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NBA Shootaround: Physical Graffiti

Triple-double Russell, a LeBron tidal wave, and the return of Anthony Davis.

So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is back 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.

Who Was That Masked Man?

Danny Chau: Last night, Russell Westbrook wore a face mask and a headband and I thought he was Jared Dudley for a second. Then I pretended he was Jared Dudley for nearly an entire quarter. It was funny.

Westbrook got popped in the face on his first scoring possession of the game, and it was just as terrifying as it was the first time I saw it in the Foxcatcher trailer.

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Later in the first, with 3:25 to go, Westbrook threw down a coast-to-coast two-handed tomahawk and his neck snapped back violently. I was transported back to 2009 when Blake Griffin dunked so recklessly he almost knocked himself out smacking his temple on the corner of the backboard. When Westbrook reached for his head, I was ready to cry. Then I realized he was just adjusting his headband. He basically dunked that shit blindfolded, like, SUP CEDRIC CEBALLOS? You know the feeling when a spirit enters your body and it’s suddenly cold and you can’t help but laugh hysterically? Of course you do. You felt it, too.

That was also the moment I stopped pretending it was Jared Dudley out there. Because by that point, my stupid fantasy couldn’t keep up with the paranormal reality Westbrook brought to us.

Right about the 2:20 mark in the fourth quarter, I swear his clear mask started to glow golden. “Who is that masked man?” Thunder commentator Michael Cage asked. For a second, I wasn’t sure. He almost looked like the Ultimate Warrior.

Westbrook finished with 49 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists. It was his fourth straight triple-double, which is something that hasn’t been done in 26 years. According to Elias, Westbrook’s string of consecutive 40-point triple-doubles is an arbitrary standard of excellence to which only Michael Jordan and Pete Maravich can relate. Give the man his MVP trophy, or watch as it explodes into a mound of fumed silica the second Adam Silver hands it off. What Westbrook has achieved in the past month or so is the rarest form of individual excellence we’ve seen in years. It deserves, and demands, the most proper of acknowledgements.

I don’t know what else there is to say about Westbrook. I don’t know what else there is to do but speak in tongues.

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Move Over, Scott Howard

Bill Simmons: There’s a new gold standard for coast-to-coast dunk Vines.

How Did You Do That?

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Kirk Goldsberry: I fell in love with Jason Richardson all over again last night, but just as I was going to get down on one knee and propose marriage, a stampeding bull plowed through the scene and gored us both in the torso. That bull’s name was Russell Westbrook. True story. Anyway, how do you amass 49 points with only one 3-pointer made? Well, it helps to start by playing the Sixers, then you shoot 20 free throws and make 16 field goals. Simple.

Old Man and the Sixers

Philadelphia 76ers v Oklahoma City ThunderLayne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Ben Detrick: The latest addition to the Sixers’ churning carousel of scrubby D-Leaguers is an unheralded youngster named Jason Richardson, who shares both the name and an uncanny resemblance to his father, the winner of the 2002 and 2003 NBA slam dunk contests. Wait, that’s him and not a bearded, sharpshooting simulacrum? Yes! In one of the season’s least consequential (but genuinely feel-good) story lines, J-Rich has wrenched himself out of the grave.

In last night’s barn burner against Oklahoma City, his sixth game of the season, Richardson dumped in 29 points, drained four 3-pointers, and snatched six boards. More importantly, he did it all with a fantastic expression of veteran “seen it all, done it all” amusement on his face. Even when he missed a late 3 in overtime, he had this wonderful shit-eating grin, like he couldn’t believe he was out on the hardwood in 2015, trying to fend off the Westbrook Maelstrom.

After blowing out a knee in early 2013, the 34-year-old shooting guard was sidelined for the equivalent of two seasons, seemingly content to stack the remainder of his contract while the Philly organization embarked on its controversial slash-and-burn rebuilding scheme. At one point, Sixers coach Brett Brown showed the team a reel of Richardson’s career highlights (most coming from an era when kids like Nerlens Noel were grooving to Kidz Bop Vol. 4 versions of Good Charlotte bangers) to remind the squad that the old-timer was a basketball player and not an assistant coach.

Before the trade deadline, the Sixers cudgeled together an identity as a springy, elasticized cohort that had risen to 12th in the league in defensive rating. But with Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels jettisoned and replaced in the lineup by Richardson and Isaiah Canaan (who scored 31 points and drilled eight 3s last night), the Sixers have been reinvented as a band of heat-checking perimeter chuckers, averaging 28 long-distance attempts an evening. Philly still isn’t winning games, but it has discovered a different way of losing — and Richardson’s endearing return makes the stretch run of a path to lottery Ping-Pong balls even more entertaining.

Don’t Believe Me? Just Watch

(Video by Jason Gallagher)

The Ocean

Cavaliers James slam dunk against RaptorsAndrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Ryan O’Hanlon: Last night in Toronto, Kevin Love was the Kevin Love Cleveland thought it traded for, scoring 22 points on 10 shots and grabbing 10 rebounds. Lou Williams took that blue pill, magically turning eight shots into 26 points, while Kyrie Irving and Jonas Valanciunas both hit for 26, too, albeit not so efficiently. Filling in for the resting Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez posted 13 assists. And even James Jones scored 14 points!

But you know that thing about how a rising tide lifts all boats? Against the Raptors, LeBron was a rising tide, all right — and he kept rising until all those boats were on fire, because even steel starts to melt once it gets too close to the sun.

With 6:13 remaining in the game, James scored 15 points on five shots, and thanks to two assists, he ended up contributing on 21 of Cleveland’s final 25 points en route to a 120-112 win.

This is still an obvious thing to say: LeBron James is the best basketball player on earth. But nights like last night are a nice reminder. There’s something so elemental in the way he can totally take over a game but still fit right into the flow — or maybe he’s the one flowing, pulling everyone else along. The point still stands. Watch Russell Westbrook rampage downcourt after grabbing a rebound — he’s basically playing football, attacking the basket like it just stole an old woman’s purse. Or look at — cringe at, dry-heave in the direction of — James Harden as he goes out of his way to exploit the sport’s few unintended inefficiencies. But LeBron will rip the backboard off the stanchion and throw it into outer space only if he needs to. There’s an earned but also inherent sense that whatever decision he makes is the exact one the moment was calling for. Whenever LeBron goes on one of these apocalyptic self-made runs, it feels like it was supposed to happen.

That’s cold comfort for a slumping Raptors squad, but you just don’t win when you fight the ocean.

Slow Ride

Chris Ryan: Last night — while the Russening was upon us — Hassan Whiteside put up another stat line that makes you want to shout, “STOP JUST PUTTING NUMBERS RANDOMLY TOGETHER.” Eighteen points, 25 boards, and four blocks. That’s not a stat line, it’s the combination to a lock. Whiteside also won the frigging game with this thunderclap dunk on, well, no one, but still. I mentioned his line to Sharp in passing, and we kind of marveled at how little the national basketball media is marveling at this. Sharp pointed out how no one can bring themselves to watch Heat games because they’re so dull. Miami plays at the NBA’s slowest pace. This will probably change as Goran Dragic speeds things up on South Beach, but for now, Whiteside is putting up huge numbers, on a slow-motion team, in a league where so many of the best players are equipped with booster rockets.

Kawhi Back??!

Are These Really Your Villains?

Brooklyn Nets v Houston RocketsScott Halleran/Getty Images

Andrew Sharp: We’ve been talking all year long about the Rockets as NBA villains, and I’m just not sure it fits anymore.

Look up and down the roster. Terrence Jones and Trevor Ariza are both good and completely harmless. Patrick Beverley is so obnoxious you have to enjoy him, especially since it’s been almost two years since he blew out anyone’s knee. Donatas Motiejunas (D-Mo!) has been sneaky good replacing Dwight Howard, and Josh Smith has been coming off the bench and quietly resurrecting his dignity for almost two months now. Every now and then you even get some Jason Terry.

Without Dwight, I swear, there’s an underdog charm that wasn’t there before. They still take an ungodly number of 3s, but instead of it being a conscious, analytics-backed choice, with this group it feels like their only chance. A team with Jones as its second-best player shouldn’t be competitive in the West, but the Rockets have been winning this way for months. And just to be 100 percent clear: no Dwight. None at all.

Then there’s James Harden. It’s fine if you don’t like him, but a solid 90 percent of his game is spectacular this year. He is Gilbert Arenas 2.0, but with a meaner crossover and even better shooting. He draws lots of fouls, sometimes in shameless ways (the other 10 percent), but that’s true for Kevin Durant, too. It’s true for most great scorers. He’s gotten better on defense, to the point where he’s at least average. The people who still harp on Harden’s D — “THE GAME’S PLAYED ON BOTH SIDES OF THE FLOOR” — sound like college basketball fans yelling about NBA players who don’t try. That myth is dead. Strip away the stereotypes. Harden is a phenomenal passer, one of the two or three best scorers on earth, and easily the most creative.

But …

After a no-call on that play with six seconds left in a tie game, Marc Gasol hit a game winner on the other end. Rockets announcers (and fans … and players … and Kevin McHale) all thought they got screwed. They did!

But I don’t know. Look at how hard he sells that call. He definitely got hit, but then he acts like he got shot. Can you blame the refs for thinking he was bullshitting?

Forget defense — this is the real Harden weakness. It cost him in the playoffs last year, it cost him in crunch time against the Cavs on this surreal play, and it cost him at the end of last night. When things get tight, refs get conservative and Harden’s tactics work against him. Then announcers start whining, and it all makes the Rockets harder to enjoy.

You could also think of last night a different way: Houston and Harden have spent the entire season exploiting NBA inefficiencies and living at the line. In the final 30 seconds, the refs swallowed their whistles and the most physical team in the league found its own inefficiency to exploit. That’s cool with me. I’m learning to like the Rockets, but I will always love these Grizzlies.

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Can KG Just Give Postgame Interviews Forever?

Anthony Davis =

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Jason Gallagher: What a time to be alive. The NBA is a place where 39 points, 13 rebounds, and eight blocks in 42 minutes is an afterthought, thanks to another metaphysical night of basketball. Wow.

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ICYMI, the line in the above paragraph belongs to Anthony Davis, who went full Kanye flamethrower after missing five games because of injury. I’ll be real. When it was announced that the Brow would be sidelined for a while, I thought, Bye, Pels. Good season. Sucks you’re in the West.

NOPE. New Orleans held it down minus the Brow, going 4-1 in his absence, thanks to Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, and the realness of Alexis Ajinca. The Pels have won six out of their last seven games, including last night’s victory over the Pistons.

This has me thinking. Is it possible for New Orleans to sneak in and steal the 8-seed from OKC? Crazy talk. That would involve me putting an ounce of faith into Monty Williams. Also, I just Googled “Is there a unit of measurement less than an ounce?”

New Orleans’s next 10 games include Boston, Denver, Milwaukee (twice), Brooklyn, and Phoenix. Considering that cake schedule, Brow’s return, the recent run of success, and OKC still playing without Durant, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. We could be on the precipice of history: finally witnessing our beloved Anthony Davis in the playoffs.

Which brings me back to my original thought. I don’t want the Brow to make the playoffs. That would mean Westbrook wouldn’t make the playoffs, which cannot happen. This is the current state of the NBA. It’s so good that there isn’t room for both of these maniacs. We’re picking between solid gold apples and solid gold oranges. Buckle up.

Steph Curry Doesn’t Care How Mad Men Ends

Play of the Year (of the Week)

Amos Barshad: After witnessing this live, the Thunder color commentator called it a “set piece.” With all due respect to that guy, to my eyes, it looked more like the re-creation of a particularly violent passage from the Old Testament. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in Philadelphia, and that every intention was only evil continually. And lo, the Lord hardened the heart of Russell Westbrook against the 76ers, as he had against the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Canaanites. And thus did Russell Westbrook deal with the 76ers: He broke down their altars and dashed in pieces their pillars and burned their carved images with fire. And thus, Russell Westbrook dunked all evil out of the Lord’s great garden.”

Assets and Fit

Phoenix Suns v Orlando MagicFernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Brett Koremenos: It’s hard to look at Channing Frye’s numbers in Orlando — a 9.1 PER, 39.2 percent shooting from the field, and a demotion to the bench — and think of him as the sole cause for the Suns’ disappointing follow-up act to last season’s success in Phoenix. Yet it’s ironic in some ways that Brandon Knight was the hero of a Suns-Magic game to which Frye barely contributed, because those two players serve as symbols for the way Phoenix’s front office spent the past eight months reconfiguring its roster.

Team-building in the NBA can basically be broken down into two distinct methods: asset collection and fit, the latter of which is a huge factor when it comes to, you know, actually winning games. While you can certainly argue about the value of his contract, Frye is no doubt a player who “fits” nearly every roster in the league, thanks to his still-proficient — 38.7 percent this year — outside shooting. Even during a disastrous year in his new digs, Frye’s presence has made every member of Orlando’s core trio — Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic — better, even if it’s just by a few percentage points in assist rate or effective field goal percentage.

In a vacuum, Knight is clearly a more productive player. But the question with Knight isn’t his stats, it’s his role — what does he do to help a team win? The failure to ask that question about Frye has had a domino effect. It has essentially cost the Suns Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic and forced them into trading for the now-underutilized (and slightly misused) Brandan Wright.

In effect, instead of trying to retain or obtain players that fit around Phoenix’s core, Suns management went about compiling a fantasy team that looked intriguing on paper but failed to mesh in a real-life game played with personalities, egos, and just one basketball.

That’s why the win over the Magic was only the Suns’ third in the eight games since the trade deadline and only their fourth overall since the calendar turned to February. For a team that was supposed to be surging forward, a series of questionable moves has what was a promising Phoenix squad treading the waves of mediocrity.