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Deadline Day proves NBA title race is down to three

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The return of Russell Westbrook, power of LeBron James and trade of Evan Turner highlighted Thursday.

Russell Westbrook is the Lawrence Taylor of point guards. He plays with an overwhelming ferocity that none of his rivals can match when he and the Thunder are synced at full speed. And this is why, at the end of the day, Thursday's trade deadline mattered in full: Because it was on deadline day that Westbrook returned to Oklahoma City.

The trade deadline has become one of the most exaggerated events on the NBA calendar. Weeks of speculation once again amounted to very little of substance. No stars were moved for a second straight year. Expiring contracts aren't so valuable anymore under this new collective bargaining agreement, which has forced most teams (excluding those in New York) to exert fiscal discipline in advance of the trade deadline.

This is why all of the rumor-mongering -- some of it drummed up by teams hoping to create a phony market for their own players -- was trumped hours later by the potential NBA Finals preview of Miami at Oklahoma City, and the latest comeback of Westbrook.

Three teams stand alone atop the NBA. Two of them met on national TV on Thursday, and their rival, Indiana, made the most important trade of the day. Everything else Thursday that did not involve the Pacers, Heat or Thunder didn't seem to matter much.

GOLLIVER: Winners, losers from NBA's trade deadline

Each of the three co-favorites was able to look back on Deadline Day with confidence that they had advanced their hopes for winning the Finals in June:

Pacers

Indiana continues to put more pressure on Miami. Ever since Larry Bird's return to their presidency last summer, the Pacers have been deepening and extending their bench. Bird added 6-foot-9 power forward Luis Scola in July, 7-footer Andrew Bynum three weeks ago and on Thursday he traded Danny Granger's expiring contract for 6-7 swingman Evan Turner and 6-9 big man Lavoy Allen. Consider the depth of the rotation that the Pacers will potentially bring into the conference finals:

C -- Roy Hibbert, Bynum, Ian Mahinmi

PF -- David West, Luis Scola, Lavoy Allen

SF -- Paul George, Chris Copeland, Rasual Butler

SG -- Lance Stephenson, Evan Turner

PG -- George Hill, CJ Watson

Mahinmi played a meaningful role off the bench for the Mavericks in their 2011 Finals victory over Miami. Turner and Allen both played big minutes in Philadelphia's seven-game conference semifinal against Boston two years ago. Copeland and Butler can come off the bench to make threes as needed.

The strategy couldn't be more obvious: Miami has two of the NBA's most accomplished winners in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but Indiana plans to suffocate them with layers of talent gathered around George, Hibbert and West.

The arrival of Turner is an investment in winning the championship this year and in extending the Pacers' hopes for years to come. If Stephenson proves to be too expensive as an unrestricted free agent this summer, then the Pacers can fill his spot by re-signing Turner, a restricted free agent. Bird will have his choice of retaining the most cost-effective player between Stephenson and Turner.

In the meantime he added two more young hungry players to attack Miami's older, shorter rotation off the bench. "Brilliant," was how a rival GM characterized Bird's latest coup Thursday.

The Heat

LeBron is back. That is, if a four-time MVP who is averaging 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists (while shooting 57.7 percent overall) could ever be away.

And yet James looked like the younger, hungrier star in his latest rematch with Kevin Durant, who appears to have been handed -- prematurely -- the MVP award based on his torrid month without Westbrook. The Heat didn't appear to be discouraged by the improvements made by Miami or by the addition of Westbrook to a team that already had the league's best record; in fact, just the opposite. James looked eager to re-assert himself, like Muhammad Ali at the end of his rope-a-dope against George Foreman.

MAHONEY: Heat dominate Thunder with complete effort

The Heat made 14 of 15 shots to open the game Thursday as James (16 first-quarter points among his 33 points overall on 22 shots) came out of his corner swinging. He made all 11 of his shots in the paint (a personal record) while repeatedly exploiting his strength to back Durant into the post. Dwyane Wade (24 points and 10 assists) and Chris Bosh (24 points on nine shots with eight rebounds and 11 free throws) were swept up by his energy. When James was sidelined by a bloodied nose with 5:50 remaining, Miami's offense stuttered -- further proof of his influence.

"The MVP (race) is long, long from over," said Wade.

With Thursday's 103-81 clobbering of the Thunder, the Heat were sending their own message: That James at his best, in the company of a rested Wade and Bosh (who remains the best No. 3 option in the league), creates the most hellacious mismatches in the league. The Heat have won six of seven this month, they went 5-1 on this trip through the West, their record of 39-14 is identical to the starts of their last two championship seasons, and they're merely 1.5 games behind Indiana in the race for homecourt in the East -- and 2.5 games back of Oklahoma City for the No. 1 seed overall.

As old and small and indifferent as they've looked at times this season, the Heat have now split their last two games each against the Pacers and the Thunder.

On Thursday they made a trade of their own by unloading Roger Mason to create a roster spot. His place could be filled by a number of buyout candidates, such as Earl Clark, Glen Davis or, most ironically, Granger.

First it was Ray Allen walking out on Boston two years ago; now Granger could wind up being exiled from Indiana to sign with Miami. The plot grows more delicious.

The Thunder

Westbrook returns. This was the most promising move of all, and it mattered not at all that the debut of their point guard coincided with a 22-point loss at home.

"I'd expect us to delve into it and to find a way to actually improve from this adversity," Thunder GM Sam Presti had been saying in December, when he announced that Westbrook had undergone a third knee surgery in eight months.

That expectation came true. Instead of suffering without their second-best player, the Thunder improved across the board. Bigger roles made better players of everyone from Serge Ibaka to Reggie Jackson to Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and Steven Adams. Now Jackson at 23 returns to his natural role as sixth man, after two difficult but helpful exposures as a starting point guard -- in the playoffs last year and again this season, when Jackson was more effective while helping the Thunder go 22-8 without Westbrook.

Dollinger: Reaction to the NBA trade deadline
Sports Illustrated's Matt Dollinger discusses the biggest moves at the NBA trade deadline and how they will impact the rest of the season.

There will be talk that Westbrook's return will set back his hot team. How could that be? The Thunder are 21-5 overall with Westbrook this year. They won 60 games with him last year and have made the conference finals the last two times he's been available. It wasn't as if they were taking on a new style without him in the last month: They continued to win with their top-five defense, while Durant raised his game to a new level by playing more efficiently. Their style and attacking mentality remained altogether the same, and now, with Westbrook's recovery, they're adding one of the most aggressive players in the league.

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Westbrook isn't necessarily the best point guard in the NBA, because the way he plays defies the laws of his position in the same way that Lawrence Taylor transcended the normal positions in the NFL. Westbrook attacks without relent or shame. Mistakes will happen -- turnovers and technical fouls and too many shots at times -- but the good of Westbrook obliterates the bad.

How many NBA stars coming off three knee surgeries would rush back without practice to debut against the champion Heat? Westbrook had hardly practiced. He was returning to a contender that had won 14 of its last 16 without him, he knew that his critics were going to be watching closely on national TV for any sign of cooling off his team -- and he didn't care about any of that.

He couldn't wait to get back with his teammates. He wanted to play against the best.

Look at it this way: Could Durant have kept up his pace of the last month for the rest of the season without Westbrook? If his numbers happen to decline slightly over the weeks ahead, then it won't be viewed as his fault. The blame will fall upon Westbrook -- and Westbrook will not care. He is one of those rare stars who absorbs pressures that liberate his teammates and enable them to thrive. The criticism always falls on Westbrook, and he can handle it. Other stars may say they don't worry about public opinion, but Westbrook is one of the very few who is sincere about it.

Westbrook went 4 of 12 for 16 points with four turnovers in 24 minutes in the loss to Miami. He will be on a minutes restriction over the days to come, and all of this is incidental to the bigger picture. The best team in the league added a blitzing linebacker in a point guard's body at the deadline, without giving up anything in trade, and knowing full well that he will make their great team greater.

Based on the events of Thursday, the last month of the postseason is going to be tremendous.

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Isaiah Thomas is one of five players averaging at least 20 points and six assists per game this season.

The 5-9 point guard is averaging career highs of 20.3 points and 6.3 assists in his third year with the Kings. Thomas, 25, was inserted into the starting lineup in December.

1. He grew up near Tacoma, south of Seattle. "I played football until ninth grade, I just got tired of getting hit so much. I played running back. That was my first love, football. But then basketball just became more fun and I fell in love with that. I was better at that than football.

"Football helped me take hits from the big guys in the NBA, guys that are strong, guys that are a lot bigger than me. It's helped me with body control, with my strength, with things like that. It has taken me a long way."

Thomas wondered how tall he would be. "I always used to ask my parents. I didn't think I would be tall. People would always ask me how I do it: I was always the shortest guy, there's nothing wrong with that, I just got to make adjustments. I had so many people telling me I wasn't going to make it. People would tell me I was too small, but I had my mind made up already."

Most of his heroes were smaller players. "Damon Stoudamire, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, the little guys, and my dad telling me stories about Isiah Thomas back in the day. Those guys I really look up to, especially Damon Stoudamire."

2. He was named after Pistons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, based on a bet his father lost with a friend. "First off, everybody thinks he's my dad. I don't think it's been a bad thing, I've embraced it. I like it. He's a mentor of mine these days, I talked to him the other day. He's somebody I look up to, he helps me with on the court things and off the court things.

"I met him, I think it was my freshman year of college. He actually introduced himself to my mother at one of my games at L.A. I got in contact with him, and he texts every now and then. He's a mentor of mine now. He'll call me, I'll call him. The last couple of years we've worked out together."

As little men in a big man's game, the two Thomases are fighters. "Oh, no doubt. You have to show that there's no back down in you, no matter who you're going against. If that opponent sees you're a little timid, you're backing down, they're going to try to take advantage of you. Every time I step onto the court, I try to be the guy who makes the first punch."

3. Jason Terry, a fellow Seattle native, was another NBA star who looked out for Thomas. Terry was traded by the Nets to Sacramento on Thursday. "I've known him since I was, I think it was second grade. His dad coached me from third grade to eighth grade in AAU Basketball. He was in college, he's been a mentor of mine since. His younger brother Curtis Terry, I used to be at his house every day in the summer -- every day we was playing on the basketball hoop at Jason's house. When I got older Jason took me under his wing. Every summer, high school, college, I would go to Dallas and work out with him. He helped me to this day; he actually texted me before last game. I can't thank him enough."

After three years at Washington -- the last two as All-Pac 10 -- he was the last player chosen in the 2011 draft, No. 60 overall by Sacramento. "Longest day of my life. It was the toughest day of my life too, until I got my name called. People always ask, were you mad? I was upset because I felt I outplayed a lot of guys that were ahead of me. At the same time, I told myself I was never given anything. All I wanted was a chance, and having my name called in the draft, whether it was the first pick or the last pick, all I asked for was a chance, and I got a chance to show my skills.

"I'm past it. Guys always say 'Mr. Irrelevant,' guys always talk about the 60th pick. It's not rude to me anymore. The first year was kind of cool, becoming a starter and being against the odds. I tell people once the draft was over, nobody was No. 1, nobody was 60. I felt like everybody was the same player.

"I want to be an All-Star. When given the opportunity, I feel like I'm one of the top point guards in the NBA. With that being said, I got to win. Winning cures everything, that's what I tell people. I feel like if you win, you'll get more shine individually. That's my next step. I'm trying to take this team to the next level, and get into the conversation of one of the best point guards."

Quote of the week

"Like, 'Wow, Dad, you know what, I don't know you, I have no idea who you are, but because of you is part of the reason who I am today."' -- LeBron James

"The fuel that I use -- you not being there -- it's part of the reason I grew up to become who I am," James went on in his interview with GQ.com. "It's part of the reason why I want to be hands-on with my endeavors. And be able to put my guys that's with me now in position. Like Maverick Carter, my right-hand guy in my business. Rich Paul, my agent. Randy Mims, my friend -- he's my manager, you know. So me in a position allowing people around me to grow, that maybe wouldn't have happened if I had two parents, two sisters, a dog, and a picket fence, you know?"

On Instagram James went a step further: "Because of you Pops! Thanks all along. Could have said 'Why me?' with [you] not being there but look what I made of myself."

It has happened with every young star coming into the league, from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to Isiah Thomas to Michael Jordan to Shaquille O'Neal to Kobe Bryant. They have little to express when they start out. In the beginning it's all about the video and the highlights, and then as they mature in public, they grow in depth. The same thing is happening right now with Kevin Durant. They become fascinating not only for what they do but also for how they make sense of their own lives. Always, without fail, there turns out to be more to them as people than the two-dimensional roles they play in basketball games on television.

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The Knicks (21-33) have too many problems for one deadline move to solve their many issues.

The Breakdown

An NBA advance scout on deadline trades made with two short months remaining in the regular season:

"The first thing is a lot of these deals have nothing to do with basketball. A lot of them are contracts being moved and trying to get under the tax for whatever period of time so they're not a repeater or they're not paying the tax until they're ready to pay it.

"There's only a few teams that think they've got a legitimate shot at winning the championship. And the rest of them are trying to stockpile assets until they think they can get lucky. Then there are teams that make some peripheral moves here and there where they take one guy who isn't a good locker room guy and they're trading it for somebody else that isn't a good locker room guy. I just don't see any trades that are going to change a team's fortune, unless you think changing a team's fortune is the same thing as setting up their cap space.

"For the coaches to try to plug a new guy into a team, that varies so much depending on the team. If the Knicks bring a guy in, is he going to change that team? No. Of course not. They're pretty well dominated by Carmelo (Anthony) and Tyson Chandler. I don't think anything changes that team by making the kinds of trades they've been talking about. The new player could help them, but it isn't going to change them. They have to know that, and I wonder if all they're trying to do is show Carmelo that we're trying to do everything we can to get better. But if the new guy doesn't change their team, then how is that going to change the chances of him leaving as a free agent this summer?

"I don't think it's that difficult to integrate a guy into a new team. There's enough movement around the league with coaches and players coming and going that everybody's familiar with everybody else now. If you don't know a player, then you know someone who does know him. You call up that other coach and ask about him. That's all part of the background checks you do before you make a trade, and that helps you understand what you're getting and what you need to do to make it work.

"Whether you trade for a certain player depends on the makeup of your own team. Do you play around a scorer in the low post with spacing on the perimeter? Or are you more of a pick and roll team in the halfcourt? Do you need players who have to be able to get up and down the floor? Then there are some teams that are very specific defensive-minded teams, and that would be a factor in deciding who you're looking to trade for. And that's part of the background check, where you look at where a player has been and if he played for a coach two or three years ago that would speak highly of that player's ability to grasp defensive concepts.

"The one thing you find, usually, is that players are on their best behaviors when they come somewhere new. Especially when you come to a new team with the expectation that you're going to be a piece to help the new team get into the playoffs. Most guys that come to the good teams, they do their best to fit in."

The All-Traded Team

See how hard it is to deal for an NBA star? This team includes the best overall players to be traded going back to last July. None of these players were an All-Star this season -- and none of them was moved this week, further spiting the hype of the trade deadline.

STARTERS

F/C: Kevin Garnett, Nets

F: Luol Deng, Cavs

F: Paul Pierce, Nets

G: Andre Iguodala, Warriors

G: Eric Bledsoe, Suns

BENCH

C: Robin Lopez, Blazers

C: Marcin Gortat, Wizards

F: Rudy Gay, Kings

F: Luis Scola, Pacers

G: Brandon Jennings, Pistons

G: Jrue Holiday, Pelicans

G: J.J. Redick, Clippers

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