Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook

Another close game, another Oklahoma City Thunder win

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Oklahoma City has been one of the best teams in close games all season — when games are within 3 points (either way) in the last three minutes, the Thunder were 13-3 coming into Monday night.

Make that 14-3. Monday night they won another close one, this time beating the Dallas Mavericks 95-91 by scoring the final eight points of the game.

Over at Sports Illustrated earlier on Monday, Zach Lowe looked at the Thunder’s late-game success and said it has more to do with their defense than their offense (which can be predictable and stagnant).

In the last five minutes of games with a scoring margin of five or fewer points in either direction, teams before Saturday had shot just 30 percent (45-of-150) against Oklahoma City and scored the equivalent of just 85.8 points per 100 possessions. Those numbers ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among all defenses in those situations, per NBA.com.

Monday night the Thunder did stop the Mavericks… well, except for Dirk Nowitzki. In the final five minutes of this game, Nowitzki shot 3-1, 3-0 from three. Every other Maverick was 0-4 in that same time frame.

Nowitzki’s third three in the final five minutes had Dallas up 91-87, but that is when the good shots stopped for Dallas. Look at their final possessions.

• A 13-foot Nowitzki one-legged fade away over Kendrick Perkins that rims out (a bad shot for almost any other player, not a bad one for Nowitzki).

• Nowitzki drives the lane, draws the defenders then dishes to the opposite wing where he thought Jason Kidd would be, except he was in the corner. Turnover Dallas.

• Kendrick Perkins had two great defensive plays late and this was one — off a pick he got switched on to Terry but stayed in front of the smaller guard and forced him into a tough shot that was airballed.

• Not sure you can credit the Thunder with great defense on the last Dallas possession, it was just bad execution. Terry drove the right side to the baseline, where he ran into a cutting Kidd, who caught the ball off balance and falling out of bounds, he threw it back to Terry, who tried a little jumper over Perkins again. It missed. Ballgame.

Nowitzki led all scorers with 27 points. Russell Westbrook had 24, Durant 22.

There are moments this season when you think maybe Dallas — or at other times the Spurs or Lakers or Clippers — could challenge the Thunder in the West. But when you watch OKC closing out close games with great defense and two of the best pure scorers in the game, you have to question that. You can pick apart the end-of-game Thunder sets or whatever you want, but nobody has this package of players. They are the best team in the West and legit title contenders. Unless somebody makes a big move before the March 15 trade deadline, it’s hard to see anyone else coming out of the West.

Joakim Noah skips Knicks dinner with West Point cadets due to anti-war stance

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Professional Basketball Player Joakim Noah (C) attends the DKNY Women fashion show during New York Fashion Week: The Shows September 2016 at High Line on September 12, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for New York Fashion Week)
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The Knicks have held training camp at West Point the last few years, and last night, the team dined with Army cadets:

But Joakim Noah didn’t participate.

Noah, via Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“It’s hard for me a little bit – I have a lot of respect for the kids here fighting — but it’s hard for me to understand why we go to war and why kids have to kill kids all around the world,’’ Noah said. “I have mixed feeling about being here. I’m very proud of this country. I love America. I don’t understand kids killing kids around the world.’’

Noah received permission from Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek to skip the team function. He was the only member of the team not in attendance. Noah said his decision to skip the dinner and speech was not intended as a form of protest.

“It’s not my way of saying anything – I was not comfortable,’’ Noah said.

Noah has dual citizenship in the United States and France, the home of his father, Yannick Noah, the former tennis star. Noah admitted he’s “not very patriotic,’’ believing people should respect people more than “flags.’’

Noah’s view will be unpopular, but he has every right to hold it. There’s a growing current of people asking for more athlete activism, but people better realize: You might not always like the stance players take. For those who claim to value politically minded players, this is part of what you get.

Personally, I disagree with Noah. The Revolutionary War helped him secure the right to speak out on this. World War II kept his beloved France from being run by a tyrannical Nazi regime. Just because some wars are unjust doesn’t make all wars unjust. I also believe in honoring American soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms.

But I also respect Noah’s right to seek a comfortable situation for himself. Some people can be anti-war and easily separate the soldiers as individuals. For others, apparently including Noah, all war machinery is intertwined.

Keep in mind, Noah didn’t actively disparage any soldiers. He’s not seeking supporters for a cause. He just chose not participate in an event he never asked to be apart of.

LeBron James on Cavaliers negotiations: ‘I just hate to deal with this s— again,’ J.R. Smith ‘did his part’

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22:  Kyrie Irving #2, LeBron James #23 and J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers look on during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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LeBron James has implicitly loomed over contract negotiations between the Cavaliers and J.R. Smith. LeBron shares an agent – Rich Paul, whose clientele (including Tristan Thompson) LeBron considers to be family – with Smith.

Now, LeBron is getting more explicit.

Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports:

LeBron has frequently praised Smith, including this offseason. If the Cavs haven’t gotten the message by now, it ought to be clear: LeBron values Smith and winning and believes the former will help the latter.

This doesn’t mean LeBron will leave in free agency in 2018, but with a rumor that LeBron believes delivering a title to Cleveland frees him to bolt if he so chooses, do the Cavaliers really want to test him? Do they really want to restrain a team capable of defending its championship?

I respect the Cavs’ desire to sign Smith to a sensible contract, and LeBron is well within his rights to advocate for a fellow player (and himself getting a better supporting cast). These negotiations are all about leverage – and LeBron is using his.

Byron Scott: I have no relationship now with D’Angelo Russell

Kobe Bryant, D'Angelo Russell, Byron Scott
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As D'Angelo Russell heaps praise on new Lakers coach Luke Walton, it’s difficult not to interpret the comments as an implicit slam of Byron Scott.

How does the previous Lakers coach, who frequently clashed with Russell, feel about that?

Scott – who coached Jason Kidd with the Nets, Chris Paul with the Hornets and Kyrie Irving with the Cavaliers – via TMZ:

It doesn’t bother me at all. My track record with guards speaks for itself. So, I don’t pay, really, no attention.

It don’t have a relationship with D’Angelo.

Russell might find that familiar.

Kendrick Perkins: Kevin Durant didn’t properly respect Russell Westbrook with or while leaving Thunder

MEMPHIS, TN - MAY 13:  Kevin Durant #35 reacts with Kendrick Perkins #5 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Perkins' basket and a foul against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum on May 13, 2011 in Memphis, Tennessee.  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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On one hand, there’s the Kevin Durant who professed his deep friendship with Russell Westbrook, had Westbrook’s back at every turn and even preemptively stuck up for Westbrook.

On the other hand, there’s the Durant who reportedly had problems with Westbrook’s playing style, distanced himself from Westbrook during free agency, signed with the Warriors, texted Westbrook about his departure and, according to Westbrook, hasn’t talked to Westbrook.

How do you square all that?

Kendrick Perkins, who played with the two stars on the Thunder, provides fantastic perspective.

Perkins on The Vertical Podcast with Woj:

I think to me, what happened was with Russ and KD, I think they never really valued one another other like they should have. And not saying that they didn’t value as didn’t like each other. What I’m talking is, I don’t think they ever realized and said – I don’t think Russ ever realized and said, “Hey, man, I got Kevin Durant on my side. We could take over this league.” And I never thought KD did the vice versa. He never said, “Hey, I got Russell Westbrook on my side.” You’ve got two of the top five players in the NBA on the same team, and I just think that they never valued each other.

And trust me – I’m telling you this right now – when they think about this 10 years later, they’re going regret that. They’re going to regret that they didn’t value each other the way that they should have. And I’m talking about both of them.

And I ain’t saying they didn’t like each other, because it wasn’t none of that. I mean, we all played cards. They laughed and joked. We all had conversation. We had a group text going about Redskins and Cowboys football, because it was all good.

I think what it was was this. Let me correct that. I think what it was was this. Russ actually did value KD as being the player that he is. But what I had to explain – and I explained to KD – is that what you have to understand also about Russ is that Russ, at the time, he wasn’t getting the credit of being on the same level as KD. But he had the potential.

And like I was saying was, the whole thing was that, I thought out of all that, it never really came down to those two guys that got in the way of each other. It always was the outside that got in the way of both of them.

It was always the outside. It was always a controversy of whose team it was.

Why it just can’t be both of y’all’s team? How about Russ goes for 50 one night, you go for 60 the next night? How about it just be both of y’all’s team.

And the thing is is that, at the time, KD was already probably a two-time All-Star, the No. 1 draft pick while Russ, when I first got there was still kind of putting his name out there. And then all of a sudden, Russ caught up to KD, and they both was kind of on the same level as far as just being the elite icons of the league.

And I just think that they will have some type of regrets in the next 10 years or when they’re done about that they couldn’t handle it better when they was still together.

Not saying there was beef. I was talking about on the court.

It’s cool that KD – you’re a man, you decide the decision that you want to make. But at the end of the day, there’s a way about how you go about it. And you don’t send Russ a text and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to the Warriors.’

No, you do like LeBron James did when he left Miami. He went down and he sat and had diner with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to tell the that he was leaving, that he was going to sign with Cleveland. That’s what you do. That’s what you do. That carries a long way. It don’t take you nothing to call Nick Collison and Russell Westbrook and go and sit down and have a conversation with them and say, “Guys, hey look, it’s been fun. I still love y’all like my brothers. But I’m going to Golden State.”

I think it’s more of his personality that it would have been hard for him actually look Russ and Nick in the eyes. Because if he would have sat down at a lunch table, I think it would have been the same thing that happened with DeAndre Jordan  It’s easier to text and be done with it than actually sit down face-to-face and actually look your friend and your brother in the eyes that you done went to war with for six years. It’s a lot harder, and it make your decision a lot harder.

I obviously didn’t have the access to Durant and Westbrook like Perkins did. But if Durant fully respected Westbrook in all the ways Perkins said was lacking, how different would that have looked?

On the court, Durant often ceded control to Westbrook, allowing Westbrook to grow into a superstar peer. Maybe Durant deferred begrudgingly, but he did it – maybe even too much earlier in their time together.

And it’s not as if going to Golden State proved Durant undervalued Westbrook. Durant left to play with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. This wasn’t a case like Stephon Marbury, who forced himself off the Kevin Garnett-led Timberwolves to play with Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles in New Jersey.

Yes, Durant could’ve shown Westbrook more respect by telling him in person about leaving. But, as Perkins acknowledged, that would’ve been difficult for Durant. Durant earned the ability to operate free agency how deemed best, and if he didn’t want to be temped into going back to Oklahoma City, he deserves the respect to handle it that way.

I tend to think Durant and Westbrook will look back on their years together with some remorse. Durant might even eventually wish his attitude about Westbrook was different.

I’m just not sure what that would’ve actually changed.