. You’ve got to hit Pau exactly where he needs it. Run that again.” We then talk some more as a group about how I need the ball a little more precise, with a little more zip, so I could have a better chance to finish the action at the rim. And then we repeat the drill a few times, alternating from the left and right sides of court. Of course, Dejounte being Dejounte, he figures it out fast — and pretty soon we’re flying through. But something about that moment has just always stuck with me. Just, like — the level of knowledge of the game that Becky showed, you know what I mean? She noticed a small detail out of the corner of her eye — and then instantly located both the problem and the solution.

Precisely what you want your head coach to be able to do at a moment’s notice, right?

I hope the Bucks take Hammon on. I’m surprised only that the Thunder’s Sam Presti, an alumnus of the Spurs organization himself, didn’t go after her following the 2015 dismissal of Scott Brooks. It’s not a done deal yet — the Bucks are also talking to Mike Budenholzer, most recently with the Hawks — and Gary D’Amato of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel thinks the time isn’t right, by which he means that the Deer have a chance and he doesn’t want some dumb girl to mess it up. (Seriously, Gary, try to do better, okay?)

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And that was that

Okay, maybe it’s possible to win a game with only two scorers. But with one? From the looks of things, the Jazz decided to let Westbrook be Westbrook while blocking everyone else. And indeed, Russell did what he could, but with seven minutes left, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George had a whole 12 points between them on 5-19 shooting. OKC did manage to close the gap to one point at the 1:20 mark; with the Jazz up three, Donovan Mitchell, following an “absolutely pathetic non-call” (radio guy Matt Pinto), knocked down two free throws at 0:07 to put the game out of reach. Utah 96, Oklahoma City 91, it’s Jazz in six, and they’ll go on to take on numero-uno Houston, which disposed of the Timberwolves earlier in this week.

The Westbrook line: 46-10-5. Steven Adams had 19 points and 15 rebounds. Nobody else managed double digits. Meanwhile, the four Utah starters who made it through the game — Ricky Rubio checked out early with a hamstring injury — all cleared the 10-point hurdle, with Mitchell pulling down 38. And this was a great game if you thought Shaquille O’Neal was the greatest foul shooter of all time: OKC got off only 13 from the stripe and sank a mere seven, while Utah managed 23 shots but hit only twelve.

We’ll let the Judge finish it off:

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Between the end of the first quarter and the end of the second, the Oklahoma City Thunder scored a whopping 12 points. Twelve. They were down fifteen. In three minutes, they were down twenty-five, and Loud City was the quietest it’s been in a long time.

And then. With this team, it seems there’s always an “And then.” In nine minutes and change, OKC made up all of that deficit, and the fourth quarter began at a 78-all tie. Loud City was loud again, and getting louder. And in the process, the Thunder, quite unintentionally, rejected one of my tropes: “you can’t win a game with only two scorers.” Neither Russell Westbrook nor Paul George got any rest in the second half, but all by themselves, they outscored the Jazz. When all the shouting was over — but cancel that. They’re probably still shouting. Oklahoma City 107, Utah 99, the series goes to Game Six in Utah, and as the Timberwolves were fading, the Rockets, advised of what was going down, might well have said “Holy shit, are we gonna have to play these guys?”

The Jazz had six guys in double figures, the Thunder two. Jae Crowder, coming off the bench, knocked down 27; Donovan Mitchell had 23 because he’s Donovan Mitchell. And without regard to that status, Alex Abrines put a ferocious block on Mitchell, turned around, and dropped through a trey. It was the only shot Abrines made all night, but it set the Jazz reeling, and Señor Splash finished with a startling +18.

Then there’s this absurd Westbrook line: 45 points (on 17-39 shooting), 15 rebounds, and seven assists. Or, for that matter, PG-13’s: 34 points (on 12-26 shooting), eight boards, two dimes. That’s 65 shots between them. The Thunder took, um, 89 shots total. Friday night in Salt Lake, and all I want to know right now is “Can we get some production out of ‘Melo?”

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Next to last stand

With about eight minutes left and the Jazz up by twenty, Raymond Felton tried to knock Rudy Gobert into the middle of next week. Felton got a technical for his trouble, but you have to wonder if Ray wasn’t saying something other than the usual NBA smack talk. After all, if the Thunder keep playing like this, they’ll never make it to the middle of next week. If their offense was ineffective, their defense was somewhere in the hotel lobby watching Houston-Minnesota; the Jazz didn’t shoot especially well, but they really didn’t have to. Jae Crowder’s ejection at the 5:30 mark for behaving like Jae Crowder made basically no difference. The Thunder didn’t throw in the towel, so to speak, until 1:28, but this game was lost long before. Maybe it was those three consecutive treys by Joe Ingles that set the tone for the rest of the game. Maybe it was something nobody in any of the broadcast teams managed to see. (My own thinking: somehow they have Steven Adams’ number, and for all we know, it could be voodoo.) But whatever it was, the Jazz only have to make it work once more. Utah 113, Oklahoma City 96, and frankly, it didn’t look that close.

For one thing, OKC had a mere 10 assists against 14 turnovers. (The Jazz, 21 versus 11.) For another, there have to be some sources of points other than Paul George (32) and Russell Westbrook (23); Alex Abrines got his 10th point on an undefended trey right before the horn, but by then it was way too late. And if Westbrook, as promised, did throw a monkey wrench into the well-oiled Ricky Rubio machine (13 points), nobody yet has an answer for Donovan Mitchell, who tossed in 33 like he was delivering newspapers.

Game Five is Wednesday at the ‘Peake. At this point in time, it’s hard to imagine how there’s going to be a Game Six.

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Shot down in Salt Lake

There was a point, not quite halfway through the second quarter, at which the Thunder were up by twelve. After that, the Jazz basically had their way with OKC, jumping to a five-point lead at the half and a fourteen-point lead after the third quarter. After that, it was all over but the shouting; there was the usual grumbling by radio guy Matt Pinto about the quality of the officiating, but the real culprit was the Thunder defense, which was out skiing at Park City or something, because they certainly weren’t slowing down the Jazz. The benches were emptied with a couple of minutes left, except for Donovan Mitchell, who was afforded a few extra seconds to try to pad his stats. Mitchell finished with 22 and was pulled; the Jazz, who weren’t in any danger of losing, didn’t, finishing the Thunder off 115-102 and taking a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

If nothing else, this game proves that the three-point shot will not save you: OKC made 14 of 28 treys, a solid 50 percent. For that matter, the two-point shot will not save you: most of the time, 47 percent (37-78) would be considered decent. But none of this kept the Jazz from scoring seemingly at will: 53 percent from the floor, 38 from outside, and all five starters handily into double figures. You always wondered if Ricky Rubio had it in him, and tonight he came up with a triple-double, 26-11-10. (Mitchell had 11 rebounds to go with those 22 points.) If this sounds like the Jazz got their share of rebounds, well, how about 48 to 35? (Off the offensive glass, it was just as pronounced: 13 to 6.) It was a blah night for Russell Westbrook, who shot 5-17; he did manage 14 points and 11 boards, but his six assists seemed to pale beside his eight turnovers. (The Jazz had most of the dimes: 24-17.) Paul George led the Thunder with 23, though somehow he managed to make it seem like another day at the office.

Game Four is Monday night, and late Monday Night at that, in Utah. If Billy Donovan has any tricks up his sleeve, he needed to come up with them 48 minutes ago. Maybe 96.

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And it’s payback time

The Jazz, it was clear, were not about to be swept, but I don’t think anyone figured they’d claim Game Two with such aplomb. For that matter, the Jazz hadn’t won in Oklahoma City for more than seven years, and, well, when in doubt, you predict that the trend will continue. Not this time. Utah was utterly dominant in the fourth quarter: 28-16, which sounds pretty utter to me. Perhaps more to the point: OKC’s power triumvirate, Playoff P, ‘Melo and Brodie, scored exactly zero from the field in those 12 minutes. The Jazz survived a 19-0 run by the Thunder in the third to win it, 102-95, sending the series to Salt Lake City for Games Three and Four.

Once again, Donovan Mitchell sparkled; he wasn’t particularly efficient (10-25, 0-7 from three-point range), but he kept it up for more than 42 minutes and finished with a game-high 28 points. Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors, neither much of a factor in Game One, were good for twenty or more this time around, and Favors added 16 rebounds as lagniappe, even more than Rudy Gobert, who had 15 to go with his 13 points.

The Westbrook-George-Anthony axis scored 19, 18 and 17 respectively, not enough to keep the Thunder afloat. Steven Adams? Well, he did what he could, until he collected that sixth foul and retired for the evening with 9 points. Scarier: the Jazz outrebounded the Thunder, 56-46. Rotations, unsurprisingly, were shortened by both coaches: each team played only nine men. Perhaps related: neither bench scored a whole heck of a lot, with OKC picking up 21 from the reserves, the Jazz only 16.

Games Three and Four will be played in Utah on Saturday and Monday. A whole lot of yammering about home-court advantage will be heard. Feel free to ignore it.

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Improvisational, it wasn’t

With about two minutes left and the Jazz trailing by a bunch, Quin Snyder swapped out most of his starters in favor of bench players. There followed almost immediately an 8-1 Utah run, which caused several folks to think, but never to say, “What in the cotton-pickin’ heck is going on here?” The Jazz, who had been trailing by 18 earlier in the quarter, suddenly were down only seven. Reasoning, I guess, that Utah was going to have to foul to get some late-game possessions, Billy Donovan pulled Steven Adams, the only Thunder player who’d missed a free throw to that point. The Jazz did indeed foul, Carmelo Anthony sank a pair, and that was that: Oklahoma City 116, Utah 108, and those of you who had “Thunder in six” presumably smiled quietly to yourselves. Maybe even “Thunder in five.”

Four? It’s possible, but not likely; the Jazz can shoot (47 percent), and even if you bottle up Rudy Gobert, they have plenty of other weapons. Rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, who averaged better than 20 points a game during the regular season, collected 27 tonight, along with ten rebounds. Alec Burks, who’d fallen out of the rotation of late, led that late-game comeback with ten points in a hurry. And Joe Ingles is, I think, underrated as a playmaker. Against this array of talent, the Thunder came up with more of the same, and it worked: Russell Westbrook just shy of a triple-double with 29-13-8, Paul George banging down eight of 11 three-pointers (he had 36 points total), and a bench which didn’t score a whole lot but which finished solidly plus on a night when Westbrook was technically minus-one.

Wednesday is Game Two, and then it’s off to Salt Lake City for Three, Four, and (if necessary) Six. You guys who had “Thunder in five” can speak up now.

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A lot of time in vitro

They speak of a “legal minefield.” Imagine the terrain on this side of the Pacific:

A baby has been born in China to a surrogate mother four years after his parents died in a car crash, Chinese media reported.

The couple, who died in 2013, had frozen several embryos hoping to have a child through IVF.

After the accident, their parents fought a protracted legal battle to be allowed to use the embryos.

The boy was born in December to a surrogate from Laos and The Beijing News first reported the case this week.

The newspaper explained how the lack of precedent for a case of this kind had forced the deceased couple’s parents through a legal minefield before the surrogacy could proceed.

Surrogates, it seems, are illegal in China.

One of those blockbusters out in the field was citizenship:

Citizenship of the child, named Tiantian, was another problem though and so he was born not in Laos but in China — with the surrogate travelling there on a simple tourist visa.

With no parents left to prove paternity, all four grandparents had to give blood and take DNA tests to establish that the baby was indeed their grandson and that both parents had been Chinese nationals.

The lad was born in December 2017.

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One door closes

Panic struck Loud City in the first quarter, when the lightly regarded (and lightly staffed: only nine player suited up) Memphis Grizzlies took a six-point lead. This wasn’t going to hold up, and by the end of the first quarter the Thunder were up by ten. By the second, they were up by 20. Five minutes later, the margin was 27, and Russell Westbrook had iced his second consecutive year of averaging a triple-double for the whole season. And then the air was let out of the arena; the Griz outscored OKC 39-28 in the third quarter, rookie swingman Dillon Brooks was on his way to a career high, and suddenly that big OKC lead was cut to single digits. OKC righted itself with an 11-0 run, and assured itself a seeding no worse than sixth with a 137-123 win.

Ironically, Westbrook did not get a triple-double tonight, with a 6-20-19 line. Still, this is the first time he ever got 20 rebounds in a game. Meanwhile, Paul George racked up 40 points (13-20, 8-14 from outside) and Steven Adams 24 (9-12). Corey Brewer was up to 17 when he took a blow to the knee in the fourth quarter. Some good team numbers: 55-percent shooting, a startling 20-43 from the three-point circle, 32 assists. But the Griz put up a lot more than anyone expected from them, with six players in double figures, led by Brooks with a whopping 36 on 14-22. Undrafted rookie shooting guard Kobi Simmons added 15; rookie power forward Ivan Rabb had a 10-12 double-double.

The Thunder are now in the odd position of knowing whom they’ll play in the first round of the playoffs, but not where. The opponent will definitely be the Utah Jazz, and the X factor will be whether the Jazz can beat the Trail Blazers later tonight in Portland. Royce Young explains:

Got that? Remember: fourth-place team starts with home-court advantage.

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Torch passed

Eventually I remembered that Miami is on Eastern time, and tonight’s Thunder game had actually started around 6:30. I cranked up the radio, and heard the score, which was something like 16-1. This cannot stand, I said, but it stood pretty well until a minute and a half into the fourth quarter, at which time the Heat suddenly went, you should pardon the question, ice-cold. Eight minutes later, the Thunder were up fourteen. Of course, the Heat had already clinched their playoff spot. (Nick Collison came in late, which was important because he came in at all, and because it was his 1,000th game.) That fourth quarter was an amazing 39-12, and the final was 115-93, something you never quite expect from a team that starts a game behind 16-1. So OKC can finish no lower than eighth; there will be playoff games at the Peake. (Assuming they beat the Grizzlies day after tomorrow, they’ll finish no lower than sixth.)

Weird-looking statistic: the Thunder were 14-35 from three-point distance. That’s 40 percent, and they were around there all night, even while they were missing two-point goals left and right. Almost as weird: 31-38 from the foul line. This is respectable — a shade under 82 percent — but somehow Miami only put up 14 free throws, making 8. You have to figure the Heat committed a whole lot of fouls, though only James Johnson fouled out. (Hassan Whiteside and Kelly Olynyk had four each; only Corey Brewer had as many as four for OKC.) And this is the sort of thing you want to see from OKC: Russell Westbrook had another triple-double (23-18-13, his 25th of the season), but Paul George had the game-high honors with 27.

Game 82 is Wednesday, against the Memphis squad who were led tonight by the likes of Ben McLemore, with Conley and Parsons out, Gasol resting, and Evans taking some personal time. Darn near beat the Timberwolves, too; Minnesota didn’t start pulling away until late. Like I always say, you don’t put anything past the Grizzlies.

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How does one not bet on the Rockets at home? Houston last lost at home some time during the Battle of Agincourt. James Harden is a legitimate contender for MVP and is leading the NBA in scoring. And the Thunder have been reeling since being spanked by Golden State on Tuesday. None of this mattered on a night when Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony all scored over 20, OKC grabbed 15 more offensive rebounds, and, perhaps most remarkably, both Harden and Chris Paul were actually assessed technical fouls, something we are assured simply can’t happen in Houston. But there it is: Oklahoma City 108, Houston 102, a win of the season series 2-1, and a nudge toward finally clinching a playoff spot.

This is made more miraculous by the fact that the Thunder did not shoot well: 36-91 for just under 40 percent. (The Rockets also hit 36, but they put up only 76 shots.) And there’s a lot to be said for the old saw that “it’s not how many, but when”; consider Alex Abrines, who made one shot all night, went 0-7 from three-point distance, and wound up +6. This was the result of some solid play by the Thunder reserves early in the fourth, with Raymond Felton (no points, but +13) making the plays and Jerami Grant (12 points, +7) setting the ball in the cylinder. Nice work if you can get it. OKC went from three down at the start of the fourth to nine up, and the Rockets were no longer a threat, despite a game-high 26 from Harden and a double-double from P. J. Tucker. (“Double-double? What’s that?” asked Westbrook, 24-7-10, maybe.)

Now things get, believe it or not, even hairier. The top four in the West, for the moment: Houston, Golden State, Portland, Utah. Then follow three teams at 46-34: the Thunder, the Pelicans (who beat the Warriors tonight), and the Spurs (who beat the Trail Blazers tonight). Given the current distribution of tie-breakers, this puts OKC at a nominal seventh. Which isn’t horrible; I’d rather play Golden State in the first round than Portland. Minnesota and Denver are 45-35; for the moment, the Timberwolves hold the tiebreaker. Still, the wildest of wild cards is the Jazz, 46-33 and idle tonight; with three games to play instead of two, and a four-game winning streak going, they could conceivably even bump Portland downward, in which case sixth for the Thunder won’t sound so bad.

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Squeezed to the brink

Only ten Warriors were available to suit up tonight in Oklahoma City, but Steve Kerr could have given a couple of them the night off; the Thunder had trouble getting stops and even more trouble making shots. As is often the case, OKC jumped out to an early lead, and then watched it slowly erode away. Or maybe not so slowly: the Thunder were up three after the first quarter, down ten after the second. OKC came back to tie it a couple of times, even take a brief one-point lead, but they couldn’t sustain any rally worthy of the name, and Golden State prevailed, 111-107, tying the season series at 2-2 and leaving the Thunder with the distinct possibility of missing the playoffs entirely.

This was a night when Russell Westbrook needed to come up big, and indeed he did: 44-16-6. But he wasn’t particularly efficient, going 15-26 from the floor. The big guns were mostly silent, with Paul George going 5-19 for 20, Carmelo Anthony 4-16 for 12. And the entire Thunder bench could manage a mere 14 points. (Of the five Warrior reserves, four scored eight each, and Jordan Bell had six.) Leading the Golden State scoring barrage: a fellow named Kevin Durant, who wasn’t all that efficient either (9-25) but who was a perfect 14-14 from the foul line for 34. Weirdly, the Thunder got 19 more rebounds (58-39) and wound up taking 10 more shots; but six fewer went in. Thirty-eight percent will not beat Golden State, especially when the Warriors are shooting 49.

We’re now hearing about Magic Numbers. For OKC, it’s three: unless one of the other playoff contenders in close proximity loses all of a sudden, the Thunder must win out, an unlikely prospect given the fact that the next game is against the Houston Rockets, who have the best record in the NBA. It would help, for instance, if Indiana beats Denver later tonight; as of this writing, though, the Nuggets are up eight halfway through the fourth quarter. It ain’t over until it’s over; but “over” is a four-letter word.

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Victory lapse

There were some scary periods in this match with the Pelicans, starting in the very first quarter, when the Thunder went five minutes and odd without scoring a point, while New Orleans was busy running off sixteen. OKC rebounded, so to speak, in the second, and was up 53-50 at halftime. But scares were still on the agenda: the Thunder were up twelve with about three minutes left, and watched that lead shrink to three in a matter of seconds. But the Pelicans could do no more in the time remaining, and for the first time in three tries this season, Oklahoma City managed to beat New Orleans, 109-104.

A measure of Anthony Davis’s greatness this year: he seemed somewhat out of sorts after an ankle tweak last week held him to 16 points at Cleveland, but it didn’t stop him from knocking down 25 tonight — or from pranking the entire NBA:

Give him 11 rebounds to go with that, and you’ve got a man with a double-double — and, yes, still with a unibrow. To beat something like that, Russell Westbrook would have to come up with a triple-double. And Westbrook did exactly that, 26-15-13, while still trailing Paul George for game-high. (PG-13 had 27 points, but it took him 24 shots to get there.)

The bleeding, for now, is stanched. Four games remain in the regular season: two against excellent teams (Houston and Golden State), one against a very good team (Miami), and the closer against the fortune-cursed Memphis Grizzlies. The Warriors come to town Tuesday; the Rockets and the Heat will be met on the road, and the Griz will be in on the 11th. So it’s not like everything happens at once — except, of course, that it does. For the next few minutes, the Thunder occupy the #5 spot in the West, half a game in back of San Antonio; whether they stay there depends on whether the Jazz, who were leading Minnesota at the end of three, ultimately beat the Timberwolves, who own the tiebreaker over OKC. Life comes at you fast; toward the end of the season, it’s faster.

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Directly to the sack

By the end of the third quarter, Judge Radar had already used the word “FUGLY” several times, and with good reason; the Thunder looked anything but crisp in the second and third quarters, twenty-four minutes during which the Nuggets outscored them 65-51. Then, to borrow another Judgeismm, twelve minutes of hell broke out: OKC opened the quarter with a 7-0 run, going 20-5 before Denver managed to stabilize things a bit. Just inside the :50 mark, the Nuggets tied it up once more on a pair of Paul Millsap freebies. Six seconds later, Steven Adams hit one, missed one, but Paul George grabbed the ball, and in back of an Adams pick, Russell Westbrook, in classic Westbrook mode, dunked the crap out of it. Millsap came back with a layup, PG-13 with another foul shot, and with :09 left, Will Barton tied it once more. Everyone in the arena knew where the play was going, and that’s how we wound up in overtime. With hardly any time left, the Nuggets calmly tossed in two free throws to make it 126-122; the Thunder got their 20th trey of the game — a new franchise record! — a tenth of a second before the horn, losing by one instead of by four. Denver wins the season series, 3-1, the second series the Thunder has lost in two nights. (If they lose Sunday to New Orleans — but never mind, let’s not go there.)

Paul Millsap took the game-high title, knocking out a season-high 36. The other tall drink of water on the Denver front line, Nikola Jokić had a fearsome 23-point, 16-rebound line. In Thunder blue, it was Westbrook with 33-9-13 despite going 12-32, and Carmelo Anthony coming up with 23. And once again, OKC was outrebounded, this time 58-50.

So the Thunder fall to sixth in two games with five to go. You may be certain that it gets progressively more difficult to stay the course with each loss.

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Feeling the pointy bits

Through 5:59 of the fourth quarter, the Spurs had scored a modest eight points. (Then again, they got only 18 in the third.) Is this great Thunder defense? Um, no. Not even. OKC, which led by four (81-77) after three, had scored only four. Then Dejounte Murray sank one of two free throws to put San Antonio up one, and things finally started to move after that — for the Spurs, anyway. In barely two minutes, the Spurs had rolled to a seven-point lead; the Thunder closed to within one with 1:07 left, but that was as close as they’d get; with five seconds and change left, Paul George swished a trey that seemed unswishable, Russell Westbrook pulled off a steal but wound up out of bounds, and Manu Ginobli calmly dropped in two free throws to give the Spurs a 103-99 win, a 2-2 tie in the season series, and the tiebreaker should it be necessary; with both teams at 44-32 with six to play, there’s a good chance it will.

The Spurs shot a blah 42 percent from the floor, and a superb 42 percent from beyond the arc. (Moving the goal, right?) LaMarcus Aldridge, thought of as questionable before gametime, proved not to be with a team-high 25 points. (PG-13 led everyone with 26.) Westbrook got the night’s only double-double with a 19-11. The Thunder bench managed only 20 points, the Spurs reserves 41, which tells you pretty much how the plus/minus chart ended up. (Hint: some are more minus than others.)

And now, back home to see the Nuggets waiting. Denver’s won two of three from OKC this season, and would be more than happy to take one more; after that, it’s off to New Orleans for a Sunday matchup. Neither Nuggets nor Pelicans have clinched a playoff spot; then again, neither has the Thunder.

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Swept, but not away

We came out expecting the worst, and when the Blazers went up 24-8, we figured that was just what we were going to get; the 34-17 first-quarter score looked anything but hopeful. The gap began to narrow, and by the third things were just about even. But alas, it was not to be:

Portland 108, Oklahoma City 105, and that finishes the season series, with the Thunder on the wrong end of the sweep. Weirdly, the Thunder won only one of the usual statistical categories, but it proved to be their undoing: OKC had a slight edge from beyond the three-point circle, 8-27 (30 percent) versus 9-34 (27 percent), but the Major Dudes on the squad were not making those shots: Westbrook made one out of two, and Paul George and Carmelo Anthony combined missed 12 of 12. The Blazers had a 48-39 edge on the boards, and Portland’s duo of scary guards, Damien Lillard and C. J. McCollum, rang up 58 points between them. The only double-doubles for the night came from the centers: Jusuf Nurkić 17-12 for Portland, Steven Adams 18-10 for OKC.

Seven games to go. The Thunder remain in fourth place in the West, slightly farther behind Portland than they were, and exactly one game ahead of the Spurs. Guess who the next opponent is? Yep. In San Antonio, yet, on Thursday. The next night the Thunder get to play the Nuggets at home, and then trek to New Orleans on Sunday. All three of those teams are at least potential playoff contenders, as are the next three.

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How to dislodge sludge

If you’re anything like me, when the temperature goes up, your metabolism — and my motivation, if not yours — diminishes rapidly, and that’s about the only instance of rapidity to be seen. The first Thunder-Heat matchup since late 2016 (scheduling quirks) started out slower than brand-name ketchup; the first three quarters wrapped up with a lethargic-sounding 66-64 score, Miami up two. Then things started to move at both ends of the court, but distance between the league’s two Atmospheric Phenomena was conspicuous by its absence. With 44 seconds left, OKC was up by four; Paul George, who’d been having a bad day, put together a three-point play — a steal and a layup — to run that lead to seven, and that would be as big a lead as anyone would see. The final was 105-99, and the Thunder, somewhere in that 41-point fourth quarter, finally managed to climb above 40-percent shooting. Credit the point guards: Russell Westbrook rolled up 17 of his 29 points in that frame, and Raymond Felton, starting the quarter, scored eight in a row.

It’s been a while since we’d seen Dwyane Wade, and he was listed as questionable earlier in the week; the Heat decided to let him come out for limited (<20) minutes. He didn't wow anyone, coming up with seven points, but there were occasional signs of the Wade that was. James Johnson and Goran Dragić led Miami with 23 and 20 points; the Heat still knows how to knock down the treys (13-30) and the free throws (18-20). But if the Thunder couldn't match those numbers, they had a Westbrook double-double (29-13), a Steven Adams double-double (24-12), and the majority of the rebounds (51-41). It's pretty clear that no one is going to catch the Rockets or the Warriors this late in the season, and the Trail Blazers have a pretty good hold on third in the West, having already beaten the Thunder three times this season. The fourth and final game comes Sunday evening; it may not matter in the standings, but believe me, it matters.

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The blame for your bracket

College hoops just ain’t what they used to be, this March Madness business notwithstanding, and Bark M. is here to tell you why:

When Steve Fisher started five freshmen on his Michigan squad in 1992, he probably had no idea that he was starting a trend that would change the game forever. Kentucky starts five freshmen, and nobody cares. Kentucky will probably always start five freshmen — that’s what happens when nearly your entire starting lineup (and even some backups) gets drafted every year. But while Kentucky has had several strong teams since John Calipari’s arrival, including a national championship and two other Final Four appearances, they’ve also been bounced in early rounds, and they even missed the tournament altogether once.

The kids who come to Lexington every year didn’t grow up dreaming of playing for the Wildcats — only three Calipari recruits in his nine years were Kentuckians, and none of those three played significant minutes in blue and white. No, these kids are mercenaries who only came to Kentucky with one goal — getting to the NBA as quickly as possible.

Patrick Patterson and Dakari Johnson are the two current Thunder players who attended Kentucky; Johnson stayed in school for two years, Patterson for three.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything wrong with that. If the system exists for these kids, most of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, to make 7 figures at the age of 19, who am I to tell them they can’t or they shouldn’t?

But what it does cause is completely unpredictable basketball outcomes. It’s impossible to know how 18 and 19 year old kids will perform under the pressure of March’s bright lights — some of them will undeniably rise to the occasion, and others will shoot airballs.

Then again, “predictable” is not always desirable.

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Broomed in Boston

It was a long night at the TD Garden, and not just because the demands of network television postponed the tipoff to after 8 pm. The Thunder’s all-too-common second-quarter collapse cut their lead over the Celtics from eight (after the first quarter) to three (at the half). Things did not improve in the third. But halfway through the fourth, OKC’s long-ball finally started falling, one by Paul George, one by Corey Brewer, and two by Carmelo Anthony. Unfortunately, the Celtics started hitting them at about the same time, and at the 50-second mark, the Thunder were up only three. With 12 seconds left, Terry Rozier pulled up for a trey to bring Boston to within two; they fouled Melo, and Melo unexpectedly missed both free throws. Then Marcus Morris airmailed one from the right wing with just over one second left. Boston 100, Oklahoma City 99, the Celtics sweep the series, and Kyrie Irving didn’t have to lift a finger.

Three definite weak spots for the Thunder tonight: rebounding (Celtics led 52-44), free throws Celtics 15-16, OKC 19-29) and bench play (Celtics led 35-10). Yes, ten. Jerami Grant had six of ’em. First-year guard Jayson Tatum led the Beantowners with a 23-11 double-double. Russell Westbrook didn’t double anything, though he did manage a game-high 27; PG-13 came up with 24-13; all five Thunder starters made double figures, though you have to wonder what difference it makes when six reserves score only 10 in aggregate.

And now a new season series begins: Friday brings the Miami Heat to the ‘Peake. The Heat are somewhere around the seventh seed in the East, but the East doesn’t have the sort of logjam that prevails in the West; exactly eight Eastern teams are over .500. There is motion in the West, though, mostly due to the Trail Blazers’ 13 straight wins, putting them seven games up on the 10th-place Clippers. The Jazz have won nine in a row to claim seventh — for now.

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A veritable clinch of death

It was 40-34 after the first quarter, and long-suffering Thunder fans knew what was about to happen: their team would go strangely inert during the second, and the Raptors would pounce. And that’s exactly what happened, with an unexpected twist: OKC got going before halftime and took a 66-64 lead. After that, things got seriously knotted, tied at 116 with five minutes left, and the seesaw kept going. Then the Raptors totally lost their composure, capped off with a couple of technicals and a trip by DeMar DeRozan to DeLockerRoom, after which it was 132-125 OKC, and with eight seconds left, Billy Donovan sent in the reserves to dribble it out and claim the season sweep. Fred Katz of the Transcript summed it up nicely:

Or so it seemed. It didn’t hurt that the Thunder had a 39-31 rebounding lead, a 31-27 edge in assists. But still: 25 lead changes in 48 minutes. And with Kyle Lowry (22 points) on the bench with six fouls and DeRozan (24 points) um, elsewhere, the Thunder ended that game on a 7-0 burst. Weirdly, the bottom of the plus/minus chart was occupied by Serge Ibaka, who was 2-11 for seven points, a -23 for the day, and a technical late in the fourth during the whatever-the-hell it was that happened to the Raptors as time wound down.

Still, this isn’t going to knock the Raptors out of first in the East; they still own a four-game edge over the Celtics, who tonight play at New Orleans before returning home for a Tuesday match with, um, Oklahoma City. Meanwhile out West, the Trail Blazers are on a 12-game winning streak to cement their hold on third, with the Thunder fourth at 43-29. The logjam continues, though: San Antonio, Minnesota and Utah are all 43-30, and the Pelicans are 39-30. This must be what they mean by “down to the wire.”

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Fueled by mistrust

You always know where radio guy Matt Pinto’s loyalties lie, but I don’t know if I’d go this far:

Then again, when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were Clippers — but never mind, let’s not go there. And besides, how can you hate a guy named Sindarius Thornwell? Okay, Thornwell is more of a defensive specialist, and what the Clips needed tonight were points from people other than Austin Rivers and Tobias Harris. (I always figure Lou Williams for 40 or so; he had a mere 18 tonight.) And the Thunder rolled up plenty of points on the way to a 121-113 win over the Angelenos and a 3-0 sweep of the season series.

The OKC Big Three were about as big as they needed today, but no bigger. (Yeah, Westbrook got a triple-double: 16-10-11.) Tonight, it was new guy’s Corey Brewer’s time to shine; CB had a season-high 22 points and no fewer than six steals. And yet Brewer was somehow minus-four for the evening; meanwhile, the new new guys, Terrance Ferguson and Patrick Patterson, racked up plus-twelves. The Clips controlled the boards, though, 48-46, with almost half of them reeled in by DeAndre Jordan. Does this offset Steven Adams’ 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks? Maybe we can ask Matt Pinto.

And now things get hairier. Sunday afternoon, it’s off to see the Raptors; Tuesday night, over to Boston. The two of them combined have won over 100 games.

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Fierce birds, considering

Most of the Thunder’s remaining games are against playoff teams, pretty much all of who have .500 records or better. This is not alarming in itself: okay, it’s a tough schedule by the numbers, but OKC generally acquits itself well against the best teams.

It’s the teams like Eastern Conference cellar-dweller Atlanta that give them fits. Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks, 20-47 at the outset, stayed close to the Thunder through 43 minutes: it was 103-all before OKC took it over. Over the next two and a half minutes, the Thunder put together an 13-0 run to leave the Hawks in the dust, highlighted by Russell Westbrook’s 100th career triple-double. The final was 119-107, and the Atlanta fans gave him a standing O. (Bittersweetness: this was the Hawks’ first sellout all season, and you have to figure they came largely to see if Westbrook could do it.)

Hot for Atlanta: Taurean Prince, who put in some serious time tonight and finished with 25 points. And none of the Hawks’ reserves ended up on the minus side of the great plus/minus divide, which tells you how hard this team was working. (Damion Lee, +9 for the night, led the bench with 13.) And the absence of Steven Adams made the logistics tricky for Billy Donovan: Dakari Johnson got the start at center, and made the only shot he took, but vanished after seven minutes. This left the middle to Jerami Grant, who tossed up a season-high 20 on a respectable 8-14. Carmelo Anthony made six (!) treys and closed out with 21; Westbrook, as noted, turned in a highly Westbrookish 32-12-12. Missing in later action: Paul George, who played 25 minutes (12 points) before taking a very hard fall. At this writing, no prognosis.

Ten teams have a shot at the Western Conference playoffs. One of them is the Clippers, who come to town Friday. At the moment, L.A. is even with OKC in the loss column, as the pundits say, with 29; however, the Clips have somehow won five fewer games, though they’re working on beating the Bulls tonight. On the upside, the Clips are at Houston Thursday, the night before they show up in Oklahoma City.

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Back to the West with you

This started out as a low-scoring game: OKC led the Kings by a modest 19-16 after the first quarter. But putting distance between themselves and Sacramento proved to be surprisingly difficult; the third quarter, in which the Kings scored 39 points, left the West Coasters up one point with 12 minutes left, and Steven Adams was out again, this time with a contusion. The Thunder managed to crank up both offense and defense in that final frame, which is a good thing; perhaps not so good, this was the front end of a back-to-back, which ends tomorrow in Atlanta, which makes for not a whole lot of rest. Still, the Kings came up with a 9-2 run ending with only 30 seconds left to bring them to within three. Those last three points would not be forthcoming, however, and OKC finished with a couple of Corey Brewer freebies to win it 106-101 and take the season series 3-1.

Russell Westbrook played a hair over 36 minutes, and if you asked him if he wanted to be out there that long, he’d probably snicker: “Why not?” He’s almost, but not completely, indefatigable; if he’s thoroughly shagged out tomorrow night, the Hawks, the only team in the East to be guaranteed no trip to the post-season, probably have more than enough energy to make things difficult for the Thunder. And while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony both had 21 points, both played more than half an hour out there. (Westbrook, perhaps needless to say, had another triple-double, 17-10-11.) Kings swingman Bogdan Bogdanović had 19 points to lead the Men In Black, and it’s still kind of fun to see Zach Randolph, 53 years old, and Vince Carter, now in his eighties, keeping up with Sacramento’s youngsters.

Tomorrow: Atlanta. But you knew that. And it’s a 6:30 start. (5:30 Central.) Remind me to find some complaint about Daylight Saving Time, especially if the Hawks make a game of it.

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The old rivalry persists

You seldom see the Thunder and the Spurs in close proximity in the standings. But neither of these teams has exhibited consistent brilliance this season, with the result that both of them were sitting in third place in their respective divisions, OKC at 38-29, San Antonio at 37-28. The Spurs, minus Kawhi Leonard, have had their troubles, and after trailing most of the night, they opened the fourth quarter with four points in six minutes. With the Thunder up 21, though, the Spurs roused themselves to an 11-0 run and got that margin down to seven before OKC regrouped and forced the issue. In the end, it was a ten-point difference: Thunder 104, Spurs 94, and OKC now leads the season series 2-1.

Perhaps the most remarkable statistic from this game involves free throws. OKC has not been good from the stripe, hitting only 16 of 24 tonight, but San Antonio managed only 4-7. Somehow the Thunder committed only 13 fouls all night. Steven Adams, who turned his left ankle late in the third quarter, had four of them. Four Spurs finished in double figures, three of them from the bench: Rudy Gay and Davis Bertans came up with 14 each to lead the team. (Manu Ginobili, a typically reliable scorer, took no shots.) The oft-criticized Thunder reserves were on point tonight, contributing 50 points, nearly as many as the starters. Carmelo Anthony had a terrible night, with only two; Russell Westbrook cracked the triple-double mark (21-12-10) with 1:18 left, serving up his tenth dime to Jerami Grant (15 points) for a trey.

One game remains in this homestand: against Sacramento, on Monday. The Kings, in 12th place in the West and definitely not going anywhere in the post-season, are nonetheless capable of giving the Thunder fits.

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Reflections in a scalded eye

In Phoenix last week, it took the Thunder 47 minutes to catch up to the Suns, and then sixty seconds to dispatch the desert-dwellers by eight. In the friendlier confines of the ‘Peake, it was an easier task: the Suns were held to 15 points in the second quarter, normally the period where OKC’s defense plays hooky. Phoenix came back with 29 in the third, but the Thunder rolled up 39 on the way to an 88-67 lead and a 115-87 win, giving the Suns the dubious distinction of being the first team this season to be eliminated from the playoffs. Phoenix, apart from Devin Booker, just didn’t shoot well, finishing at 34 percent. Booker was a blah 10-22, but he did collect 30 points (and a flagrant-one) for his trouble. Tyson Chandler, manning the middle, came up with ten; no one else from Phoenix managed double figures.

The noteworthy aspect of this game, perhaps, was Corey Brewer’s first start in Thunder blue; he picked up 17 points on 6-10 shooting and finished +26 for the night, about average for the OKC starters, led by, um, Russell Westbrook with a 27-9-8, 11-14 and zero three-point attempts. (The one double-double for the night: Steven Adams, 18 points on 7-8 shooting and 12 rebounds.)

Given the way the Thunder has seesawed between awesome and awful, perhaps beating a team that has yet to win its 20th game sounds more impressive than it ought to. Then again, the last two ganes on this home stand are against San Antonio and Sacramento, two squads that have had the Thunder’s number more often than one might have expected. And the Northwest is still knotted, from third-place Portland (39-26) to tenth-place Utah (35-30). Four games top to bottom. This is gonna be fierce, folks.

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Before and afterburner

The Houston Rockets last lost a game during the War of 1812, or so it seems, but the Thunder, which has actually beaten Houston once this season, managed to stay within a couple of points through the first quarter. But every couple of minutes, they slipped a little bit farther behind, until early in the fourth they found themselves looking up at Houston from a hole 19 points deep. The Thunder managed to pull to within nine with a minute and a half left, but the Rockets do know how to burn up clock, and by the time it was all over, Houston had won its 53rd game in a row, or so it seems, by 122-112, and had evened up the season series at 1-1 with only one to go — in Houston, of course.

Former Thunder beat writer Darnell Mayberry credits Chris Paul for much of the Rockets’ brilliant red glare:

CP has been fantastic, and the Rockets are now 39-6 with him in the lineup. He’s given up the ball more, greatly reduced his patented mid-range jumper, embraced more 3s and integrated seamlessly with Harden, another ball-dominant superstar. Absolutely unreal what he’s done.

And remember those days with the Clippers when CP3 was the premier flopper in the land? CP3 doesn’t seem to do a whole lot of that anymore. Or maybe it’s just that Harden is at least as histrionic, and no one had ever noticed it before. Still, Harden worked hard, gathering 23 points this evening and serving up 11 assists. CP3 numbers, kinda sorts. (Paul had 25 and 5 dimes.)

Thunder numbers were not inspiring: Russell Westbrook took 27 shots to get 32 points, and both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony had mediocre nights. On the upside, new arrival Corey Brewer was sufficiently pissed off to refuse to allow the Rockets to dribble it out; he kept fouling Houston players until he was totally out of fouls. Civility is for the pre-season.

Thursday night, the Suns come to town, and despite about forty fewer wins than the Rockets, Phoenix just as assuredly has OKC’s number. The top of the slide looks farther and farther away every day.

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