westbrook-game 4

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

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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.

NBA: Mavericks got away with key late foul in win over Bulls

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Wesley Matthews hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the Mavericks’ 99-98 win over the Bulls on Wednesday.

But perhaps the game would’ve had a different outcome with correct officiating down the stretch.

Dallas guard Seth Curry got away with a loose-ball foul on Robin Lopez with 1:26 left, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report:

Curry (DAL) clamps the arm of Lopez (CHI) and affects his ability to retrieve the rebound.

A correct call would’ve put Dallas in the penalty and sent Lopez – who has made 66% of his free throws this season and and 76% for his career – to the line for two attempts.

Instead, not only was Lopez denied his free throws, he committed a frustration foul on Dirk Nowitzki – who grabbed the rebound with help of Curry – moments later. Nowitzki converted one of two free throws.

We’ll never know how the rest of the game would’ve played out after a correct call, but a swing of 1-to-3 points is pretty big in a one-point game.

Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, reportedly Spurs’ Jonathon Simmons invited to dunk contest

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 15:  Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics in action against the New York Knicks during the second half of their preseason game at Madison Square Garden on October 15, 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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Jaylen Brown entered the NBA as a highly touted prospect, the No. 3 pick by the Celtics last year.

Jonathon Simmons paid a $150 fee to try out for the Spurs’ D-League team before eventually climbing to the NBA.

Their very-different paths could cross during All-Star weekend in the dunk contest.

Brown said he has been invited, though he hasn’t made up his mind:

Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News:

Both would be worthy candidates. Between the two, I’d favor Brown, but it’ll be interesting to see the rest of the field.

Just what can Brown and Simmons do?

Report: 76ers interested in Jrue Holiday in free agency

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 23:  Jrue Holiday #11 of the Philadelphia 76ers plays against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on December 23, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of 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 Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The 76ers need a point guard.

Joel Embiid is already a legitimate All-Star candidate, and Philadelphia has won seven of nine. But the 76ers’ ascent is limited by weak perimeter play.

The point guard of the future might already be on the roster, whenever No. 1 pick Ben Simmons returns. But at 6-foot-10, he’ll have trouble defending opposing point guards.

Philadelphia will likely draft a point guard between its own first-rounder (which includes swap rights with the Kings) and a top-three-protected pick from the Lakers. The 2017 draft is especially loaded with point guards near the top: Washington’s Markelle Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox and Kentucky’s Malik Monk.

But with general Bryan Colangelo accelerating their rebuild, the 76ers might not be patient with Simmons learning an awkward position or a rookie taking the helm. Philadelphia could target a veteran – like the Pelicans’ Jrue Holiday, who’ll become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Sixers will take a hard look at Holiday, sources say

That would be so juicy. Sam Hinkie essentially started The Process by trading Holiday from Philadelphia to New Orleans for what amounted to three first-round picks (Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric and a restored first-rounder the 76ers previously traded). Getting Holiday back once they’re finally ready to win would be such a hilarious touch.

Holiday would fit pretty well with Simmons, a unique talent as a point forward. Holiday is an excellent defender, and sharing playmaking with Simmons would prevent either from being overburdened. Ideally, Holiday would be a better 3-point shooter for this role, but he’s good enough spotting up to be more than fine.

Philadelphia will have more cap room than it knows what to do with this summer, and a max offer could tempt Holiday. The question becomes whether veterans actually join the 76ers, who’ve developed a reputation for losing but now plan to spend, or just use them for leverage like the Kings.

This is a good opportunity for Holiday, whether or not he returns to Philadelphia.

Report: Bulls looking to sign Chris Bosh after Heat waive him

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 24: Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat puts up a shot under pressure from Taj Gibson #22 of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on February 24, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. 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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Heat will likely waive Chris Bosh sometime after March 1. It might not be until next season, but Bosh has given every indication he plans to try playing again.

But will anybody sign him?

After all, Miami can exclude his salary from its cap picture only if a doctor jointly selected by the NBA and players union determines Bosh’s blood clots are “of such severity that continuing to play professional basketball at an NBA level would subject the player to medically unacceptable risk of suffering a life-threatening or permanently disabling injury or illness.”

At least one team is apparently interested.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

If Bosh, who turns 33 in March, makes it back onto the floor next season, word is that the Chicago Bulls are already plotting a run and will be at the front of the line to try to sign him.

I’m still skeptical Bosh plays again. The medical consensus is that it’s unsafe to play on blood-thinners, which have become necessary after his multiple blood-clot episodes. The jointly selected doctor confirming that evaluation – the only clear path to the Heat releasing Bosh unless he’d sacrifice some of his $75,868,170 remaining salary in a buyout – would provide even more certainty that Bosh is done.

Yet, the rules wouldn’t prevent the Bulls from making their own evaluation. Bosh would reunite with Dwyane Wade and provide floor-spacing and defense in the frontcourt. Chicago, which starts bruisers Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez, could use a player like a healthy Bosh.

But Bosh is likely to be either healthy or a free agent, not both. I don’t see a way around that.