Tony Parker’s clutch buckets late help Spurs take down the Thunder

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This was a game the Thunder could have won, and watching how the last few possessions played out, it’s one the Thunder should have won. But in the end, San Antonio had the execution that Oklahoma City did not, and the Spurs came away with a buzzer-beating 86-84 win over the Thunder to give them their second win in as many nights to open the 2012 season.

This was a close game that went back and forth all night, but it wasn’t a particularly well-played one. The teams combined for 31 turnovers, and the Spurs’ 44.3 percent shooting seemed high compared to the 37.7 percent that OKC posted.

A lot of the Thunder’s problems offensively can be traced directly to Russell Westbrook, whose shot selection was atrocious for most of the night, and yet despite rarely connecting, he kept on firing — 21 times, the most from any player on either team. Westbrook hit on only six of those shots, which came mainly on his patented pull-up jumpers from mid-range, while seemingly not even considering time left on the shot clock or the overall game situation.

Westbrook is a double-edged sword, however, because on nights like this one, he’s typically the only one on the team making a point of being aggressive. The rest of the Thunder looked largely passive for most of the game, playing at a slower overall tempo which played right into the Spurs’ hands.

Oklahoma City debuted its sixth-man replacement for James Harden in this one, and got a decent performance from Kevin Martin, who scored 15 points off the bench, and chipped in five assists in his 32 minutes of action. It’ll take some time for Martin to learn where to go on the court to get the easiest looks, and of course, he’ll need to adjust to playing with his new teammates. But he can definitely score, so as the season progresses, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his offensive numbers surpass even those of Harden’s.

But while Martin is a scorer, Harden is a better overall playmaker. And with that second unit, OKC will need to have someone step into that role to be successful — over time, maybe that’ll be Eric Maynor. But it isn’t likely to be Martin.

On the Spurs’ side of things, San Antonio got a lot of positive contributions from a lot of guys you don’t necessarily expect them from. And isn’t that just like them? Kawhi Leonard did an excellent job defensively on Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan played big on the second night of a back-to-back, and Tony Parker drained the shots that mattered down the stretch for the second straight night. Danny Green hit timely shots from three-point distance, and Gary Neal came in and got buckets efficiently in limited minutes.

This game had wild swings both ways, with the Thunder leading by as many as eight, and the Spurs leading by as many as 10. But it came down to the final few possessions, and the Spurs were supremely prepared to execute while the Thunder couldn’t get out of their own way. Let’s review:

– OKC led by three with 1:02 remaining. They had a chance at converting an alley-oop, but Westbrook should have known he was too close to the rim to convert it, and should have simply caught the ball and come down with it instead of forcing the shot attempt. It was a quick possession for the Thunder when they didn’t need one, and the Spurs immediately responded.

– On the ensuing possession, Boris Diaw found himself under the basket and nearly falling out of bounds along the baseline, but gathered himself enough to kick the ball out to Parker up top, who drained an open three-pointer to tie the game at 84. It was a classic Spurs possession in the sense that once the defense collapsed and things seemed to break down, someone made the heady play to find the open man, who calmly knocked down the shot.

– No problem for the Thunder now, theoretically. Kevin Durant is among the game’s purest scorers, so get the ball into his hands and let him go to work. Except, you have to actually get the ball into his hands. The Thunder failed in this regard, because as Durant flashed to get the ball (somewhat lackadaisically), Leonard was able to head off the pass and get the steal. It wasn’t all on Westbrook for making a poor read on the pass, because Durant should have showed a little harder and sealed his defender. But it was a blown opportunity for the Thunder nevertheless.

– This brings us to the final possession. Watch it again for yourself, but it appears that Westbrook had no intention of guarding anybody during this play — either that, or he got completely lost. Parker creeps along the baseline, then curls out to the wing to receive the pass, while Westbrook casually heads to the middle of the paint for no apparent reason. Big-time shot from Parker to be sure, but you can’t tell me that the Thunder did all they could defensively to prevent that wide-open look.

This one came down to execution; once the season is finished, should these two teams meet again, things will likely end up differently. But at this early stage of the season, with the veteran crew the Spurs have in place, and with one of the best in the game running the show there in Gregg Popovich, the fact that San Antonio was able to get the win the way that they did shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Jazz mitigate loss of Gordon Hayward well, but that’s still a devastating departure

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Jazz traded up to draft a player who is already exceeding expectations.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

The Jazz made a savvy trade to land a starter before free agency even began.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

The Jazz executed several nice value signings.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

In what was otherwise a smart offseason, there’s just no way around Utah losing Hayward – a 27-year-old star at the critical wing position. Hayward’s importance to the Jazz is self-evident in the effort to re-sign him – a max offer, a billboard, multiple players flying to San Diego for a final meeting. His departure to the Celtics derails what had been a promising ascension.

Two years ago, the Jazz were the only team with four 25-and-under players – Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood – who posted at least six win shares.

Last year, the Jazz were the only team a pair of 26-and-under players – Hayward and Gobert – who posted at least 10 win shares.

Though Favors’ and Hood’s progress was sidetracked by injury, Utah still made another step forward with Hayward and Gobert becoming All-Star caliber. If Favors and Hood got healthy, they could have joined Hayward and Gobert – and Donovan Mitchel (who was drafted No. 13 this year then impressed in summer league) and Ricky Rubio (who was acquired for just a likely low first-round pick thanks to the Jazz’s excess cap space to close the 2016-17 fiscal year) – in a core that was growing into a legitimate Western Conference power.

Alas, Hayward bolted for Boston, which threatens even more in the Eastern Conference.

The Jazz rebounded as well as can be expected. They preemptively got Rubio for just a lottery-protected Thunder pick, allowing them not to re-sign George Hill and deal with the 31-year-olds frequent injury troubles. Mitchell has quickly drawn rave reviews. Thabo Sefolosha ($5.25 million), Jonas Jerebko ($4 million) and Ekpe Udoh ($3.2 million) are all on favorable salaries – and each have unguaranteed seasons tacked on for next year, making their deals even more team-friendly.

Those players could join a deep rotation that already includes Gobert, Favors, Hood, Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson and Dante Exum. And here’s a little secret: Gobert – not Hayward, the team’s lone All-Star – was Utah’s best player last year. The Jazz aren’t falling off the map just yet.

Their defense might be even better. They could win even more than the 51 games they won last year if healthier.

But their offense will suffer without Hayward’s creation (which could hurt their defensive rating, if they’re defending after makes less often), and their ceiling is far lower. Guaranteeing Ingles $50 million during his 30s is probably an overpay that will also limit flexibility, though at least his salary declines annually.

The Jazz did a good job of handling losing a star. But losing a star isn’t good, and I’m grading results.

Offseason grade: D+

Kyrie Irving-LeBron James saga featured in hilarious parody of Eminem’s ‘Stan’ (video)

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What’s going on between Kyrie Irving and LeBron James?

I’ve seen better explanations.

But I haven’t seen more entertaining explanations.

Houston billionaire Dan Friedkin expresses interest in buying Rockets

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We’ve seen the flashy names – Beyonce and Hakeem Olajuwon – interested in buying the Rockets.

But what about someone who can actually afford a majority stake?

Mark Berman of Fox 26:

Houston billionaire Dan Friedkin, owner and CEO of Gulf States Toyota and the president and CEO of the Friedkin Group, acknowledged in a statement released to FOX 26 Sports that he is interested in buying the Houston Rockets franchise.

“I’ve expressed interest in exploring the purchase of the Houston Rockets,” Friedkin said in a statement released by his company.

Forbes pegs Friedkin’s net worth worth at $3.1 billion and the Rockets’ value $1.65 billion. So, while he might be able to buy the team outright, it’d likely be a stretch of his assets.

More likely, if Friedkin is serious about purchasing the team, he’ll do so as part of a group. Whether he’d spend enough to be the controlling owner is an open question.

Memphis coach David Fizdale calls confederate monuments in city “unacceptable”

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Confederate President Jefferson Davis has a statue in Memphis. So does Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a man who went on to be one of the early members of — and reportedly the first grand wizard of — the Ku Klux Klan (he would later deny to Congress any involvement with the group). Both men lived in Memphis.

The Memphis City Council voted in 2015 to remove those statues — part of a growing trend nationally to remove Confederate monuments — but it was stopped because the statue is under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Historical Commission, which denied the request. The city is still fighting that legal battle.

The removal issue has been divisive is Memphis, but in the wake of violence in Charlottesville by white supremacists and Nazis — ostensibly about the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in that city, but really about much more than that — Grizzlies coach David Fizdale spoke out on the issue. He was interviewed as part of the MLK50: Justice through Journalism program, with the translation courtesy The Commercial Appeal‘s Geoff Calkins.

“Fifty years later (Martin Luther King Jr.) is speaking to us from the grave and telling us to stand up to this crap that we’re seeing, that’s festering in our country, that our president has seemed to deem OK and label as equal as people who are fighting for love and fighting hate and bigotry and all of those things. We’ve got to listen to Dr. King. There’s no way, with me being the head coach in the city of Memphis, that I will sit on the sidelines and disgrace his legacy, my grandfather’s legacy, and let somebody destroy something that we built in America that I think can be exemplary.”

“I can’t sit and watch this, not in a city where Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago, where we have, even today in our city a statue of a known Klansman, right here in the beautiful city of Memphis with all these incredibly wonderful people. It’s unacceptable. It will no longer stand. I think you’re seeing it all over America people are not standing for it anymore. It’s a black eye on our history.”

David Fizdale is not known for holding back his feelings — “take that for data!” — and he is spot on here on a far more important issue. Good on him for using his platform and voice to speak out.

These are statues dedicated to men who fought to uphold slavery as an institution, and as a nation that something we fought a war over. The north and the Union Army won the military campaign more than 150 years ago, but we are still fighting the Civil War in this nation in terms of ideals. Fizdale understands that. Removal of those statues is a step in the right direction, away from glorifying an ugly past built on the notion that one man was not equal to another, that one man could own another.

Don’t expect Fizdale to be quiet on this issue. Nor should he be.