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.

Thunder’s Taj Gibson providing scoring help for Westbrook

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Taj Gibson often describes his role for the Thunder as doing whatever the team needs.

For now, scoring is playing a bigger part than usual. The versatile 6-foot-9 power forward has found his way since being traded from Chicago and has emerged one of Oklahoma City’s few consistent offensive weapons alongside Russell Westbrook in the playoffs. He may need to keep it up to give the Thunder a chance of winning the first-round series with Houston – Oklahoma City trails 2-1 heading into Game 4 Sunday at home.

Gibson built a sterling reputation in Chicago, but the Brooklyn, New York native is more concerned with the respect he’s earned since his arrival.

“They see I’m in here late nights, early mornings, just constantly working with my teammates, constantly putting work in,” he said. “The confidence is going to be there because they understand you do the work, but I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help my team.”

Gibson has done a little bit of everything since coming to the Thunder. He has provided experience and versatility to an already stacked frontline that includes emerging young players Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. He also has added toughness, and at times, scoring punch. His athleticism and ability to guard on the perimeter against outside-shooting big men and on switches fills some of the void created when the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka on draft night this past offseason.

“Great vet,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “Great man, first and foremost. Very positive and does what it takes to win. It was a great pickup for us.”

Domantas Sabonis was the starting power forward when Gibson arrived in Oklahoma City, but once he got settled and began to understand coach Billy Donovan’s system, the Thunder improved. Gibson replaced Sabonis for the first time March 9 against San Antonio, and the Thunder went 11-5 with him in the starting lineup. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21 regular-season games for the Thunder.

He is averaging 11 points on 65 percent shooting in the playoffs. He was effective on offense in Game 2, establishing himself early and helping put the Thunder in position to win. Oklahoma City went away from him late, and Houston rallied for the victory.

In Game 3, the Thunder went back to him consistently. a href(equals)’https://apnews.com/dab4b99c496a4450906c11a9c72132d1/Westbrook’s-triple-double-leads-Thunder-past-Rockets-115-113?utm-campaign=SocialFlow&utm-source=Twitter&utm-medium=AP-Sports’He finished with 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting in Oklahoma City’s 115-113 win/a on Friday night.

“Taj is a great post player,” Westbrook said. “He does a great job of getting in great position down low. When we see a matchup that we like we are going to keep going to him. Whether it is a miss or a make, it gives us the opportunity to score the basketball in the paint.”

Gibson did damage inside and out and punished the Rockets with his mid-range jumper.

“It’s no shock to me, just because that mid-range is automatic for him,” Thunder forward Doug McDermott, who also joined the Thunder in the trade with Chicago, said. “He’s tough to guard on that block too.”

Gibson also had a fast start in Game 2, but once the Thunder began to struggle, they went away from him. Gibson knew he didn’t need to change much going into Game 3.

“Just continue to be aggressive,” he said. “I felt like I had good shots in Game 2. Just got to stay with it and play the game as it flows to me.”

On defense, Gibson has been a better option than Kanter and Adams, who have struggled to keep up with the more athletic Rockets. Gibson performed well in all facets in Game 3, and Donovan needs more of that in Game 4.

“I was happy for him last night,” Donovan said Saturday. “I thought he gave us a great lift in both the first and second half. He’s professional, he’s a man, and he’s a reliable guy.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .

Watch Kawhi Leonard, Mike Conley in epic playoff duel Saturday (VIDEO)

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Kawhi Leonard scored 16 straight points for the Spurs at the end of regulation to give San Antonio the lead and a chance. Then Mike Conley hit a floater in the lane forced overtime.

There Mike Conley hit a floating bank shot that had the Grizzlies up three with :47 seconds left, only to have Leonard answer with a three to tie the game. Marc Gasol would break that tie and get Memphis the series-evening win.

Conley and Leonard traded blows through the clutch parts of Saturday’s epic Game 4 between Memphis and San Antonio. It’s worth checking out the highlights again.

John Wall goes coast-to-coast, behind-the-back for lefty dunk (VIDEO)

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There’s not going to be many plays better than this in the entire playoffs.

There wasn’t a lot for Wizards’ fans to cheer in Game 3, the Hawks took control early and routed Washington, making it a 2-1 series. But there was this, John Wall going coast-to-coast with the ball, going around-the-back and throwing it down left handed.

Wall is just so fast end to end.

Warriors take 3-0 series lead over Blazers with 119-113 win

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Stephen Curry scored 34 points, Klay Thompson added 24 and the short-handed Golden State Warriors overcame a slow start to take a 3-0 lead in their playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers with a 119-113 victory on Saturday night.

The Blazers led by as many as 17 points in the first half, but couldn’t hold off the Warriors, who can clinch the series with a win Monday night in Game 4 at the Moda Center.

Golden State was without Kevin Durant, who was sitting for a second straight game cause of a left calf strain, and coach Steve Kerr stayed back at the team hotel because of illness.

The Warriors took a 108-100 lead after Andre Iguodala‘s dunk with 4:05 to go.

Noah Vonleh‘s dunk got Portland within four at 110-106 with 1:29 left, but Curry answered with a 3-pointer that all but sealed it, sending fans streaming for the exits.

CJ McCollum led the Blazers with 32 points, while Damian Lillard added 31.