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.

DeMar DeRozan didn’t meet with Lakers because he wanted “legacy of my own in Toronto”

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 18:  DeMar DeRozan #9 of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team stands on the court during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 18, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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DeMar DeRozan was going to be one of the Lakers’ free agent targets last summer — an All-Star wing who could come home to Los Angeles and slide right into Kobe Bryant‘s now vacant spot in the rotation. But like the Lakers’ other top targets — Kevin Durant, Hassam Whiteside, etc. — the Lakers didn’t even get a meeting.

Durant’s reasoning was expected: “I really respect their team. I just thought they were a couple years away from where I wanted to be.”

DeRozan went another path — he loves Toronto and wants to carve out a legacy there, as he told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily recently:

“When you have an opportunity to go home, that’s something that certainly would cross your mind. But it wasn’t anything,” DeRozan told Southern California News Group. “After I finish playing, I’m pretty sure I’ll live in L.A. But I just wanted to do something special and leave a legacy of my own in Toronto.”

DeRozan is big on loyalty — he has the word tattooed on his hands. If he says he’s in for something, he’s all the way in. And he is in for Toronto — he and Kyle Lowry have built what that team has become. The Lowry/DeRozan backcourt fueled the Raptors to the best season in franchise history last campaign — 56 wins and reaching the Eastern Conference finals. Nobody who knew DeRozan thought he would walk away from that, not even for the chance to play for the team he grew up idolizing.

The Daily News story does a fantastic job of showing DeRozan is still loyal to Los Angeles, too — he is a regular at the Drew League to this day. He loves L.A.

But that’s different from leaving an impressive Raptors team for the Lakers.

DeMarcus Cousins looks to make most of chance with US basketball team

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 22:  Roberto Santiago Acuna #35 of Argentina knocks the ball away from DeMarcus Cousins #12 of the United States during a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena on July 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The United States won 111-74.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — DeMarcus Cousins considers the thought, and one of the NBA’s most recognizable scowls quickly turns into a bright smile.

Without saying a word, it’s clear he agrees: For the first time under Mike Krzyzewski, the U.S. Olympic basketball team has a genuine offensive weapon in the middle.

The Americans might even have the best center in the world.

Cousins had 14 points and 15 rebounds in just 16 minutes of the Americans’ exhibition opener, a 111-74 victory over Argentina. The Sacramento Kings star can score inside and out, and gives the U.S. a dimension it hasn’t had while winning the last two gold medals.

“DeMarcus is going to be a force in Rio,” teammate Klay Thompson said.

The center spot has almost been an afterthought on recent U.S. teams, who much preferred playing small to pounding the ball inside. Then again, none had a “bulldog” like Cousins, as Kevin Durant called him.

“There’s been a lot of great bigs come through this program, so I’m blessed to be in this situation,” Cousins said. “I’m honored to be in this situation. I’m not really in it to say who’s the best at what position, I’m just here to help the team win. So we’ve got one goal in mind, which is the gold, and that’s only thing I’m focused on right now.”

Along with that gold, Cousins could bring back something else from the Olympics.

His NBA career has been six seasons of bad teams and bad moods, the constant losing in Sacramento and the chaos in the organization often overshadowing his play. He doesn’t hide his unhappiness, and many times if he’s not shouting, it’s only because he’s sulking.

The 6-foot-11 center out of Kentucky averaged a career-high 26.9 points last season, fourth in the NBA, and was fifth in the league with 11.5 rebounds per game. But the Kings missed the playoffs again, as they have every season since taking Cousins with the No. 5 pick in the 2010 draft, and his bickering with coach George Karl generated more headlines than anything he or the Kings did on the court.

Now he’ll spend a month around a team that does nothing but win, and maybe that mentality will rub off on him.

“It can only help him,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said.

“I think all the players who play for us are better people for it. They become better players. As a result, they get absorbed in the culture and that culture they bring back to their respective teams, and ultimately they benefit.”

Colangelo wasn’t certain about Cousins as a young player, saying in 2012 that he needed to be “more mature as a person, as a player” and had “a lot of growing up to do.”

He now believes they have a great relationship that’s developed over time.

As has Cousins’ role with the U.S. program. He backed up Anthony Davis in the 2014 Basketball World Cup, but with Davis recovering from injuries, Cousins has a good chance to step into the starting role.

The Americans started Dwight Howard at center in 2008 and Tyson Chandler in 2012. Both are former NBA defensive players of the year, but neither possesses Cousins’ offensive repertoire.

“DeMarcus is a different player,” said U.S. veteran Carmelo Anthony, who then focused not only on what Cousins brings, but what he can bring home.

“He’s a big who can shoot, he’s a big who can post, he’s tough, he’s a hell of a rebounder,” Anthony said. “But the most exciting thing I like about having DeMarcus out here now is he gets a chance to see how everybody else is working. Work ethic. To see him jumping into lines, to see him asking can somebody work with him, staying after, coming in before, that work ethic is something that it spills over to everybody else. When you see your peers working that hard, it makes you want to be a part of that.”

Cousins doesn’t like comparing the U.S. experience to his pro one, but praises the way the Americans do little things that get forgotten in the NBA. He came to camp in great shape and seems committed to being a good teammate, whether he starts or backs up the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan.

“He’s totally invested in what we’re doing,” Krzyzewski said.

Next up for Cousins and the Americans is their second exhibition game on Sunday against China in Los Angeles.

When it’s over, Durant and Thompson will return to an NBA team with title hopes. Cousins’ future might be the usual losing and trade rumors, so he’ll miss being around a winning team.

But maybe he can help build one.

“When you leave winning situations, it’s always going to be hard. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy winning?” Cousins said. “But I’m also always ready to get back. I’m ready to share my experience with my teammates … get the season kicked off on the right foot.”

Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

Joking with Justin Timberlake at golf tournament, Stephen Curry throws mouthguard. Again.

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Well played Stephen Curry, well played.

He was joking around with Justin Timberlake at the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe this weekend (you can watch it on NBC, check your local listings) when Curry poked a little fun at himself by throwing his mouthguard.

Last time he did that he got a $25,000 fine. This time he got some laughs.

WNBA rescinds fines regarding protest shirts

FILE - In this Wednesday, July 13, 2016 file photo, members of the New York Liberty basketball team await the start of a game against the Atlanta Dream in New York. The WNBA is withdrawing its fines for teams and players that showed support of citizens and police involved in recent shootings by wearing black warmup shirts before and during games. WNBA President Lisa Borders said in a statement Saturday, July 23, the league was rescinding penalties given to the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and their players for wearing the shirts–which was a uniform violation. The players started wearing them to show solidarity after shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
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LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and a number of Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets players wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts in warmups after the death of Eric Garner in New York. LeBron and his then Heat teammates wore hoodies for a photo shoot after the Travon Martin shooting. NBA players have made other protest fashion statements, with no repercussions from the league.

But when WNBA players wore black warmup shirts in support of Black Lives Matter and other anti-violence protests, the WNBA came down with fines for the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury ($5,000) and players involved ($500) for uniform violations. That led to a lot of backlash — including among WNBA players. Some refused to answer basketball questions with the media after recent games.

Saturday, the WNBA rescinded the fines. As they should have.

The women’s players’ union supported the move, via a statement from the director of operations Terri Jackson.

“We are pleased that the WNBA has made the decision to rescind the fines the league handed down to the players on the Fever, Liberty, and Mercury. We look forward to engaging in constructive dialogue with the league to ensure that the players’ desire to express themselves will continue to be supported.”

I want a league — for men or women — where player’s individuality and statements can be made — I don’t want the NBA to be the button-down, cookie cutter NFL. Let the players be themselves. And if players want to weigh in on the biggest social issue of our time, they should. Without fear of repercussion.

Good on the WNBA for coming around to that.