NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Thunder_crowd.jpgLast season: 50-32, which tied them three ways for the sixth seed, but due to tiebreakers they got the eighth spot — and the Lakers in the first round. The athleticism of the Thunder pushed it six games, but you have to learn to win in the NBA and the Thunder are still learning.

Head Coach: Scott Brooks, who has formed a real connection with his young team.

Key Departures: None (because as much as you consider Etan Thomas “key” I do not)

Key Additions:
They locked up Kevin Durant for five years at the max. Put the meaningless comparisons to LeBron’s summer aside and realize that this was one of the biggest moves of the entire summer. Maybe the biggest.

Also, brought in were Daequan Cook, Mo Peterson and draft pick Cole Aldrich. So basically not a lot in terms if key minutes. Maybe the best pickup was a swap to get a future Clipper first rounder (if it’s lottery protected they should see it around 2020).

Best case scenario: They take the next step forward, get home court in the first round (at least) and win a series or two in the playoffs. A Western Conference finals series against the Lakers is the ultimate dream.

For that to happen: Kevin Durant has to continue to be THE Kevin Durant, they have to play better team defense, they have to continue to see growth and improvement out of their young core, and they have to stay healthy.

Yes, you can say “they have to stay healthy” about all 30 teams, but what went largely unnoticed last year was the Thunder were one of the healthiest teams in the league. Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha all played 82 games. James Harden and Nenad Krstic missed just six games each. Nick Collison missed seven, Serge Ibaka nine. Basically, none of the Thunder core had a serious injury last season. That is rare in the NBA (just ask the other young power in the West up in Portland).

As for Durant, if you watched him in the FIBA World Championships this summer you have no doubt he will be THE Kevin Durant again. That may have less to do with scoring more or being a much better player — he is already getting mentioned in the Kobe/LeBron sentences — than it is about public perception. Durant is exploding on the scene, moving from the guy all the basketball fans rave about to a guy the average fan tunes in to watch.

I’ve written this story before but I’ll do it one more time for our many new readers: At a late-season Clippers/Thunder matchup last season I was seated next to a couple of advanced scouts, both whose teams had upcoming games against the Thunder. Three times during that game Durant did something that left these two guys — whose job it is to watch and break down games for a living — looking at each other and just shaking their head. At one point one said, “How the (expletive) are we supposed to stop that?” If you can do that to the most jaded, you are special.

What really matters for the Thunder is continued improvement and defense.

The Thunder were ninth in defensive efficiency in the league last season, not bad but something they can improve on. That starts with Ibaka — he has become the team’s go-to shot blocker and they need someone to protect the rim (every team needs that in today’s NBA). Cole Aldrich may also help in that role, but he is more of a project than a guy playing huge, key minutes this season. Ibaka comes off the bench and may not supplant Krstic as the starter, but look for him to close out more games when the Thunder need defensive stops.

Also, as the season wore on the Thunder’s defense seemed to improve, they seemed to better use their athleticism to disrupt, create turnovers then turn that into easy (sometimes spectacular) points going the other direction.

The other big question is: Can Westbrook and Green and Ibaka and James Harden and the rest of the core all continue to take steps forward. Last season all showed dramatic improvement in their games, fueling the Thunder. If you project them on that same arc, they become a force

Westbrook has become elite in dishing out assists, but can he cut his turnover rate (16.6) down this season. More importantly, can he become more of a scoring threat. Yes, that is an odd thing to say about a guy who put up 16.1 points per game, but he was not efficient where it matters — he shot just 22 percent on threes and finished just 52.7 percent of his shots at the rim (that’s layups, dunks and the like). Those are both very low numbers. Westbrook can get in the lane seemingly at will, but he has to finish better in there to take the next step forward. His quickness also affords him open threes, he has to hit more.

You can say the same kinds of things up and down the Thunder roster. Everyone has things they need to improve on if this team is to continue its assent.

More likely the Thunder will: Be close to last year’s Thunder. Understand that not taking a step back — not having a big sophomore slump — really would be s sign of improvement. But to expect everyone to stay healthy all season and for all the players to keep improving at an exponential rate may be asking too much. Some will improve, some will stay flat, and GM Sam Presti will have a better idea what tweaks need to be made.

What really matters more than anything is that the professionalism and intensity that characterized the young Thunder locker room remains. That is what ultimately will take them where they want to go.

Prediction: 50 wins, which if it gets them anyone but the Lakers in the first round will lead to a first round upset and a trip deeper into the playoffs. You have to learn how to win at the NBA level and the Thunder are learning that. It may be another year or two before those lessons really bear fruit, but they are being learned. Durant is taking them to heart, you can be sure.

James Harden, Chris Paul lead Rockets to 13th straight victory

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HOUSTON (AP) — Nursing a sore knee, James Harden said he came close to not playing Saturday night.

When team doctors warned him that it would be painful, but he could play through it, he said, “Let’s go.”

Harden scored 31 points and Chris Paul had 25 and the Rockets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 115-111 for their 13th straight victory.

The winning streak is the Rockets’ longest since a franchise-best 22 straight in 2007-08.

Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer over Malcolm Brogdon and was fouled, giving Houston an 11-point lead with less than six minutes remaining. In the last two minutes, Paul hit back-to-back mid-range jumpers on consecutive possessions to put the game out of reach.

“Mentally, this was a big win for us,” Paul said. “We never let go of the rope. Every time they made a little push, we stayed right there down the stretch. James was out there, basically, on one leg. The mental toughness we showed as a team is what we take from this game.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 28 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals for Milwaukee. Khris Middleton had 23 points, and Brogdon added 20. Milwaukee has lost three in a row after winning six of seven.

“Harden made some tough shots and Chris Paul made some big shots down the stretch as well,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “We gave ourselves a chance, but we just came up short.”

The Rockets grinded through frustrations, 15 turnovers and a below-average shooting night. Paul had a technical foul, Harden had a delay of game warning, and the Rockets faced serious adversity for the first time in weeks. Entering Saturday, Houston had dominated teams in its streak, winning all but two games by double figures with an average margin of victory of 16.9 points.

“We just didn’t have our best stuff tonight,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But we found a way. It was one of those typical grind games where you’ve just got to find a way somehow.”

Paul scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half, overcoming a rocky first half where he missed all five shots he attempted and turned the ball over five times.

“I had never coached him in a back-to-back, but I’m thinking he’s kind of dead,” D’Antoni said. “Then, all of a sudden, he comes out in the third quarter and turns into Superman.”

Paul made 7 of 8 shots in the second half, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, also making all eight free throws in the game.

Harden scored 20 points or more for the 29th straight game, matching Houston’s franchise record set by Moses Malone.

Both Harden and Clint Capela (left heel contusion) were game-time decisions after suffering injuries on different collision plays in Friday night’s win over San Antonio. Capela sat out the game, and P.J. Tucker started in his place, getting 10 points and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes.

Behind Tucker, Nene scored a season-high 16 points, largely on thunderous one-handed dunks. The Rockets were outscored by the Bucks 44-40 in the paint and outrebounded 40-38.

Milwaukee and Houston traded blows in the first half, with the Rockets leading by three at the end of the first quarter. They were tied at 55 at the half. The Rockets haven’t trailed at the half since Nov. 25 in a 117-102 win over the Knicks.

The Rockets took an 84-79 lead into the fourth quarter.

At 24-4, the Rockets are tied for their best 28-game start in franchise history, matching the 1993-94 season when they won their first championship.

 

Knicks shut out Carmelo Anthony in 2nd half, beat Thunder 111-96

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NEW YORK (AP) — Carmelo Anthony‘s return to Madison Square Garden was much like the 6 1/2 years he spent playing for the Knicks.

A video played on the overhead scoreboard as part of a huge welcome from the fans and franchise, followed by a fast start that gave Anthony hope he could have everything he wanted.

Then things fell flat until the finish.

The Knicks shut out their former All-Star in the second half and beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-96 on Saturday night for their fourth straight victory.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling for me, coming back here knowing the goal that I had and what I wanted to accomplish here and falling short in that category,” Anthony said.

Michael Beasley tied his season high with 30 points in place of injured Kristaps Porzingis, and Doug McDermott, acquired with Enes Kanter for Anthony, added 11 of his 13 after halftime to help the Knicks break open the game.

“This game was kind (of) about him and I thought we did a really good job of not letting that distract us and just focus on winning the game,” McDermott said. “And it felt great, especially being a part of the trade (with) Enes.

Anthony scored 12 points in the first half but was 0 for 5 after, perhaps low on energy after the Thunder’s three-overtime victory at Philadelphia a night earlier.

He made a 3-pointer for the Thunder’s first basket of the game after refocusing following a video tribute that caught him off guard, but finished 5 of 18 from the field as the Knicks played with passion and precision they lacked in Anthony’s final years in New York.

“You got to beat the best to be the best,” Beasley said. “He’s one of the best of our era.”

Russell Westbrook had 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Thunder, who were trying to sweep a three-game trip that began with Paul George‘s winning return to Indiana on Wednesday.

But they couldn’t deliver a victory for Anthony back at Madison Square Garden, even with the Knicks playing without leading scorer Porzingis because of a knee injury.

“I think the guys just, they were ready for tonight’s game,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “And we caught them after a triple-overtime game so that probably helped us too, but our guys played hard all night which probably wore them down.”

Anthony received a pair of loud cheers during pregame introductions, before and at the end of a video tribute showing his highlights on the court and his charitable efforts off it that was played after the first four Thunder starters were announced. But the boos became more noticeable once play got underway, and soon they were coming every time he touched the ball.

“That was expected,” Anthony said. “They can’t cheer for me, I’m on another team.”

Later, the cheers were all for the Knicks, who after trading their leading scorer on the eve of training camp are a surprising 16-13 – better than Anthony’s new team (14-15). Anthony was booed one last time as he was removed with 1.4 seconds remaining.

Beasley had a hand in 12 of the Knicks’ final 15 points of the third quarter, scoring nine himself and assisting on Ron Baker‘s 3-pointer. That turned a two-point lead into an 80-73 advantage over the final 3 1/2 minutes of the period.

The Knicks pushed it into double digits in the fourth behind five straight points from McDermott – originally it was six by a 3-pointer was changed to a 2 after review – and he later made it 100-87 with a 3-pointer with 6:02 remaining.

The Thunder played without starting center Steven Adams because of a concussion.

 

Manu Ginobili game-winner caps 13-0 closing run to rally Spurs past Mavericks

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — At 40 years old, Manu Ginobili‘s refusal to slow down in his 16th season with the Spurs has been a source of inspiration to the team’s young core.

The man and the mantra helped propel San Antonio to an improbable victory over Dallas on Saturday night.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 22 points and 14 rebounds and the Spurs scored the final 13 points of the game, rallying for a 98-96 victory over the Mavericks.

Aldridge’s fall-away, 11-foot jumper tied the game at 96 with 23.4 seconds remaining and Ginobili’s driving layup with 3.1 seconds was the game-winning shot.

“He’s our grandpa,” 21-year-old Dejounte Murray said, chuckling afterwards. “He’s a beast, man. You’ve all seen what he’s done for this organization and he’s still around giving his wisdom to all the new guys. To see him coming in every day, I mean there’s not one day I’ve seen Manu not show up at the facility. Being a young guy, I’ve got to be there every day.”

Ginobili’s layup off the left side of the glass gave the Spurs their first lead of the game after trailing by as many as 16 points.

“We did a lot of good things, but the ending is unforgiveable,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said.

Maxi Kleber had 21 points and Dirk Nowitzki added 19 for Dallas in the final regular season matchup between the Southwest Division rivals.

Kleber’s 3-pointer gave Dallas a 96-85 lead with 4:11 remaining, but the Spurs held them scoreless the remainder of the game.

The Mavericks drought included a turnover when Wes Matthews was unable to inbound the ball with 23.4 seconds remaining. Mathews threw the ball at Ginobili’s legs to avoid a 5-second violation, but the Spurs gained possession when the ball ricocheted off Matthews just as he stepped inbounds.

“We did everything right to lose,” Nowitzki said. “We missed shots offensively, bad turnover, gave them some offensive rebounds. Letting Ginobili go left down the stretch to lay it in. We literally had to do everything perfect to lose this one and we did.”

Aldridge had his 12th double-double of the season to help offset the absences of starters Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Danny Green.

Coming off a 15-point blowout in Houston on Friday night, San Antonio was able to avoid its third straight loss.

“We played with everybody in Houston and hoped to play a good game in which we could grow and learn from our mistakes while playing against the best team in the NBA right now and I don’t think we got anything out of it,” Ginobili said. “So, if after that poor effort we came here and played badly again and lost, it would’ve been a tough one. We are proud of this win.”

The Spurs missed their first five shots, all short jumpers from Aldridge and Pau Gasol, on their way to shooting 30 percent in the opening quarter. The Mavericks took advantage, charging to a 31-18 lead after the first quarter.

San Antonio’s reserves reversed the team’s fortunes in the third quarter.

Davis Bertans finished with 13 points and Ginobili added 12 off the bench.

 

LeBron James finishes left-handed alley-oop with head behind backboard

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We have reached the point with LeBron James and his legendary career that the incredible almost seems ordinary — he has made our jaws drop so many times it’s hard for him to clear the bar of amazing anymore.

He did Saturday night against Utah.

In transition, LeBron gave up the ball to Jeff Green, who returned the favor with an alley-oop pass. Just not a particularly good one, it was behind James.

So he reaches back with his left hand and throws it down as he ducks his head under the backboard. Then LeBron stops and stares at his left hand, like he can’t believe what he just did.

We can’t either.