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


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.

James Harden scores 34, Rockets hold off Timberwolves 129-120

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — James Harden had 34 points and 12 assists, and Houston held off a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 129-120 on Sunday night for the Rockets’ 26th win in 28 games.

The West’s top team led by as many as 25 before the Timberwolves, holding on for dear life in a tightening playoff race, pulled within five in the fourth. The loss dropped the Wolves into the eighth playoff spot after they started the day in a three-way tie for fifth.

Harden had 11 points in the final 6:34, including a 3-pointer with 58 seconds left that effectively secured the win.

Chris Paul and Clint Capela each had 16 points for the Rockets.

Jeff Teague led Minnesota with 23 points, Andrew Wiggins had 21, and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jamal Crawford each added 20.

The Wolves got a burst of energy after a fourth-quarter scuffle between Gorgui Dieng, Paul and Gerald Green. Green was ejected for coming to Paul’s defense after a frustrated Dieng pushed him down after a foul. With the pumped-up crowd chanting “Gor-Gui!,” Derek Rose had back-to-back layups to pull the Wolves to 109-102. But Paul hit a jumper with Crawford in his face, and Harden easily drove past Dieng for a layup to give the Rockets some breathing room.

Minnesota’s 19-6 run made it 115-110 with 3:58 to play before Trevor Ariza hit a 3, and the Rockets were able to answer every Wolves bucket to hold off the rally.

The game was seemingly over by halftime; Houston shot 63 percent, hit 11 3-pointers and led by as many as 24 in the first half while turning the ball over only three times. Harden had 10 assists in the first half, when the Wolves were as close as three before Houston reeled off a 12-0 run and didn’t allow Minnesota to recover.


Jimmy Butler targeting return to Timberwolves before end of season

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Jimmy Butler could return to the court for the Minnesota Timberwolves before the end of the regular season, if he stays on track with his rehabilitation from knee surgery.

Butler spoke to reporters Sunday for the first time since the meniscus injury he suffered Feb. 23 at Houston . He confirmed an initial recovery estimate of four to six weeks. Even on the long end of that timetable, he’d likely have two games with the Timberwolves before the postseason.

Butler said he’s confident in both his ability to heal in time and the team’s ability to hang on to a spot in the playoffs. The Wolves entered their game against the Rockets in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Western Conference, but no room for a slump.

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Gerald Green ejected for pushing Gorgui Dieng into stands (VIDEO)

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I don’t know why everyone in the NBA is so geeked this weekend. Coaches are getting fined, referees are throwing dudes out left and right. Maybe it’s because most of us recently saw the sun for the first time in five months, although I couldn’t tell you for certain.

As the Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets went head-to-head on Sunday, something had players on both sides itching. Early in the fourth quarter, Timberwolves big man Gorgui Dieng got into it with Houston’s Chris Paul and Gerald Green.

The incident came as Dieng was being defended by Paul in the low post. Paul was whistled for a foul while trying to get the ball away from Dieng, but even after the whistle blew the Rockets guard did not stop trying to get the ball. Dieng responded by pushing Paul, who fell to the ground as if someone cut the strings on him.

That prompted another whistle from the refs, and a crowd of players ensued. Green rushed to push Dieng, sending the Timberwolves center into the stands.

When the scene settled, Dieng was issued a technical foul and Green was ejected.

After the game, Dieng told reporters he thought Paul’s constant digging for the ball was a cheap shot, so he responded in kind.

Minnesota, energized, tried to make a late push on the top team in the Western Conference but came up just short. Houston beat the Timberwolves, 129-120.

Alvin Gentry, Stan Van Gundy fined $15,000 each for criticizing officials

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All is not right between NBA players, coaches, and the referees. What else is new?

After contentious games on Saturday night, both Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy and New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry expressed their opinions about what they felt was a poor officiating.

Van Gundy — whose team lost to the Portland Trail Blazers as they continued on to their 12th straight win — complained that his players were being “screwed” as they were knocked down, hammered, and hit. Gentry was especially infuriated after a late foul call went against his team as James Harden was hit on the hand while shooting a 3-pointer.

Now, the NBA has announced that both coaches have been fined $15,000 each for public criticism of officials.

Things were slated to get better between the NBRA and NBPA after the All-Star break. The two sides were supposed to have a meeting which discussed some of the more concerning trends that players and coaches have publicly complained about this year. That meeting got moved up to December, with more talks to come later. It’s not clear if they’ve done any good.

Right after All-Star Weekend guys like LeBron James were still making waves about how they are being officiated. Coaches like Doc Rivers continue to openly complain about the referees and draw fines. Van Gundy and Gentry are just the latest additions to the list, and it’s unlikely they’ll be the last before the season ends.

Hell, the end of the game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors was just about as bad as we’ve seen all year. In that game, Raptors coach Dwane Casey was ejected after a comment made by a fan sitting near the floor was incorrectly attributed to him.

The NBA lost a lot of veteran officials due to retirement in the changeover to this season, and the transition has been rough. They’re going to need to figure some things out over the summer. I expect bigger announcements about those efforts to come out after the NBA Finals as a means to restore public faith in the officiating crews.