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.

Serge Ibaka lifts Magic over Pistons 98-92 in return of Reggie Jackson

Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka, left, and Jeff Green (34) celebrate against the Detroit Pistons in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. Orlando won 98-92. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — For about ten minutes on Sunday night, it appeared the Detroit Pistons had solved the Orlando Magic’s lock-down defense.

Like the rest of the NBA, they will have to keep searching for answers.

Orlando gave up 27 points in the first 9:30 but then shut the Pistons down in a 98-92 victory.

“I’m proud of our guys, because that team was averaging 118 points their last three games, and that was on the road,” Orlando coach Frank Vogel said. “We held them to 92, and most of that was our second-half defense. They were at home, and they got 42 points on 37 percent shooting in the second half.”

Serge Ibaka scored 21 points and blocked four shots, while Nikola Vucevic added 16 points and eight rebounds.

The Magic have held 10 of their last 11 opponents under 100 points.

“We just changed our mindset,” Ibaka said. “We knew we could play defense, and now we’re playing for each other on offense. We knew we could play this well. We just had to keep working.”

Pistons guard Reggie Jackson made his season debut after missing Detroit’s first 21 games with knee tendinitis. He had 18 points in 23 minutes. Marcus Morris led Detroit with 21 points.

“I felt good out there, but I wish we could have gotten a win out of it,” Jackson said. “I think there might have been a little rust, but I was able to do everything I need to do. I wouldn’t be out there if I was going to be physically limited.”

Orlando won for the third time in four games while Detroit had its three-game winning streak snapped.

“We were terrible on defense,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Our offensive numbers were good enough to win, especially against that defense, but we didn’t guard anyone. We just didn’t want to put in the effort.”

On Jackson’s first possession, the Pistons went to their bread-and-butter play – he and Andre Drummond running a high pick and roll. Jackson came off the screen and hit a 3-pointer, bringing a cheer from the small crowd. Jackson played the first 5:50 of the quarter as Detroit built a 16-10 lead.

Morris had 14 points in the first 7 minutes but didn’t get much support from his teammates. The Magic scored 35 points in the second quarter to take a 58-50 halftime lead. Orlando shot 62.5 percent from the floor in the half to Detroit’s 51.2 percent and only turned the ball over four times.

“We’re starting to see the value of the pass on the offensive end,” Vogel said. “If we pass with good timing, good intent and good delivery, it will help us shoot the ball, and we’ve got good shooters.”

The Magic led by 11 late in the third, but the Pistons narrowed the gap to 78-73 at quarter’s end. Orlando moved the margin back to double figures with nine minutes left, with the Pistons struggling to get open looks against one of the NBA’s best defenses.

Ibaka ended a Pistons run with a 3-pointer to make it 90-80 with 5:32 to play, then blocked Drummond’s dunk attempt at the other end.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to pull the Pistons within 95-90, but Jeff Green clinched the game with a turnaround jumper.

TIP INS

Magic: Former Piston Jodie Meeks had seven points in 15 minutes in his second game of the season. Meeks only played three games last season for Detroit due to chronic foot problems.

Pistons: Jackson spent most of the game matched up against D.J. Augustin, the main player given up by the Pistons in the three-team trade that brought him to Detroit in 2015.

TROUBLE FROM THE LINE

The Pistons were 0 for 5 from the free-throw line in the first half, with Drummond missing four in a row. He came into the game shooting 47.4 percent from the line after setting a league record at 35.5 percent in 2015-16.

RARE STREAK

The Magic have won two straight road games for the first time this season. They beat the Philadelphia 76ers 105-88 on Friday.

ONLY A SINGLE-DOUBLE

Vucevic fell two rebounds short of his seventh straight double-double. He had a nine-game double-double streak in 2012-13.

 

Brilliant dig: Knicks fans chant “Derek Fisher” as Kings’ Matt Barnes inbounds ball

Sacramento Kings' Matt Barnes (22) reacts during an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets in New York, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016. (Photo/Andres Kudacki)
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I had hoped never to write of this again, but alas… remember when Matt Barnes got in a fight with then Knicks’ coach Derek Fisher over the latter spending time with Barnes’ estranged wife? It cost Barnes a couple of game suspension.

Barnes is playing well for the Sacramento Kings this season, who were making their annual stop in Madison Square Garden Sunday. As Barnes was inbounding the ball in the fourth quarter, some Knicks fans started a “Derek Fisher” chant.

It’s not original, some Pacers fans had done it before. But it’s still a Cameron Crazies worthy ploy.

The Knicks got 20 points each from Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose to get the 106-98 win, despite 36 from DeMarcus Cousins.

Zaza Pachulia steals ball, starts break, blows open layup against Suns (VIDEO)

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Zaza Pachulia is riding the Golden State Warriors train for all it’s worth, in the good and the bad. In November, Pachulia hit a mid-range jumper and did a horse dance. If that was the zenith, Saturday night against the Phoenix Suns was the nadir.

Particularly because Pachulia blew a breakaway layup in which he definitely should have scored.

Instead, the Warriors big man stuffed the ball between the iron and the backboard, clumsily squandering his opportunity:

*Sad trombone*

Russell Westbrook’s no-look, two-hand, behind-his-head pass ignites Thunder break

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Russell Westbrook was just himself — hustling, attacking, and getting his fifth triple-double in a row Sunday night against the Pelicans.

But the play of the night didn’t get him any points or an assist. It was Westbrook hustling, getting to the floor to get a loose ball, then making the showtime pass to start a Globetrotters-like fast break that ended with an Andre Roberson dunk.

Westbrook had an impressive dunk of his own.