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