Derek Fisher, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden

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.

Watch Kyle Lowry’s tip-pass alley-oop to Jimmy Butler in USA win

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There were a lot of ugly things for Team USA in its exhibition win over Venezuela — the 4-of-25 shooting from three comes to mind. There was more, it was not a strong offensive performance from Team USA.

But like usual, we can overwhelm teams with athleticism, and that means wins and highlights. Like Kyle Lowry‘s tip-pass alley-oop to Jimmy Butler.

Or DeMar DeRozan‘s late-game windmill dunk.

Kyrie Irving helps USA to ugly 80-45 win over Venezuela

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 26:  Kyrie Irving #10 of the United States Men's National Team looks to make a move with the ball against the China Men's National Team during the first half of a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO (AP) — Kyrie Irving scored 13 points, DeMarcus Cousins powered a dominant performance in the paint, and the United States pulled away from Venezuela for an ugly 80-45 exhibition victory Friday night.

Coming off three straight flashy victories in Las Vegas and California, the United States shot 42.4 percent from the field and committed 13 turnovers in by far its worst offensive performance of its five-city tour in preparation for next week’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics. But the Americans used their superior athleticism to limit Venezuela to 24 percent shooting and owned the interior with a 54-29 rebounding advantage.

Returning to Chicago for the first time with the U.S. national team, Bulls star Jimmy Butler was cheered every time he was announced at the United Center. He had four points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes in his first start with Team USA.

Butler had one of the few electric plays for the U.S. when he ran out on the break and dunked Kyle Lowry‘s tip pass in the fourth quarter. DeAndre Jordan also had a vicious dunk off a lob from Kevin Durant, and DeMar DeRozan drew chants of “USA! USA!” with a windmill jam in the final minutes.

Klay Thompson also scored 13 points, and Cousins finished with seven points and 12 rebounds. Durant had nine points of 3-of-9 shooting.

John Cox scored 14 points for Venezuela, which will play the U.S. again on Aug. 8 in the Olympics.

Irving and company were greeted with a round of hearty cheers when they came out for pregame warmups. Fans lined the side of the court where the Americans had their layup line, and Anthony and Durant posed for pictures with a couple of eager boys.

Before Butler’s introduction drew the most applause of the night, former Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau received a thunderous ovation when he was announced with the U.S. coaching staff. Thibodeau took a year off after he was fired by the Bulls in May 2015, and then was hired as Minnesota’s coach and president of basketball operations in April.

The star power also extended to the sideline near the U.S. bench, where former Olympians Scottie Pippen and Dwyane Wade watched the action attentively. Wade was joined by his wife, actress Gabriel Union, hours after he held his introductory press conference for his new contract with his hometown Bulls.

Pippen played on the 1992 Dream Team that rolled to gold in Barcelona, and also helped the U.S. win gold in 1996. Wade was on the Americans’ gold medal-winning teams at each of the last two Olympics.

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

Monty Williams is back coaching with Team USA, ready to get back on NBA sidelines

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 18:  Draymond Green #14 of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team drives against assistant coach Monty Williams of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 18, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Watching Monty Williams back on the court at the USA basketball camp/practices in Las Vegas, you could see he was at home. He’s easily the best 44-year-old defender on the planet — he went toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, and the rest, was physical, and made them work for buckets. Then he’d instruct. He’s just a natural.

Back in February, Williams’ wife was killed in an auto accident. It devastated the devout family man, in ways it’s hard for us to understand who have never experienced it. He walked away from coaching the rest of the NBA season with the Thunder, and nobody questioned it for a second.

Now, after getting his feet wet with Team USA (where he is an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski), he told Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman he is ready to get back on the sidelines.

“I wouldn’t even think that if I didn’t know, one, my wife would want me to; my kids talk about it all the time. And there have been some things that have happened in my life lately that have allowed me to get that back. I’m so juiced up and ready to get back into it again.”

He is one of the better respected assistant coaches in the league, and a guy who will get another shot at a top spot someday. Soon. Can’t wait to see him back on the sidelines.

Ben Simmons says he plans to work on shooting, handles, getting stronger before camp

Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons cheers from the bunch during the first half of the team's NBA summer league basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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The leap from college — even high-level college programs — to the NBA can be hard to describe. Now everybody is bigger, longer, and far more athletic — the guy at the end of the bench barely getting any burn was one of the best players on his college team.

Players get their first taste of that at Summer League. The Sixers’ No. 1 pick Ben Simmons looked pretty good when he got that taste, but you can see the development that needs to go on as well.

He’s spending the time between now and the start of training camp working on his shooting and getting stronger, among other things, he told Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com.

“I think just getting in the gym and making sure I’m getting reps up, shooting-wise, dribbling,” Simmons said earlier this week after an appearance at Sixers Camp in Wayne, Pennsylvania. “The weight room as well, making sure I get my strength back and my weight up.”

All good things. Handles and shooting in particular — he’s about to start seeing much better defenders nightly. It’s going to take time, and we’ll see how far he can go, but Simmons unquestionably brings a lot of skill and potential to the table. That he’s putting in the work is a good sign — that was one of the concerns about him heading into the draft.

New GM Bryan Colangelo is going to benefit from Sam Hinkie’s process. So long as he doesn’t screw it up.