Tim Bontemps (WaPo) on the eight teams competing for six playoff spots in the West: “Through Jan. 27 — the day Roberson ruptured his patella tendon — Oklahoma City was scoring 106.9 points per 100 possessions and allowing 103.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. In 16 games since then, the Thunder have almost an identical offensive rating (106.8), but have a 108.5 defensive rating. That is a drop from fifth in the league before Roberson’s injury to 17th after it — and helps explain why the Thunder went from a 50-win pace before his injury to a roughly .500 team since. With 12 consecutive games against teams with winning records from March 16 through April 9, the Thunder will have its work cut out to turn things around.”
Paul Coro (LA Times) on the Thunder looking for traction: “A 22-8 stretch followed through December and January as the stars acclimated to each other. But Oklahoma City is back to being .500 in the 14 games entering Saturday night and eking out recent victories against four of the NBA’s six worst teams. The ebbs and flows put Oklahoma City encouragingly close to third place in the Western Conference at times and uncomfortably in sight of lottery-bound ninth place at others. Since defensive specialist Andre Roberson suffered a season-ending knee injury Jan. 27, Oklahoma City is 2-5 against teams with winning records. The Thunder ranked fifth in the NBA for defensive rating with Roberson and have ranked 18th for defensive rating since losing him to injury. Signing postseason-eligible swingman Corey Brewer on Saturday could help.”
Erik Horne on the Thunder still searching when it should be fine-tuning: “Just as much as improvement, results matter now. Fortunately, the rest of the Western Conference aside from Houston and Golden State has its issues too, but with three games separating the No. 3 seed from being out of the playoffs, moral victories can’t be traded for real ones. It’s too late for moral victories to help, anyway.”
Chris Herring & Neil Paine (FiveThirtyEight) determine which NBA teams are most frequently wronged by officials: “Kevin Durant, who is Green’s teammate and started the season with one ejection in his entire 10-year career, leads the NBA this year, with four early exits. And this week, Paul George and LeBron James have both outlined what they perceive to be biases in how games are officiated. When the NBA’s biggest names are complaining about something, it’s obviously going to get a lot of attention. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those voices have the biggest reason to complain. That honor belongs to the Brooklyn Nets.”
Bruce Jenkins (San Francisco Chronicle) on the Thunder & Warriors potentially meeting in the first round: “As dangerous as they can be — and the Warriors know all about it, having lost twice to OKC this year — the Thunder tend to falter against lesser opposition, absorbing some inexcusable losses and barely squeaking out victories over Memphis, Orlando, Sacramento and Dallas in recent weeks. They’ve slipped to seventh in the Western Conference, and at the start of Friday’s play, the Warriors were No. 2. That’s a multilayered collision course, featuring the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook dynamic and whatever OKC might have planned for Zaza Pachulia (hint: burly bruiser Steven Adams would be involved) after Pachulia’s awkward tumble last Saturday and Westbrook’s claim that the Warriors’ center is a “dirty player.”
Carlan Gay (Sporting News) on Damian Lillard & Russell Westbrook making up: “When Russell Westbrook came to the defensive of teammates Paul George saying it was “outrageous” that he didn’t initially make the All-Star roster he didn’t intend to offend anyone. Unfortunately, he did. Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard was one of those offended leading to a perceived rift between the two. The three-time All-Star fired back at Westbrook’s original comments calling them “disappointing”. Ahead of their clash on Sunday, Lillard said the two cleared the air. “He was the first guy I saw,” Lillard told The Oregonian’s Joe Freeman. “As soon as he came in, we made eye contact, we both laughed. He was like, ‘Man, you know we’re better than that.’ I said, ‘I know.’ I said, ‘But you know I take exception to everything.’ We literally laughed about it.”
Jonny Auping (RealGM) on why the NBA needs you to believe in Russell Westbrook: “It has created an easy to comprehend absolute: the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets or Cleveland Cavaliers are going to win the NBA championship, regardless of whether the other 27 teams try to win it or not. Even including the Rockets and Cavaliers in that sentence felt like a stretch. The death of the NBA middle class is another discussion altogether (perhaps it never made sense to be a sixth seed trying to win a championship and NBA front offices have only recently realized), but the Thunder are the remedy to inevitability, perhaps not in reality, but at least in theory. Westbrook is at the heart of all of this, because his mere presence on a roster makes it impossible for that team to be one of the league’s worst. He simply won’t allow it. His combination of hyper-competitiveness and all-world talent means he is trying to win the 2018 championship.”
Around the League: Kobe Bryant won an Academy Award…. Gordon Hayward will not return this season…. Kawhi Leonard and Jordan Brand aren’t seeing eye-to-eye…. Tristan Thompson is out multiple games in Cleveland…. The Pelicans have won eight-straight…. Oladipo and the Pacers are moving up in the East.