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.

Carmelo Anthony scores 33 to help Knicks hold off Kings 103-100

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Carmelo Anthony scored 33 points, including two free throws with 14.8 seconds remaining, and the New York Knicks held on to beat the Sacramento Kings 103-100 Friday night.

Kristaps Porzingis added 17 points and 10 rebounds for New York. Brandon Jennings scored 13 in place of injured Derrick Rose, and Kyle O'Quinn had eight points and 11 rebounds to help the Knicks beat the Kings for the second time in six days.

New York went cold from the field down the stretch but made six free throws over the final 2:09 to hang on.

The Kings missed multiple shots in the waning moments, including an uncontested driving layup by DeMarcus Cousins with 22 seconds left that would have given Sacramento the lead.

Rudy Gay missed a potential tying 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining, and Cousins also missed a desperation heave from beyond midcourt that hit the rim at the buzzer.

Anthony had 23 points and five rebounds in the first half, then came up big from the stripe to help seal the Knicks’ fifth win in six games. He shot 9 of 22 from the floor and made his first 12 free throw attempts before missing two with 2.6 seconds left.

Cousins finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Gay added 13 points for the Kings.

Things got chippy during a timeout with 2:23 remaining. Darren Collison of the Kings and Courtney Lee of the Knicks appeared to get into a heated exchange before players from both teams stepped between the two. Collison and Lee received technical fouls.

TIP-INS

Knicks: Anthony scored 15 points in the first quarter. He also was called for a technical foul while driving for a layup attempt in the fourth. . Jennings shot 5 of 10 and had five rebounds with seven assists. He also shot an air ball on a free throw in the fourth quarter.

Kings: Collison scored six straight points in the fourth quarter and made a layup that briefly put Sacramento up 94-92. . Cousins was whistled for a technical foul midway through the third quarter, his eighth of the season.

A REST FOR BARNES

Matt Barnes did not play for the first time this season, although Kings coach Dave Joerger said it had nothing to do with the ongoing investigation stemming from an altercation in a bar that Barnes and Cousins were allegedly involved in while the team was in New York last weekend. Joerger called it a scheduled rest for Barnes, adding that he plans to do it more frequently for the remainder of the season.

 

Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has 7th straight triple-double

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook had his seventh consecutive triple-double Friday night in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s game against the Houston Rockets, the longest streak since Michael Jordan had seven straight in 1989.

Westbrook got his 10th rebound with 7:46 left in the fourth quarter. He already had 16 points and 10 assists. Westbrook finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists.

The Thunder won the first six games during his streak, however they fell to James Harden and the Rockets 102-99. Harden was one rebound short of his own triple-double.

It was Westbrook’s 12th triple-double of the season and the 49th of his career. He is the NBA’s active leader in the category and ranks overall.

Jordan’s streak came during a run of 10 triple-doubles in 11 games.

NBA denies Raptors’ protest of loss to Kings

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 26:  Jonas Valanciunas #17 and DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors high five after defeating the Detroit Pistons in an NBA game at Air Canada Centre on October 26, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) — The NBA has denied the Toronto Raptors’ protest of their 102-99 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 20.

The league announced the decision Friday.

Toronto argued that the game officials incorrectly called for an instant replay review of whether the Raptors’ Terrence Ross released a 3-point shot prior to the expiration of actual time remaining.

The Replay Center official reviewed video of the play using a digital timer and determined the actual time remaining in the game expired before Ross released his shot, and the shot therefore did not count.

The league found that calling for an instant replay review in this case was consistent with the playing rules because the game officials determined that there was a clock malfunction.

Cody Zeller throws it down all over Bismack Biyombo (VIDEO)

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Nobody can stop the Zeller brothers!

Well, that’s not exactly true. But in this case, Bismack Biyombo tried and Cody Zeller threw it down with authority over him.

I’m not starting a “Cody Zeller for the dunk contest” campaign, but this was impressive.