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.

Chris Paul says Clippers should play through Lou Williams, which sounds like a slight of Blake Griffin

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After the Clippers’ win over the Rockets last night, Chris Paul didn’t go after Blake Griffin just through a back entrance into the Clippers’ locker room.

He also seemingly went after Griffin in his post-game interview.

Asked to assess playing against his former team, Paul:

They’ve got Lou Will. Lou Will is the guy. You know what I mean? That’s the go-to guy, the guy that they should play through and stuff like that. He having a great year, and he tough. He tough, man.

Williams is having a great year, especially by the standards of career as a solid sub-star. But Griffin is a bona fide star – a tremendously skilled scorer, ball-handler and passer for a power forward. He’s clearly the Clippers’ go-to player when healthy. It’s great Williams stepped up when Griffin was injured, and Williams can run second units while Griffin is healthy. But Griffin is the go-to player.

I can’t read Paul’s intent. Maybe he genuinely disagrees and believes the Clippers should play through Williams. But – given Paul’s nd Griffin’s history and how heated last night’s game was – it sounds as if Paul is just trying to create friction within his former team and take a dig at Griffin. That’d be petty, but… yeah. Nobody would put that past Paul.

NBA Twitter had fun with Rockets, Clippers, secret tunnels

Associated Press
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This Clippers/Rockets story is so perfectly today’s NBA.

It’s not about the game itself (game-related stories draw far fewer eyeballs/traffic than off the court stuff). It involves drama and confrontation between star players with grudges and a guy who forced a trade. And while the players postured, there was never going to be an actual fight and everybody knew it, still the LAPD was called in.

It’s all perfect fodder for Twitter.

Just a quick recap of events. The Clippers win Monday over the Rockets at Staples Center got chippy — Blake Griffin got into it with Mike D’Antoni after running into him, Griffin and Trevor Ariza were ejected after some words where Austin Rivers was involved. After the game, Paul led a group of Warriors — James Harden, Ariza, Gerald Green — down a secret tunnel behind the locker rooms, went to the back door of the Clippers’ locker room and started to confront the Clippers. Except, nothing really happened but a verbal exchange, security broke it up and the LAPD was called in. That last part just about made Shaq fall out of his chair on Inside the NBA.

All this while Clint Capela knocked on the front door of the Clippers locker room and had it shut in his face.

This story was perfect for NBA Twitter, and it had a field day. Including the big names.

Everyone got in on the act.

Three Things to Know: After another loss to Warriors, what do Cavaliers do now?

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Warriors handle Cavaliers again, do Cavaliers have to make an upgrade at the trade deadline? LeBron James was an MVP-level beast — 32 points on 18 shots, grabbing boards, dishing out assists, blocking four shots and seemingly being everywhere. Cleveland was targeting Stephen Curry on switches, hit 8-of-10 to start the game and shot 52.1 percent for three quarters. It wasn’t enough. The Warriors led by two after three because the Cavaliers defense remains terrible, and Golden State pulled away in the fourth for a 118-108 win to sweep the season series. It was clear from this game that while the Cavaliers may be better built to take on the Warriors than nearly every other NBA team, and maybe better than they were last June, there is still a gap between them and the Warriors.

That leaves the Cavaliers facing hard questions as the trade deadline approaches Feb. 8:

Do they make a bold move for the best player available? Do they go after depth to help against matchups with Golden State? Is there an available player that can actually close the gap with Golden State? If they find a player they want, do the throw in the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick?

It starts with a big-picture philosophical discussion for the Cavaliers: Do they throw everything into another run at a ring with LeBron, and hope that motivates him to stay next summer? Or, do they make sure they hold on to the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick they got in the Kyrie Irving trade (consider it LeBron insurance)? While the Nets have outperformed expectations and lowered the value of the pick (right now it would go into the lottery the No. 7/8 pick tied with Phoenix), reports are the Cavaliers are holding onto that pick unless a player becomes available who can put them on the Warriors’ level.

DeAndre Jordan is not that guy. He is the best player available and the Clippers and Cavaliers have talked plenty, but Jordan does not change the equation vs. Golden State. Yes, he would give the Cavaliers rim protection and rebounding, but he can’t space the floor at all and defensively the Warriors would be able to pull him away from the basket and expose him. The Cavaliers are still interested (in part because it would make Cleveland better, in part because proposed swap would get them off of Tristan Thompson’s long-term money), but they would only throw in their own first-round pick (currently 24th) as part of the package. Is that enough?

There are other players available who could help the Cavaliers, such as Nikola Mirotic or Evan Fournier (or anyone on the Magic), but none are game changers with the Warriors. Paul George is the only guy who might be and he is not available, the Thunder are riding this season out with him.

Can the Cavaliers afford to do nothing? That would send a bad message to LeBron as he weighs free agency. Expect the Cavaliers to make trades, it just might be re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

2) Clippers win fifth straight beating Chris Paul’s Rockets — then things really get interesting when Rockets go after Clippers in the locker room. The story the Clippers wanted this game to be about is that they beat the Houston Rockets 113-102, and with that fifth straight win moved into a playoff position in the West despite the rash of injuries that hit the team this season. The Pelicans, Clippers, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers all within half-a-game of each other for slots 6-9 in the West — one of them will miss the playoffs — and that sets up a fun race for the second half of the season.

That’s not what anyone is talking about.

Instead, the fact that Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green and James Harden used a secret back-tunnel between the locker rooms to try to go into the Clippers locker room and confront Austin Rivers and Blake Griffin. The guys reportedly stood at the back door of the Clippers locker room, Clippers players dared them to enter, and security stepped in fast. The LAPD was called and nothing actually happened — and it wouldn’t have anyways, these are NBA players there wasn’t going to be a fight. We know that.

Meanwhile, Clint Capela went to the front door of the Clippers locker room, knocked, and had the door shut in his face. (Was he the diversion tactic or just not in on the plans.)

NBA Twitter had a blast with this, including Griffin himself.

3) Earlier in the day, Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry almost got in a fight in the hallway after being ejected. Or they didn’t. After the Rockets/Clippers fun, this almost seems quaint. Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry had a little run in during the third quarter of MLK Day matchup.

Later, they were ejected late in Philadelphia’s 117-111 win over Toronto:

This led to reports of a dust-up in the hallway after the game.

After the game Simmons and Lowry both basically denied it.

Nothing to see here. Move along. Go watch the Clippers and Rockets, that’s far more entertaining.

Reports: Rockets try to confront Clippers, police dispatched to locker room

AP
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The Los Angeles Clippers got the better of the Houston Rockets on Monday night at Staples Center, 113-102, but the battle between Chris Paul and his former team had apparently just begun.

According to multiple reports, members of the Rockets took to the Clippers locker room after the game to confront Austin Rivers and then Blake Griffin.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski says that according to his sources, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, and Gerald Green entered the Clippers locker room looking for Austin Rivers, who was on the sideline due to an injury. LAPD were then dispatched to the scene — not just ordinary Staples Center security — and while nothing happened that’s somehow not the end of this story.

In true Scooby Doo fashion, Woj reports that the Rockets then sent Clint Capela to the front door of the Clippers locker room while Chris Paul went to a secret back door to the Clippers’ area as he looked to go after Blake Griffin.

Once again, I cannot stress that I am not making this story up.

Via Twitter:

Some of this may stem from the general tension between the two teams. Paul was traded to Houston in June for Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and Sam Dekker among others after spending six seasons with Los Angeles.

There’s also the fact that Mike D’Antoni and Griffin got into it during the game, yapping at each other after Griffin made contact with the Houston coach on the sideline.

Griffin appeared to be pointing at D’Antoni for being out of the box on the sideline, making purposeful contact with him and resulting in double technical fouls.

Yet the overarching tension between the two teams was already palpable. Paul reportedly took umbrage to how Rivers was treated by his father, coach, and (at the time) GM Doc Rivers.

Then, late in the fourth quarter — after Griffin had already gotten into it with D’Antoni — some jawing from Austin Rivers led to an on-court discussion between Ariza and Griffin.

That prompted officials to eject both Griffin and Ariza with just a minute to go:

Austin Rivers said that the tension between Paul and Griffin was the thing that led to CP3 looking for a trade to Texas, just as a bit of backstory, so the bad blood and he-said, she-said is long-running.

No word yet on the details confirming how far anybody got, although it seems reasonable to expect Adam Silver and the league office should come down with some suspensions for folks. Malice in the Palace was perhaps the greatest modern disgrace for the NBA, and the league tries to keep even the whiff of violence away from their games.

It feels like there’s no way anyone here can get off light in an era where guys are getting suspended from both playoff games and preseason games for taking a teensy little step off the bench during disputes.

Meanwhile, the guys on the set of Inside the NBA had an absolute BLAST with the details (as did of Twitter, to be honest).

The Rockets and the Clippers play again next on Wednesday Feb. 28 in LA.