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NBA Shootaround: Mr. Westbrook Goes to Washington

Russ and KD take D.C., LeBron finds a nemesis, and more.

So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.

Wreck-It Russ

Russ SKIP

Chris Ryan: Yes, I do think that Russell Westbrook saw all the attention being paid to Kevin Durant upon his return to D.C. and took it personally. I 100 percent believe that he was like, “Oh, he’s the homecoming king? I AM CARRIE.”

Carrie blood fire

On Wednesday, against the Wiz, Russell Westbrook was the Bad Brains lightning bolt over the Capitol building. Russ, who is not from D.C. — but who really cares? — scored 32 points, and added eight boards and eight assists, in a classic WTF-is-he-doing-wait-WTF-IS-HE-DOING performance. He scored the bucket to take it to overtime, and the game winner in the #freebasketball period, with a layup that crumpled Paul Pierce like an empty can of Schlitz.

Between his ardent practice of Marshawnian media relations and his general demeanor on the court — somewhere between Wreck-It Ralph and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas — Russell is in full DGAF mode. Andrew Sharp texted me during the game to tell me that he was cursing out different sections of the Verizon Center crowd. I think they’re paying attention now, buddy.

Amnesty This

Perkins Reax

Be Right Back

Oklahoma City Thunder v Washington WizardsNed Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Andrew Sharp: Every few minutes there were different catcalls to center court. “Come home, KD!” “We love you, KD!” After the Wizards went up by double digits: “You deserve better, KD!” People wore 2016-themed T-shirts, they brought signs, and toward the end we even had local weatherman Topper Shutt pop up on the JumboTron to make his pitch. And none of it mattered. KD went back to OKC today. We are all powerless in this purgatory.

Last night in Washington was Twilight Zone basketball, with a Black Mirror twist of “This is how we live now” in the NBA.

The Wizards definitely weren’t shy about embracing the future, so let’s make an exception today and acknowledge how ridiculous this is all getting. Durant was given (bought? acquired?) at least six courtside seats for his family Wednesday, the Wizards promoted KD’s arrival on the team website, and — for god’s sake — the halftime entertainment was a pickup basketball game featuring players from Durant’s old high school. It was all so shameless. I love it.

Then the game got going, and everybody got a reminder. If Durant ever ends up in D.C., it won’t have anything to do with his roots.

Watch John Wall. His defense has gotten better, he’s a leader, and he’s learning how to be a superstar. When he’s twisting his way into cross-court passes for open 3s, he’s driving and creating open layups. At least three times every night he makes passes that will explode your brain. It doesn’t even matter whether teammates finish.

His only true weakness is scoring at the end of games. He’s a natural distributor, not a closer. You see where this is going.

Watch Kevin Durant. He is an assassin.

Durant HAMMER

Marcin Gortat is dead now. But honestly, the more impressive play was the un-Vined, hanging, leaning 3 that he hit over Paul Pierce a few plays later. Durant is from another world. But watch KD on OKC, and you see him go several possessions in a row without touching the ball. You see an offense with two superstars that basically has them take turns trying to will their way through the entire defense. You think back to those two months Durant played without Russ, and you remember how he turned into George Gervin on bath salts. He was so good for those six weeks, it won him the MVP. You wonder.

Last night in D.C. was weird, but none of this is crazy. On one side, there’s the most electric passer in the NBA, and on the other, there’s the most unstoppable player on earth who can’t seem to get more than 16 shots a game. Forget coming home.

After Durant’s 3 in OT, I wasn’t even thinking about D.C. when I leaned over to a friend in disbelief. “Can you imagine what he would do playing with a real point guard?”

“Hopefully one day we find out,” he reminded me.

Maybe. Until then, back to purgatory.

I Love the Western Conference, Part XVIII

No Chill for Curry

Jason Concepcion: The Rockets shot 63 percent from the floor and scored 36 points in the third quarter of Wednesday night’s game against the Warriors at Oracle, and still trailed 102-78. The Warriors have now swept the season series against Houston with imperious ease, winning by 11, 12, 25, and 13. Golden State has lost exactly one game at home so far — way back on November 11 to the Spurs.

The title race is as wide open as we have ever seen it. But if there is such a thing as a Way Too Early Title Favorite, it has to be the Warriors, who came into the game against the Rockets as the owners of a league-best plus-13.4 net rating. Remember the 1995-96 Bulls? That team with Michael Somebody and Scottie Whoever that won 72 games? They finished the regular season with a net rating of 13.4. So, what I’m saying is, while this is probably unsustainable, it’s nonetheless a really good sign from a Warriors perspective.

Meanwhile, Rockets players picked the wrong time to tug on midseason Superman’s cape. James Harden was caught on video before last Saturday’s eventual 25-point curb stomp vs. Golden State proclaiming that the Warriors weren’t “even that good” with the kind of zeal that one associates with Spicoli writing a Yelp review about a just-OK pizza place.

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And before Wednesday’s game, Jason Terry was quoted as saying “I love to go on the road and kind of stick it to them,” and, “This is a rivalry.” Well, maybe later, but certainly not now.

The Rockets troubled the Warriors just twice Wednesday night.

The first time, with the Warriors up 23 in the third, Pat Beverley baited Steph Curry into a tech, which was followed in quick succession by Trevor Ariza making a point of bumping into Curry as he was going up the court. Curry, mouthguard hanging out of his mouth like a lollipop, went after Ariza before being held back by Draymond Green, who looked like he was breaking up a fight over Pokemon cards.

The second time was Alexey Shved and Corey Brewer backstroking across an ocean of fourth-quarter garbage time to key a run against Golden State’s bench that ever so briefly cut the Warriors’ lead to nine with 2:40 left to play.

Steve Kerr simply put Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green back in and they shut the damn thing down, culminating in Marreese Speights hitting an utterly disrespectful corner 3 in Dwight’s candy-streaked face to make it 126-113.

Speights Trolling 3 Over Dwight

Enemy Mine

Utah Jazz v Cleveland CavaliersDavid Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Jason Gallagher: We’re running low on high-quality beef for LeBron James.

Durant and LeBron have way too much mutual respect for any kind of conflict. Boston, once LBJ’s biggest antagonist, is in ruins. The Spurs don’t know the definition of “beef.” Until Paul George returns, Indiana is as pesky as a cool breeze. The Heat should be enemy combatants, but it’s tough to beef when you’re sleeping with the enemy.

Yes, I see you, Chicago. Come playoff time, there’s no doubt you’ll make us proud. The Bulls need some help, though. This is a once-in-a-generation player who deserves an archrival.

Cue trumpets. Enter Gordon Hayward.

Utah Jazz v Cleveland CavaliersJason Miller/Getty Images

“I feel so much stronger. That was a big part, being able to match up with LeBron. He can’t bully me as much as he used to, and I’m able to stand my ground against him.”

You can take those comments one of two ways. They’re either nothing more than innocent words from Hayward’s blog about the great progress he’s made as a player, or they’re a brave rebuke of the disgusting abuse LeBron has heaped on young Hayward through the years.

For the sake of the NBA, I chose conflict. The national media seemed to agree with me and blew the story up. LeBron responded accordingly by saying, “If it made him feel better by saying that, good for him.”

Yesssss. This is officially beef. It’s happening. That’s why I talked myself into thinking Jazz-Cavs would be a matchup worth watching. It was LeBron vs. Hayward, Clash of the New Titans, Feud of the Small Forward Forwards, Perfect Hair vs. LeBron …

This was gonna be huge. They should be making it pay-per-view. This was …

LBJ BULLY

This lasted 2.5 quarters. Godspeed, Chicago.

The Outlet Mall

Love to LBJ Outlet 2

Ryan: When the Cavs traded Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, this was in the Michael Bay trailer — the idealized, robot-destroying, driving-a-Hummer-over-the-rest-of-the-league vision: Love throwing post routes to LeBron for two.

Witnesses

Love to LBJ Outlet (BENCH REAX) (1)

The Gore of Charlotte

Miami Heat v Charlotte HornetsKent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Danny Chau: Last Saturday, it took an overtime period for the Hornets to pull off an 80-71 victory. Last night, there was a 78-76 final score with the Hornets and Heat combining to shoot 56-for-164 (34.1 percent) from the field. This isn’t basketball, this is competitive self-immolation. This is the gore of Charlotte. Everyone is screaming, but mercy has answered only the cries of Charlotte so far this year. The Hornets have won eight of their last 10 games. In those 10 games since the start of 2015, they have been the best defense in the NBA by far, allowing an astonishing 90.5 points per 100 possessions. To put that in perspective, the Warriors’ near-perfect defense has allowed 97.0 points per 100 possessions on the season. Not a single opponent in that stretch has reached triple digits in scoring; the Spurs came closest last Wednesday with 98.

The Hornets are who they are and have come to terms with that, which is why they can trot out a frontcourt of Bismack Biyombo, Cody Zeller, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the starting lineup and laugh about it once the game is over. They’ve been amazing at protecting the rim in 2015, and teams have shot less than 28 percent against them on non-corner 3s. The team deserves some shine for rediscovering its strengths and doubling down on them. As much as it can seem otherwise, there isn’t a right way to win. It’s a shame that the Hornets and Hawks1 don’t play again until the end of March. I would’ve loved to see the bastion of basketball purity collide against its direct inverse at the peak of its powers.

This Was Brandon Jennings’s 20th (!!!) Assist of the Night


1.

Fun fact: The Hornets are one of seven teams to have beaten the Hawks this season. They won on a buzzer-beating 3 from Lance Stephenson back in November. Remember that? Remember him?

Jennings 20 Assists

Ryan: He’s feeling pretty good about it.

JENNIIIINGS

The Wright Stuff

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota TimberwolvesDavid Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Brett Koremenos: Even before the Rajon Rondo trade, frontcourt depth for Dallas — particularly behind Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons — was an issue. Losing the productive, rangy, dunk-machine Brandan Wright in the deal made the situation even more dire. Dallas was hoping to conjure up some type of sustainable production in-house, with Greg Smith likely absorbing Wright’s minutes behind Tyson Chandler. But with Smith torpedoing the team’s offense during his time on the floor — Dallas’s offensive rating is a paltry 96.0 when he’s in — head coach Rick Carlisle needed another option.

Enter Dwight Powell, the rookie second-round pick from Stanford — seemingly just a random throw-in for the Rondo deal. With his six-point, 10-rebound performance last night against the Wolves, Powell has continued to build on a solid four-game stretch during which he has averaged exactly 20 minutes a night.

The slender Powell can and will get bullied by the league’s more tenacious post players, but he’s mobile, long, and active, with a cerebral approach to his game. Like any rookie, Powell has his moments when he tries to do too much, but he makes up for it by trying to be in the correct position at all times on both ends of the floor.

Powell can lurk around the baseline and feast on misses and drop-off passes, space out to about 20 feet when Chandler rolls to unclog the lane, and even dive hard to the rim and free up perimeter shooters. Plus he’s got a good handle and is skilled enough to allow Dallas to run some of its pet sets, like this one from the Wolves game, that normally feature Chandler:

Having help to keep Dallas afloat while Nowitzki and Chandler rest is vital for the Mavs. Maybe Powell will vanish from the rotation by late April, but he’s got a chance to play the key role of keeping the Mavericks’ most important players fresh for what promises to be a grueling postseason.

Play of the Year (of the Week)

Amos Barshad: Dame. DAME. To split a double-team and throw one down against a not-yet-in-tune defense at the sleepy end of a first quarter is lovely enough. To do so at the precipice? Simply insulting. And not just insulting to those who try and fail — insulting also to those who try and succeed but do so without pageantry. Dame. Dame. DAME.

Previous installments of The Play of the Year (of the Week) have included Trevor Booker’s moment of sunshine and whatever the hell Steph Curry was doing here. You can go ahead and delete them from your grain now. They are dead to us, lost in the wastepaper basket of history. This is the one true Play of the Year (of the Week). Um, until next week.

The Epic of Ineptitude

Langston Celebrates Dagger

Ryan O’Hanlon: I once saw Jason Smith miss a layup only for the errant attempt to be unnecessarily and illegally converted by Lou Amundson like a mischievous stowaway on the first voyage to Staten Island. I once watched Furkan Aldemir attempt to set a pick only to begin to tip over like the last great felled Turkish filbert tree. I once heard Mike Breen ask Clyde Frazier a rhetorical trivia question only for the color commentator to actually answer the question, as if he were shooting a flaming arrow into the heart of the approaching forces of rhetoric. I once witnessed Michael Carter-Williams and Smith nearly come to blows only to be separated by their teammates like two great French philosophers at once considering the fissuring cosmic meaninglessness of their plight. I once beheld six different NBA players trying to corral a rebound only to fail five consecutive times, like the members of The School of Athens prizing uncertainty over the obvious, immediate truth. Alas, I once caught sight of Langston Galloway chasing down a loose ball as if he were attempting to deliver a final message to a departing Canterbury postman on horseback only to seize on the orb and launch it hoop-bound like some anthropomorphic catapult besieging the walls of the Teutonic Order.
In other words: Don’t watch Knicks-Sixers games, you guys.