Miami Heat's James goes to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder's Durant during Game 2 of the NBA basketball finals in Oklahoma City

NBA Finals Heat-Thunder Game 2: Welcome back, Thunder defense

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I had serious questions about the Thunder defense heading into Game 1. After all, this was a top ten, but not top five defense throughout the year, and it still gave up a ton of points to San Antonio (which granted has the best offense in the league). I had major concerns about how they would react to a tougher, more physical team. In Game 1, they responded beautifully. The rotations were great, their man-attack was spectacular, they did everything right. It was a major response.

“Maybe I was wrong,” I said to a friend. “Maybe they’re just better defensively than I thought they were.”

/clown nose honks

/kazoo

Welcome back, Thunder defense.

A 111 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) for OKC, and that was the difference in the game. You can talk the no-call on an obvious fouls, or the goaltending call, or Shane Battier’s “what in the hell” three. But the reality is that the Heat allowed a Miami offense that everyone left for dead after Game 1 to put up a 111 defensive efficiency. That killed them. That’s the game.

And some of it wasn’t their fault. Thabo Sefolosha’s work has been brilliant. He’s contesting jumpers, and running under layups to disrupt without drawing fouls. James Harden has played better than usual, and Russell Westbrook, surprisingly, has been quite good. He’s been active in passing lanes and creating steals.

But the rest? It was not good. When the Heat offense didn’t fall to pieces as it did in Game 1, it created enough to get the win. Surprisingly, the biggest culprit Thursday night was Kevin Durant, who has been magnificent this year defensively. From the first tip, Durant was just a second off with his timing, just a bit slow on his rotations. And versus Game 1, when he bodied and held his ground against LeBron James in the post, James worked him over in all sorts of nasty ways in Game 2. He was overmatched. That foul trouble he got into? Four of his five fouls were absolutely legitimate. He gave up an and-one to Chris Bosh on a fast break, for crying out loud. It’s a sign of Durant’s development that he’s reached a level where his defense is expected to be better. But it is. And it wasn’t.

But Durant wasn’t the only one. Oh, the Ibaka blocks! What wonders of wonders! Too bad Ibaka also got torched by Chris Bosh and LeBron James because of his tendency to overreact to pumpfakes, and that several times late the Heat found Chris Bosh for dunks because he was too eager in his rotations. Sick blocks, tho, bro. (It should be noted Ibaka genuinely was fantastic in the first half defensively, a big reason the Thunder hung.)

Even Nick Collison, wondrous Nick Collison, was a problem. Chris Bosh abused him by being quicker and more aggressive, and drawing fouls. The Thunder as a defense was just not in a position it needed to be in on Thursday.

Everyone said that it wasn’t a problem after Game 1, that the Thunder could just outscore them. This is a very good Heat defense. That’s a flawed approach. If the Thunder want to regain homecourt and get the lead back in this series, they have to get back to playing defense as they did in the second half of Game 1. Quit worrying about Westbrook’s shots, or fouls, or goaltends. You’ve got to stop the Heat if you’re going to win the title.

Jazz’s Dante Exum says his knee is completely healed from 2015 ACL tear

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 17:  Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz drives to the lane during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 17, 2014 in Miami, Florida. 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. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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After a promising rookie season, Dante Exum missed all of 2015-16 rehabbing a torn left ACL he suffered during an exhibition game with the Australian national team in summer 2015. As the Jazz kick off training camp, Exum says he’s fully recovered after his year off and he’s ready to go.

Via Jody Gennessy of the Deseret News:

“I was just excited to get back out there,” Exum said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I was feeling good. … I was just ready to come out there, talk when I can and run between every drill.”

Both his attitude and his body were at 100 percent as he returned from a yearlong rehab that followed his September 2015 surgery on his left knee that had been injured in a friendly international game with the Australian team.

With the Jazz’s trade for George Hill over the summer, Exum won’t have to be the starting point guard, which will take some pressure off of him to get back to full strength right away. A torn ACL is something that usually takes time to return from, and having guard depth to ease his workload will help with the transition. If the Jazz get good production out of Exum, it will be a bonus for what looks to be one of the most exciting young teams in the Western Conference.

Improving Hornets G Walker has sights set on All-Star season

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 26:  Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets points to the bench during their game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Time Warner Cable Arena on November 26, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Kemba Walker wants to be an NBA All-Star.

But the Hornets’ steadily improving 6-foot point guard knows he has to get healthy first, which means resting his surgically repaired knee a little longer. Walker was limited to non-contract drills as the Hornets opened training camp on Tuesday at their downtown arena.

“I hate it. … You know how much of a competitor I am. But it’s the smart thing to do at this time (because) I don’t want to have any setbacks,” said Walker, adding that he hopes to be 100 percent for the start of the regular season.

The 26-year-old Walker is coming off the best season of his five-year NBA career, averaging a 20.9 points, 5.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game in 2015-16 while shooting a career-best 42.7 percent from the field.

But the stat that pops out the most is his improved 3-point shooting. Walker made 37.1 percent from beyond the arc last season after making less than 33 percent his first four years in the league.

Walker finished second in the voting for Most Improved Player, battling through knee pain near the end of the season and leading the Hornets to a 48-win season that culminated in a Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Teammate Marvin Williams said Walker could have easily “shut it down” due to a torn meniscus in his left knee, but elected to keep on playing.

Walker has surgery in May to repair the problem.

“I feel like he was (an All-Star) last year,” teammate Marvin Williams said. “And that’s not taking anything away from any of the guys that made it in the East. They are very, very good. The guards are big time. But I feel like Kemba was right there. He was beat up and he continued to fight through it every night. If he is healthy and has a year like he did last year I think he will definitely be there in February.”

It’s that kind of dedication to the team that has made Walker a favorite in the locker room.

Nicolas Batum, the team’s highest-paid player, said he’s made it his personal goal to help get Walker into the All-Star game this season.

“He’s special. He’s really special,” Batum said. “People don’t understand how good he is. He had a breakout season last year. He’s a franchise guard.”

Walker is dramatically more confident in his shooting than this time a year ago when he working with shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer to tweak his mechanics, according to coach Steve Clifford.

There were times Walker contemplated scrapping the changes, but he stuck with it and the results followed. Now he doesn’t even think about the altered shooting motion anymore.

“If you go back to the last 21 games of the year, his 3-point shooting put him in a different place,” Clifford said.

Clifford said with Walker’s improved shooting and range it makes it more difficult for teams to defend him.

“His range takes away the under in the pick-and-roll,” Clifford said. “And he’s such a good pick-and-roll player anyway. I think he is really maturing as a player.”

Perhaps enough to be an All-Star.

“I was pretty close last year,” Walker said. “I’m getting the hang of things in this league and playing really well. I want to continue to play well and win. But in order for me to be an All-Star we have to win. That’s what it is going to take.”

NOTES: Along with Walker, Cody Zeller (shoulder) and Perry Ellis (sports hernia) weren’t able participate in contact drills during practice.

Knicks have Carmelo Anthony confident of more post-Olympic success

New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony speaks to reporters during NBA basketball training camp in Tarrytown, N.Y., Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — Carmelo Anthony couldn’t wait to get started.

Maybe that’s because he looks at the New York Knicks and sees real NBA talent around him for the first time in a few years.

Or perhaps it’s because he knows his most successful seasons have come following the Olympics.

Whatever the reason, Anthony is talking like someone who believes his team is going back to the playoffs – and maybe going far once they get there.

“Like I said yesterday, I haven’t been excited like this in a long time to actually get going and ready to create something,” Anthony said Tuesday after the Knicks held their first practice.

The Knicks haven’t been exciting at all recently. Anthony had never missed the postseason until New York fell just short in 2014, and now he’s been shut out three straight years. The Knicks tumbled to a 17-65 finish two years ago, when Anthony was limited to 40 games before knee surgery, and went 32-50 last season.

Anthony often tried to carry the scoring load himself during those last two seasons, but he doesn’t see a need now. The Knicks traded for Derrick Rose, signed players such as Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings, and expect big things from Kristaps Porzingis after his All-Rookie campaign.

Anthony has repeatedly said how excited he is to play with Rose, who believes he can make the game easier for the 32-year-old forward.

“He’s been here the longest, he’s went through a lot of things here, experienced a lot, so this is his team,” Rose said. “Me and Jo – I can only speak about me and Joakim – we’re coming in here, we’re battle-tested. Our job is to make his job as easy as possible and if it’s sacrificing, it’s sacrificing. Whatever he wants us to do, we’re going to do it. We don’t want no problems, we just want to win.”

The only time Anthony’s done that lately is in the Olympics.

He won his third gold and fourth medal overall in Rio, both records for a men’s basketball player. While most players crave a break after the long NBA season, Anthony said he was “in the best shape that I’ve felt in a long time” after playing this summer.

Olympic competition has provided him with a boost before.

The 2008-09 season, after his first gold medal, remains his most successful team season as a pro. He had never even won a playoff series before leading Denver to the Western Conference finals, averaging 27.2 points in 16 games before the Nuggets were eliminated by the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.

He didn’t win another series until 2013, coming off his second gold medal in London. He led the NBA with 28.7 points per game in carrying the Knicks to the Atlantic Division title and eventually the East semifinals.

He didn’t do it alone back then, with Chauncey Billups in the backcourt in Denver, and Tyson Chandler and Amare Stoudemire in the frontcourt in New York. The Knicks believe this team, like those, is filled with players who will earn Anthony’s trust.

“We’re hoping that, again, the level of talent that is on the team will lead to him not thinking, `I have to do everything,”‘ coach Jeff Hornacek said.

Anthony hosted most of the roster in Puerto Rico over the summer for basketball and bonding, so he’s gotten to know his teammates off the court.

He likes what he sees.

“I don’t know how great we can be,” Anthony said. “I don’t want to put kind of no ceiling on that, but we control our own destiny at this point.”

Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

Who will start at power forward for Bulls? “It’s an open competition.”

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 29: Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls shoots the ball during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. 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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Four-fifth of the Chicago Bulls starting lineup this season is locked in: Rajon Rondo at the point, Dwyane Wade at the two, Jimmy Butler at the three, and Robin Lopez at center.

But who starts at the four? Taj Gibson? Nikola Mirotic? Bobby Portis?

Fred Hoiberg isn’t letting anyone know quite yet, via our friend Sean Highkin of The Athletic.

The conventional wisdom has been that Mirotic would get the start because with Rondo/Wade/Butler teams could just pack the paint, clog driving lanes, and force them to shoot jumpers. Mirotic shot 39 percent from three last season and could be a stretch four that opens driving lanes for the three guys who like to slash to the rim. The downside there is defense, which is why Gibson can’t be counted out.

Expect Hoiberg to try a lot of combos trying to figure out what works. That’s what preseason games are for.