Thunder remind Spurs, everyone they are contenders with rout

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The Oklahoma City Thunder would like to remind you that they are a very, very good basketball team.

For days now the buzz had been about the Spurs’ 20-game win streak, how they played like the old man at the YMCA that schools the more athletic kids with the extra pass and smart positioning.

But the Thunder are not inexperienced kids, they are a title contenders and reminded San Antonio of that — and maybe reminded themselves of that — as they routed the Spurs 102-82. The win makes this a 2-1 series in favor of the Spurs and sets up a huge Game 4 on Saturday night in OKC. It was a dramatic end to the Spurs’ streak.

We’ve got a real series now.

For the first time this series, the Thunder looked like the young athletic team that could overwhelm the old Spurs. Kevin Durant seemed to be everywhere, as did Thabo Sefolosha. The Thunder put on an offensive show with some beautiful fast breaks and powerful dunks.

But that’s not what this game was about.

“Defensively, that was about well as you can play against the best team in basketball,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of his team’s effort. “And everybody did it throughout every possession.”

For two games the Spurs torched the Thunder defense. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili got free off picks and drove into the paint, either scoring or kicking out to an open man who made the extra pass for an open corner three. Or, Parker would pull back and hit the jumper. Or Parker would pull back and hit a rolling Tim Duncan. The Spurs just got the shot they wanted.

Oklahoma City changed lineups, changed strategy and blew that up. They sat Fisher more and played Sefolosha on the ball handler, then switched every pick-and-roll — and they did it with a physicality and energy lacking in the first two games. OKC cut off the Spurs’ penetration — the Spurs had six points in the paint in the first half. San Antonio’s ball movement went away. Its ability to reset the play went away with the pressure. The result was the Spurs were doing more isolation with Tim Duncan and others.

That defense worked from the start, when the Thunder went on an 8-0 run to open the game. The Spurs shot 39.5 percent and had 21 turnovers in the game. Sefolosha had six steals by himself. Only two Spurs scored in double digits.

Oklahoma City turned all those misses and turnovers into fast-break opportunities. They got out and ran and got looks closer to the basket because of it. Durant had 22 points and James Harden 15, but Sefolosha added 19 (including four threes) and Serge Ibaka had 14.

The pressure now shifts to the Spurs, who must make the offensive adjustments — they have to find a way to use Sefolosha’s aggressiveness against him. They have to get the ball moving again — with the Spurs jumping the passing lanes, we may see more cuts (particularly along the baseline).

For San Antonio this is an easy game to write off. They are a veteran team, they’ve been blown out before. They know what they need to do in the next game.

But the Thunder we expected to see from the start are back in this series. They have awoken and played like a contender. There will be nothing easy for either side from here on out.

We’ve got a real series now.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.