Thunder winning games, just not expectation game

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The Oklahoma City Thunder are 6-4, which means they are on pace for about 49 wins this season. Kevin Durant leads the league in scoring. If the playoff started today after an absurdly short regular season, they would be the seven seed in the West.

That coming after a season where they won 50 games, Kevin Durant led the league in scoring and they were the eighth seed in the West. That was followed by a summer where the Thunder decided to stand pat and not make any big free agent moves, not to make any dramatic roster changes.

So why does it feel like the Thunder are a disappointment?

Because of you and me, because of our expectations. Our unreasonable expectations (we warned you this would happen). All of us saw how dynamic they were in pushing the Lakers in the first round last season. We saw Durant dominate the world this summer, with Russell Westbrook by his side. All that led to this feeling that they would take another gigantic leap forward.

That almost never happens. If you bring back the same team you had last season, then you are what you were last season. Really, after a breakout year just remaining the same in the face of a “sophomore slump” is a step forward. Not the leap people wanted, but a step.

What is frustrating is you can see where these Thunder really could be better. Where they really could take that leap, mostly because this year feels like a regression on the court.

However, that really isn’t measured until the playoffs. Last season the Thunder started out 7-7 but figured it out by the end of the season. That could happen again if a few things come together.

On offense, the Thunder are still good, but it is coming with Durant and Westbrook more in isolation. Durant is averaging 28.4 points per game, Westbrook 23.5, but some of the movement — both ball and player — have been gone.

What is keeping the offense going is free throws — they are getting to the line more (per field goal attempt) than any team in the league. Then once there they are hitting a ridiculous 88.1 percent of their free throws as a team — the 89-90 Boston Celtics hold the current record at 83.2 percent. OKC is five points ahead of that. What all those free throws mean is the Thunder are still attacking.

What they are not doing well is defending. Last season they gave up 104.6 points per 100 possessions, this season that has jumped to 112.5, 29th in the league. They are allowing teams to shoot a higher percentage, they are creating fewer turnovers (which really hurts them because the Thunder are so dynamic and get such easy baskets in transition).

The biggest problem is in the middle — opposing teams are getting five more shots a game right at the rim than they did last year. In today’s NBA you need someone to protect the paint, and maybe this year’s draft pick Cole Aldrich can be that guy someday, but he is not right now.

The Thunder could help their cause by starting Serge Ibaka. They did with Jeff Green out against the Jazz last game, Ibaka had four blocks and the Thunder beat a hot Jazz team. When Green returns he needs to play, but it may be time to bring Nenad Krstic off the bench. You don’t lose any offense (he had 22 points against the Jazz) and what he brings on defense is needed.

It’s a step in getting this team back to the potential we all expected of them, what we hoped of them. But maybe we should reign in those expectations, too. This week they play Boston then Milwaukee on the back-to-back. Things are not getting easier for these Thunder as they try to improve. And improvement might look a lot like standing still sometimes.

Report: Pacers bring back Lance Stephenson in time for playoffs; deal for three-years, $12 million

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The Indiana Pacers need healthy bodies for their playoff run, and they had three rotation guys injured between Al Jefferson, Glenn Robinson III, and Rodney Stuckey. Wednesday, the Pacers waived Stuckey to create an open roster spot to bring in some help (they were not going to pick up his option for next season anyway).

Who are they bringing in? The prodigal son Lance Stephenson returns, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

The surprising part of the deal was the security Stephenson got, as first reported by Adam Zagoria at his blog — three years, $12 million, with a player option for the final year. (This has since been confirmed by other sources.) Other teams were looking at giving Stephenson a 10-day contract, the length of the Pacers’ offer is a surprise.

Stephenson played in six games for Minnesota recently, averaging 3.5 points per game off the bench, but an ankle sprain kept the Timberwolves from really having to decide whether to keep him for the season. Stephenson knows how to create shots for himself and can be a good defender when focused, something we saw with the Pelicans at the start of this season — he became a key part of their rotation averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 assists per game until he tore his groin.

It’s a little strange to see him back in Pacers colors. It will be particularly strange if the Pacers stay in the seven seed and the Cavaliers remain the two-seed setting up a first-round playoff series. Because I don’t think any of us need to see this again.

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Tuesday’s win gives Wizards first division crown since 1979

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Divisions are almost forgotten in the NBA. They exist still as quaint reminders of days gone by, but they don’t matter other than as a potential tie breaker with a non-division-winning team. Winning your division doesn’t even guarantee a team a playoff spot anymore.

Yet, the last time Washington had won a division title they were in the Atlantic division and when you turned on the radio you were likely to hear that new hit Heart Of Glass by Blondie. It was 1979.

That was until Tuesday when John Wall led a 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter against the Lakers to get the Wizards the win and the SouthEast division title.

According to CBSSports.com, that 38-year division title drought was longer than any team in any major U.S. professional sports — NHL, NFL, and MLB.

Congrats to the Wizards. They also have locked up home court in the first round, and they are currently the No. 3 seed in the playoffs (who they face in the first round is up in the air still as only three games separate seeds five through nine).

With Scott Brooks at the helm this feels like a far more dangerous — and healthy — team heading into the postseason. Wizards fans have waited a lot time for a team like this.

Report: Pacers waive Rodney Stuckey, will likely add player before playoffs

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Rodney Stuckey was having a down year for the Pacers when he was healthy, averaging 7.2 points and 2.2 assists per game, with a well below average 48.3 true shooting percentage. Stuckey also was not healthy often, playing in just 39 games.

The Pacers are banged up — Glenn Robinson III and Al Jefferson are hurt — and need a healthy body on the roster for the playoffs, plus they weren’t going to pick up Stuckey’s $7 million option for next season anyway, so they chose to wave him Wednesday, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical on Yahoo Sports.

The question now is who the Pacers bring in to fill that spot. With Jefferson down, do they lean on someone they know in Tyler Hansbrough? Is there someone out of the D-League or free agent pool that intrigues them?

The Pacers need to do something to start winning some games and making Paul George happy.

Paul George on Pacers after loss: “No sense of urgency, no winning pride”

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Indiana still has a 75 percent chance of making the playoffs (according to fivethirtyeight.com), they are two games clear of the nine seed with seven games to play.

But they fell to that seventh seed with a loss to Minnesota on Tuesday night, an evening that Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Miami all won. Chicago is the nine seed right now, lurking with its soft schedule, and looking for another team to slip up, and in a key game Indiana did.

The Pacers lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves Tuesday night despite being at home and having a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Indy had no answer for Karl-Anthony Towns, who dropped 37. Paul George had 37 points as well, and afterwards pissed and frustrated would be good words to describe his mood. Here’s his quote, via Nate Taylor at the Indy Star.

“We should have a professional approach, man, and defend our home court, especially to a team that’s not even in the playoffs,” George said of losing to the Timberwolves (29-44). “That’s what it comes down to. As a team, we’ve got to have a grit and we’ve got to own up, man up….

“There’s no urgency, no sense of urgency, no winning pride,” he said. “This locker room is just not pissed off enough.”

If you don’t have urgency playing for your playoff lives with seven games left in the season, when will you have it?

Yes, this was a frustrated George venting after a loss. However, it also points again to the challenges Larry Bird and the Pacer front office have this summer — George wants to win, wants to play for a contender. Or if not that, maybe in his hometown. If George doesn’t make an All-NBA team (he likely just misses out, forward is a stacked position in the league right now) and the Pacers can’t offer him a “designated player” max, Indiana needs to put a contender around him, or consider trading him so they don’t lose him for nothing in a year. Both of those options present challenges come July.

In the short term, the Pacers need to make the playoffs. Even if they do, play like this against the Cavaliers (their current first-round matchup) or any of the other top-four teams in the East and Indy’s stay in the postseason will be short and uneventful.