Thunder try to keep heads high, but Game 4 was a punch to the gut

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What frustrates its players and fans most in Oklahoma City is not getting blown out of the NBA Finals. They may be down 3-1 in the series but every game has been close — in total points it is Heat +5 though four games. That’s it.

But it didn’t feel like that in the Thunder locker room Tuesday night.

You could hear a pin drop. This was a team with dejected body language and quiet speaking voices — they looked like a team that took a punch to the gut.

Because they did. The Thunder were up 17 in Game 4, they were ahead by 2 with four minutes left and LeBron James on the bench, and they couldn’t close it out.

“We missed some good shots, some wide open shots…” Serge Ibaka said of the fourth quarter in a quiet Thunder locker room Tuesday night. “When you miss some good shots, there is nothing you can do.”

We tend to want to find people to blame on the losing team, but that’s not fully appropriate here because the Thunder feel like a young team learning another hard lesson on what it takes to be a champion. A lesson the Heat learned the hard way last season.

You can try to blame Russell Westbrook because of his late bonehead foul, but if not for his stellar play and 43 points, the Heat would have blown this game open by 20.

James Harden has taken criticism and he has not been himself — the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year couldn’t even execute a breakaway layup in the fourth quarter of Game 4. He’s trying to get others involved and is turning the ball over. He’s in his own head.

As he should, coach Scott Brooks has his young star’s back.

“James has put us in a position to be where we are,” Brooks said after the game. “He had a tough shooting night, but he competed, he battled, he fought, he defended. He was guarding one of the best players in the game. I don’t judge a guy’s game on shots, on makes and misses. This game is about makes and misses.

“Some nights you’re going to make those, some nights you’re going to miss them, but your effort has to be there. I love James’ effort and that’s all I judge him on. If he wasn’t playing hard, yes, I would have taken him out earlier and sat him and put somebody else in. We have a standard of play and effort-wise I think everybody lived up to it tonight.”

The Thunder haven’t played poorly, but they haven’t played well enough. They haven’t adjusted to the Heat’s rotations, their role players are not stepping up like the Heat’s, and the Thunder are not getting enough out of one of their big three.

It’s not a fatal flaw, it’s growing pains. Which suck for Thunder fans and players. But teams and players have to learn how to win in the NBA and OKC seems to be getting one final lesson.

J.R. Smith replacing Dwyane Wade as Cavaliers’ starting shooting guard

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The Cavaliers are 2-1, but their starting lineups have been outscored by 19 points in 32 minutes. Dwyane Wade has been so bad as the starting shooting guard, his struggles have overshadowed J.R. Smith‘s miserable play as the backup.

But at least Wade volunteered a solution to this predictable problem.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Dwyane Wade is headed for the Cavaliers’ bench at his own request and J.R. Smith is returning to the starting lineup.

Wade, 35, a 12-time All-Star who struggled in his first three games with Cleveland, asked coach Tyronn Lue to make the change, Lue said. But this wasn’t exactly Wade’s idea, either.

Lue told him when he signed with the Cavs Sept. 27 that the second unit may be the best fit for him.

“I just decided, earlier than later, just to get to the unit where I’d be more comfortable in and can probably better with this team in that lineup,” Wade said. “Why wait? Three games in, why wait? Wanted to get in there with those guys.”

Cleveland’s starting lineup needs more shooting and defense around LeBron James – especially with Derrick Rose starting over an injured Isaiah Thomas (though Rose is out a couple games with his own ankle injury). Smith provides that.

Bench-heavy units need more playmaking. Wade provides that.

This was a tricky situation given Wade’s status as a future Hall of Famer and friendship with LeBron. Whether Wade simply suggested the change or Lue is trying to give Wade public credit after coaxing it behind the scenes, the result is the same.

The Cavs can now use their most logical rotation, and they should be better for it.

Suns GM Ryan McDonough: Eric Bledsoe hair-salon claim about tweet was unbelievable

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Eric Bledsoe reportedly requested a trade from the Suns before the season then tweeted yesterday:

Clear message?

Apparently not.

After sending home Bledsoe today, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough explained his rationale:

The hair salon! What a wonderful excuse.

Is it true? I’m not going to call Bledsoe a liar. It might be.

It’s also probably true that Bledsoe isn’t long for Phoenix.

Report: Suns send Eric Bledsoe home, expect to trade him

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In a shocking twist, the Suns firing Earl Watson did not end the dysfunction in Phoenix.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Bledsoe:

That is a first-rate tweet by Bledsoe. It’s great that he’s having fun with the wild situation, because the rest of us sure are amused peering in.

This was always going to be a long season in Phoenix, but things got out of hand in a hurry. The 0-3 Suns have been outscored by 92 – the worst three-game start in NBA history by 16 points. Now, comes the fallout.

At 27, Bledsoe was getting to be a little too old for a rebuild centered on Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and T.J. Warren. The Suns could have dealt Bledsoe in the offseason. Now, they’re negotiating from a position of weakness.

Bledsoe is a good starting point guard when healthy. He’s earning a reasonable $14.5 million this season and due $15 million in the final year of his contract next season. There should be suitors, and Phoenix can gain long-term assets while stepping up its tank.

But this sure seems like a crisis-control move more than anything else.

Willy Hernangomez ‘mad’ about falling from Knicks rotation

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Knicks president Steve Mills started his second tenure talking about rebuilding and listed Willy Hernangomez as a core piece.

But Hernangomez, coming off an All-Rookie first-team season, barely played in New York’s season-opening loss to the Thunder– drawing scrutiny.

Then, he didn’t play at all in a loss to the Pistons – eliciting a strong reaction from Hernangomez himself.

Hernangomez, via Fred Kerber of the New York Post:

“The same. I’m still mad,” Hernangomez said. “I cannot help the team win if I’m sitting on the bench. Two games in a row. It’s tough. I have to wait my moment. I cannot say nothing more.”

The Knicks are moving in different directions. Management is talking about building for the future. Coach Jeff Hornacek, who was hired by previous president Phil Jackson, is trying to win now.

There’s a fine line between developing Hernangomez through playing time and making him earn his minutes. Enes Kanter and Kyle O'Quinn might be better right now.

But being marginally better this season won’t get the Knicks anywhere meaningful except lower in the lottery. On the other hand, even on rebuilding teams, winning is most important to a coach’s job security. Earl Watson implemented the Suns’ tanking scheme, and look where that got him.

Hornacek is backed into a corner, and now one of the team’s most important young players is publicly expressing his displeasure. It’s the latest troubling sign in a locker room already suspicious of Hornacek.