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With or Without Kevin Durant, the Warriors Are the Best Team in the NBA

Golden State spots San Antonio 20 points, Russell Westbrook goes off again, Giannis is taller than Isaiah, and more from a Wednesday night amid the home stretch

(AP Photos)
(AP Photos)

Welcome to the NBA Shootaround, the Ringer staff’s weekly run through the league, told in riffs and GIFs.

The Worst Lead in Basketball

Katie Baker: When the Warriors and the Spurs played one another a few weeks back, each team making the mutually assured decision to rest practically all of their players, the game was so chock full of understudies that it felt like the Tuesday matinee of a Broadway show. (Ian Clark led all scorers that night.) This time around, though, the supposedly star-studded matchup between the NBA’s top two teams looked a whole lot more like it was supposed to. Kawhi Leonard led San Antonio in scoring with 19 points, while Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 52 for the Warriors, who battled back from a significant first-quarter deficit for a rare win in San Antonio, 110–98.

There’s a trope in low-scoring sports like hockey and soccer that a two-goal lead is the most dangerous one. It’s the kind of old WAGs tale that likely doesn’t hold up to peer-reviewed scrutiny, yet looms large whenever your team is the one trying wildly and in vain to hold on to a lead. The basketball equivalent of this might be this sort of 20-plus-point-early-first-half-lead, which has a way of somehow feeling almost equally ominous for both teams involved. After they jumped out to a 22-point lead in the first quarter, the Spurs tweeting that “we can’t post the highlights as quickly as they’re happening” probably tempted fate just a tad.

The Spurs bounded out in front of a Warriors squad playing the second half of a Texas back-to-back against Houston and San Antonio, and it was easy to start wondering if Golden State had lost its touch, or if the absence of Kevin Durant was finally taking its toll. (Earlier in the day, the Warriors announced that Durant will be evaluated in a week or so, and might be back before the playoffs.) At the same time, there was another feeling that never quite went away: the one that figured the Warriors would obviously make it close at some point, because — up-3–1 jokes aside — that’s just how they do.

And it’s how they did, thanks to second-quarter work by Andre Iguodala to keep Golden State in the game; timely and sweet shooting by Curry in the third; a solid effort on both ends of the court from Thompson, particularly in the fourth quarter (at one point, the ESPN team observed that he seemed more psyched over a defensive stop than he ever does when he coolly drains a 3); and a productive 22 minutes for David West, who contributed 15 points, four rebounds, five assists, and two blocks — presumably because he and his teammates were so institutionally aggrieved over the rude lack of tribute video during his return to San Antonio.

Russell Westbrook’s Dog Keeps Eating His Homework

Michael Baumann: When I was a kid, my dad would get mad at me when I put off schoolwork until the last minute, but no matter how much he got on me for procrastinating or not studying, it never really caught on with me, so I never learned. Although he nearly hit 60 points on Wednesday, Russell Westbrook is helping me understand the way my parents must’ve processed this — hope your children fail in the short term so they learn a lesson and are better off later.

The Thunder should’ve lost to the Magic by double digits. They trailed by 21 points in the third quarter. They let Bismack Biyombo score 12 first-half points. It looked like Orlando would have its revenge on Billy Donovan for taking its head-coaching job, then realizing (quite reasonably) that he didn’t want to live in Orlando. There’s no better place for chickens to come home to roost, after all, than a building named after Amway.

Then Nik Vucevic stopped offering even token resistance in the lane, Elfrid Payton started bricking free throws, and Evan Fournier, who had scored at will through the third quarter, went oh-fer in the fourth. The Thunder got close enough for Westbrook to tie the game on a contested 31-footer with seven seconds left. Once the game headed for overtime, Westbrook was able, despite the Thunder’s rocky first three quarters, to fulfill the only objective that mattered: complete his triple-double — er, I mean, lead OKC to victory and clinch a playoff spot.

The nominally hostile crowd in Orlando was raining down “MVP!” chants by the end of the Thunder’s 114–106 victory. If Westbrook keeps ending up with 57 points on 40 field goal attempts and keeps winning squeakers against the Magic, he’s going to keep putting off his homework.

What’s That? I Can’t Hear You up Here

The Bucks (Literally) Keep Coming up Big

Haley O’Shaughnessy: On Wednesday, each member of the Bucks starting lineup had at least two inches on his Celtics counterpart. It was a fitting representation of the two teams: One is led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose ballhandling skills are considered remarkable due to his height, and the other by Isaiah Thomas, whose ability to contend is outstanding despite his.

Both teams traffic in mismatches, but the opposing personnel tends to dictate whether Milwaukee’s size or Boston’s lack of it is an advantage or a disadvantage. Late in the first quarter, though, there was no confusion about who had the upper hand. Giannis and Isaiah matched up for a jump ball, and the Bucks All-Star’s 14-inch advantage suggested the same win probability as — you know what, never mind. Unfortunately, we never really got to witness the greatest jump ball of the year, as Thomas pleaded self-defense and left the courtroom before it was even called to order.

Thomas was his usual competitive self the rest of the contest, and his fourth-quarter scoring from everywhere (first from 3, then the line, then from driving inside) kept Boston’s deficit to one possession. Despite rough shooting from the Celtics throughout — starting 1-for-5 from the field and ending about the same en route to a 32.4 percent night from behind the arc — they were still only down three, 103–100, with three seconds on the clock and with the ball in their hands. Their last chance, a wafty 3-point attempt from Marcus Smart, fell short and dropped them back to even with Cleveland in the race for the East’s 1-seed.

Meanwhile, the Bucks (and especially Khris Middleton, who finished with 19 points, six boards, and five assists) sent out a two-fold warning to the Celtics: Watch out for this matchup in the playoffs, and should it come, avoid jump balls.

When Losing Is Winning

Danny Chau: My favorite thing about the last couple of weeks of every season is seeing just how far a coach is willing to lean into the absurdity of a losing situation. Entering their game against the Utah Jazz, the Kings were riding a two-game winning streak, with victories over the Clippers and Grizzlies. Two nights after an emotionally satisfying final-second win for former Memphis coach Dave Joerger against the Grizz, Joerger’s lineup choices essentially let the world know that the Kings were about to get winning out of their system. He was going to throw his young guys in the fire and let the vets sit. It was a wise decision on all fronts — winning tastes good, but not as good as losing a valuable draft pick tastes bad. The Kings’s 2017 first-rounder is somehow caught in a rear-naked choke by two different teams, and surrendering is the only way to maintain their dignity.

So, Sacramento relied on unreliable players, and ended up losing Wednesday to the Jazz 112–82. This might not be saying much, but let’s give the Kings credit: The game felt much closer than a 30-point loss would suggest. The Kings trailed by as much as 24 in the first half, but climbed back to within two points largely thanks to the play of Ben McLemore, who dropped 17 points on 8-for-9 shooting in the first half. “That’s Wilt Chamberlain kind of stuff,” Kings announcer Jerry Reynolds said of McLemore’s efficiency, without a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

In the end, basic math did the Kings in; the Jazz had a 33-point advantage on 3-pointers alone. But it was mission accomplished for Joerger: Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein flashed their midrange games, and large infant Georgios Papagiannis showed off some nifty footwork in the post, and soft touch on a floater. Papagiannis finished with a game-low minus-33.

Now for a Live Look Inside the Pacers Locker Room …

Ryan O’Hanlon: Oh no. OH GOD NO.

After reportedly signing franchise favorite Lance Stephenson to a three-year deal earlier Wednesday, the Pacers celebrated the return of Born Ready by … getting shot into outer space by a trebuchet. The antiquated structure of Grit ’n’ Grind shouldn’t be capable of things like this, but: Memphis scored 72 points in the first half, ended with 110, and beat Indiana by 13. A day after putting his team on blast …

… Paul George got stuffed into a Vitamix by Tony Allen:

On top of that, the Pacers turned Mike Conley and Vince Carter into Steph and Klay, as they combined for an 11-for-18 night behind the arc. With wins by the Heat, Bucks, and Hawks, four losses in five games have dropped Nate McMillan and Co. down to eighth in the East, just one game up on the Bulls in the loss column. Rik Smits didn’t shave his head for this.

The Dinosaurs Wouldn’t Have Survived the Ice Age

Three Is More Than Two — but Why?

Paolo Uggetti: The triangle offense, the 3-point shot, and rest. The playoff field may be all but set, but in the NBA, there’s never a shortage of topics to debate. On Wednesday night, Hubie Brown took a shot at all three — and he wasn’t even working.

During Wednesday night’s game between the Heat and the Knicks, the MSG broadcast brought on the current ESPN color commentator and former Knicks head coach for a long interview. Brown was at the game as part of the 1983–84 Knicks team that was being celebrated. It’s the 70th anniversary of the franchise’s inception, so the Knicks are bringing back all the historic teams to the same place where all but two of them failed to win an NBA title: Madison Square Garden.

After being honored at center court, Brown joined Kenny Albert and Walt Clyde Frazier. In between calling Phil Jackson’s triangle offense “questionable” and the league’s rest problem “embarrassing,” Brown offered his thoughts about a certain painted arc: “To me, the 3-point line ruined the game of basketball,” Brown said. “We’re from the old school of IQ and set plays, and the beauty of the game. And you couldn’t play the game if you had a low basketball IQ.”

While you might not long for the days when games were filled with slow-developing, half-court sets that would make James Naismith salivate, maybe one of these guys does.

The Heat, on the second night of a back-to-back following a game they won on a buzzer-beating tip from Hassan Whiteside, rode a 48 percent shooting night from behind the arc and 48 points from their bench to beat the Knicks 105–88. Both teams took 25 3s on the night. The Knicks made just five.

Carmelo Anthony’s only made shot from beyond the arc cut the Heat’s eight-point halftime lead to five in the first minute of the third quarter. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the team hit only one more 3 the rest of the night, as the Heat pulled away, totaling 12 makes from downtown for the game.

Led by Goran Dragic’s 20 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds, as well as 18 points from James Johnson, one of the team’s hidden figures, the Heat jumped over the Pacers and into the 7-seed. With only seven games remaining, Miami is 1.5 games clear of missing the playoffs. In all but one of the nine games the Heat have won during March, they have shot above 30 percent from 3.

After a 13-game winning streak over the first two months of the calendar year put the Heat back in contention, Miami’s March resurgence and playoff hopes have been powered by the arc. Sorry, Hubie.

It’s 2011 All Over Again

O’Hanlon: We told you that Atlanta’s pending craterization wasn’t his fault, and Wednesday night Dwight Howard ground Philadelphia into dust.

Against the wet piece of clay that is the Sixers sans Robert Covington and Joel Embiid, the rebound-to-win gambit was enough for a 99–92 victory. In a game that never vibrated above “SAT bathroom break” levels of intensity, Howard finished with 22 points, 20 rebounds, and four assists while hitting six of his seven free throws for a change. It was Howard’s third 20–20 game of the season and the 48th of his career. His post game resembles a child navigating his way through a dark bedroom, and while the rest of league has zoomed toward hyperspeed, Howard has insisted on slowing things down. But he’s still 6-foot-11, and he can still move his feet like someone a couple of inches shorter.

The Sixers aren’t good, and the Hawks might not be, either. Yet, while the phrase “one team had Dwight Howard, and the other didn’t” lacks the same game-deciding power it used to possess, when it’s used for a game against a 47-loss team, basketball can still be that simple.