New season, same old Thunder. That’s not enough in L.A.

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Meet the new Thunder, same as the old Thunder.

Which is a pretty good thing, those old Thunder captured the imagination of the NBA fans nationwide last season. They were athletic, they got and ran, they were just fresh and fun.

Thunder players talk openly of wanting to get rings with this group, there is a real chemistry there. That’s one reason before the season started a lot of people thought the Oklahoma City would take another step forward and could be the one team that would take a ring off the fingers of the Lakers out West. There was patience in the front office — Oklahoma City stuck with the players they had rather than trying to make a big splash in free agency. They were going to grow.

When they finally got a chance to match up on the Lakers again Monday night and measure themselves…

It looked almost exactly like the NBA playoffs last season. Right down to the Lakers winning, 101-94.

It’s still about the Lakers length up front and how that can clog the paint and turn the Thunder into jump shooters. Despite what some predicted it is not about Derek Fisher being older than the Terra Cotta Warriors. It’s not about Kobe’s knee, which looked just fine as Bryant threw it down like he was 25 again at one point.

It’s about the Lakers length, big men who can move and defend on the pick-and-roll. Big men who can protect the rim like Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. That trio finished with 47 points and 24 boards.

The Lakers didn’t defend much of anything in the first half as Russell Westbrook carved them up. Westbrook was stunning all night (he finished with 32 points and 12 assists). He would explode off the pick and roll, or get out in transition where the Lakers still do not have the athletes to deal with him. It was that fun, athletic Thunder team everybody fell in love with.

For a while.

In the first half, the Thunder had an offensive efficiency of 117 (points per 100 possessions). In the second half that fell to 88.6. Because the Lakers took away the easy baskets.

Kobe was energetic and was barking out defensive calls — getting on his big men — and it worked. The Thunder couldn’t find room to get inside consistently so they started to settle for jumpers. Gone were the transition buckets. The Thunder started falling in love with the three even through they couldn’t make them (2-of-22 on the night). Kevin Durant again couldn’t get going with Ron Artest being physical and dogging him (Luke Walton also played some pretty good defense on him for a stretch, a sentence we never thought we’d type). Durant finished with 24 points but needed 24 shots to get there.

One other key was the Lakers were not fouling (well, except for Bynum). The Thunder get to the line on a higher percentage of field goal attempts than any team in the league. Put it this way — they take an average of 30.7 free throws a game and hit 83 percent of them. But they got to the line just 22 times against the Lakers, just another way Los Angeles took away easy points away from the Thunder.

While the Lakers looked good it’s hard to read much into them — frankly we know what they can do. They can look like this, they can look every bit the champion and team to be feared. Then next game, who knows? They could be a disaster. What we know is that come the playoffs — so long as everyone is healthy — we will see a lot more of these Lakers.

With the Thunder… what can they do? They could use a steadier offensive and rebounding post presence (a Kevin Love like guy). They need a three-point shooter or for someone to develop that shot. They need to find a way to execute when the game slows down, as it inevitably does in the playoffs.

They didn’t do any of that Monday, they looked like the same old Thunder. Which is very good and very entertaining. But it’s not getting anyone fitted for a ring.

Victor Oladipo’s practice dunk better than anything he – or maybe anyone – did in dunk contest (video)

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Victor Oladipo has grown into far more than just a dunker.

In fact, in Saturday’s dunk contest, he didn’t look like a dunker at all.

The Pacers star missed all three attempts of his first dunk, and a Black Panther mask was by far the biggest draw of his second. Oladipo was eliminated after the first round.

Maybe Dennis Smith Jr. wasn’t the only eliminated dunker who left something in his bag. This Oladipo dunk – 180 degrees, throwing ball off the backboard with his left hand while in mid-air, dunking with his right hand – while preparing in Los Angeles was awesome.

Larry Nance Jr. had the contest’s best dunk. This would have rivaled it.

Pelicans owner Tom Benson hospitalized with flu symptoms

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans Owner Tom Benson has been hospitalized with flu symptoms.

A statement released Wednesday by the NFL and NBA clubs says their 90-year-old owner is resting comfortably at Ochsner Medical Center, a hospital which also serves as a major sponsor and which owns naming rights to the teams’ training headquarters.

Benson has owned the New Orleans Saints since 1985 and bought the New Orleans Pelicans in 2012.

In recent years, Benson has overhauled his estate plan so that his third wife, Gayle, would be first in line to inherit control of the two major professional franchises.

 

Report: Seattle hosting Kings-Warriors preseason game

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Kevin Durant spent his rookie season in Seattle, before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He has said Seattle fans deserved to see him grow up in the NBA after supporting his promising start.

They’ll get their chance.

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

The Kings and Golden State Warriors have scheduled a preseason game next season in Seattle, according to multiple league sources.

The Oct. 6 meeting between Northern California teams will be the first NBA game in the Key Arena since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season and became the Thunder.

This game will be loaded with storylines. Not only Durant, but the Kings considered moving to Seattle a few years ago. And of course, the return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

At some point, Seattle will get its own team again. For now, this preseason game creates intrigue there.

Report: Kawhi Leonard cleared medically, seeking second opinion

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again this season, a stark reversal from just a month ago. Back then, even while announcing Leonard was out indefinitely with a quad injury, the San Antonio coach said Leonard wouldn’t miss the rest of the season.

What’s going on?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.

Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said.

The uncertainty surrounding this season — and Leonard’s future which could include free agency in the summer of 2019 — has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said.

At first glance, this sounds like Derrick Rose five years ago. Even after he was cleared to play following a torn ACL, the then-Bulls star remained mysterious about when he’d suit up. His confidence in his physical abilities seemed to be a major issue, and he was never the same player since (suffering more leg injuries).

But the Spurs famously favor resting players to preserve long-term health. They seem unlikely to rush back Leonard. They might even sit players who want to play more often. And Leonard isn’t Rose.

Still, it’s clear something is amiss in San Antonio. Maybe not amiss enough to end Leonard’s tenure there, but the longer this lingers, the more time for tension to percolate.