Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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.

LeBron James amused by fuss over Tyronn Lue coaching All-Stars

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 30:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers high fives Head Coach Tyronn Lue during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on January 30, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
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TORONTO (AP) — LeBron James is amused over all the fuss that accompanied Tyronn Lue getting the chance to coach the Eastern Conference in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

The honor typically goes to the coaching staff of the team leading their respective conference at the break, provided that staff didn’t also coach in the game the year before. So when the Cleveland Cavaliers fired David Blatt and promoted Lue from his assistant spot to being the coach in charge, that meant Lue also got the All-Star duty.

And while it might seem strange to some, James was quick to point out Friday at the All-Star media day that Lue “would have been here anyways, even if coach Blatt was still our coach.”

James has been criticized for what many presume to be his role in Blatt’s dismissal, and the four-time MVP says he isn’t letting that perception bother him. He also didn’t take the bait when asked to describe differences between Blatt and Lue.

James’ answer: “Their height.”

For the record, Blatt (6-foot-3) is listed to be about three inches taller than Lue.

 

The time Kobe Bryant tried to recruit Dirk Nowitzki to the Lakers

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 05:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks greets Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers after a game at American Airlines Center on November 5, 2013 in Dallas, Texas.   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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — Kobe Bryant has been loyal to the Lakers for 20 seasons (if you ignore some “trade me” tantrums along the way). He’s also been über competitive.

Those same qualities are what he most appreciates about Dirk Nowitzki.

Kobe talked a little Dirk during his All-Star media availability Friday.

“Dirk and I have always had a great relationship because we’re both extremely competitive. Also both extremely loyal to our teams,” Bryant said.

“I’ll tell you a story about Dirk. He was up for free agency, and I knew what his response was going to be. But out of respect, everybody’s looking around at all these free agents, I felt I’d shoot you a text, if you want to come to L.A. He goes, ‘I would love to play with you, but Dallas is my home. This is my team. I’m not leaving here.’ So he and I think a lot alike in that regard.”

Nowitzki’s last couple free agencies have been mere formalities, nobody around the league thought he would leave Mark Cuban or Dallas. The only questions were money and years — in 2014 the Lakers reportedly offered the max to Nowitzki, who took three-years, $25 million from Dallas so the Mavs could rebuild their roster. It’s all part of that loyalty — and it’s worked out, Nowitzki and Cuban have a ring.

Kobe’s respect for Nowitzki was clear when Dirk nailed a game winner against the Lakers this season, Kobe just nodded his approval from the bench.

One of the best things the past couple seasons about Kobe, and especially this season with just about to retire Kobe, is that he is giving honest answers. He doesn’t care what people think. That leads to honest moments and great stories.

Watch Kristaps Porzingis drop 30 at Rising Stars Challenge (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Knicks’ fans were in full throat at the Air Canada Centre Friday night. Kristaps Porzingis was the second most popular player in the Rising Stars Challenge (behind Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins).

Porzingis didn’t disappoint, dropping 30 and sparking a World Team comeback against the USA that just fell just short, with the USA winning 157-154.

“Not great defense, but it’s about having fun, I guess” Porzingis said. “And I think we had fun out there. In the second half we got more competitive, as both teams wanted to get the win, and we fell a little short.”

Kobe Bryant basks in All-Star spotlight one final time

Kobe Bryant All-Star
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TORONTO — Kobe Bryant is the center of attention one last time.

To get to his final All-Star Game in his final season in the NBA, Kobe received more fan votes than Stephen Curry or LeBron James or any other player. Now that he’s at the 2016 All-Star Game, more people want a piece of his time. More media were crowded around him on Friday than any other player at the NBA’s equivalent of media day. Even the other All-Stars could count on getting peppered with Kobe questions (to their annoyance at times).

Kobe is at peace with his decision to walk away from the game. This weekend he wants to savor being in the All-Star spotlight one final time.

“I’m happy,” Kobe said. “This is pretty cool. I’m looking around the room and seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were like four during my first All-Star Game. It’s true. I mean, how many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It’s not sad at all. I mean, I’m really happy and honored to be here and see this.”

Does that mean Kobe has plans to chase the All-Star MVP one last time?

“Zero…” Kobe said. “But, no, I’m really just enjoying this whole thing, being around these players and talking to them one more time, going out and practicing and enjoying that moment in the game and enjoying that moment. So competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something or prove something, that’s gone.”

What is Kobe’s best All-Star memory?

“My first one in Cleveland was pretty special because you had all the top 50 players,” Bryant said. “I think in ’98 (it was), it was pretty special too, being in my first All-Star Game and being in the locker room with greats, like [John] Stockton and [Clyde] Drexler and all those guys, that was pretty cool too.”

Kobe has a hectic schedule for his final weekend, but much as he has since he announced his retirement he is trying to soak in and fully enjoy this last go around in the NBA. He understands that the life he has known for two decades is about to change. He hasn’t given much thought to his first day of retirement.

“I’ll probably wake up and have some coffee and go back to sleep,” Bryant said.

I don’t think he understands why you drink coffee, but he’s got all of his retirement to figure that out. For now, he just wants to bask in the spotlight one last time.