The con­tenders and the pre­tenders


San Francisco Chronicle - - NBA - Around the NBA Bruce Jenk­ins is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle colum­nist. Email: bjenk­ins @sfchron­i­ Twit­ter: @Bruce_Jenk­ins1

The NBA’s mid­sea­son land­scape shows Toronto, Den­ver and Hous­ton as clear-cut threats to the War­riors’ su­pe­ri­or­ity. The Nuggets and Rap­tors have been solid through­out, and it ap­pears that James Har­den will make sure the un­ortho­dox Rock­ets get deep into the post­sea­son.

As for the rest, here are three teams on the rise:

⏩ Ok­la­homa City: With Rus­sell West­brook, Paul Ge­orge, Steven Adams, Jerami Grant and Ter­rance Fer­gu­son in the lineup — and lock­down de­fender An­dre

Rober­son due to re­turn at some point — this is the best de­fen­sive team in the league, sta­tis­ti­cally and vis­ually. We’ve known that for a while. But there’s a new look to West­brook’s game. His triple-dou­bles al­ways seemed in­evitable, but the num­bers rang hol­low as he reck­lessly in­sisted on tak­ing ev­ery big shot down the stretch.

West­brook’s num­bers were es­pe­cially as­tound­ing Thurs­day night against San An­to­nio — 24 points, 24 as­sists, 13 re­bounds — but most cru­cial was his ap­proach in the crit­i­cal mo­ments of that dou­ble-over­time game. No­body at­tacks the hoop like West­brook, and as he drew a crowd, he con­sis­tently fired per­fect passes to open shoot­ers. West­brook’s next step is to for­get about three-point­ers al­to­gether — at least when it mat­ters. Never good from long range (30 per­cent ca­reer), he was in a 4-for-29 slump head­ing into Satur­day night’s re­match with the Spurs, while shoot­ing a dis­mal 22.9 per­cent for the sea­son. Com­pared to War­riors guard Stephen

Curry, whose silkys­mooth re­lease is like honey pour­ing from a jar, West­brook’s three­p­oint shot looks like he was handed a lit fire­cracker.

⏩ San An­to­nio: Doubt coach Gregg Popovich at your peril. Many did, after the Spurs’ mis­er­able start, but once he got fa­mil­iar with a lot of new faces, Popovich tight­ened up the de­fense and de­vel­oped the league’s smartest ap­proach to the three-point shot. Namely: Only the good shoot­ers take them. While an­a­lyt­ics-crazed fools dis­par­age the midrange shot, LaMar­cus Aldridge is crush­ing peo­ple from the low post and DeMar DeRozan is most com­fort­able up to around 20 feet. As much as Popovich de­spises the three-point­ers, he’s get­ting great pro­duc­tion from Marco Be­linelli, Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes and Davis Ber­tans. Stun­ning re­sult: The Spurs shoot the fewest threes in the league — but they have the high­est shoot­ing per­cent­age from be­yond the arc.

⏩ Mil­wau­kee: The Bucks can’t get over the dif­fer­ence be­tween taskmas­ter coach Ja­son

Kidd and his re­place­ment, Mike Bu­den­holzer. They’re co­he­sive, they en­joy each other’s com­pany, and aside from hav­ing the most ex­plo­sive player in the league (Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo, blow­ing minds ev­ery night), they have a sweet back­court-wing

com­bi­na­tion in Khris Mid­dle­ton, Eric Bled­soe, Ge­orge Hill

and Mal­colm Brog­don, the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year and a bud­ding of­fen­sive force. With the East’s sec­ond-best record, be­hind Toronto, the Bucks are only be­gin­ning to tap their po­ten­tial.

On the flip side, three teams in dis­ar­ray:

⏩ Bos­ton: Don’t be­lieve any­thing your read or hear about the Celtics “fig­ur­ing it out.” They haven’t. Way too many ridicu­lous losses. This is prob­a­bly the league’s deep­est team when it comes to play­ers with start­ing-lineup tal­ent, and that’s the prob­lem; too few of them are will­ing to ac­cept lesser roles. As great as he is, Kyrie

Irving of­ten dom­i­nates the ball too much. Jayson Ta­tum and Jaylen Brown drift in and out of ef­fec­tive­ness while

Mar­cus Smart and Terry Rozier cry out for rel­e­vance. You’d think whip-smart coach Brad

Stevens would find a so­lu­tion, and let’s hope he does. A smooth-flow­ing Bos­ton team would be a post­sea­son treat.

⏩ Philadel­phia: Jimmy

But­ler just doesn’t know the mean­ing of “chill.” A di­vi­sive force in Chicago and Min­nesota, he at least had the ex­cuse of try­ing to deal with young, un­der­achiev­ing play­ers. Only weeks into his stay with the tal­ented 76ers, he seems to think it’s his team, clash­ing with coach Brett Brown over the of­fen­sive sets. When Ben Sim­mons called the 76ers’ de­fense “soft” after Fri­day night’s loss to At­lanta, But­ler took ex­cep­tion, say­ing, “I don’t like that word.” There’s a sim­mer­ing ten­sion among But­ler, Sim­mons and cen­ter

Joel Em­biid, and that’s a path lead­ing to nowhere, but per­haps there’s time to straighten things out.

⏩ New Or­leans: The re­al­ity of the Pelicans’ plight is start­ing to dawn upon An­thony

Davis, who so badly wants to stay in New Or­leans with a strong, play­off-bound team. It’s just not hap­pen­ing, and his com­ments sug­gest a lot of frus­tra­tion. If a trade were to hap­pen, it couldn’t in­volve the Celtics (who have a stock­pile of draft picks) un­til next sea­son, due to a loop­hole in the NBA’s ab­surdly com­pli­cated rule­book. The Lak­ers could pull off a trade right now, and while it might be too early, they’re plot­ting a course. ⏩ Good to see War­riors coach Steve Kerr plan­ning to start DeMar­cus

Cousins when he joins the ros­ter. He’s no­body’s backup, and he needs as much time as pos­si­ble with the four All-Stars. Along those lines: Stag­ger­ing the play­ing time for Curry and Kevin

Du­rant might be an ac­cept­able no­tion now, but there’s no fu­ture in that strat­egy. The War­riors won’t win the ti­tle with­out those two play­ing to­gether, and it needs to hap­pen as much as pos­si­ble.

⏩ As the lat­est “Where are you go­ing?” spec­u­la­tion in­volved the Knicks, Du­rant said, “I have no clue where that stuff comes from.” Well, it comes from his ab­so­lute lack of com­mit­ment. Du­rant says a lot of things, not all of which should be taken se­ri­ously, but how about this, to Ya­hoo Sports’

Chris Haynes: “I just want to make sure I get as much money as I can on my next deal so I can stack up my money and fig­ure it out. That’s just the plan. Play bas­ket­ball and stack money.” Heart­warm­ing.

⏩ Patrick McCaw is strictly a fringe player right now, as is Chris

Boucher, but the exWar­riors are about to be­come team­mates on the Toronto bench. Should be very in­ter­est­ing if that’s the case at play­off time.

Sue Ogrocki / As­so­ci­ated Press

Thun­der guard Rus­sell West­brook, with Dal­las’ Har­ri­son Barnes, is find­ing team­mates more of­ten this sea­son, post­ing a ca­reer-high 10.7 as­sists per game.

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