How they can win it all: The Oklahoma City Thunder

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How did we forget about the Oklahoma City Thunder? After Kevin Durant’s season-long coming-out party last season and the tough fight the young Thunder put up against the eventual champion Lakers, the Thunder were everyone’s pick to put it all together and establish themselves as one of the league’s elite teams this season. They did that, but they managed to fly under the radar last season. The Thunder looked very good before the trade deadline; since they traded for Kendrick Perkins, they’ve looked downright scary. Here’s how the Thunder can bring a title to Oklahoma City:

1. Firepower

I don’t need to tell you about Kevin Durant. He led the league in scoring this season — again. He scores efficiently, and he can do it from anywhere on the court. He has a silky-smooth jumper, he can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket, he can catch and shoot coming off of picks, and his “rip” move allows him to get to the line over and over again and knock down free throws. He’s a scorer’s scorer, and he’s one of the most unstoppable offensive players in the league.

The Thunder were impressive when Durant was essentially a one-man show on offense last season. This season, he has help. Russell Westbrook made a huge leap this season. He was always able to blow by anyone in the league and get into the paint, put pressure on the defense in plays, and make sharp passes. This season, he’s put his offensive game together. He’s a much better shooter, he’s a much better finisher at the rim, and he’s far more consistent than he was last season. Last year, the Thunder fell to the Lakers because the offense went stagnant and Ron Artest and Co. were able to hold Kevin Durant in check. This season, with Westbrook putting pressure on the defense with penetration, Durant is free to move without the ball and get far more open catch-and-shoot jumpers and easy lanes to the basket.

James Harden has come on strong in the last few months, and he’s become the kind of all-around scoring threat the Thunder hoped he would be when they drafted him with the third overall pick. Serge Ibaka has made huge strides as an offensive player. Eric Maynor has emerged as one of the best backup point guards in the league. Last year, the Thunder’s dirty little secret was that they weren’t a great offensive team, despite Durant’s brilliance; this year, they’re a top-five offensive team.

2. Defense

Last season, the Thunder were able to win 50 games because of their surprisingly effective defense. It looked like they forgot about that at the beginning of this season. While they were still winning games playing run-and-gun basketball, they weren’t nearly as effective on defense as they were last season, and they were one of the worst teams in the league at defending the rim.

Then they traded Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins, and everything changed. There were too huge benefits to trading for Perkins. First of all, the Thunder were playing Ibaka out of position at center, which wasn’t the best use of his talents, and playing Jeff Green at the power forward. Jeff Green cannot defend opposing power forwards, and each lineup that featured Green at the four had major defensive issues.

With Perkins playing center, Ibaka was able to slide to his natural power forward position, where his athleticism makes him a force defensively. Before the deadline, the Thunder had a decent defender starting at the center position and a horrible defender starting at the power forward position. Now, they start great defenders at both the center and the power forward positions. It’s hard to overstate how much of a difference that makes. The Westbrook/Sefolosha/Durant/Green/Ibaka lineup had a defensive rating of 113.79 — the Westbrook/Sefolosha/Durant/Ibaka/Perkins lineup has a defensive rating of 102.02. These Thunder play defense.

3. The “Why Not Us?” Factor

The Thunder are a young team, and don’t have to bear the burden of expectations the way the other title contenders do. They have some of the best fans in the league. They have great chemistry. They have the confidence that youth brings with very little of the immaturity. They have as much talent as any team in the league, and the mentality of a bracket-busting college squad. That combination can absolutely create a champion. Most are expecting that Oklahoma City’s championship will come a few years down the road, but there’s no reason that it can’t happen for them this year. They know that. And the rest of the league may be about to find that out.

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.

Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. throws down 360 dunk against Wizards (video)

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The Wizards are in a rough place.

They’ve lost three of four, including a 23-point setback to the Mavericks last night, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out here practicing for a dunk contest on them.

Report: Damian Lillard meets with Trail Blazers owner, but doesn’t request trade as Paul Allen feared

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
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Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen was reportedly investigating whether his team’s problem was roster or coaching. In other words, it sounded as if he were determining whether he should fire general manager Neil Olshey or coach Terry Stotts amid a disappointing season. Portland has the NBA’s fifth-largest payroll and is on track to pay the luxury tax, but the team is just 25-22 and seventh in the Western Conference.

In these turbulent times, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who has strongly supported Stotts publicly – wanted to address Allen directly.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard met with team owner Paul Allen to gather an understanding of the organization’s direction, league sources told ESPN.

Lillard, who turns 28 on July 15, requested the meeting in part to reaffirm his commitment to the only professional franchise he has ever suited up for, but also to gain assurances that the organization was just as devoted to expeditiously crafting a title-contending team, sources said.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Allen feared Lillard would request a trade, sources said, but a trade request was not made.

The meeting, which sources described as a productive, open forum to share opinions and express concerns, could also lead to more sit-downs in the future.

Lillard issued a heartfelt vote of confidence for head coach Terry Stotts, sources said.

They also discussed players to target.

In addition, Lillard sought an explanation from Allen as to why Will Barton was traded to Denver in February of 2015, sources said. Lillard made it known he didn’t agree with the move.

The Trail Blazers traded Barton, because he wasn’t ready to lock down a rotation spot. They got Arron Afflalo, who was more ready to help a team still trying to win with LaMarcus Aldridge. The move was completely logical at the time, and it’s the type of gripe brought up now because Barton has developed with the Nuggets, and Portland is frustrated and in a funk.

Lillard surely suggested win-now moves leading up to the trade deadline, because that’s what players prioritize. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allen would rather shed a few million in salary to avoid the luxury tax in an underwhelming season.

How would Lillard feel about that? Did this meeting open a productive line of communication? Or would he just feel ignored?

Lillard has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to the Trail Blazers. A trade request would have been a huge reversal from his public statements. But did Allen have any reason to suspect Lillard would ask out other than the meeting request and Portland’s middling record?

That Lillard would seek this meeting shows his growth as a player. He’s taking an active role in his team’s fortunes, spreading his reach beyond the court – or at least trying to.

The big question now: Where will that lead him and the Trail Blazers?

Three Things to Know: Jason Kidd out in Milwaukee, now what for Bucks?

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Milwaukee fires Jason Kidd as coach. It’s the right move, but now what? It’s a move that caught the players in Milwaukee off guard, a move that will be trashed by some of the NBA’s old boy network, but something expected by many officials from other teams and league observers (although most thought it would be an offseason move).

Jason Kidd was fired as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks Monday.

It was the right move. Individual players grew under Kidd — Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into a superstar with the ball in his hands, and he was so unhappy with the move he offered to intervene and try to save Kidd’s job — but the team did not. Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six, but as had happened too much with this team it was two steps up and one step back. The Bucks didn’t grow from there. The team entered this season with players talking of 50-win season and a top four seed (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the wins under/over at 47.5), and the expectation was the defense would finally come around. It didn’t. Kidd blamed the team’s youth to everyone — the media publicly and team management privately, asking for more veterans — yet he made some, shall we say, “interesting” end of game coaching decisions that left everyone bewildered. Kidd eventually backed off some on the ultra aggressive, trapping defensive style this team played — a style teams figured out how to beat with ball movement — but it wasn’t enough. The Bucks are 25th in the NBA in defense. With that they are 24-22, but with a negative point differential that suggests a 20-26 team, not one clinging to a playoff slot (currently seventh in the East, 1.5 games up on ninth-seed Detroit and missing the playoffs all together, fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 68 percent chance of making the postseason).

Now what?

For the rest of this season, long-time assistant Joe Prunty will run the show, and he will get the chance to Frank Vogel his way into the job if the team excels under him (and the moved was timed as the Bucks enter a soft part of the schedule, they can rack up some wins right now). However, more likely is a big off-season search where the biggest names in coaching without a job will come calling. Already two names bandied about are Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams. David Fizdale has to be considered. Every coach without a job will want this one — with Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and a host of long, athletic, quality role players (such as Thon Maker, Jon Henson and others) this team has a world of potential. It should be talked about with Minnesota and Philadelphia as the teams who have next in the NBA.

The Bucks have been rumored to be interested in DeAndre Jordan, is that still the case or will they try to make their moves in the off-season (when they can’t afford to sign Jordan or much of anyone else of consequence without shedding salary)? My guess is now the team now waits, it will want to consult with whoever is hired as coach.

Also, how will the Bucks at times feuding ownership play into all of this? New Yorkers Mark Lasry and Wes Edens have had their differences — Jon Horst is the GM now because the two sides could not agree on a candidate so they compromised on him, someone farther down on both lists. On the court this team is seen as one of the league’s best jobs with the most potential, but the coach may need to navigate ownership landmines along the way.

The Bucks move into their new arena next fall and there will be pressure on the new coach to bring the team up to the level of the building — the Bucks have the pieces to be one of the top teams in the East (a conference that could open up depending on what LeBron James chooses to do next summer). It’s a coveted job, but not an easy one.

2) DeMarcus Cousins has the kind of night nobody has had in 46 years. All-Star starter DeMarcus Cousins went off on the Bulls Monday night — 44 points, 24 rebounds, and 10 assists in the Pelicans’ double OT win against Chicago. These were not meaningless points, Cousins picked up seven of them in the second overtime.

The last time somebody had a 40/20/10 night in the NBA Elton John had just released “Rocket Man” — Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1972 when he was still playing in Milwaukee.

3) Locker room issues bubble up in San Antonio and Cleveland, but will it matter? Two things that can lead to locker room dissent in the NBA? Struggling teams on losing streaks pointing fingers, and guys with lingering injuries that were expected back.

We saw both of those creep up Monday, in San Antonio and Cleveland. The question is, will it matter to either organization come the playoffs? Probably not.

In Cleveland, losers of 8-of-11 and heading into a tough stretch of games, they held an emotional team meeting Monday’s practice, and Kevin Love became the whipping boy. Because the more things change, the more it’s still always Kevin Love’s fault. Other players questioned the illness that Love said he suffered that forced him to sit out much of Saturday’s blowout loss to the Thunder (he left the building before the game was over) and then miss practice Sunday. The meeting got heated, but Love spoke to the team to explain himself and that seemed to calm things down, mostly. For now. These team meetings make headlines, but most of the time prove to be meaningless on the court. Are the Cavaliers going to start to care and at least give some effort on defense after this? We’ll see. I wouldn’t bet on it lasting, it almost never does, but we’ll see.

In San Antonio, reports came up that the always quiet Kawhi Leonard has become “disconnected” from the team while dealing with the thigh injury that has let him play just nine games this season. Leonard and Popovich have always been on the same page, is this just frustration with a rehab on a quad injury that is just not healing as fast as anyone hoped and expected? Is it more than that? Both GM R.C. Buford and Leonard’s uncle denied any rift.

What happened with LaMarcus Aldridge shows us how this likely plays out. Aldridge demanded a trade last summer, but rather than panic and ship him out (for less than fair market value) Popovich sat down with Aldridge, figured out why he was frustrated, adjusted how he used him, and now Aldridge is happy — he signed an extension — and is having an All-Star season. Expect Popovich to figure out how to work with Leonard, too.