Oklahoma City has spent far more time below .500 than above it this season but the Thunder might not be that far off from figuring out the league’s latest star triumvirate.
The Thunder has a standings climb ahead but the flashes of a better team are there with a top-10 defense, a top-five point differential, six losses coming after holding double-digit leads and the late system start given that Carmelo Anthony was acquired two days before training camp.
An a-ha moment came Wednesday when Oklahoma City routed Golden State, 108-91, at home Wednesday. Russell Westbrook was brilliant (34 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) and Paul George showed the impact of his two-way play as he adjusts from his ingrained Indiana instincts.
There do not seem to be the inner struggles of star hierarchy with Anthony and George acknowledging it is Westbrook’s team and the way Westbrook has cut back his shots and usage rate.
Westbrook still has much to prove with his co-stars but he does not need much more of an emotional edge than what he already carries when facing Kevin Durant, his former teammate for eight years.
Westbrook stripped Durant with Oklahoma City leading by 17 on Wednesday and the pair’s intense holiday greetings drew them forehead to forehead.
They had another verbal exchange during a timeout. Durant was laughing with Stephen Curry on the bench when Westbrook became upset that Steven Adams passed up a shot late in the blowout. It was assumed it was because Westbrook needed an assist for a triple-double or because the shot clock was dwindling.
“I play the same way every night,” Westbrook told reporters after the game. “If it’s against Kevin, if it’s against Reggie Jackson, Dennis Smith. It doesn’t matter who it is.
“On the court, I don’t got no friends. The only friend I have is the basketball. That’s it … and obviously my teammates.”
Fans ate it up. The ESPN telecast had the highest rating for a non-Christmas regular-season game since April 13, 2016, the game where Golden State set the record for wins in a season.
Embiid offers shade
Philadelphia second-year player Joel Embiid’s personality might be bigger than his game, which is something considering that he might have become the game’s best center in fewer than 82 games.
It means that everything he does is taken as if it comes with a slight.
Embiid posted an Instagram photo of him scoring over Lonzo Ball and tagged “Lavar, Fars, Iran” as the location.
After losing to Golden State, he tweeted, “Now we know what it feels like to blow a big lead,” a possible reference to the Warriors losing a 3-1 NBA Finals lead in 2016.
In a Philadelphia postgame interview after a win against the Clippers, Embiid said, “I-don’t-know-what’s-his-name” in reference to Willie Reed.
The Boston Celtics’ 16-game winning streak ended Wednesday, leaving it tied as the franchise’s fourth-longest win streak.
The team numbers inside the streak were not as dominant as the results. The Celtics shot only 43.2% from the field, the sixth-lowest clip during that time frame. But they held opponents to 42.3% shooting.
Boston won by an average of 9.8 points per game, most of that coming off free-throw points differential (plus 5.6). The Celtics were the NBA’s best rebounding team from Oct. 20 to Nov. 20, grabbing 53.1% of available boards to limit opponents to 9.1 second-chance points.
Unicorn or nothing
New York’s Kristaps Porzingis is saving a franchise that appeared to be teetering on a deeper fall, especially after it lost every preseason game and the regular season’s first three games.
The Knicks have been a winning team since then in large part because Porzingis has taken steps forward offensively, as a top-five scorer in the league, and defensively, as the NBA’s top shot-blocker.
Porzingis’ efficiency and production have spiked but there is great disparity between how New York fares when Porzingis thrives (50%-plus shooting with more than 30 points per game in wins) or dives (sub-40% shooting and nearly a 10-point scoring drop in losses).
Viva Las Vegas
The NBA Summer League’s expansion could be complete next July.
The Orlando Pro Summer League, which has run since 2002, will not return in 2018. The closed-venue Orlando league included eight teams last season with Charlotte, Indiana, Detroit, New York, Oklahoma City and Orlando only playing there for summer games of draft picks, undrafted rookies and free agent prospects.
Orlando is moving to the NBA Summer League, where attendance numbers have boomed for games played at Nevada-Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion.
It seems likely that all 30 teams will be in Las Vegas next summer because even participants in the only other remaining summer league, Utah, already entered Las Vegas’ league too.