With another thrilling conclusion to a championship game in the NCAA Tournament, College Football in full Spring Football mode, the NFL Draft still a few weeks away and MLB teams only a few games into their 162-game season, the attention of the sports world quickly shifts into the tail end of the NBA regular season. The NBA Playoffs are quickly approaching, with the first game beginning this coming weekend. As the regular season wraps up and as teams gear up (or rest their players, a discussion for a different column) for the Playoffs, here are a few of the biggest storylines of the latter part of the season.
1. Russell Westbrook records the most triple-doubles in a single season and averages a triple-double during the regular season
Heading into last Sunday’s matchup against the Denver Nuggets, the electric point guard from the Oklahoma City Thunder tied Oscar Robertson’s single-season record for triple-doubles at 41. Capped by a buzzer-beating, game-winning three-point dagger to end the Denver Nuggets’ playoff hopes last Sunday, Westbrook cemented his place atop the record books with a masterful 50-point, 16-rebound and 10-assist performance to surpass Robertson’s record.
The battle for the MVP has mostly been a two-horse race this season, with Westbrook being the frontrunner and Houston Rockets combo guard James Harden being the other contender. In Harden’s post-game press conference, he shared his sentiments, believing that winning should be the most important determinant in the MVP race.
“I think that’s the most important thing,” Harden said. “I thought winning is what this is about—period. I’m not going to get in-depth with all that, but I thought winning was the most important thing. If you set your team up in a position to have a chance at the ultimate goal. That’s the most important thing.”
While Harden doesn’t want to go in-depth with his argument, let’s delve a little bit into this reasoning. While the Rockets do have a considerable eight-game lead in the win column against the Thunder, it is important to note that fellow superstar Kawhi Leonard has led the post-Tim Duncan era San Antonio Spurs to the second seed in the Western Conference with an eight-game lead over the Rockets but isn’t nearly talked about as a leading MVP candidate.
Furthermore, the Rockets have just as much of a statistical chance to win the championship as the Thunder. It’s not like the Thunder are out of playoff contention. In fact, if the playoffs started last Sunday, the Rockets would be facing the Thunder in the first round. However, let’s not allow Harden’s comments take away from the historic season that Westbrook accomplished.
Let this sink in: as of last Sunday, Westbrook is averaging 31.9 points per game, 10.7 rebounds per game and 10.4 assists per game. He’s doing this while averaging 10 fewer minutes than when Oscar Robertson averaged 30.8/12.5/11.4. Comparing his season’s per-36 stats to any of Kobe Bryant’s seasons, Westbrook tops all of them, without even taking into account his rebounds and assists.
What Westbrook did this past season (stat-padding or not) has been awe-inspiring. To break a 55-year-old record set during an era where triple-doubles were much easier to attain is legendary.
Heading into the season, with the departure of Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors, many were wondering if this Thunder squad would even sniff the playoffs. Westbrook has put this team on his back and has done so in a historic fashion. The Thunder may not win the whole thing, but one has to appreciate the body of work that Westbrook has put together this season.
2. The defending NBA Champions’ underwhelming second half of season
The Cleveland Cavaliers have had a rough go of it in their last 22 games. Starting with their loss to Boston on March 1, the Cavs have lost 12 of their last 22. They currently sit in a lover’s quarrel atop the East with the Celtics. Now, this is concerning for a multitude of reasons. First off, the games the Cavs are losing mainly happen within their own conference. This is especially terrifying because it is common knowledge that the Eastern conference in the NBA has less talent than the West. Along with a good amount of their losses coming from eastern conference teams, it seems as if the Cavaliers are playing down to the level of competition they are competing with. Instead of setting the standard, they’re waiting for other teams to do so and then playing catch-up. They are losing to subpar teams such as the Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons, who have no business beating a powerhouse organization like the Cavaliers. A good amount of their loss can be attributed to inadequate team play, along with an inability to take care of the rock.
Offensively, the Cavaliers are still a force to be reckoned with. Where their woes truly come to play is in the defensive category. Although they have had key players such as Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert miss time over this long stretch, the foundation that helped them put together the greatest comeback in NBA finals history was still there. The King and Uncle Drew need to start searching for a fix to their defensive inconsistencies sooner rather than later. Let’s face it, as much as people say Tyronn Lue is the Cavaliers head coach, he’ll always have Lebron in his ear telling him what they should do. So Lebron, I’ll speak for sports fans everywhere and say please help the team find its defensive identity again!
According to a USA Today article, the holes in the Cavs defensive game are a purposeful tactic. When they spoke to head coach Lue, he told them the plan was to “hold back” until the post-season. Now I get the tactic of resting your starters for playoffs so they have fresh legs. But James, Irving and Love are still all playing 35 plus minutes a game. Who knows, maybe Lue truly does have some elaborate defensive scheme up his sleeve for the playoffs, but if all of your star players are still playing starter minutes, your team should still be winning more than 50 percent of its games, right?
By: Javier Hernandez and Brandon Cruz