Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four

NBA Playoffs: Thunder learning lessons. The hard way.

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These are hard, painful lessons for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

They are the hard, painful lessons virtually every championship team has had to learn. Michael Jordan and his Bulls were knocked out three straight years by the Detroit Pistons, teaching him hard lessons. It’s true of champions since. Even the two-time, soon-to-be-dethroned Lakers had to not just lose but get crushed by the Celtics in a closeout game to understand the final steps they had to take.

Championship teams learn from these lessons and come back better for it. The Thunder started that process last season, lessons learned from the energy the Lakers responded with when challenged last season helped propel the Thunder to the Western Conference finals

This season, the Thunder are taking tougher courses. The new lessons all focus around execution. Particularly execution under pressure. About finishing off games on the biggest stages.

These are painful lessons, especially when they come on the end of a loss where you were up 15 points with less than five minutes to go.

The lessons are that to win close games in the playoffs requires you create space for your stars by having other threats the defense has to respect, having good play designs and then executing those plays. The Thunder had none of those at the end of Game 4.

“We struggled at the end with execution, and we struggled throughout the game with turnovers,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said in his postgame interview, broadcast on NBA TV.

Some of the lessons the Thunder are being taught:

• With the game on the line, your best shooters have to get looks or set up other scorers. Meaning if Kevin Durant is going to see a hard double-team — and he will every time — then Thabo Sefolosha is not the guy who should be the outlet for the three. He shot 27.5 percent from three this season and is a career 30 percent shooter from deep. Yet he was the guy taking a key late three because he was open. He was open for a reason. Jordan learned the pass the ball with the game on the line but Steve Kerr was a knock down shooter (career 45 percent from three). It’s not just making the pass, it’s making the pass to the right guy.

Which brings us to another lesson…

• A team needs to have some good end of play sets. A chunk of this falls to Scott Brooks, who at one point late in the game had his team come out of a timeout to run a Westbrook isolation. There was no clever play drawn up to free him.

When things got tight late the Thunder reverted to a Durant/Westbrook pick and roll that was easy to defend, basically forcing an isolation play. Look what happened on that second-to-last play: Dallas did not respect as a threat anybody else on the court so they had three guys up and defending the pick and roll, which was really more of a handoff to Durant then Westbrook slid out of the way. So Durant tried a 30-foot shot that was still blocked by Shawn Marion. The play had no chance of working because there was no execution.

“I didn’t have anything else to do,” Durant said of the play. “I caught the ball I was at the half court line, there where three Mavericks in front of me and three seconds on the clock. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to run into their defense and had another shot.”

The play had no other good passing options, no guys moving off the ball, no getting the ball to Durant in the post or a spot he likes on the floor. It wasn’t even a good clear out play.

The way that went down brings us to another lesson…

• The front office needs to get more shooters and scorers. They rightfully love the way this team has come together in Oklahoma City. This is a good group. But once James Harden went out — once a third serious scoring option left the floor — the Thunder become predictable. They don’t pay the price for that much in the regular season because Durant and Westbrook are such serious talents, but in the playoffs against a good team it doesn’t work.

• The Thunder need to be able to defend better at the end of games. This is pretty self explanitory. It’s not just on offense, the best teams can get stops late, not make key fouls. This, however, is a little harder to pin on the Thunder at the end of Game 4 because Dirk Nowitzki is one of the great scorers the game has and sometimes you can’t stop him. Also, that foul on Nick Collison guarding Durant late could have gone either way (we’ve all seen that both called and ignored at the end of close games, it was borderline).

• Westbrook has to learn to better use his explosiveness to set guys up, Durant has to learn how to better play in traffic and get inside late in games.

The jumpshots Durant was settling for at the end of the game looked like Kobe Bryant’s pull up jumpers late. And that is not a good sign. You want to be more like Kobe circa 2001, the guy who would attack the rim late in games. Durant has to find a way to be a bigger threat in traffic and not just settle for pull-up jumpers.

Westbrook has taken a lot of heat this series, and certainly some of it is deserved. He has to find a way to strike a better balance with his teammates — like he did in Game 7 against Memphis. He is a young point guard — he didn’t play the point until the pros and he is only 22. He is learning, figuring out when he has to attack and when that attack should be to set others up. But under pressure he reverts to wanting to score because that is what he did for so long. He does not think pass first — he’s getting better, but he’s not there yet.

Which is sort of where all the Thunder are — close but not quite there yet. Another small couple of pieces used better, both by the coach in better sets and the stars as release valves. Just better execution under pressure.

The Thunder are learning hard lessons. But they are lessons champions have learned and grow from.

Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell slips, mildly sprains knee ligament. MRI Saturday.

Indiana Pacers forward Thaddeus Young, right, takes the ball away as Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell, center, falls to the floor with an injury during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell mildly sprained a ligament in his right knee in the opening minutes of Los Angeles’ game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday night.

Russell was re-evaluated at halftime and did not return to the game.

Russell was hurt while going around a screen set by teammate Julius Randle on Los Angeles’ second possession. The point guard’s left leg alarmingly stretched backward when he lost his footing, and he stayed down on the court for several moments.

He eventually walked on his own to the locker room, where the sprain was diagnosed.

Russell is averaging 14.8 points, 4.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds during the second NBA season for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Dwyane Wade apologizes to Bulls fans after ugly Chicago loss

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Even for an up-and-down Bulls team that has seen some sloppy losses, Friday night’s was ugly. The Atlanta Hawks went on a 36-11 run between the end of the first quarter and the start of the second, they led by as many as 34, and cruised in for the 103-92 win. The game wasn’t that close, the Hawks thoroughly outplayed the Bulls, and after the game ended coach Fred Hoiberg said he and his staff need to reexamine everything.

Dwyane Wade went another direction, apologizing to fans.

Wade was 2-of-10 shooting on the night.

Despite the loss, the Bulls remain tied with the Bucks for the final playoff slot in the East, a race that will likely include Detroit and New York (and maybe Charlotte) and go down to the final days of the season. The Bulls (21-23) can’t have many more games like Friday.

Warriors get 6th straight win, 125-108 over Rockets

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry reacts after making a 3-point basket late in the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Houston. Golden State won 125-108. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
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HOUSTON (AP) — Kevin Durant scored 32 points and the Golden State Warriors used a big third quarter to build a huge lead and coast to their sixth straight victory, 125-108 over the Houston Rockets on Friday night.

In a matchup of two of the best teams in the Western Conference and All-Star starting guards Stephen Curry and James Harden, the Rockets fell short. Houston, which entered the game leading the NBA with 667 3-pointers, was just 7 of 35 behind the arc. Harden went 0 for 5 and Eric Gordon, who entered the game leading the NBA with 160 3s, missed all seven attempts.

Clint Capela had 22 points and Harden added 17 points with 11 assists for the Rockets, who are third in the West behind Golden State and San Antonio.

The Warriors were up by five at halftime and used a 12-4 run to open the second half and stretch their lead to 74-61 with about nine minutes left in the quarter. Golden State got six points from Durant in that span, including a dunk and a nifty reverse layup.

Houston got four points from Capela after that before Golden State used a 10-2 run, with 3s from Draymond Green and Curry, to make it 84-67 midway through the period.

Golden State pushed the lead to 99-79 entering the fourth quarter.

Houston won the first game against Golden State this season in two overtimes to snap an eight-game, regular-season losing streak to the Warriors. But it was clear the Rockets wouldn’t make it two in a row after they scored just 22 points and went 0 for 10 on 3-pointers in the third quarter.

Houston scored the first five points of the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 99-84. But Golden State used a 9-4 run after that to extend its lead to 20 points by the midpoint of the quarter, and many fans started heading for the exits.

Curry finished with 24 points and made five 3-pointers, including one with about 3 1/2 minutes remaining that left the Warriors up 117-93. Both teams cleared their benches after that.

The Warriors led 62-57 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Warriors: Golden State made 15 of 38 3-pointers. … Klay Thompson added 16 points. … Green had 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

Rockets: Ryan Anderson had one rebound in nine minutes in his return after missing two games with the flu. … Capela played 21 minutes off the bench in his third game back after missing a month with a fracture on his left fibula. … Sam Dekker had 17 points for his 11th double-digit game this season. …

CHEERING ON THE HOME TEAM

Houston Texans star J.J. Watt cheered the Rockets on from a courtside seat. He received a huge ovation when he was shown on the Jumbotron during a timeout in the second quarter. Watt, who won NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season, played just three games this season before having season-ending back surgery.

 

Penny Hardaway inducted into Magic Hall of Fame (VIDEO)

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 15:  Penny Hardaway attends the Sears Shooting Stars Competition 2014 as part of the 2014 NBA All-Star Weekend at the Smoothie King Center on February 15, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Orlando Magic have inducted Penny Hardaway into the franchise’s Hall of Fame.

Hardaway, a game-changing point guard at 6-foot-7, becomes just the fifth player in franchise history to be inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame. He was enshrined during a pregame ceremony Friday and will be honored during a special halftime presentation during Orlando’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Amway Center.

Acquired by the Magic during the 1993 NBA Draft, Hardaway spent six seasons in Orlando where he averaged 19 points, 6.3 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.95 steals per game. Hardaway and center Shaquille O’Neal guided the Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995 where they lost to the Houston Rockets.

Hardaway remains third on the team’s all-time steals list (718) and fourth in assists (2,343).