Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

Be warned: This year’s Thunder are better than last year’s

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Kevin Durant is a better player today than he was when the Thunder lost Game 5 of the NBA finals last season. His ball handling has improved allowing him to take on more playmaking. His defense is better. He is rebounding more.

Russell Westbrook is more of a floor general. His play seems crisper, more confident. And he’s still one of the most athletic players in the NBA.

Serge Ibaka might win the NBA’s most improved player award this year — he has developed a very reliable midrange catch-and-shoot jumper and is shooting 57.1 percent on the season. He used to play only for his defense, now he starts because you have to guard him.

When the Thunder traded James Harden for Kevin Martin before the season the team took a small step back. They will miss Harden’s playmaking off the bench. His defense. His beard.

But the Thunder today are a better team, a hungrier team than the one the Heat beat in the finals last season. Their defense is about the same but their offense is 3.5 points per 100 possessions better this season — it is the best offense in the NBA.

That growth is because Durant and Westbrook are just 24 years old and still on a steep improvement curve. Ibaka is 23. With every new experience — like losing in the finals — they learn. They get better.

“When we made the (Harden) trade, we knew that we were still going to be a good team…” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “Our players are better. They came back better this summer. I thought the Olympic experience for all of them, even Serge with Spain, I thought everyone came back a little better.”

All of that showed in a rout of the Lakers Friday night. The Thunder defended and got out on the break to get some easy buckets. They moved the ball, made the extra pass, got good looks and then their shooters knocked them down.

Kevin Durant showed a mean streak, scoring 42 points and seeming at points to really enjoy taking it out on the Lakers. At one point he drove baseline and dunked over Antawn Jamison, then glared with a fire he rarely makes so public. Westbrook had 27 points but also 10 assists. The Thunder role players get their jobs and execute them.

And they are not tolerating lapses — up more than 20 with 9:42 left in the fourth quarter, the Lakers scored back-to-back buckets on lazy defense by the Thunder. Brooks called time out and chewed out his team. He put the starters back in for a few minutes to fully seal the game. And to send a message about effort and building good habits.

The Miami Heat are not building good habits, they are coasting through this season. Which is still enough to lead the Eastern Conference. It’s not easy to imagine a scenario where another team comes out of the conference. The Heat are the defending champs, if you want a ring you have to go through them.

Oklahoma City might just be a team that can do that. Because their stars are better than they have ever been.

Dwyane Wade’s determination outlasts Kyle Lowry’s buzzer beater

Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade controls the ball as Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry (7) defends during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Tuesday, May 3, 2016 in Toronto.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Dwyane Wade was helpless as Kyle Lowry‘s halfcourt heave sailed through the air (though Wade cocked his head back and leaned to the side, as if changing his view could alter the ball’s trajectory).

Wade was helpless as the referees swallowed their whistles despite Cory Joseph crashing into him on an inbound. (Haven’t we had enough incorrect no-calls on late inbound plays?) That led to a Heat turnover that preceded Lowry’s miracle shot.

Wade was helpless as the referees again swallowed their whistles despite DeMarre Carroll tugging his jersey on an overtime inbound. (Haven’t we really had enough incorrect no-calls on late inbound plays?) That also created a turnover and gave the Raptors another chance to tie.

So, Wade took matters into his own hands.

Wade snatched the ball from DeMar DeRozan, went to his knees to recover it and charged for a three-point play with 1.8 seconds left – finally clinching a 102-96 Miami Game 1 win in a second-round series Tuesday.

The game went to overtime on Lowry’s long-distance buzzer beater. When the shot fell, Wade dropped to one knee and buried his face in his hand. But he didn’t stay on the mat for long.

The Heat scored first eight points of regulation, and Wade (24 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks) outscored the Raptors himself in the extra period, 7-6.

This is Toronto’s seventh straight Game 1 loss, including four at home the last three years with largely this group of players. But as the Raptors’ first-round win over the Pacers showed, this series is far from over. Road Game 1 winners have taken the series 53% of the time, hardly an overwhelming clip.

Toronto must better stay in front of Goran Dragic, who led Miami with 26 points. Dragic, who had 25 in Game 7 against the Hornets, had never scored so much in consecutive games with the Heat. They’re thrilled to run their offense through him more often.

The Raptors should also more resolutely attack Hassan Whiteside, who scared them away from the basket. Beyond Jonas Valanciunas (24 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals), the Raptors were 8-for-20 in the paint with Whiteside in the game. It’s not so much the shooting percentage – which isn’t great – but the low number of attempts in 39 minutes. Whiteside is a premier rim protector, but he’s not invincible. That proclivity for the perimeter failed especially with Toronto’s star guard struggling so mightily.

Aside from his halfcourt highlight, Lowry scored four points on 2-of-12 shooting, including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. More than anything, the Raptors need him to play better.

Otherwise, the shot of the playoffs will only delay the inevitable.

Kyle Lowry sends Raptors-Heat to overtime with halfcourt buzzer beater (video)

Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry makes a pass as Miami Heat's Luol Deng (9) and Goran Dragic (7) defend during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Tuesday, May 3, 2016 in Toronto.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Kyle Lowry was 2-for-11, including 0-for-5 on 3-pointers.

Didn’t matter.

He hit the big one to stave off yet another Raptors Game 1 loss.

Video via Kenny Ducey of Sports Illustrated

C.J. McCollum on Warriors: ‘They set a lot of illegal screens’

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, center, reaches for the ball between Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, top, and forward Andre Iguodala during the second half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, May 1, 2016. The Warriors won 118-106. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts accused Anderson Varejao of being dirty on a particular play.

C.J. McCollum says the Warriors cross the line much more regularly.

via Jason Quick of CSN Northwest:

“They set a lot of illegal screens,’’ Blazers guard CJ McCollum said Tuesday at the team’s shootaround at The Olympic Club. “They are moving and stuff. That’s the respect you get when you are champions, you get a lot more respect from the referees. You have to figure out a way to get around those screens and make it difficult.’’

One underappreciated element of the Warriors’ success is their excellent screening. Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are two of the NBA’s best. Even the diminutive Stephen Curry wreaks havoc with his screens, leveraging his shooting ability to befuddle defenders.

Do the Warriors sometimes set illegal screens? Yup. Do they do so more than other teams? Yup. Do they do so more than every other team? Anecdotally, probably, though I’d love to see numbers.

But that’s part of Golden State’s strategy. The Warriors screeners so often straddle the line, they move it. It’s a fine line between a good legal screen and an illegal one, and Golden State dares the refs to blow the whistle.

McCollum can campaign for that to change, and his statements might cause the league to instruct referees to watch Warrior screens more closely. But even if Golden State has to harness its movement and arm extensions on picks, the team is more than capable of setting quality clean screens.

Anderson Varejao responds to Terry Stotts’ ‘dirty play’ charge: Not intentional

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Golden State backup big man Anderson Varejao insists he didn’t deliberately trip Trail Blazers guard Gerald Henderson in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series.

Yet after watching the replay, he understands it sure looked like he did it on purpose – which is what Henderson thought. Varejao said it looked worse than it was.

“When I looked at the play, I was like, `Oh, it looked like I was trying to do that,”‘ he said. “How can I try to do something like that? I’m going down and my foot got stuck. That’s all.”

Portland coach Terry Stotts on Monday called it a “dirty play.” Then Tuesday, the NBA ruled it a Flagrant 1 foul on Varejao.

Game 2 of the best-of-seven series was set for Tuesday night at Oracle Arena, and both players involved seemed to be ready to move forward.

The 33-year-old Varejao, a 12th-year NBA veteran from Brazil, said in response to Stotts that he isn’t a dirty player.

“It’s a playoff game, we all know it’s going to be like that. I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about. I just thought it was a physical play,” Varejao said after the morning shootaround. “Got hit in my back, I was going down, my feet got stuck somewhere and all of a sudden, someone else fell. I’m sorry that that happened. Do you think I’m looking for guys to take them out? No. I know how it is to be hurt. I’ve been hurt enough.

“I would never try to hurt anybody, I would never do that.”

He and Henderson were ejected late in the third quarter of Sunday’s game after receiving their second technical fouls. Both were hit with a technical at the 3:29 mark of the third when Varejao tripped Henderson after they collided. Henderson jumped up, pointing a finger at his opponent’s face. They kept jawing a few minutes later and were tossed with 15.1 seconds left in the period.

Stotts was still steamed about it a day later.

“Varejao made a dirty play. It was a leg-whip and I thought it was a dangerous play,” he said. “I thought Gerald’s reaction to being tripped like that was appropriate. Otherwise, no one would have seen it. It was unfortunate that he got tossed on the second, but you have to defend yourself – especially when somebody makes a dirty play.”

Henderson said after the game that he believed Varejao thought the Blazers guard ran into him on purpose.

“I hit him. I bumped him good. But I didn’t, I wasn’t trying to hit him,” Henderson said, calling it “a little excessive” to have Varejao go at his legs.

Varejao said Tuesday he was initially surprised Henderson came at him.

“But looking at the play, he had the right to do it. I understand why he came back at me the way he did, which is OK, guys. It’s a playoff game,” Varejao said. “It’s going to be physical. It’s fun when it gets like that.”