westbrook-game 4

Westbrook, Durant find the perfect balance in Game 4 win over Lakers


During the Thunder’s playoff run last season — one that ended in a loss in the Conference Finals to the eventual champion Mavericks — there were constant questions about whether or not Russell Westbrook was a good long-term fit to play alongside Kevin Durant.

One year later, now on the verge of taking down the Lakers after a come-from-behind Game 4 victory, the only question now is which one of the Thunder’s stars you want to beat you, and at which time.

Westbrook finished with 37 points, while Durant finished things off with a game-winning three-pointer to lift OKC to a 3-1 series lead — one that gives their team a chance to return to the Conference Finals with a win at home Monday night.

The Thunder can feel as good about this victory as any thus far in the postseason, for the simple fact that they took the best shot that this Lakers team had to give, and they were able to not only withstand it, but overcome it. And much of the credit for that should go to Westbrook.

“KD got his numbers, but Westbrook had a heck of a game,” Lakers head coach Mike Brown noted afterward. “I thought he stepped up and he made plays. He imposed his will on the game and he made plays, especially when it counted in the fourth quarter.”

The Lakers got a monstrous performance from Andrew Bynum (10 points, 5-of-5 shooting) in the game’s first 12 minutes that sparked them early. Kobe Bryant then got going midway through the second period, and put on a clinic during the third, scoring 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting, often while double-teamed, and always while making the conversion of tough shots seem effortless.

As the Lakers built a lead that hung around 10 points for most of the night, Westbrook made sure it never got out of hand. He had eight points to help match Bynum’s 10 in the first, and 13 to go with Bryant’s 15 in the third.

“My job was to try to keep us in the game, regardless of what was going on” Westbrook said. “I was kind of upset because we weren’t able to get a stop. It kind of felt like, we’re down 10, eight, 10, eight … we just kept going back and forth. So it was kind of frustrating at the same time.”

As recently as a few short days into this lockout-shortened season back in December, Westbrook was frustrated not with his opponent, but with Durant in particular — or maybe, in the grander scheme of things, with his perceived position and role on his team.

There was the so-called “altercation” between Westbrook and Durant, the one where reporters caught them jawing during a timeout in a sideline huddle where the two reportedly had to be separated. That caused quite a stir at the time, and had even the most respected writers wondering if Westbrook playing alongside Durant would ever work in OKC.

It appeared to be an evolution from the previous season — one where the questions of whether or not Westbrook shot too much to his team’s detriment, or whether he deferred enough to Durant were constant topics for discussion.

On this Saturday night in May in Los Angeles, those questions may have once and for all been put to rest. Because even as Westbrook was the one who scored consistently from wire to wire to keep his team close, Durant happily stepped in when his opportunity came to close the game out.

The two worked masterfully together, and coexisted to perfection. There was no exasperation from Durant when he didn’t see the ball for extended stretches, as Westbrook delivered time and again with an array of pull-up jumpers and lightning-quick bursts of speed to the rim for bucket after bucket.

Westbrook wouldn’t be able to take this position of leadership on the team — even if only for games or stretches within them — if not for Durant’s mentoring him along the way.

“It’s definitely helped me,” Westbrook said of the criticisms he’s received in the past. “Last year we got put out in the Conference Finals, I was definitely disappointed in that. Coming into this year, I wanted to try to help my team and become a better leader. Kevin’s done a great job of helping me out and staying positive, regardless of what’s going on throughout the game; giving me confidence, and that’s just how I feel during the playoffs.”

The reason the Lakers lost this game was due to a complete offensive breakdown in the fourth quarter. There was too much of Bryant taking tough, contested shots, while the offense that was so fluid for most of the night turned stagnant.

With Westbrook and Durant, it was the opposite.

Simply put, Durant stayed ready and engaged while Westbrook went to work. And having two incredible athletes who are equal parts scorer and playmaker are a deadly one-two punch that now looks like a combination that will need to be reckoned with by any team with championship aspirations.

The questions being asked in Oklahoma City will no longer involve Westbrook and Durant, and whether or not the two can successfully make things work. All fans want to know now is whether the Thunder’s first trip to the NBA Finals will come this season, or if they’ll have to wait just a little longer for the inevitable to take place.

Expectations sky-high as Jazz look to break playoff drought

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 05:  Gordon Hayward #20 (second from right) of the Utah Jazz stands with teammates in a huddle during the first half of the preseason NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 5, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Joe Johnson had options of where to chase a ring in the twilight of his career and the seven-time All-Star chose to sign a two-year deal with a Utah Jazz team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2012.

Johnson, 35, bought into the widespread belief that the Jazz will improve from young up-and-comers to a competitive playoff team.

“It was the talent level and knowing from talking to (coach) Quin (Snyder), they wanted some veteran guys around these young guys and help lead the way,” Johnson said. “That was probably the biggest part.”

That’s the story on the Jazz entering the 2016-17 season: a team no longer on the cusp, but one with postseason expectations.

Snyder and general manager Dennis Lindsey have tried to temper those expectations, but the offseason moves to add veterans spoke volumes. The Jazz traded for George Hill and Boris Diaw and signed Johnson – ending the slow rebuild. The league, however, won’t see what this roster looks like at full strength for some time.

Gordon Hayward is out for an unknown amount of time with a broken finger on his non-shooting hand. Derrick Favors played just one preseason game due to a knee issue. Key reserve Alec Burks still hasn’t returned from arthroscopic surgery to his knee and ankle in June.

So the Jazz didn’t get to fully integrate the new veterans with the established players during the preseason.

“I feel like we’ve got a lot done in spite of (injuries),” Snyder said. “(Diaw, Hill and Johnson) have probably played more preseason minutes than I intended. … It has given them a chance to get acclimated. Their roles, particularly Joe’s, will probably change and evolve when Gordon comes back. Outside of that, there’s challenges. You just don’t know. Certain players, certain lineups. … I don’t think we were able to build quite the connectivity that we’d like at this point. But I felt like this was a team that was going to take a while to develop, too. Hopefully it doesn’t set us back too much.”

The Jazz begin the season on the road against the Trail Blazers on Tuesday. Eight of their first 11 games are on the road.

Things to watch as the Jazz prepare to tip off the season:

STIFLING TOWER: The 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert has already established himself as one of the best defensive centers in the game, averaging 2.27 blocks over the last two seasons, but he’s shown off a little more offense this preseason. He seemed to catch and finish better than in the past and averaged 14.8 points in six games. The most notable improvement has been Gobert’s free throw shooting. He shot 56.9 percent last year and 74.5 percent this preseason.

RETURN OF EXUM: Dante Exum is back for regular season games for the first time since tearing his ACL in the summer of 2015. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft is fully healthy and still an upper echelon defender on the perimeter with his 6-foot-6 frame. He looks to become more active on the offensive end with a better floater in the lane and improved 3-point shooting. The point guard showed the ability to log minutes at shooting guard next to Hill during the preseason.

GROWTH AREAS: The Jazz hope the additions and another year of growth will affect three areas in particular. The Jazz were No. 28 in the league with a scoring average of 97.7 points per game. That must improve. Johnson, Hill and Diaw already improve the depth. The team also struggled in close games, finishing 14-28 in games that were within five points with five minutes or less left.

IMPRESSION TIME: Not making the playoffs could not only be disappointing, but a detriment to the future. Hayward has a player-option on his contract after this season and is expected to use it to become a free agent. There will be a large market for his services, so the Jazz need to prove they’re an organization that can compete for championships in the near future. Gobert will become a restricted free agent in July if he doesn’t sign an extension by Oct. 31. Favors is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2017-18 season.

Follow Kareem Copeland on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/KareemCopeland

Cavaliers move up ring ceremony 30 minutes so it doesn’t conflict with World Series

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers holds the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after defeating the Golden State Warriors 93-89 in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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It’s a good time to be a Cleveland sports fan. Finally.

Next Tuesday, Oct. 25, will be one of the great sports days in the history of the city — the Cavaliers will get their championship rings, and the Indians will open the World Series at home.

Only one little problem: the two events were going to overlap.

So in the spirit of city unity the Cavaliers have moved up the start time of their ring ceremony by 30 minutes, and the game by 30 minutes as well. The ring ceremony now begins at 7 p.m. Eastern, with tip-off against the Knicks at 7:30 (both will be broadcast on TNT, followed by the Spurs at the Warriors).

First pitch for the World Series is at 8 Eastern.

Fans attending the Cavaliers ring ceremony will be given a special silicone ring, which if viewed on their phone through the Cavs app will look like a virtual championship ring. Kind of cool idea.

Tuesday is going to be a great day to be a Cavaliers sports fan (just don’t bring up the Browns). A lucky few will be at these events.

Although personally, I’d rather watch them both on a television while eating the brisket and having a beer at the bar at Mabel’s BBQ.

Warriors first team favored over the field for championship entering season since Michael Jordan’s Bulls

7 Jun 1998:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls walks on the court during the NBA Finals Game 3 against the Utah Jazz at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.  The Bulls defeated the Jazz 96-54. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport
Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport

When asked my prediction for the 2017 NBA champion, I say the Warriors have about a 50-50 chance. Some call that a copout answer – but it’s really not.

For a team to have even odds against 29 others combined entering the season is extraordinary.

Just how rare is it?

David Purdum of ESPN:

Jeff Sherman, head NBA oddsmaker at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, remembers the 1997-98 Bulls team, which was coming off a 72-win season, being around a minus-125 title favorite entering that season.

But Sherman and other sports betting industry veterans struggled to recall another team — in basketball, baseball or football — that was an odds-on favorite to start the season.

Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen led Chicago to the championship in 1998 (which was actually two seasons removed from the 72-win year).

Will Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson also meet their oversized expectations and deliver a title this year?

Flip a coin.

Report: Minnesota still talking Tyus Jones trade, Sixers may have interest

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 08:  Tyus Jones #1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves poses for a portrait during the 2015 NBA rookie photo shoot on August 8, 2015 at the Madison Square Garden Training Facility in Tarrytown, New York. 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 Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Tyus Jones has a lot to like — he’s a point guard who makes good decisions, his shot is developing (40 percent from three at Summer League), and he’s got skills. Minnesota won the Summer League championship because of Jones’ leadership — just drafted and highly touted Kris Dunn was out for the title game, that’s where Jones shined.

But Dunn is the future at the point in Minnesota, and Ricky Rubio is still there. So Minnesota is seeing what might be out there for Jones, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Minnesota has had talks with Philadelphia, New Orleans, and others about Jones for a while.

Jones is likely a steady backup point guard at the NBA level — he’s a smart passer, knows how to run a team, and as his shot develops he becomes more dangerous. His downside is defense, but as a reserve that’s less of an issue.

For a team like the Sixers — without Jerryd Bayless to start the season — or while New Orleans waits for Jrue Holiday‘s return, Jones makes some sense. The only question is the price going back to Minnesota.