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NBA Playoffs: Incredible comeback has Dallas one game from the NBA Finals

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The Thunder had this.

They did just about everything they had to do from the opening tip to secure a series-evening victory against Dallas in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.

OKC jumped out to a fast start, got a superstar-level performance from its best player, and played active team defense for the vast majority of the game. The team built a lead of 15 points with 5:06 to play after what seemed like a dagger of a three-pointer at the time from Kevin Durant.

But then, and so quickly, it all came crashing down. Dallas finished regulation on a blistering 17-2 run to send it into overtime, and finished the comeback it started by pulling off an incredible 112-105 victory to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

A slow start doomed the Thunder in Game 3, so they made sure to begin strong in this one. Oklahoma City came out firing, and made its first nine shots, on the way to an early double-digit lead. But Dallas was able to hang around thanks to 22 first-half points from Dirk Nowitzki, and after shooting almost 67 percent from the field in the second quarter, the Mavs trailed by just five at the break.

The Thunder continued to play well, however, all the way up until that fateful point in the fourth. They were aggressive defensively, and were absolute monsters on the glass, particularly on the offensive end, where they grabbed 20 rebounds compared to just five for Dallas.

But things fell apart late for Oklahoma City, seemingly right at the point when backup playmaker James Harden fouled out of the game. From 4:34 left in the fourth until the final overtime buzzer, the Mavericks outscored the Thunder 26-6.

All of a sudden, the ball movement stopped for the Thunder offensively. Shawn Marion forced Durant into difficult, heavily-contested shots. Russell Westbrook forced shots, but the blame for the collapse is far from his — there was plenty of standing around by his teammates, and the team defense of the Mavericks was simply outstanding.

And of course, there was the play of Nowitzki.

Dirk has been simply incredible this postseason, and he finished this one with his second performance of 40 points or more in this series. He had 11 of his team’s final 13 points in regulation to close the gap, scoring on a variety of ridiculously tough shots over the tight and largely solid defense of Nick Collison.

As good as Nowitzki and the Mavs were during that huge fourth quarter run, the Thunder had two chances at the end of regulation to seal it, but the execution on those possessions was just atrocious.

The first play came out of a timeout with Oklahoma City still leading by two. There was actually player movement on this possession as the team got into a set play, but the only shot the Thunder were able to get was a corner three-point attempt from Thabo Sefolosha.

The look was clean, and the pass from Durant was a good one in that situation. But it’s unconscionable with the game, and maybe the series on the line that coming out of a timeout, something can’t be drawn up to get the ball into your best player’s hands for something that resembles a decent shot.

On the Thunder’s following possession with the game tied and 6.4 seconds remaining in regulation, they got it to Durant this time, only they did so more than 30 feet from the basket. Durant panicked, and launched a contested three that Marion got a piece of, and to overtime we went.

Jason Kidd and Nowitzki finished things off once they got there, and will likely do the same to the Thunder on Wednesday in Game 5. Only this time, it will be for good, and the veterans will head to the NBA Finals, while the youngsters head home to try to learn from the experience.

Give all the credit in the world to Dallas, but really, it’s too bad for Oklahoma City. True, it’s a young and inexperienced team that has suffered from below average coaching in this series, especially on the offensive end of the floor. But with a 15-point lead, at home, with under five minutes remaining?

The Thunder had this.

Karl-Anthony Towns beats out Isaiah Thomas to take Skills Challenge title

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 09:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts after hitting a basket against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 9, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — In a new twist to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the NBA made the decision this year to add big men to a competition that has traditionally focused on point guards. The new wrinkle created new layers of intrigue, an unusual amount of controversy and, ultimately, a new champion: Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns.

C.J. McCollum beat out Jordan Clarkson in the first round, and Isaiah Thomas took care of Emmanuel Mudiay. In something of an upset, Towns handled Draymond Green, who is the NBA’s leader in triple-doubles.

The other matchup in the first round came with some controversy: DeMarcus Cousins missed all three attempts at the chest pass into the ring but moved on in the obstacle course and ultimately defeated Anthony Davis. This led to widespread criticism on social media for Cousins being allowed to advance without completing all the drills.

But Towns beat out Cousins in the semifinals, thereby preventing a nightmare scenario where a winner might have to have an asterisk next to his title.

Thomas beat McCollum in the guards’ semifinals. McCollum lost his dribble early on in the round and never really recovered.

The final round between Towns and Thomas went down to the wire, but Towns’ three-pointer went down first, giving him the title.

 

Russell Westbrook on Lakers speculation: “Nah, I like where I am now”

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  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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TORONTO — No matter what Russell Westbrook does, he cannot escape the rumors that have followed him for years. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college basketball at UCLA—so, it’s only logical that when he hits free agency in the summer of 2017, he’ll look to sign with the Lakers, right?

Westbrook did his best to shut that down on Saturday after practice with the Western Conference All-Stars.

“Nah,” Westbrook said. “I like where I am now. Oklahoma City is a great place for me.”

Westbrook admitted that he grew up a Lakers fan, but said he never thought of playing there as a kid.

“I never thought I’d play in the NBA,” he said. “I was just watching them.”

Westbrook has another full season to go before his contract with the Thunder is up, so it’s going to be a while before there’s any resolution here. A lot, of course, will depend on what Kevin Durant does this summer.

If Durant sticks around and the Thunder make another deep playoff run next season, it becomes more likely that Westbrook will stay. But if Durant goes somewhere else, there’s a good chance Westbrook follows suit. For now, all they can do is deflect the speculation that will be there no matter what they say.

Gregg Popovich says he thinks more about Warriors than any team he ever faced

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Gregg Popovich and his Spurs have gone up against some powerhouse teams in the past 17 years. There were the Shaq/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, The Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers, LeBron James‘ Miami Heat teams, and the list goes on.

But nobody has given him more to think about than Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

That’s what he said on ESPN Radio Friday, as reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it.”

When you think about those legendary teams Popovich faced, they may have been a little less mentally taxing to gameplan for. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers ran the triangle (an offense Popovich was familiar with), but most of what made them great was exceptional talent — two future Hall of Famers at their peaks. The Spurs tried to bully the Suns, and then they developed a motion offense that eventually shredded the Heat.

The Warriors are different, and Popovich gets to a fundamental problem in defeating them:

“They’re talented. But they’re also very, very smart.”

That’s what’s hard to plan for — smart players and smart teams adjust, and the Warriors by design loaded their roster with high IQ guys. If you adjust, they counter. And for the last season-and-a-half, that has worked brilliantly.

LeBron James on Kevin Love trade rumors: “They’re false”

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TORONTO — The rumors were out there: the Boston Celtics were interested in Kevin Love and were talking trade with Cleveland.

LeBron James would have none of that.

“It’s false,” LeBron said of the rumors when speaking to the media after the Eastern Conference’s All-Star Game practice Saturday. “It’s the only thing I can look at it and say it’s false. That’s the last thing guys are worried about right now are trade talks from our team.”

That echoed what Carmelo Anthony said. The buzz around Toronto (where the NBA has gathered for All-Star Weekend) that there wasn’t a lot of to the talks and if there was any momentum has stalled out.

Still, there will be talks, and there will be plenty of Cavaliers trade rumors in the run-up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Cleveland could use some shooting from the wing and quality depth to provide versatility going up against Golden State or San Antonio in the Finals.

LeBron just wants to make sure the talks don’t impact the locker room.

“One thing about this business is you can only control what you can control. Things that you can’t control, you can’t let it bother you, and I’ve learned that over the years,” LeBron said. “There is so much that goes on in professional sports that if you just focus on what you can control, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Love rumors likely will continue to flare up this week, but they are not going to move him unless another team makes a Godfather offer.

The Cavaliers have been 10.1 points per 100 possessions better this season when Love is on the court compared to off it (and their defense does get marginally better when he plays). When Love, LeBron, and Kyrie Irving are on the court together the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are massive numbers.

The Cavaliers are a win-now team, if you’re going to break up part of that trio it has to be for something that makes the team demonstrably better. And that kind of superstar trade is rare at the February deadline anymore.