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NBA Saturday: Can Thunder Still Make Playoffs?

With Russell Westbrook back and Kevin Durant close to returning, can the Thunder make a postseason run?

Jesse Blancarte

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After missing 14 games because of a fractured right hand, Russell Westbrook returned to the Oklahoma City Thunder lineup last night, sparking his team to a convincing 105-78 win over the struggling New York Knicks.  Westbrook was sensational, scoring 14 points in the first quarter, making 12-of-17 shots overall (including 3-4 from three-point range), while adding eight assists and seven rebounds in just 23 minutes of action.

Westbrook’s return is a significant boost for a struggling Thunder team that has been without its two superstars for the first time since this team was constructed.  Despite the best efforts of up-and-coming guard Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka and the rest of the team, the Thunder simply could not compete at a high level without Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

The good news for the Thunder is that, based on last night, Westbrook looks as explosive as ever.  More good news is that Kevin Durant has reportedly made significant process in his recovery from foot surgery and could rejoin the Thunder as soon as Tuesday against the New Orleans Pelicans.  The bad news is that the Thunder went 5-12 through the first 17 games of the season and are currently ranked 13th in the Western Conference.  Thus, the question is with Westbrook and Durant (almost) back, can the Thunder make a run and jump back into the playoff race in the Western Conference?

The short answer is yes, but it won’t be easy.

Here is a list of the eighth seed records in the Western Conference over the last 10 seasons:

2013-14: 49-33
2012-13: 45-37
2011-12: 36-30*
2010-11: 46-36
2009-10: 50-32
2008-09: 48-34
2007-08: 50-32
2006-07: 42-40
2005-06: 44-38
2004-05: 45-37
*Note: This was the lockout shortened season where each team played 66 games instead of the standard 82.

As you can see, based on the last 10 seasons, the Thunder at a minimum need to win 42 games, but more likely will need to win closer to 46-48 games.  Yesterday, Kevin Pelton of ESPN (Insider) wrote that simulating the remainder of the season 1,000 times yields an average of 47.4 wins for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, which supports the idea that the Thunder will need to win somewhere between 46-48 games to make the postseason.  Unfortunately for the Thunder, this season’s crop of Western Conference teams is particularly talented, and, like last year, a team that wins as many as 48 games (like the Phoenix Suns last season) could be left out of the playoffs.  As it currently stands, there are 12 Western Conference teams that have legitimate playoff aspirations, with just the Lakers, Jazz and Timberwolves seemingly out of the mix at this point.

To win 48 games, the Thunder would need to go 43-22 (66.2 win percentage) the rest of the way.  Last season, Westbrook played in 46 regular season games as he struggled with a recurring knee injury, while Durant played in 81 games.  When Westbrook and Durant both played, the Thunder went 34-12 (73.9 win percentage).  Without Westbrook, the Thunder went 25-11 (69.4 win percentage).

Assuming that Durant returns on December 11 against the Cleveland Cavaliers (which is a conservative estimate based on the most recent reports), the Thunder will theoretically have 61 games with Westbrook and Durant available (of course both could miss additional time with recurring injuries, as we have seen with Derrick Rose this season).  At this point, the Thunder will likely have a record around 7-14 (assuming they go 2-2 against the Pelicans, 76ers, Pistons and Bucks before Durant hypothetically returns against the Cavaliers).  In an ideal scenario where the Thunder reintegrate Westbrook and Durant and neither player is substantially limited by their injuries, we could apply their 73.9 win percentage from the 46 games they played together last season, which would result in a 52-30 regular season record (continuing with the assumption that the Thunder are 7-14 when Durant hypothetically returns against the Cavaliers).  This record would almost assuredly qualify the Thunder for the playoffs.

However, this is a best case scenario in which we assume that both Westbrook and Durant don’t miss any more games and they perform at the level they did last season in the 46 games they played together.  The more likely scenario, however, is that Durant will play under a minutes restriction, he will be given nights off (like on the second night of back-to-back games), and both he and Westbrook will miss at least a few games for other reasons (though before Westbrook’s knee issues both he and Durant were remarkably durable and rarely missed any games).  In this less than perfect scenario, the Thunder will have to find a way to win without one or both of their superstars on some nights, which could be fatal since the margin for error is very slim at this point.

There are numerous variables to consider when trying to project whether or not the Thunder have a realistic shot at making a playoff run.  Some of those factors were mentioned above, and some that weren’t include, but are not limited to, how long it takes Durant and Westbrook to get into optimal game shape, whether other players will miss significant time because of injuries, whether the Thunder make a significant mid-season trade that substantially changes the dynamic of the team, and whether the other Western Conference playoff contenders exceed expectations and make it so that the eighth seed will need to win more than 50 games.

Considering all of this, the Thunder are going to need Westbrook and Durant to be at full strength very soon to keep the Thunder’s playoffs hopes alive.  If they can, the Thunder will become one of the most dangerous low-ranking playoff teams ever, and a nightmare match up for whichever top-seeded team goes up against them in the first round.  But as explained above, the Thunder cannot afford for their two superstars to miss many more games since they already dug themselves such a big hole in the first few weeks of the season.  Making the playoffs won’t be easy for the Thunder by any means, but it’s still possible.  And if Westbrook keeps playing like he did last night, making the playoffs for the Thunder may not be such a pipe-dream after all.

Sacramento Kings Protest Denied By Adam Silver

On November 13, the Memphis Grizzlies overcame a 26-point deficit and beat the Sacramento Kings at the buzzer with a Courtney Lee layup.  Lee’s game winning shot drew controversy, however, as the Kings believed that time expired before Lee got the shot off and that the officials misapplied NBA rules during the review process.  The Kings filed a petition with the league to review the play and determine whether Lee got his layup off before time expired.  On Friday, the NBA announced that the petition had been denied and the result of the game would not be changed.

Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports reports that there are at least a few Kings officials who are upset by Silver’s ruling.

“The referees had a duty to count frames on the replay and they didn’t,” one Kings source said.  “We felt and still feel strongly that there was significant error in this decision.”

Kings center Ryan Hollins, who guarded Vince Carter, who was inbounding the ball, claims that he tipped Carter’s pass, and thus the shot clock should have started much sooner than it did.

“I hit the ball,” Hollins told Yahoo Sports.  “No question about it. You see the trajectory.  You even see my reaction afterwards.  Even if you can’t conclude that I hit the ball, the shot still didn’t get off with the correct call.”

The referees ruled that Hollins did not touch the ball, and the league office determined there was not enough video evidence to overrule that determination.

With the ruling, the Kings record stays at 9-7, good for the ninth seed in the Western Conference.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience

It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.

Spencer Davies

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Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.

He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.

To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.

“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.

“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.

“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”

So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.

“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”

It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.

Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.

“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.

“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”

After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.

Whether the next chapter in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”

And it’s about time people are taking notice.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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