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NBA Playoffs: OKC takes Game 2 in Dallas

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Can one play, early in the first quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, change a series? The Oklahoma City Thunder certainly hope so.

After falling behind by double digits early, Kevin Durant seemed to have had enough. With his Thunder looking sluggish and trailing by nine points with just over a minute left in the first quarter, Durant drove into the lane and elevated until he was eye-level with the rim, and threw down an aggressive slam over Brendan Haywood that seemed to awaken his team. From then on, OKC was able to match every move that Dallas made, and eventually was able to pull away for a 106-100 win on Thursday to even the series at a game apiece.

Dirk Nowitzki finished with 29 points, five rebounds, and five assists, but wasn’t anywhere near as dominant as he was during his 48-point performance in Game 1. The Thunder largely fronted Nowitzki defensively, and brought baseline double-team help to force the ball out of his hands.

On the Thunder’s side, Durant was big in total, but James Harden had his highest scoring game of the postseason, pouring in 23 points on just nine shots in over 32 minutes of action. But something that will most certainly be talked about before Game 3 is the fact that starting point guard Russell Westbrook was on the bench as this one came to its conclusion.

“Sticking with Eric (Maynor) over Russell, I thought Eric did a good job,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said, in a press conference streamed live on NBA.com. “Russell is an incredible player, he’s our starting point guard, but we weren’t getting a lot of things done. And his time was to come out, and I stayed with Eric.”

Westbrook was more than fine in this one, and finished with 18 points and four assists. But the group with Maynor was playing at a higher and more cohesive level late, so it’s not surprising that Brooks would stick with the bench squad that was getting it done.

Lest you think that Nowitzki simply didn’t have it in this one the way he did in Game 1, think again. He played all 12 minutes of the final quarter, and scored 16 of his team’s 24 points in that frame. But the rest of the team went just 2 of 12 in the fourth, while the Thunder, led by Harden, shot almost 65 percent to close this one out.

The lack of defense from Dallas is nothing new — as dominant as Nowitzki was in Game 1, OKC was within reasonable reach in the final minutes, and let’s not forget, Durant finished that game with 40. If the Mavs are to take command of this series, it will be as a result of their supreme execution on the offensive end of the floor.

With the series tied heading into Game 3, there are a few things to watch. Can Nowitzki once again dominate as he did in Game 1? Can the Thunder figure out the proper lineup to use late, as they did in Game 2? And most importantly, can OKC perform with its All-Star starting point guard possibly questioning his ability?

As they say, this is why we watch.

Gary Payton: “I don’t want to compare” Warriors and 1996 Bulls

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - MARCH 18:  Hall of fame basketball player Gary Payton watches his son Gary Payton II #1 of the Oregon State Beavers take on the Virginia Commonwealth Rams in the first half in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 18, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Everyone is tired of the who’s-better debate between the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 72-win 1996 Bulls, but Gary Payton — whose Sonics lost to those Bulls in the Finals — actually has a reasonable take on the matter that most people should be able to agree with.

From an interview with DeAntae Prince of Sports Illustrated:

There have been a lot comparisons between the 72-win Bulls team you played against and this year’s 73-9 Warriors squad. How do you think the Warriors would stack up?

GP: “I don’t compare them and I don’t want to compare them. They’re two different animals. The Bulls did it with a physical type of basketball, we could hand check, we could do a lot of things. It was just a different era. They come back 20 years later and go 73-9. I couldn’t compare them, because if we put Golden State in that era a lot of teams, to me, would give them problems. Because we were more physical, we put our hands on them. A lot of our teams in this era we probably would have fouled out, we probably would have had a lot of problems.”

He may have his personal feelings about which era of basketball was “better,” but his fundamental point is true: they played different styles in different eras. The Warriors wouldn’t do as well in the 1990s, and the Bulls wouldn’t do as well in the 2010s. A hypothetical matchup between the two teams would come down in large part to which era’s rules were in place. We’ll never get a definitive answer, and that’s OK.

Steve Kerr says Andrew Bogut needs to stay out of foul trouble

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Andrew Bogut #12 of the Golden State Warriors fights for possesion of the ball with Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during game one of the NBA Western Conference Final at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Steve Kerr needs a lot of things to go differently Thursday night if his defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors want to avoid elimination. That starts with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green needing to play much, much better.

But another is for Andrew Bogut to stay on the court — the Warriors defense is 15.9 points per 100 possessions better this series when he is on the court compared to off it. The Warriors are outscoring the Thunder when he plays.

So why not more minutes? Foul trouble, and Kerr wants that to change, as Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News reports.

“He’s fouling,” Kerr said. “He’s got 13 fouls in 56 minutes. He’s almost fouling out of every game in 10-15 minutes. He’s got to be smarter with his fouls. We need him out there — he was plus-7 (Tuesday) night in 11 minutes…

“When he’s out there, we rebound better,” he said. “We’ve got a good passer out of the post. We want to play Bogut more, but he’s got to stay on the floor.”

It’s not that simple for Bogut — the Thunder are aggressively attacking the rim and in the NBA the aggressors usually get the calls. Certainly Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and the rest of the Thunder front line is more athletic than Bogut.

Doesn’t matter, Bogut must figure out a way to impact shots in the paint, grab boards, and not foul. The Warriors are not winning this series going small, and if they are going to mount any comeback with a big on the court, it’s going to have to start with Bogut.

Jason Terry thinks Dwight Howard could remain with Rockets

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, 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 Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Everyone else thinks Dwight Howard is getting out of Houston this summer.

Jason Terry isn’t convinced.

Dwight Howard has a player option this summer, which he is expected to exercise and become a free agent. For one thing, he’d do it for the pay raise — he wants a max contract, starting at about $30 million. The other reason is he and James Harden have not blended in Houston, and Howard wants a fresh start.

But Jason Terry isn’t convinced yet. Terry was on SiriusXM NBA Radio and told Justin Termine and Eddie Johnson Howard may stay put. Here is the quote, via Hoopshype.

“I wouldn’t rule (a return) out. He has yet to opt out. Again, it’s just going to depend on if you get the right coach in there. At this point in his career, he’s not going to be the focal point offensively. They’ve made that clear. He’s gonna have to, if he remains in Houston, buy into the role fully, commit himself to setting screens, rebounding, running the floor, blocking shots and working on his free throws, obviously.”

In theory, a coach could come in and convince Howard to stay. In theory, I could capture Bigfoot and prove his existence to the world. Those have about the same odds of happening.

Forgetting the whole “Howard wants another max contract” thing, what Terry said about Howard accepting a role is the issue. Howard said he went directly to Rockets GM Daryl Morey and asked for a bigger role — and he was shot down. Howard does not want to accept a lesser role where his primary job is rebounding and defense, just like he never wanted to accept running more pick-and-roll and working less from the post even though he was much better at the former than the latter. Howard wants what Howard wants.

And I’d be shocked if he doesn’t want out of Houston.

Watch LeBron James’ 23 points during Game 5 win over Toronto

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A good rule of thumb: If LeBron James is getting few breakaway dunks, the other team is in trouble.

Enter the Toronto Raptors, who got to watch a dunking clinic by LeBron as he had multiple breakaways during the Cavaliers’ 38-point win on Wednesday night. LeBron played well, and the Cavaliers got a balanced attack from their stars — 25 points from Kevin Love, 23 each from LeBron and Kyrie Irving.

Watch LeBron’s night above. Toronto needs to find a way to keep him from having another game like this Friday.