Are the Oklahoma City Thunder contenders now?


Oklahoma City is your trade deadline winner.

Last season in the playoffs, the young and athletic Thunder tested the Lakers in the playoffs first round, but when push came to shove the Lakers shoved harder. They had Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and the Thunder had no answer. Same thing when the two teams played a few weeks ago.

Now the Thunder have an answer.

A big answer. Kendrick Perkins, one of the most ferocious defenders in the paint the league has to offer. A shot blocker and good one-on-one post defender. A guy who will stand his ground. And he is backed up by Nazr Mohammed, so they Thunder bring a good defensive big off the bench, too. All that allows Nick Collison to play more four, where he will be more comfortable.

Combine that with the scoring you know you get from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and…

Are the Thunder title contenders?

Maybe. When a good team addresses its biggest deficiency, you have to take notice.

The key is if the arrival of Perkins sparks an overall defensive turnaround. Last season, while we were all being wowed by Durant and the Thunder offense, they were a solid defensive team. This season they are giving up 3.5 more points per 100 possessions than they did a year before as teams are shooting better and being forced into fewer turnovers. Not having a big man in the middle to protect the rim was an issue, but the Thunder didn’t have a rim-protecting big last season and did better on defense.

Plugging in Perkins and Mohammed alone will not be enough. The perimeter defense, the contesting of shots, the willingness to fight through picks has to improve also. Everything has to get better.

There are other questions. As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz points out, Perkins has no shooting range. Having him in the game allows the big man from the other team to stay close to the rim and help defend better. Teams now will sag off the Thunder, clog the lane and dare them to beat them with the jumper

This move also comes with risks. One is Perkins knee, which is just 13 games off major surgery and already he has tweaked it again.

And there is the fact Perkins is a free agent this summer and could walk. Boston GM Danny Ainge seemed dismayed by what Perkins was asking in his next contract, so he decided to move him now. But most NBA players really only get one or two kicks at the can — the chance to get a contract that will set them up comfortably for life. In Perkins case maybe his family for generations. He gets one shot and he wants to go big, and you can’t fault him for that. This is his chance. And that may be too rich for Oklahoma City’s blood.

Whatever the outcome this was a brilliant move by Thunder GM Sam Presti. Jeff Green was going to make more than the Thunder wanted to pay him, so they shipped him out to fill their biggest need.

And if Perkins defensive energy becomes contagious, they may have a contender in Oklahoma City. And this trade will look even better.

PBT Extra: Who is coming out of the Eastern Conference?

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The Toronto Raptors will finish with the No. 1 seed and all the best metrics in the East, but they have a history of playoff flameouts. The Boston Celtics’ have been hit hard by injuries. And the Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James but also a dreadful defense, this is the most vulnerable a LeBron led team has been since he bolted Cleveland seven years ago.

So what team is coming out of the East?

We get into that in this latest PBT Extra. A poll on Twitter found most of you think the Cavaliers, but personally, I think the Raptors — who have been better defensively all season than the Cavs — may finally have their year.

LaMarcus Aldridge drops career-high 45 points, Spurs beat Jazz in OT

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — LaMarcus Aldridge had a career-high 45 points, helping San Antonio overcome Donovan Mitchell‘s 35-point performance for Utah in the Spurs’ 124-120 overtime victory over the Jazz on Friday night.

The Spurs won their sixth straight and beat the Jazz for the first time in four meetings this season.

Utah’s 12-game road winning streak came to an end, but only after Mitchell had 14 points in the fourth quarter, including three 3-pointers in the final two minutes to force overtime.

San Antonio remained sixth in the Western Conference with the same record as fifth-place New Orleans, a half-game behind Oklahoma City for fourth. Utah remained eighth in the West.

After free throws by Spurs guards Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills and a dunk by Jazz center Rudy Gobert put San Antonio up 114-111, Mitchell drained his third 3-pointer of the fourth with 3.6 seconds remaining to force overtime.

Mills, who finished with 23 points, had six points in overtime as the Spurs capped an undefeated six-game homestand.

Aldridge averaged 32.2 points and 9.0 rebounds during the winning streak, including two double-doubles.

Aldridge scored 28 points in the first half on 12-for-16 shooting, including a 3-pointer.

Utah missed its first six shots and was 4 for 14 as San Antonio grabbed a 19-8 lead midway through the first quarter. Mitchell settled the Jazz, scoring six points to cut the Spurs lead to 29-21 heading into the second quarter.

Mitchell was 14-for-35 shooting while falling six points shy of his season-high.

Derrick Favors added 22 points for Utah and Ricky Rubio had 20.

Ginobili finished with 18 points for the Spurs.


Stephen Curry leaves game with knee injury


In his first night back from an ankle injury that forced him to miss six games, Stephen Curry limped off the court not to return after in third quarter Friday night after JaVale McGee fell into his knee.

He limped to the bench then eventually to the locker room after the injury.

The severity of the injury is not yet known and should become clear on Saturday after an MRI.

Curry scored 29 points and grabbed seven rebounds before being forced to leave the game, and the Warriors held on to win the game.

Obviously, if Curry is out heading into the playoffs, that changes the dynamic in the West, where the Houston Rockets were already right on the heels of the Warriors.

Pacers use late surge to beat Clippers, close in on playoffs

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bojan Bogdanovic scored 28 points and the Indiana Pacers used a late 9-0 run to hold on for a 109-104 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night, putting them on the precipice of clinching a playoff spot.

The Pacers won for only the second time in five games but can clinch a playoff berth with one more win or a Detroit loss.

Los Angeles’ fading playoff aspirations were dealt another blow. The Clippers are now three games behind Utah for the final postseason spot in the Western Conference. Utah was playing later Friday.

Lou Williams led Los Angeles with 27 points and DeAndre Jordan finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds as the Clippers lost for the fifth time in six games.

They certainly had a chance to turn things around.

After the Clippers rallied from an 18-point deficit to take an 88-87 lead with 7:36 left in the fourth quarter, the teams traded the lead 10 times before Victor Oladipo made one of two free throws to leave it tied at 100 with 2:17 to play.

Bogdanovic broke the tie with a 12-footer and the Pacers followed that with seven straight points before Williams made a layup with 12 seconds left to end the run.

The Clippers were making shots early but couldn’t pull away from Indiana.

They led 28-27 after one and allowed Indiana to use a 9-2 spurt midway through the second quarter to erase a six-point deficit and take a 40-39 lead.

The Pacers scored the final five points of the half to break a 53-all tie and broke it open early in the third when Oladipo made his first three shots of the game, including two 3-pointers to make it 66-55.

Indiana then poured it on. Thaddeus Young‘s layup with 9:02 left in the third made it a 12-point game. Milos Teodosic‘s basket briefly halted the run, but the Pacers scored the next nine points to make it 75-57 with 6:19 to go.

Los Angeles closed the third quarter on a 12-5 run to get to 82-76.