Lakers-Thunder Game 4: Kevin Durant and a new era dawning

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Things change. It’s inevitable. And on Saturday night, you have to wonder if the guard changed officially in the Western Conference, and the NBA. 103-100, Thunder over Lakers.

Kobe Bryant was the closer. The dagger. The Black Mamba. As recently as Friday night, he was the ultimate clutch weapon (as long as we’re only talking about free throws and disregarding any and all other plays). And nothing that happened 24 hours later can change, alter, or diminish his legacy of playoff greatness. He is one of the top-five NBA players of all time, and for forty-four minutes Saturday night, he was the best player on the floor. He was aggressive in driving to the rim, he was hitting absurd shots consistently, he was passing the ball to Andrew Bynum, he was rebounding, he was destroying Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden, anyone guarding him.

Then the final four minutes came. Then Kevin Durant guarded him. Then the Thunder made their comeback. Then it all changed.

Bryant was 1-6 in the final four minutes, his final bucket coming on a meaningless jumper as time ran out down 5. He shot often, he shot early, he shot Kobe shots. “Tough shots” as he described them after the game. He took rolling three-pointers. He took off-balance leaners. He took every shot that you think of as a Kobe shot. But alas, they would not fall. There will be no joy on Rodeo Drive, Mighty Kobe bricked out. Five times.

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant? When Durant missed two free throws with 2:32 remaining down 2, it looked like Durant was setting up to become the latest superstar to fail in the clutch. Instead? Durant hit a tough turnaround floater to tie the game, then nailed a monster pull-up three for the win. Throw in a Pau Gasol late turnover that his him as the scapegoat and that’s how the Lakers are down 3-1.

Can the Lakers come back from 3-1? It’s possible. But they’ve now surrendered sizeable leads in two games in the series, and despite all the adjustments, all the key shots from Steve Blake, and a long stretch where Durant was largely invisible, the Thunder have won, again. They reached into the Lakers’ chest, and pulled out their still-beating heart Saturday night, and they did it the same way Bryant has in the past, while Bryant struggled to the finish. It may not have been a changing of the guard, but it was a pretty good impression.

Durant’s calm, cool demeanor and smiling face stands in contrast to the cold anger of Bryant. He admitted after the game that he was worried what people would say about the shot after it left his hand. Bryant, on the other hand, did a long feature interview talking about how he didn’t care, and that he thought his struggles in Game 2 were amusing. Something tells me this doesn’t sound as funny.

Bryant couldn’t have done anything else, though. This is who he is, and it has worked in the past and it was working on Saturday night. The shots just didn’t fall. For Durant, they did. And now Bryant watches as the next great clutch performer (if you believe in clutch) rises on the biggest stage, while defending Bryant at the same time.

Change is cruel. But it’s also unavoidable.

Steve Kerr has now reached 200 wins faster than any coach in NBA history

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Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr already has a championship under his belt as a coach. Now the 51-year-old former NBA player has reached another milestone in an already decorated career as a player and coach. After the Warriors beat the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night, 113-106, Kerr became the fastest coach in NBA history to reach 200 wins.

Kerr hit the mark in just 238 career games. His seasons at the helm of Golden State have produced just 38 losses — 15, 9, and 14 over the last three years, respectively.

In doing so, Kerr surpasses the mark set by former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson.

Congratulations are in order to Kerr and the Warriors. It’s certainly a huge accomplishment, and the lack of losses is dizzying to think about.

Three Things We Learned Tuesday: Warriors, Trail Blazers, Heat all help their playoff causes

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Tuesday was a big night for playoff chase games, so much so that the Wizards clinching the division title — their first since 1979 — or the bad night for the Pacers dropping them to seventh in the East didn’t even make the cut here. Here are the three big takeaways from the night.

1) In a battle of elite offenses, Warriors’ defense gets them key win in the race for the top seed. Wednesday night comes the game that will get a lot of media attention — Golden State heads into San Antonio in a battle of the two top teams in the NBA. The Spurs are 2.5 games back of the Warriors for the No. 1 seed in the West and all of basketball, any hope they have of catching Golden State requires a win tonight.

Except it may too late for the Spurs — with their win Tuesday night, the Warriors made it tough to catch them. Fivethirtyeight.com now has Golden State with a 93 percent chance to retain the top seed in the West.

Golden State held on to beat Houston on the road Tuesday, 113-106, in a battle of the NBA’s top two offenses. However, it was Golden State’s elite defense that was the difference — the Warriors held the Rockets to 38.8 percent shooting overall and 16.1 percent from three. The Warriors crowd Harden with multiple defenders, and while he still puts up numbers — he had a triple-double in this game — he’s not as efficient.

Not that there wasn’t an offensive show, between Harden’s triple-double and Stephen Curry dropping 32 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists. Those two put on a show.

Golden State raced out to a fast lead and pushed that margin up to 22 by getting stops (and the Rockets just missing looks, they were 2-of-16 from deep in the first 24 minutes), then turning their defensive stops into transition buckets. Credit the Rockets because they battled back, started getting to the line, grinding a little, and by halftime it was just an eight-point Golden State lead. The game stayed in single digits through most of the second half, but the Warriors always kept the lead, and with a little push late got the win.

Which brings us back to the showdown Wednesday with San Antonio. If the Spurs win, they will be 1.5 games behind the Warriors, one game back in the loss column, with seven to play. The Spurs will have the tie breaker, but San Antonio would still need to win out (and Gregg Popovich has said he will rest players) and hope Golden State loses again (they have now won eight in a row heading into San Antonio). Certainly not impossible, but also not likely. By at least getting a split in their Texas two-step, the Warriors have probably earned themselves the top seed in the West.

2) Portland beats Denver, essentially ending the Nuggets’ playoff dreams. This wasn’t a must-win game for Denver in the purest sense — the Nuggets are mathematically alive for the eighth seed, just one game back of the Trail Blazers.

However, in the practical world, Tuesday night was a must-win game for the Nuggets.

And the Trail Blazers beat them. Beat then because of the guy Denver traded them at the deadline — Jusuf Nurkic had a career-high 33 points plus pulled down 16 rebounds, six offensive. After the game, he wasn’t shy telling his former team to enjoy their summer.

Going into the game Portland and Denver were tied for the eighth seed in the West, the final playoff spot. With the win, the Nuggets are one game up and have the tie-breaker, so it is, in essence, a two-game lead with eight to play. The challenge for Denver is six of their eight games are on the road, while Portland has just two of their eight away from home.

Fivethirtyeight.com now has the Blazers a 92 percent chance to make the postseason, the Nuggets get 8 percent. That’s not impossible, but it’s not likely.

3) Hassan Whiteside’s tip in keeps Heat in eighth seed, all but ends Detroit’s playoff hopes. This one play was the dagger shot to Detroit’s playoff chances. They had what amounted to a must-win game Tuesday against Miami, the Pistons needed one stop at the end, and this happened.

If I’m Stan Van Gundy, what keeps me up is not even the Hassan Whiteside tip-in, it’s little Goran Dragic pulling down the first rebound in and amongst the trees. How do you let him get that?

It was a disappointing ending to a disappointing game that caps off a disappointing season in Detroit. This team should be better than this, but here we are.  Detroit is now 2.5 games out of the playoffs with seven games to play. That’s too much. Fivethirtyeight.com has Detroit’s chances of making the playoffs at 1 percent.

Miami, on the other hand, has a 74 percent chance of making the postseason, according to the same site. The Heat’s biggest concern should be they are just one game ahead of Chicago for that last playoff spot, and the Bulls have a softer ending to the season (Miami’s last four games are Toronto, Washington, Cleveland, and Washington, although those teams could be resting guys at that point).

Blazers’ Noah Vonleh posterizes Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic with huge dunk (VIDEO)

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Tuesday night’s game between the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers was an important one. The two teams are fighting for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. The Blazers have been on the rise as of late, and the atmosphere at the Moda Center was electric.

While much of the talk was about Jusuf Nurkić, Mason Plumlee, and Nikola Jokic thanks to the trade between the two teams, it was actually Portland’s Noah Vonleh that got people talking early.

During a play midway through the first quarter, Vonleh threw down a huge dunk that posterized Jokic.

Via Twitter:

Vonleh has played much better alongside Nurkić this season, and Portland fans are all hoping he continues to develop going into next year. This kind of confidence and aggressiveness is just part of what the Blazers will need from Vonleh moving forward.

Stephen Curry’s 32 lead Warriors over Rockets 113-106

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HOUSTON (AP) Stephen Curry scored 32 points, Klay Thompson had 25 and the Golden State Warriors built a big lead early and held on for a 113-106 win over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night.

The Warriors scored 37 points in the first quarter and never trailed on the way to their eighth straight victory and 60th this season.

Golden State led by eight after a pair of free throws by Curry with just over three minutes left. Patrick Beverley countered with a tip-in layup for Houston, then was fouled when he was knocked to the ground on a screen by Draymond Green seconds later.

James Harden missed a layup on the next possession before Green added a shot on the other end to put the Warriors up 107-99.

Another layup miss by Harden followed, and Curry made a 3-pointer with 1:46 left to send fans streaming to the exits.