Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

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.

Gasol gets double-double as Bulls beat Spurs 92-89

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CHICAGO (AP) — Pau Gasol punctuated his big block on LaMarcus Aldridge with a triumphant yell.

The ugly final four minutes went to Gasol and the Chicago Bulls.

Gasol had 18 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots, and the Bulls snapped San Antonio’s five-game winning streak with a 92-89 victory over the Spurs on Monday night.

Jimmy Butler scored 14 points and reserve Doug McDermott had 12 for Chicago, which was coming off a 104-92 loss at Indiana on Friday night. Joakim Noah contributed eight points, seven assists and 11 rebounds despite battling foul trouble in the final minutes of the opener of a four-game homestand.

“Everyone contributed tonight in a positive way,” Gasol said. “Jo was outstanding and almost had a triple double off the bench with his energy, making plays offensively as well as defensively. Everyone really contributed and it was good to see.”

Gasol rejected Aldridge on a drive with 1:06 left, and then hit one of two foul shots on the other end for a 90-89 lead. After Manu Ginobili missed for San Antonio, Butler hit two free throws with 10.6 seconds to go.

The Spurs had one last chance, but Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker each missed 3-point attempts in the final seconds. Parker’s try was partially blocked by Derrick Rose, who finished with 11 points and six assists.

“We had a play for Kawhi, and an option for Manu, it just didn’t work out,” Parker said. “That happens sometimes. It was good defense by Chicago.”

Leonard had 25 points and eight rebounds for San Antonio, which had won nine of 10. Aldridge added 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Parker had 13 points and nine assists.

The Spurs had just one field goal in the final four minutes.

“We are not good offensively, and may not be until March,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “Offense will take a while. We have a lot of guys getting used to each other, and how to play together.”

The Spurs led 73-70 after three quarters, but the Bull opened the fourth with an 11-2 run. Tony Snell sparked the surge with a 3-pointer and a driving layup.

Chicago played without guards Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks. Brooks has a left hamstring injury, and Hinrich is recovering from a hip pointer.

“It was one of those nights where everybody that stepped out on the floor not only contributed but contributed in a big way,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.



Spurs: Tim Duncan had 12 rebounds, but San Antonio was hurt by a 51-47 deficit on the boards. … The Spurs went 2 for 14 from 3-point range, compared to 6 for 16 for the Bulls. … San Antonio went 13-3 in November.

Bulls: Noah played in his 557th game with Chicago, passing Dave Corzine for ninth on the franchise list. … The Bulls had an 8-4 record in November.


Stephen Curry’s step-back three beats Jazz, Warriors now 19-0

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Credit the up-and-coming Jazz, they played well and were a fantastic stylistic match against Golden State. Utah played big, slowed the game down, limited transition looks, hit key shots (Derrick Favors was fantastic with 24, Gordon Hayward had 24), and were the right mix of gritty and smart.

And Golden State still won.

Stephen Curry got the sliver of daylight he needed in the last minute to step back and drain the three that proved to be the game-winner. Draymond Green was the other stud in this game — 20 points, nine boards, seven assists, plus his hustle plays were the difference down the stretch.

Golden State is 19-0, a record start, and they made the plays they needed to make. But Utah made them work for it.

Report: Sixers’ Jahlil Okafor to be shadowed by security guard now

2015 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot

In the run-up to the NBA Draft, there were no questions — at least publicly — about Jahlil Okafor‘s character. But of late there has been a run or incidents since then: He allegedly had a gun pulled on him outside a club in October; in November he was ticketed for driving more than 100 mph on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge; then he had an altercation with a guy outside a club in Boston that the police in that city are now investigating.

Okafor publicly apologized for the incidents. Multiple times.

The Sixers are making sure a security guard follows Okafor around when he steps out now, reports Chris Broussard at ESPN.

After being involved recently in a few embarrassing and potentially dangerous off-the-court incidents, Philadelphia 76ers star rookie Jahlil Okafor will now be accompanied by a security guard whenever he goes out, according to league sources.

The request for security came from Okafor’s handlers, who asked the 76ers to make a security guard available to their first-round draft pick out of Duke. The Sixers did not return a phone call seeking comment, but two sources said the club will honor the request.

Earlier in the day a source had wondered to John Gonzalez of why there wasn’t already security around the young core of the team when they went out.

Another front office member for another team questioned “why the Sixers won’t surround those guys with security.”

“Damn near every team does that,” the executive said, “especially with their top guys. I guess the Sixers know more than everyone else again.”

The Sixers head of security is supposed to be notified when players went out. Apparently that was not happening.

Okafor is 19, has money, and (at the very least) is putting himself in situations where bad things are more likely to occur.

We all made a lot of mistakes at that age, maybe not as potentially serious, but the bottom line is 19-year-olds don’t make good decisions. This is a Sixers team lacking in veteran leadership in the locker room, and while it’s debatable how much that would help in the wee small hours of the morning when Okafor seems to find trouble, it couldn’t hurt.

This is a smart move by Okafor’s friends/posse/handlers/whatever you call them. Get in his face now, tell him he can lose a fan base whether he’s scoring 17.5 points a game a night or not. Tell him to grow up. Then have someone around him to make sure he does the right thing (or those looking to draw him into trouble are kept away).

Watch Rasheed Wallace hit two simultaneous three pointers, one with with each hand

NBA Finals Game 7:  Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers
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Ball don’t lie.

The ball has always loved Rasheed Wallace, and that hasn’t changed since he stopped playing in the NBA. Check out this shot, courtesy Brandon Jennings.

I love everything about this, including the fact Sheed’s wearing the same thing he wore around the NBA for years. I love that Wallace is still a trick shot master, just like always.

(Hat tip to Dan Devine at Ball Don’t Lie.)