Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Thunder serious about defense, Miami finds out hard way


When Thunder GM Sam Presti traded for Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed at the trade deadline, this is what he had in mind.

It wasn’t just their direct impact — Perkins was in foul trouble and sat key stretches of this contest — but with them in the fold the Thunder are more committed on the defensive end then they have been all season. It’s reminiscent of last season when the Thunder played aggressive defense that fueled their transition game in the playoffs.

They are starting to look like that again, maybe a better version of that team. And that should worry everybody else in the West.

Oklahoma City’s defense, particularly in the second half, sparked a 96-85 statement win over Miami in Miami.

Miami shot 38.5 percent on the night, the “big three” shot 4-24 in the second half and the Heat registered just 94.4 points per 100 possessions, 15.6 points off their season average.

What should really make Thunder fans happy is this was a team effort — Perkins got in foul trouble, however Serge Ibaka and particularly Nick Collison did a good job clogging the paint and protecting the rim.

For those of us at home, tis game was fun to watch with plenty of highlight moments, as you would expect from two athletic teams. Some of the best came from the Heat at the end of the first half after a dunk-of-the-year candidate from Dwyane Wade sparked a Heat run. LeBron James had a couple monster dunks in that stretch, and for a bit the Heat looked like the team everyone imagined before the season started.

But in the second half the Thunder defense was controlling play and their offense was finding its spots, particularly Kevin Durant, who was making the best of it against LeBron James. Durant had 21 points on 10-15 shooting against James, according to ESPN. On defense, the Thunder made it hard on the big three, trapping Wade and LeBron on pick-and-rolls clogging the lane to force them to pull up.

The Heat made their late first-half move when they could get out on the run, but the Thunder controlled the tempo in the second half and slowed the game down. Durant led the Thunder with 19.

Once again, the game left questions about what the Heat would do in the playoffs. But for the Thunder, it looked like they are finding some answers. Answers that the rest of the West may not like.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.

UNLV following Kentucky’s lead with combine for NBA scouts

Goodluck Okonoboh, Patrick McCaw
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Kentucky held a two-day combine last season for NBA scouts.

Now, LSU and UNLV are following suit.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports:

The Runnin’ Rebels will hold their event on October 23rd and 24th at the Mendenhall Center, UNLV’s practice facility, sources told The expectation is that all 30 NBA teams will be in attendance.

LSU has potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and another first-round prospect in Tim Quarterman.

UNLV features lottery prospect Stephen Zimmerman.

This won’t replace scouts attending games and watching practices, but the fact that all 30 teams plan to attend shows how seriously the pro league takes these. No college team wanted John Calipari to have that competitive advantage in recruiting, so the smart ones are leveling the field with their own combines. Soon, more college teams will follow.

As the calendar gets packed, NBA teams might have to pick and choose which they attend. At that point, we might get little clues about which prospects they’re scouting hardest.