Thunder learn one more painful lesson, talk about taking one more step

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To a man, as they hugged the Larry O’Brien trophy, Miami Heat players said the sting of losing in the finals last year drove them to their win this year. They felt the pain, absorbed the lessons and got better.

As the clock was winding down and the party was winding up inside AmericanAirlines Arena Thursday night, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden stood together, huddled at the end of the bench talking. Saying exactly what Heat players said a year ago.

“We hugged each other and told each other to embrace this feeling and remember this feeling,” Westbrook said. “We’ve got to be the guys that just got to get better, man, before we can find a way to get back here.”

And everyone — including LeBron James, who said as much after the game — expect the Thunder will be back on this stage. And they will be better.

We’ve seen it before. For the past three years the Thunder have been eliminated by the eventual champion — first the Lakers, last year the Mavericks and this year the Heat. The previous two years the Thunder used those lessons to come back a smarter, more ready NBA team.

To a man after they were eliminated from the finals in Game 5 — a 121-106 Heat win — the Thunder players talked about what it will take to get back to here and be better next year.

“There’s things that wen have to work on,” coach Scott Brooks said. “I’ve never used age as an excuse. But we got some incredible experience these last three years of being the playoffs and it kind of – it has helped us get to this point and to compete at this level.”

The next step is on the defensive end for this team — they were a solid defensive team (OKC was ninth in the league in points allowed per possession) but the Heat won this series because they could find a level of defense the Thunder could not.

“But just one thing, (the Heat) played extremely physical basketball,” Brooks said. “They are a very athletic team and they use it every possession, and that’s something we will talk about. You have it, you better use it.”

There is also the focus that is needed.

“I think now we know that every possession in the finals matters. It counts,” James Harden said. “There were several possessions that we just gave away (in Game 5). I think that third quarter, we brought the lead out to five quick (it was 7), and then they hit two threes in a row. Every possession matters in the finals. We just gave too many away.”

They gave away a few all series. And that stung the Thunder. A lot. Thunder players all talked about being a family and you could see the tears and feel the emotion as they left the floor. You could see it as Kevin Durant talked to his mom. The key — the thing the Thunder’s three leaders were already talking about — was to use that as fuel.

“You just have a lot of regrets but the only thing you can do is get back to work,” Kendrick Perkins said. “And each individual has to think about it when you’re lifting weights, as you run suicides, just think about this feeling, think about this moment and how close we came. We just fell short.”

You get the sense this team will be back. And once again they will have learned a lesson. They will be better. And that could be scary good.

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving: “It was a nice streak. But it was time to come to an end.”

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The Celtics established themselves as one of the NBA’s elite teams, a contender for the Eastern Conference title, during their 16-game win streak.

However, that hot streak to start the season will matter as much as Thanksgiving leftovers in the back of the refrigerator in April by the time the playoffs roll around. This is a team that still has work to do.

Which is what Kyrie Irving was getting at in this post-loss quote from Friday night, via Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.

“There’s still a lot to accomplish going forward,” Irving said. “It was a nice streak. But it was time to come to an end.”

This team still needs to get better and more consistent. The Celtics had to come from behind in the fourth quarter in eight of the 16 wins, and while the team defense was impressive the offense still can be hit and miss. Al Horford and Kyrie Irving play well off each other, but this is still the 20th ranked offense in the NBA. They are taking more long midrange jumpers than most coaches want, but the bigger challenge is they have not been finishing around the basket.

Titles are not won in November. Irving gets that. Jayson Tatum will hit the rookie wall at some point (they all do) and he needs to prove he can break through. Al Horford is playing maybe the best ball of his career and needs to keep it up. The Celtics need to keep their defensive focus (the fundamentals are there to have a top five defense). I could go on but you get the point, and so does Irving — there is a lot of work for this team to do.

Boston is off to a fantastic start, but it’s just that.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: I’ve never seen injury like Kawhi Leonard’s

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Gregg Popovich is a basketball lifer.

He’s the NBA’s most experienced active head coach. Before that, he was the Spurs’ general manager. Before that, he was an NBA assistant. Before that, he was a college head coach and assistant. Before that, he was a college player. Before that, he was a youth player.

The San Antonio coach has seen everything.

Except the right quadriceps tendinopathy suffered by Kawhi Leonard, whom Popovich said more than a week would return “sooner rather than later.” Yet, Leonard still hasn’t played this season.

Popovich, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

“Never, never,” Popovich said when asked whether he has seen such a condition hampering one of his players. “What’s really strange is that [point guard] Tony [Parker] has the same injury, but even worse. They had to go operate on his quad tendon and put it back together or whatever they did to it. So to have two guys, that’s pretty incredible. I had never seen it before those guys.”

“I keep saying sooner rather than later,” Popovich said jokingly. “It’s kind of like being a politician. It’s all baloney, doesn’t mean anything.”

The 26-year-old Leonard is one of the NBA’s biggest on-court stars. He might be the league’s best defender, and he has built himself into an offensive force. The Spurs (11-7) have fared fine without him so far, but they’ll need him to accomplish their main goals – this year and beyond.

Hopefully, Leonard’s health is better than it sounds here, because Popovich’s answer sure isn’t encouraging.

Tim Hardaway Jr. calls fallen ref safe rather than defend shot (video)

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The Knicks went on a 28-0 run.

They earned the right to showboat late in their win over the Raptors last night.

Tim Hardaway Jr. called a ref, who slipped on the baseline, safe rather than contest Serge Ibaka‘s 3-pointer. Perfection!

Luc Mbah a Moute sets modern record at +57 in Rockets’ win over Nuggets

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Luc Mbah a Moute is a quietly good player.

He’s an effective and versatile defender. Offensively, he shoots 3-pointers well enough to score efficiently and spread the floor. Most of all, the 31-year-old just understands how to play and plays within himself. His teams tend to perform better when he’s on the floor.

That’s an understatement for Wednesday night.

In a 125-95 win, the Rockets outscored the Nuggets by a whopping 57 points in Mbah a Moute’s 26 minutes. That’s the best single-game plus-minus in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to the 2000-01 season. It tops Joe Smith’s +52 in a 2001 Timberwolves win over the Bulls, a 53-point game that also produced a +50 for Wally Szczerbiak and +48 for Terrell Brandon.

Mbah a Moute’s traditional stat line was impressive, though not overly so: 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting with four rebounds, four steals and an assist. He played well, contributing to winning in all the small ways he often does, and the Rockets happened to play excellently around him.

Now, Mbah a Moute tops the leaderboard in single-game plus-minus since 2000-01:

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