Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant

Thunder show off against Bulls as a question of athleticism comes into play

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Derrick was out, and had he played, this would have been a totally different game. Let’s just get that out in front right now. There is just no way to understate the impact that Derrick Rose, last season’s MVP, might have had on the Thunder’s 92-78 win vs. the Bulls on Sunday. This team is entirely different in its offense and in part its defense because of Rose’s singular talent.

That said?

In a game with impossible expectations, where the Thunder couldn’t impress because of the absence of Rose, they still made a statement. Because Rose playing wasn’t going to change much about the Thunder putting up 70 points with 5:25 to go in the third, about how the OKC offense took it to what many consider the best defense in the league consistently over a 48-minute stretch and took the life out of a team that seemingly has no quit in it.

For the Bulls, it shows a concern towards athleticism. Rose is a super-freak, that’s pretty obvious. But outside of maybe Noah and Taj Gibson the Bulls don’t play as a hyper-athletic team. Luol Deng has great length and speed. C.J. Watson has good burst. But overall, the Bulls are much more built for a grind-it-out approach. And that, in general, has always been the more successful model come the playoffs. It’s clear that was the intention for how the team was built. But against a team like the Thunder (or the Heat in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals), the problems multiply. In short, teams that can outrun the Bulls’ transition defense can hurt them badly.

The game was actually not out of hand until the third quarter. In that quarter, the Thunder scored 31 points on 21 shots, with a 95.2% True Shooting Percentage (factoring threes and free throws). That’s just absurd.  They held Chicago to a 49 offensive efficiency. So if the Bulls had played like they did in the third for 100 possessions, the Thunder would have given up just 49 points. That is really very bad.

Chicago can’t tout their wins over teams like Miami without Rose as a sign of their dominance and throw away this one. If they had hung, it would have sent a big message that if they had Rose, they would be right in it. As it stands, they are no longer playing the best in the league, they do need Rose, and they are struggling against hyper-athletic teams. It’s not a major problem, it’s just one game and this is still one of the baddest teams in the land.

But is there a team better equipped to down Chicago than the Thunder and Heat? Hyper-athletic superstar teams who can get to the rim and hit mid-range jumpers. If the Bulls defense engages, the Thunder can hit jumpers off the screen. Even their bigs match up well, with Ibaka and Perkins being comparable counters for Boozer and Noah. It’s just not a good thing that the two teams Chicago is likely to face in their last two series in a Finals run would be the best teams geared to beat them.

And all that said…

Derrick Rose didn’t play.

We learned Sunday that the Thunder are every bit as good as advertised, that they are playing the best ball they can right now. That Chicago is not invincible. But we haven’t learned a thing about who would win a Finals series. We’ll have to wait two more months to get that.

Denver’s Kenneth Faried gets up, blocks DeAndre Jordan dunk attempt (VIDEO)

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Without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the lineup, the Clippers don’t have much going for them offensively. However, there is one thing: DeAndre Jordan can still run to the rim and dunk with authority.

Denver’s Kenneth Faried took that away Saturday.

Faried hustled back in transition, showed he still had some hops and swatted away a Jordan dunk attempt.

The Nuggets went on to win the game comfortably, 123-98, behind 19 points and 10 boards from Nikola Jokic.

Suns’ Devin Booker sinks three that defeats Knicks (VIDEO)

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The Knicks last three losses have come by a total of six points. The team is not good, a little banged up, and doesn’t play any defense, but New York also has just had a run of bad luck.

The latest example: Phoenix’s Devin Booker draining a three to knock off New York, 107-105. It was a mistake by Derrick Rose, who sagged down to the free throw line watching Eric Bledsoe with the ball coming off the pick, which led to the open pass. Also, notice that Booker set up three feet back of the three-point line — this is a trend a lot of teams and good shooters are following (watch a Rockets’ game) because it makes the closeout harder. Rose would have contested a shot at the arc, but Booker gets a clean look from where he spotted up, and drills it.

Carmelo Anthony got a shot to win it for the Knicks, but his rimmed out.

Kawhi Leonard drops 41, Spurs best Cavaliers in OT in what may be game of the Year (VIDEO)

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The Spurs would like you to include them in your conversations about contenders.

Without Pau Gasol (hand) or Tony Parker (foot), San Antonio went into Cleveland and beat the defending NBA champions in OT 118-115 in what was one of the wildest, most entertaining games of the season. Check out the clutch-time action above, including LeBron James hitting a three Shaker Heights.

But the real star was Kawhi Leonard, who put up a career-best 41 on 30 shots. He’s the guy who has to create and make plays for this offense, and he did it on a big stage. LeBron added 29 points. Between them, they put on quite a show.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nic Batum lead Hornets past Nets 112-105

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 04:  Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets in action against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Barclays Center on November 4, 2016 in New York City. 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 Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nic Batum has certainly had better shooting nights.

But the eight-year NBA veteran from France was feeling pretty good after making two clutch 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Charlotte Hornets defeat the Brooklyn Nets 112-105 on Saturday night for their third straight win.

“I missed some easy that I need to make,” Batum said. “So I feel like when it’s a close game like that, I need to make some big plays and I did.”

After letting a 17-point first half advantage slip away, Charlotte grabbed the lead for good with 3:21 left in the game when Batum got a fadeaway 3-pointer to fall after the ball bounced lazily on the rim four times before going in. Batum, who was fouled on the play, added the free throw to complete the four-point play.

Batum added a 3-pointer from the left wing on the next possession to push the lead to 104-98. Kemba Walker then sank a leaning 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Charlotte some extra breathing room.

Coach Steve Clifford said he has no idea how Batum shoots the ball so well off-balanced.

“He’s done it since before he got in the NBA,” Clifford said. “He’s got great balance and hand-eye coordination.”

Batum finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Hornets.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 17 points and 14 rebounds for Charlotte, which avenged a 120-118 loss to the Nets on Dec. 26 in which Randy Foye beat them with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Brook Lopez had 24 points for the struggling Nets, who have lost 12 of their last 13 and failed in their quest to become the last NBA team to reach double digits in wins this season.

“We came in and we were exhausted from last night and had a bad first quarter, but we responded to that,” Lopez said. “We came in the second half and definitely made it a game and that’s the way we’ve got to play every night.”

TIP INS

Nets: Jeremy Lin remained out with a hamstring injury. … Attempted 41 3-pointers in the game, making 17. … Lopez had his 15th 20-point game this season. … Quincy Acy had a season-high 14 points off the bench. … Had a season-high 30 assists.

Hornets: Shot 54.5 percent in the first half from the field, including 6 of 13 from 3-point range to build a 60-46 lead. … Marvin Williams has made a 3-pointer in 18 straight games.

TOUGH FIRST QUARTER

The Hornets jumped out to a quick 16-4 lead as the Nets missed 11 of their first 12 shots from the field. Clifford called it the team’s best first quarter of the season, considering the Nets put up 143 points against New Orleans the night before.

“They’re hard to guard,” Clifford said. “They have so many ways to drive the ball. They’re very difficult to guard. I thought our guys battled hard.”

3-POINT SHOOTING

Charlotte, which made 14 of 29 3-pointers, had seven of those in the fourth quarter.

“Two of them were off our turnovers,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “You turnover, you have to sprint back, matchup and find 3-point shooters. Credit to them, they made some huge shots.”

SCHOOL IN SESSIONS

Here’s a rarity this season: Ramon Sessions, Charlotte’s backup point guard, had 17 points and actually outscored All-Star candidate Kemba Walker, who had 16 points.

“Kemba carries us every game, so when we can step in and give those guys a rest,” Sessions said. “Last game, he didn’t have to play in the fourth quarter, so during the season if we can get those stretches where he doesn’t have to play as many minutes that will be good for us in the long run.”

UP NEXT

Nets: Host the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night.

Hornets: Play their third game of a five-game homestand Monday night against the Washington Wizards.