SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick breaks down the Pelicans’ shocking sweep of the Trail Blazers and the rest of Saturday’s NBA playoff action.
USA TODAY Sports
The gauntlet has been thrown.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City’s king of basketball and bravado, has hereby vowed to bring Ricky Rubio’s series-changing run to an end and, by proxy, the Utah Jazz team for which he plays.
“He made some shots,” Westbrook told reporters about Rubio, the 27-year-old playing in his first playoffs whose 26-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in Game 3 on Saturday propelled the Jazz to a 2-1 first-round lead. “Too comfortable. But I’m gonna shut that (expletive) off next game though. Guarantee that.”
With Game 4 looming on Monday in Salt Lake City, time will tell if Westbrook can make good on his promise. There’s a lot at stake here, as star Paul George would surely have to re-think the prospect of re-signing in Oklahoma City as a free agent in July if the Thunder can’t even reach the second round.
But when it comes to Rubio’s ability to be such an X-factor in Game 3, this much is clear: Westbrook was more to blame than anyone. The reigning league MVP, who is on track to have the worst postseason performance of his career, was the primary defender on Rubio for five of his nine makes.
Yet there’s a bigger problem here for the Thunder that might lead to their early postseason doom, one that can’t be solved with a coaching adjustment or a lineup change. The absence of Andre Roberson.
The 26-year-old Thunder guard may not be a household name, but he’s as good a perimeter defender as there is in the NBA. And when he went down with a season-ending knee injury back on Jan. 27, it changed everything for Westbrook & Co. This series, it’s fair to say, is simply more of the same on this front.
With late-season addition Corey Brewer filling Roberson’s spot, the Thunder’s defensive rating through three games (109) is much worse than the three months they had with Roberson (103.1). And the Jazz, make no mistake, are winning the battle of the backcourt. Consider the evidence…
- This series: 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, eight assists per game
- Regular season: 13.1 points, 5.3 assists, 4.6 rebounds
Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell
- This series: 25.7 points, nine rebounds, 2.3 assists
- Regular season: 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists
- This series: 20.7 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists
- Regular season: 25.4 points, 10.3 assists, 10.1 rebounds
- This series: Nine points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists
- Regular season: 10.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists in 18 games
You know you’re an elite team when one playoff loss is enough to sound the alarm internally.
So when Houston had its series lead trimmed to 2-1 against Minnesota in its 121-105 loss in Game 3 on Saturday, it came as no surprise that coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t afraid to speak his truth afterward.
“I’d say (the past) couple months we haven’t played really well,” D’Antoni, whose team had the league’s best record (65-17) in the regular season, told reporters Sunday in advance of Game 4 on Monday. “That’s why I was worried the whole time about resting guys (before the playoffs), doing this, getting out of rhythm. (People say), ‘It doesn’t really mean a whole lot.’ Ehhhh, it does. …Anyway, we are where we are. We’ll be fine. We’ll be OK.”
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That last part is likely true, but it has been puzzling to see the Rockets play so inconsistently when it matters most. James Harden was the Game 1 hero (44 points in the Houston win), but has cooled off since (2-of-18 shooting in Game 2; 9-of-21 in Game 3) while being guarded mostly by Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague. His fellow co-star, Chris Paul, struggled in Game 1, broke out in Game 2, then had a modest outing in Game 3 (17 points, six assists, a minus-five rating).
“We’ve kind of like traded off, right?” Harden told reporters. “We’ve just got to get a rhythm. It’s not necessarily just me and Chris. We’re good enough to get enough to get our shot going and get our rhythm going at any point in any game.
“We’ve just got to make sure we’re rallying everybody else around us and making sure that they’re in good spirits and always confident in their shot. … So we’re good. We’re real good.”
Judging by the numbers, D’Antoni’s concerns may be well-founded.
After the Rockets clinched the top seed in the Western Conference on March 29, they went just 4-3 with an offensive rating that took a dip near the end (113.1 before they clinched compared to 102.3 after). Meanwhile, there’s even more proof now that the Rockets aren’t the same team defensively without forward Luc Mbah a Moute (shoulder injury; no clear timetable for return). Between the regular season and playoffs, Houston is just 15-9 in games played without him.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick