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.

Watch Klay Thompson’s record 11 playoff three pointers

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Klay Thompson was ridiculous. His shooting was some of the most incredible shooting you will ever see.”

That was how Warrior coach Steve Kerr described Thompson’s night — a playoff record 11 three pointers on his way to 41 points, sparking Golden State’s Game 6 win on the road. It wasn’t just the threes, it was the degree of difficulty on some of those shots — he was just in the zone. Not the Blake Griffin commercial zone, the real one.

 

Klay Thompson shoots Warriors to comeback win in Oklahoma City, forces Game 7

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors handles the ball during the second half against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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What. A. Game.

In the most intense game of these playoffs, Golden State came from eight down to start the fourth quarter behind the red-hot shooting of Klay Thompson — he set an NBA record with 11 threes in a playoff game and had 19 points in the fourth quarter — as the Warriors outscored the Thunder 16-4 in the final 4:40 of the game. Thompson had help with the defense of Andre Iguodala making plays on both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, getting key steals and making plays down the stretch.

The result was a 108-101 Golden State win in Oklahoma City to even the series at 3-3 and force a Game 7 Monday night at Oracle Arena.

Which is just good for fans of basketball because this series has been thrilling.

It didn’t feel thrilling to OKC, this was a punch to the gut for the Thunder, who had a 13 point lead in the first half at seemed in complete control early of a game that could have sent them to the NBA Finals. However, as the game got tight late the Thunder reverted to bad habits — everyone standing around watching Durant and Westbrook go one-on-one. The result was the two Thunder stars combined for 12 points on 3-of-14 shooting with six turnovers in the fourth quarter alone, four turnovers in the final two minutes. For the game, the Thunder shot 13 percent from three.

Meanwhile, the Warriors’ Thompson wasn’t just making threes, he was making high degree of difficulty threes on his way to 41 points on the night.

“Klay Thompson was ridiculous,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “His shooting was some of the most incredible shooting you will ever see. I think he set a record for threes (he did), but our defense was fantastic. We kept getting stops, but we couldn’t get the board, but we stayed with it.”

Stephen Curry, who had struggled again in the first half and still doesn’t look 100 percent except in flashes, had one of those flashes in the fourth quarter — six points which included a dagger driving layup and the steal that sealed the win. He finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists on the night.

Curry and Thompson combined for 61 of the Warriors last 81 points in the game.

That finish was the opposite of how everything started for Golden State.

The Warriors opened the game 8-of-28 from the field and shot just 36 percent overall, plus had 10 turnovers in the first half. It was the Thunder defense that seemed to be back to form and under that pressure the Warriors reverted to some sloppy play — for example, Curry trying to make a playground pass to a shooter in the corner when a floater or layup was available (Kevin Durant stole that pass). Curry once again seemed hesitant early on in this game. Also, Steve Kerr oddly sat Thompson, Curry and Draymond Green all at the same time in the first half and that fueled a quick OKC run — and their building was rocking.

But they couldn’t sustain it.

“That hasn’t been us the last month and a half,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of his team’s performance in the fourth. “I thought we got a little stagnant coming down the stretch, and then I thought us defensively, we were a little bit late.”

For much of the game the Thunder played well — Steven Adams was a beast again, Serge Ibaka made plays — but they couldn’t put the Warriors away in the first half. Part of that was Durant, who started just 2-of-10 from the field and was shooting to quickly too often. He was 10-of-31 shooting for the game.

It was Westbrook who had the Thunder up by as many as 13 in the first half. Then Warriors got a few stops, and the three ball (Curry and Thompson were 6-of-12 from deep in the first half) kept it close, it was just a five-point game at the break, 53-48.

Thompson drained a couple of threes to open the second half and with that the game was close through the third, however, Curry started to find his groove and scored 11 straight for the Warriors at one point. The Thunder made a push at the end of the quarter — with Anthony Morrow and Enes Kanter on the court — and led by eight heading into the fourth.

It wasn’t enough. There was the long Curry three over Adams to make it a one-point game with four minutes left. Westbrook hit a couple of free throws but on the next Thunder possession Durant called for a clear out that the Warriors doubled, got the steal, then got the Curry three in transition to tie it with 2:47 left.

In the end, it was too much of the shooting magic that got the Warriors 73 wins. And they got the Game 7 they needed.

“I don’t think there can be any more pressure on us in Game 7 than there was tonight,” Kerr said.

 

Steven Adams gets his revenge, dunks all over Draymond Green (VIDEO)

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That’s a piece of revenge.

Draymond Green twice kicked Steven Adams in the nether regions this series, but with the chance to close out the Warriors in Game 6 Adams got some revenge — he put Green in a poster and dunked all over him.

This came as part of a second quarter run when the Thunder stretched the lead out to double digits.

Jordan Clarkson says he wants to return to Lakers, play for Luke Walton

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 13: Jordan Clarkson of the Los Angeles Lakers is introduced for the Taco Bell Skills Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 13, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. 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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson is a restricted free agent, and he is the kind of quality rotation player that teams with cash to burn may well try to poach. The Lakers have the right to match and likely will unless the offer is way over the top. But make no mistake, Clarkson will go with the team that offers him the most money.

That’s July, right now Clarkson is saying the right things about wanting to stay with the Lakers and play for new coach Luke Walton.

Clarkson was interviewed by Chris McGee of Time Warner Cable, as reported by lakersnation.com.

I want to stay in LA….I don’t really look at it as me being a free agent; I want to be here…

He (Luke) called me a few days after he got hired. We talked about the offensive system, what he sees in us young guys, where he sees the organization, the style we’re gonna play. I’m excited for him to come and work with us.

Most likely he gets a chance, the Lakers want to keep him. They see him as part of the future (or at least as an asset they can trade to get parts for their future). He’s saying all the right things to make Laker nation happy.

But it’s going to be about the money. It always is.