Found March 25, 2013 on Fox Sports North:
If basketball can have a seismic event, then one certainly happened on October 27, when at the most unlikely of hours on a Saturday night, Oklahoma City traded James Harden to Houston. At the time, it seemed like the biggest threat to the power structure in the Western Conference, with the Thunder dealing their prized sixth man to the Rockets for Kevin Martin and change. Oklahoma City would be worse was the drumbeat of many a talking head, and as they headed into the season with no time for their new roster to gel, it seemed to be at least grounded in some modicum of logic. But quickly, the notion that the Thunder were any worse abated, as Kevin Durant continued to be Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook continued to be Russell Westbrook, and both 24-year-olds got a year older and a bit better. By Jan. 1, the Thunder were 24-6, with the fewest losses of any team in the NBA. They looked like the best. Maybe they were the best. Maybe then. But maybe not now. As of Sunday, the Thunder have a 3-7 record against the Spurs, Grizzlies and Nuggets -- although they have beaten the Clippers three times. But that kind of record against three of the four teams in which Oklahoma City is in the most direct competition doesn't bode well for a team that might have lost its edge, and it's reasonable to start questioning the assumption that Scott Brooks' team is the best in the West. The Spurs may be old, but they have a better record. They may have seen some early playoff exits of late, but does that make them worse than OKC? Perhaps not. And when it comes to the Clippers, Nuggets and Grizzlies, they're hungry. They're all relatively new to this kind of winning, and though none may overtake the Thunder in the standings, that's not to say that they don't pose major threats. Just because the seedings don't change between now and April 17 -- and they still might -- doesn't mean that things might not be changing dramatically in the West. Maybe it's because the Thunder are worse. Or maybe it's because these other teams are better. The Clippers and Grizzlies have assembled impressive rosters, as have the Nuggets in a very different sense. There have been a few years for all three of those teams to build toward what they are, and San Antonio is simply status quo, humming as always. But with those tiny, almost imperceptible shifts -- whether it's Oklahoma City faltering or others getting better -- a whole landscape can change. The Thunder have an incredibly easy schedule to round out the season. They play just one team currently in the playoff picture in the West, San Antonio, and so they may breeze through the rest of the year. It may stay Spurs, Thunder, Nuggets, Clippers, Grizzlies, in that order, to round out the season -- but if Oklahoma City is coasting through easy wins and the rest of their competition is still chugging along with double-digit winning streaks and tough games, that signals that the West may be close to wide open at the top. Because I can't go a whole column without mentioning the Lakers First of all: I would have paid big money to be in the room for Mike D'Antoni's postgame press conference on Friday. The Lakers have lost two straight, to Phoenix and Washington, no less, and after blowing a game to the Wizards, the coach had had enough. (Some of his quotes from said press conference appear further down in the column.) Here's the deal: I get why D'Antoni would be upset. His team played uninspired basketball despite being chock full of superstar athletes. But that was nothing new, and I find it hard to believe that a few weeks of success erased all memories of the previous three months of high drama. Or maybe that's why D'Antoni went off, because he does remember. Who knows. But I suppose my question is one of how surprised D'Antoni could have been, and what exactly his motivations were for throwing his entire team under the bus. Is that the only way to impart desperation? Maybe he should have left the motivating for Kobe. Call me crazy, but it seems like the last thing the Lakers need right now is any more volatility, and that's what his words surely bred. It certainly sounded like this is not a team he's enjoying coaching, that he wants no part of it. Maybe that's all there is to say at this point, but when the train wreck to which D'Antoni was referring is right in the thick of the playoff race -- albeit at the bottom of the West rather than the top -- you have to think that things might look up for the man who inherited the mess, and that maybe he should not make his entire team want to kill him in the meantime. Trending up The Nuggets, whose 15 game streak might not be as long as the Heat's, but it's almost equally as impressive. This was a team that underperformed to open the season, its struggles ushering criticism of its attempt to win without a star -- and now look where Denver stands. It's third in the West, with just three fewer wins than the Thunder, and the team that's so much better at home is looking like a lock for home court advantage to open the playoffs. Trending down The Lakers' starting lineup, which became intact once again on Friday night when Pau Gasol returned from his torn plantar fascia. Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Gasol, Metta World Peace and Steve Nash all started for the first time since Jan. 20, and the Lakers lost a close game to the Wizards, 103-100. That pushed the team's record when its intended starting five actually starts to 0-6. May I now remind you that World Peace predicted in September that the team, with that starting lineup, would win 73 games this year? Best of the week Team: The Heat, who have now won 26 games in a row and have gotten to the point where it's more fun to play terribly for a few quarters and then come back to win, just to spice things up. Player: Kenyon Martin, who's been starting for the Knicks since March 14 due to their onslaught of injuries. (The Knicks signed Martin to two 10-day contracts and then for the rest of the season, so the fact that he's starting is in and of itself no small feat.) In his fill-in role, though Martin has been downright decent, if not excellent in his past two games. On the week, he's averaging 14.3 points on a remarkable 75.8 percent shooting mark. Arena deal: Okay, okay. I know it's the only arena deal of the week, but the Kings' getting a public-private partnership with the Burkle-Mastrov-Ranadive group to put forth an arena deal in Sacramento has to go in the "best" section. Honestly, I don't have particularly strong feelings as to where the Kings end up -- as long as they no longer live in an arena named after a mattress -- but it's a good thing that Sacramento is fighting for its team, even if that's all this amounts to. Worst of the week Team: The Pistons, who before Saturday had lost their last 10 games. Even then, when they beat the league-worst Bobcats, it was only by a point, and after a losing streak marked more for blowout losses than bad-luck, close ones, such a win is hardly as heartening as it could be. Player: Toronto's John Lucas, who managed to go an impressive 0-of-15 from 3-point range in three games this week. The typically-good long-range shooter attempted just four shots that were not 3-pointers on the week, begging the question: When do you just give up for a bit and try again the next game? Game: Heat-Cavs on Wednesday, when LeBron and company decided to maniacally toy with everyone's hearts. How can you not cheer a little bit for Cleveland in that position, especially after they took that massive lead and looked like they might pull off the miracle win? You have to cheer for miracles, after all, especially when they involve LeBron and all those shattered hearts in Ohio. And so the Heat let everyone believe that their streak might end in the most poetic of fashions before . . . nah, never mind, they decided to extinguish said belief and ensure that anyone in Cleveland who wasn't already depressed about his or her basketball team finally was. Telling stats 3:45 remaining, third quarter: On Wednesday, the Heat's Mario Chalmers scored his 10th point of the night, becoming the first Miami player in double-digits in the team's comeback win in Cleveland. Miami overcame a 27-point deficit to win their 24th consecutive game; in the past 15 years, teams down by 27-plus points in the second half have had a 5-2,013 record. 6 points, 9.2 seconds: The Nuggets were down, 100-95, to the 76ers on Thursday night before going on a 6-0 run to win the game and extend its winning streak to 14 games. Corey Brewer was responsible for all six of Denver's final points by way of a 3-point jumper and three free throws. 1956: That was the last time a pro team in Brooklyn clinched a playoff spot, 57 years ago. The Nets clinched a berth on Thursday. What we heard "I don't live in a phone booth. Of course, I've seen what they're doing. Pretty incredible." Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on Tuesday, according to a tweet from the San Antonio Express-News, when asked if he'd noticed the Heat's winning streak. "We put our hands in (the huddle), and . . . we say, 'Championship,' and go out (on the floor). That's laughable. Championship? You got to be kidding me. Nobody understands the importance of every possession offensively and defensively. . . . They got to come out with some kind of determination to be a good basketball team, and (until) then, we're just, we're fooling ourselves. Right now, that's what we're doing. We're just making a sham-mockery out of it." Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, absolutely blasting his team after its 103-100 loss to the Wizards Friday night. His team blew an 18-point lead, and D'Antoni went on to say that he thinks that every time it gets up big, it gets complacent, and players can't understand that they don't have room in the standings to do so. What's ahead Nuggets at Spurs, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET: Before Wednesday, the Nuggets play only the Hornets, and so the Spurs look like the next opponent with a chance to end Denver's streak. San Antonio has lost just four games at home all season -- only Denver and Miami have fewer home losses, each with three -- so it'll be a tough task, but if anyone can steal a win at the AT&T Center right now, it's the Nuggets. Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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