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.

Seth Curry, Mavs hand Heat third loss in 19 games with 96-89 win

Dallas Mavericks guard Seth Curry (30) shoots against Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. The Mavericks won 96-89. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Associated Press
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DALLAS (AP) — Seth Curry scored 29 points, Harrison Barnes added 24 and the Dallas Mavericks beat Miami 96-89 on Monday night, handing the Heat just their third loss in 19 games.

Curry looked a little like famous older brother Stephen Curry of Golden State by hitting two long 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the latter giving Dallas a 90-89 lead. The Mavericks rallied from 14 points down in the first quarter and let an 11-point third-quarter lead get away.

Two games after scoring a career-high 31 points in a loss at Minnesota, Curry was 5 of 7 from long range to help the Mavericks improve to 2-0 with forward-center Nerlens Noel, who came from Philadelphia before the trade deadline.

Goran Dragic scored 24 points for the Heat, who went scoreless over the final 4:37 as a three-game winning streak ended.

Hassan Whiteside, a free agent target for Dallas last summer, had 19 points and 19 rebounds. Now the Mavericks are preparing for a future with the 22-year-old Noel, who had a crowd-energizing block from behind on Whiteside and finished with six points and six rebounds.

Dragic finished a 9-0 Heat run with a 3-pointer that bounced high off the front of the rim and went in for an 89-84 lead. But Miami missed its last seven shots, and the Mavericks scored the final six points on free throws after Curry’s go-ahead shot.

Curry scored 11 points in the second quarter, including a three-point play that gave Dallas its first lead at 48-46 after the Mavericks trailed by 14 in the first quarter. He had another flurry late in the third, hitting a long 3 and a pull-up jumper for the final five points as Dallas took a 78-69 lead into the final quarter.

TIP-INS

Heat: C Willie Reed won’t need a boot or crutches to treat bursitis in his right ankle. Coach Erik Spoelstra said Reed was day to day. … The visit to Dallas was the Miami’s last road game against the West this season.

Mavericks: Coach Rick Carlisle said G J.J. Barea is at least a week away from returning from a left calf strain that has sidelined him the past 16 games and for 33 of the 41 games he has missed this season. … G Quinn Cook, undrafted in 2015 out of Duke, made his NBA debut a day after signing a 10-day contract, getting two points and two assists in 17 minutes. … Seth Curry had a big night while his brother had a most miserable one. Stephen Curry was a career-worst 0 for 11 from deep in the Warriors’ win over Philadelphia on Monday.

 

LeBron James shakes off strep throat, leads Cavs past Bucks 102-95

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 27: Rashad Vaughn #20 of the Milwaukee Bucks guards LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on February 27, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Bucks 102-95. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James returned from a bout with strep throat and scored 24 points, Kyrie Irving added 25 and the Cleveland Cavaliers held off the Milwaukee Bucks 102-95 on Monday night.

James missed Saturday’s loss to Chicago – the Cavs fell to 0-4 this season without their superstar – and was listed as questionable before arriving at Quicken Loans Arena. He looked fit from the start, delivering an early dunk and adding one in the fourth that he capped by screaming, “That’s and one!” at MiIwaukee’s John Henson, who fouled him.

James’ dunk triggered an 11-0 run that helped put away the Bucks, who were within 86-85 midway through the fourth.

Malcolm Brogdon scored 20 to lead Milwaukee, and Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo scored just nine on 4-of-13 shooting.

The Bucks may have sustained a costly injury as forward Michael Beasley sprained his left knee in the first half. Beasley’s knee buckled grotesquely as he tried to defend James on the baseline. He scored 11 points before going down and had to be helped to Milwaukee’s locker room.

Looking to stay on top in the East, the Cavs signed free agent point guard Deron Williams before the game.

The three-time All-Star gives Cleveland depth, someone to lead its second unit and a reliable backup for Irving. Williams negotiated a buyout of his contract last week with Dallas before being waived and informing the Cavs he wanted to join them and try to win a title.

Cleveland is more than happy to add him to a bench that has improved in the last month with the additions of Kyle Korver and Derrick Williams, who combined for 27 points in the win.

There’s also a chance the Cavs could sign free agent center Andrew Bogut, who was waived by Philadelphia on Monday and is being courted by several teams.

Derrick Williams beat the horn ending the third quarter by dropping a 3-pointer from 35 feet to give Cleveland a 77-73 lead entering the fourth.

The Cavs were down by seven earlier in the quarter before going on a 13-0 run.

TIP-INS

Bucks: Beasley started for G Khris Middleton, who didn’t make the trip as part of the team’s plan to rest him in back-to-back games. He missed three months with a torn hamstring. … G Matthew Dellavedova spent part of the pregame meeting with former Cavs teammates and coaches. He received his diamond championship ring on Milwaukee’s previous visit. … Coach Jason Kidd said it’s a treat getting to watch Antetokounmpo develop. He’s the only NBA player leading his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. “It’s a great seat to have,” Kidd said. “When you’re able to see for the last three years, his growth and understanding, how fast he picked up things and how much he wants to be good in this league.”

Cavaliers: Irving became the eighth player in team history with 2,000 career assists. … While James was better, coach Tyronn Lue was under the weather and awaiting results on a strep test. … Deron Williams received a loud ovation when he was introduced during the fourth quarter. He has worn No. 8 throughout his career, but will don 31 for Cleveland. “My first high school number was 31,” he said. “I wanted a single number, but all of them were pretty much taken, so I went with 31.”

 

Dwight Howard pushes Al Horford, gets technical, later ejected for hanging on rim

Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (8) drives past Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Associated Press
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It ended up working out for Atlanta — the Hawks went on a 22-11 run after Dwight Howard was ejected, then hung on for a comfortable win 114-98.

Still, Howard found a way to get tossed. He did it two separate technical fouls in the third quarter. The first came when he shoved Al Horford after the Celtic big fouled Howard under the basket (always a smart move rather than give up a dunk).

The next came a few minutes later when Howard slammed then pulled himself up like a pull-up on the rim, an automatic tech every time.

That’s technicals 10 and 11 on the season for Howard. He’s got some work to do to catch up with DeMarcus Cousins, but still he’s racked up a few.

It just didn’t matter on Monday, with Dennis Schroder leading the way with 21 points for the Hawks.

 

DeMar DeRozan drains game winner to cap 37-point night, Raptors beat Knicks 92-91

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With Kyle Lowry out until around the start of the playoffs, a lot is going to be asked of DeMar DeRozan. Monday night at Madison Square Garden, he delivered.

The Raptors needed a bucket as time ran down, not only got the ball to DeRozan but got the switch so Derrick Rose was guarding him, and that allowed the Raptors star to get to his spot, rise up and bury the midrange jumper for the win.

It capped off an impressive 37-point night for DeRozan — he’s going to need to do more of this in the coming weeks.