Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook celebrates with small forward Kevin Durant during their NBA basketball game against Chicago Bulls in Oklahoma City

NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: So freaking close.

The Thunder beat the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals in Oklahoma City by 11 points. A double-digit victory over he mighty triumverate. It was their fifth win in a row and they looked, as teams do when the win by double-digits, like the superior team in every way. Russell Westbrook couldn’t be stopped. Kevin Durant couldn’t be stopped. The Heat couldn’t keep up with their athleticism and offensive firepower.

They never won again that season.

The next three game were decided by 16 points total. The Heat won four straight, sending the Thunder home after another step forward but once again without the prize.

It was a season that showed considerable growth for the three stars, Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. Durant became an even more efficient scorer and a better defender, Westbrook increased his production and cut down on his mistakes, Harden grew into a playmaker. The team overall, though, was much te same as it was the year before. Great offensively, pretty good defensively, dominant most of the time and exciting to watch. Defense was the only question, and in the end, it was the only one that mattered, as the grind-it-out style of the Heat wore them down and eventually bested them.

The Thunder had to have walked away from 2012 neither convinced that they could or could not win the title.

Key Departures: Nazr Mohammed played 11 minutes per game last season. He’s gone, so there’s that. That’s pretty much it. And, you know, there’s no real concerns on the horizon. Oh, wait, James Harden.

Key Additions: Perry Jones III plummeted down the draft board, all the way to the Thunder. With no concerns about how he would affect team chemistry or the expecations that would be heaped on him, the Thunder leapt at him and snatched him up. Jones gives them a versatile stretch four who can likely play 3 in some big lineups and has the potential to be an absolute steal if thigs work out right.

They brought in Hasheem Thabeet to replace Mohammed, which is fine. He has to come in, not be horrible, contest or block shots, and rebound. He will do just enough of this to not stand out while clearly still being the weakest link on the team.

How about Daniel Orton? Can I interest you in Andy Rautins? Care for some DeAndre Liggins? No? No? Anybody?

Three One keys to the Thunder season:

1) KEEP CALM AND THUNDER UP: The Thunder don’t need to adapt or change or alter. They don’t need to play differently or mix it up or make things more complex. They just need to do what they did last year.

They just need to show up, run, score, and rock. They are very fittingly the AC/DC of the NBA.

They just need to play better and hope the Heat aren’t as good as they were last year. Bear in mind that in all these other previews I can give you in-depth reasons and tactical adjustments, lineup or chemistry tweaks, philosophical or pragmatic deviations necessary for improvement. I have none for the Thunder. They just need to play a little better. That’s all I’ve got.

What Thunder fans should fear: Chemistry is the thing. This team has accomplished remarkable things at a young age, all built on the strength of their bond with one another. Young players who came up together in a small market with few distrctions who liked each and liked playing with and for one another.

But business has come. Westbrook got his extension, but there are people, even those in Oklahoma City who think that eventually, he’s going to want the opportunity to show what he can be as the main act. James Harden’s contract is on the clock. If it gets done, the Thunder have to plan for their future. If it doesn’t, they have to figure out what to do with him.

This team has exemplified fun and youth for three years, and it’s been an incredible ride. But it’s extremely rare for a team like this to stay together as they get older and the money gets bigger. It’s like the circle of life, only with publicists.

How it likely works out: It’s going to come down to the Lakers or them for the West. There is zero doubt in anyone’s rational, objective mind about this. It’s just a matter of whether Perkins can contain Dwight enough, if Durant can lift his game to another level, if Westbrook can out-produce Nash since neither can defend the other.

There is no way to tell who’s going to come out of it. It’s going to be extremely fun, and there will be many who will want to just skip right to it.

Prediction: 63-19. They have no injury concerns. They have the league’s second best player and best offensive weapons. They have twolegitimate MVP candidates. Their shot-blocking defensive star has reliable mid-range jumper. They have depth, youth, experience, energy, athleticism, skill, and are very, very hungry. The Lakers may have arrived once more. The Thunder are already here.

Three things we learned Sunday: Roller coaster Laker season has some deep, deep dips

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, center, gestures to fans in the stands while watching from the bench with forward Kevin Durant, left, during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
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With a couple of important football games Sunday you may have missed some other things. Like why a highway was covered in red Skittles. Or, the handful of NBA Games that took place. We can help you with the latter, here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) On the anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, Lakers only score 73.
I keep waiting for the day Luke Walton snaps.

He has been the model of the patient, developmental basketball coach of a young team this season — it’s about progress, about lessons learned, about laying a foundation that helps this young core grow into something more dangerous in future years. He has been what the Lakers needed, a departure from last year and he who shall not be named. However, the lack of effort and growth on defense — the continued inability to defend the pick-and-roll — has to be eating at him inside. This is a young team, it’s going to have ups and downs, but the downs have been deep and pronounced, and at some point I expect Walton to just unload on his young charges.

Although if it didn’t happen after Sunday, it might never happen. On the 11th anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, the Lakers as a team scored just 73 points. Los Angeles lost by 49 points, a franchise record for worst loss ever. Walton said after the game the Lakers lacked the kind of veteran or natural leader on this team who would take charge on the court and call out his teammates off it in moments like this. Maybe he needs to be that guy.

Comments about the Lakers often talk about a quality young core for them to build around. There is some truth to that. Brandon Ingram has had some better games of late, although on Sunday he was asked to start for the injured D’Angelo Russell and be a playmaker and that failed. Ingram missed his first shot and it got in his head for the rest of the day, throwing off his game. Ingram needs to be a better shot creator (and get stronger). Jordan Clarkson can score the rock, and both he and Larry Nance Jr. are future NBA rotation players who can contribute to very good teams. Then there is Russell — nobody has been more up and down this season than the second-year point guard. A few weeks back I wrote about how he had finally developed a game-day routine and seemed to be turning a corner with a string of strong games. Since then he’s pretty much stunk. He’s developing, although it’s fair to ask if he’s doing that fast enough?

(Still, the Lakers really missed Russell Sunday — he’s the only guard they have who is a threat to score from three or getting into the lane, he’s a good passer who sees the angles on the court, and when he’s out there the ball moves better. This Lakers team lacks shot creators and when Russell is out the offense can stagnate quickly, reverting to one-on-one plays.)

It’s fair to ask why the inconsistent defensive efforts? Well, consistently bad may be the more accurate description. They make bad decisions constantly, and the veterans they have either are not great defenders — Nick Young, Lou Williams — or can be drawn into bad positions, such as Timofey Mozgov having to defend Dirk Nowitzki Sunday.

It’s also fair to ask if the Lakers really have an alpha in this core? Do they have a top 15 NBA player that can be the cornerstone of a future contender? I don’t see it. Maybe Ingram with some muscle and experience on him can get there — scouts are still very high on his game — but I do not see it elsewhere. Plus, I don’t see the alpha, ultra-competitive personality that doesn’t accept losing gracefully. Again, maybe Russell or someone has that and is just not confident showing it yet, but this team lacks it.

With all that, the Lakers development roller coaster seems to have bigger dips than highs. Which has to frustrate Walton. And at some point, he’s going to lose it.

2) The Suns beat the Raptors, and Eric Bledsoe was the reason.
Phoenix has won a couple of game in a row, and while beating the Knicks does not earn guys high praise, beating the Toronto Raptors will do that. Quietly Eric Bledsoe has had a borderline All-Star season — he’s not going to make the team due to the depth of talent in the West and the fact the Suns suck — and he showed it Sunday with an impressive 40 points to get Phoenix the win.

3) The Warriors punish Magic to end week where they asserted themselves. Last week for the Warriors started with a rematch against Cleveland, and Golden State earned a measure of confidence blowing them out. Then the Warriors beat Russell Westbrook and the Thunder thanks to a “look at what you’re missing” game from Kevin Durant. Then the Warriors knocked off the surging Rockets and James Harden.

That’s a good week, although the Warriors still had to face the Magic on Sunday. That had the makings of a potential let down game but the Warriors pulled away for the win.

Golden State has established itself as the best team in the NBA this regular season. There’s still a lot of season (nearly half) to go, and they will get tested in the playoffs, but they have set the mark to beat. Did they set the bar last year, too? Yes. And they made the Finals (and would have won if Draymond Green could keep his hands to himself), not something to ignore. But this season feels different with Durant in the fold. We’ll see. But for right now, they keep right on rolling at 38-6.

Suns’ Marquese Chriss shows off crazy hops to throw down alley-oop (VIDEO)

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Marquese Chriss has ridiculous athleticism, which is why a lot of teams had their eye on him last draft.

He’s still trying to figure out how to make that talent work for him on the court, but on plays like this third quarter alley-oop your jaw drops.

The Suns got the upset win over the Raptors thanks to a monster game from Eric Bledsoe.

Karl-Anthony Towns carries Wolves past Nuggets, 111-108

Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Karl-Anthony Towns, center, and Tyus Jones (1) celebrate their lead in the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Minneapolis. The Wolves won 111-108. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Karl-Anthony Towns had 32 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists and hit the go-ahead shot with 42.5 seconds to play to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to a 111-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night.

Towns hit 13 of 19 shots and also had four blocks and Andrew Wiggins scored 24 points in Minnesota’s fourth straight home win. Shabazz Muhammad scored 20 points off the bench and the Wolves rallied from nine points down midway through the fourth quarter for the win.

Gary Harris scored 22 points and Nikola Jokic had 18 points and eight rebounds for the Nuggets on the second night of a back-to-back. Wilson Chandler and Jamal Murray added 17 points each for Denver, which played without Emmanuel Mudiay because of a sore back.

Kris Dunn had 10 points and nine assists for the Wolves while starting for Ricky Rubio, who missed the game to attend his grandmother’s funeral.

The Wolves were down 100-91 midway through the fourth quarter when Towns and Muhammad keyed a 12-2 run. Muhammad finished the spurt with a layup for a 103-102 lead, Wiggins hit a 3-pointer and Towns knocked down a jumper from the baseline to put the Wolves up for good in a thriller.

The game featured two of the best young big men in the game in Towns and Jokic. Both are considered the new breed of NBA center, able to shoot the ball like a shooting guard, pass it like a point guard and run the break like a small forward.

Denver coach Mike Malone said the Nuggets offense took off when he inserted Jokic into the starting lineup, and the Serbian gave his coach the luxury of being able to weather Mudiay’s absence by running the offense through him. Rookie Jamal Murray saw extended minutes at point guard, running the pick-and-roll with Jokic to perfection.

Towns knows there is a segment of the NBA analytics community that believe Jokic should have won rookie of the year honors last year, and he went right at Jokic every time he had the chance on Sunday night. Towns dunked on Jokic twice and had another blow-by for a dunk in the second quarter that got the crowd on its feet.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Denver committed 18 turnovers leading to 31 points for Minnesota. … Mudiay stayed home in Denver to get treatment for his back. The hope is that it is a short-term injury.

Timberwolves: Gorgui Dieng was limited to six minutes in the first half after picking up three quick fouls in the first quarter. … Rubio is expected to rejoin the team on Monday.

SHABAZZ SHINES

Muhammad made 9 of 14 shots, including two 3s and hustled on defense as well, giving the Wolves some much-needed production off the bench. Zach LaVine had another quiet night as he works his way back from a hip injury, but Muhammad picked up the scoring slack. He reached double figures for the fourth time in seven games.

 

Eric Bledsoe’s career day leads Suns over Raptors 115-103

Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) drives past Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry during first-half NBA basketball game action in Toronto, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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TORONTO (AP) — Eric Bledsoe scored a career-high 40 points and had 13 assists and the Phoenix Suns handed the Toronto Raptors their third straight loss, 115-103 on Sunday night.

Bledsoe was 11 of 17 from the floor, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range, and Devin Booker added 20 points as the Suns won their second straight road game following Saturday’s win at New York. The victory also completed a season sweep of the Raptors for the first time since 2013-14 and improved Phoenix to 11-6 against Eastern Conference teams this season.

DeMar DeRozan had 22 points for Toronto and Jonas Valanciunas added 16 points and 12 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the season. It’s the first time the Raptors have lost three straight since Nov. 6-10, 2015.

Kyle Lowry was ejected with 1:30 left after a flagrant-two foul following contact with the head of Brandon Knight. It capped a night to forget for Lowry, who had 15 points but shot just 5 of 17, including 1 of 9 from 3-point range.

Toronto led from the 2:13 mark of the second quarter until the Suns tied it at 95 on a banked hook shot from Tyson Chandler with 7:29 to play. After DeMarre Carroll and Bledsoe exchanged baskets, Phoenix went on an 18-6 run the rest of the way to take the game away from the Raptors.

After falling behind on Bledsoe’s 3-pointer just 19 seconds in, the Raptors responded with a 12-0 run, punctuated by a spectacular alley-oop dunk by Lucas Nogueira from Lowry’s pass. The Raptors led 31-28 after 12 minutes.

DeRozan led the way in the second quarter, going 4 of 5 from the floor for 12 points as the Raptors built their lead to seven on a driving layup with 1:51 to play in the half. The Suns countered with a 10-4 run to go into the interval down 60-57.

The Raptors extended their lead to seven in the third but only shot 36.8 percent from the floor and were unable to pull away, settling for an 85-82 edge after 36 minutes.

TIP-INS

Suns: One night after setting the mark, Chandler ended his franchise record and career high of consecutive 15-plus rebound games at seven with nine rebounds on the night. … F Dragan Bender left with 9:03 remaining in the second quarter with a sore right ankle and did not return.

Raptors: F Patrick Patterson (left knee) missed his sixth consecutive game. … The Raptors got double-digit points from all five of their starting players.

HOME AT LAST

Toronto’s prized free-agent signing Jared Sullinger played his first home game for the Raptors on Sunday night. After missing the first 41 games of the season following left foot surgery, the forward made his debut in Friday’s loss in Charlotte before entering the fray Sunday with 3:56 to play in the first. He ultimately played 13 minutes, scoring nine points.

DRAWING LEVEL

With 22 points Sunday, DeRozan tied Chris Bosh for second in franchise history with 265 games with at least 20 points. Vince Carter leads the way with 273 such games.

HIGHLIGHT REEL

With 7:10 left in the third, Marquise Chriss made a spectacular, one-handed alley-oop dunk from T.J. Warren‘s lob pass that was slightly behind him, falling to the floor before rolling over and popping right back up.