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


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.

Legend: LeBron James gained seven pounds during game

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Remember when LeBron James was getting back injections and missing weeks?

Now, at age 33 and in his 15th season, LeBron might play all 82 games for the first time in his career. And that’s while playing 37 minutes per game at a superstar level.

How did LeBron reverse what appeared to be declining athleticism and durability? Brian Windhorst of ESPN has a fantastically detailed article, focusing on LeBron’s personal biomechanist, Donnie Raimon, a former Navy SEAL.


James is known to personally spend seven figures a year caring for his body, and Raimon is part of that tab. So are personal chefs and masseuses. He also gets private treatments with liquid nitrogen to help reduce inflammation. James’ home facilities rival those of professional teams. In his home in Akron, James has a fully outfitted workout gym, hot and cold tubs and a hyperbaric chamber.

LeBron views that as investment. He’s earning $33,285,709 from the Cavaliers this season, and even at his age, he can command any contract from any team next summer. The path to LeBron maximizing his earnings is playing elite basketball as long as possible. The expenses incurred are a kick in the bucket.

In this excellent article – worth reading in full – Windhorst goes on an unbelievable tangent.


And the topper: the time James gained seven pounds during an Eastern Conference finals game.

Some Miami Heat teammates saw the scale and attest to it in amazement. James himself just shrugs and calls it “weird as hell.” The truly wild part is that it was from 271 pounds to 278 pounds, though James is much lighter these days.

Was LeBron wearing different clothes for each weigh-in? Did the scale malfunction during one?

It’s hard enough to come up with plausible explanations for the reading to increase by seven pounds. It’s far more difficult to believe LeBron actually gained seven pounds during a game.

But this story still contributes to the idea of LeBron’s body as otherworldly.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue taking leave of absence

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Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue left Cleveland’s win over the Bulls yesterday due to illness. He has also missed time in other games, shootarounds and practice due to the illness.

Apparently, he reached a breaking point.

Cavaliers release:

From Tyronn Lue:

“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.

I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is.

While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team. I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards.

I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”

From Koby Altman:

“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues.”

Hopefully, Lue gets through these issues and returns to the bench. My thoughts are with him.

This has been a trying season for Lue and the Cavs. Rumors have swirled about his job security, as Cleveland (40-29) has stumbled to third in the Eastern Conference. He was part of a shouting match with LeBron James on the bench (though an assistant coach might be have been LeBron’s target). Lue has had public disputes with Isaiah Thomas and J.R. Smith. And many took Kyrie Irving‘s praise of Celtics coach Brad Stevens as a shot at Lue.

All that stress does Lue’s health no favors.

Him stepping away is evidently for the best. A competitor like him wouldn’t have done so unless that was absolutely clear.

But this also leaves the Cavaliers in a tough place. They’re already trying to change so much on the fly after a busy trade-deadline day upended the roster. Adjusting to a new coach – associate head coach Larry Drew – only adds to the chaos.

Drew has previous head-coaching experience, with the Bucks and Hawks. So, that should help.

But Cleveland needs major work defensively and developing cohesion before the playoffs. The goal is beating the Warriors, but even winning the East looks dicey, especially given the Raptors’ emergence.

Lue’s health comes first, and hopefully time off helps him. Unfortunately, this situation also exacerbates other issues in Cleveland.

NBA, referees argue on Twitter

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As tension rises, players and coaches are taking it out on the officials. The NBA releases daily two-minute reports assessing calls late in close games. The referees’ union keeps complaining about that practice.

It all boiled over to a rare show of the league publicly calling a National Basketball Referees Association claim “not accurate:”

The NBRA is doing its members no favors with all these attempts to defend the process behind incorrect calls. People want correct calls and calls that favor their team. There’s nothing referees can do about the latter. They should focus on the former.

The inbound took longer than five seconds. It should have been a violation. The end.

Want to curry favor? Advocate for the NBA adopting the technology necessary to get these calls right. There’s no reason, in the year 2018, five-second calls should be determined by a referee tracking time with arm waves while watching for other calls. Nobody expects refs to count out the shot clock. Other timed calls – including three-second violations – should be handled with digital timers.

Instead, the referees union picks these lame public fights. The league’s response only increases the off-putting pettiness all around.

Nobody wants to root for referees. This is not going to turn mass opinion.

Watch Justin Timberlake drain half-court shot, a couple of three pointers

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Justin Timberlake is filthy.

At least in this NBA video he is.

Maybe the world’s biggest performer right now — and part owner of the Memphis Grizzlies — swung by the Washington Wizards practice facility and drained a few shots like it was nothing. The man can’t stop the feeling.

We see you, JT 👀 (repost @justintimberlake & @washwizards)

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