Thunder forward Durant reacts after a three point shot against the Atlanta Hawks in the second half of their NBA basketball game in Atlanta

Kevin Durant scores 41 points as Thunder take care of Suns

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PHOENIX — The Thunder were shorthanded for the second game in as many nights on Monday, with Serge Ibaka sidelined due to injury. But at this point, with this team, all they need is a healthy dose of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and they’ll be able to beat most teams on most nights.

The Suns were the latest victims of the team with the best record in the league, as Durant and Westbrook combined for 77 points to help Oklahoma City become the first team to reach 30 wins this season with a 102-90 victory over the Suns.

“You don’t see that often,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said afterward. “Two guys just take over the game offensively in that second half. You can’t say anything other than just make sure you set good screens, make sure you execute, and run the plays … Those guys are special players, they make baskets and just make the team go.”

The takeover from Durant and Westbrook was massive, especially in the second half.

The two combined to score 47 of the Thunder’s 51 second-half points, which would have been enough to beat the Suns over the final two periods all by themselves. Phoenix had 45 total points over that same span, but Durant’s fourth quarter was special, and was enough to seal the game for his team down the stretch.

“Yeah, that’s our time,” Durant said. “We play so well off each other, and it’s not like it’s drawn for us to take all the shots in the fourth. We move the ball pretty well throughout the game and that allows us to make shots in the fourth quarter.”

Phoenix closed the third on a 14-4 run to pull them within just four heading into the final period. But while the Suns had to execute perfectly to get only occasionally decent looks, the Thunder had Durant, who could score essentially at will on this night, and did so deliberately on several late consecutive possessions.

After Westbrook scored five straight points to turn a five-point OKC lead into 10, Durant scored his team’s next 10 points, and did so in a cold-blooded manner that was simply unstoppable.

Durant’s 10-point burst came against just two for the Suns during a span that lasted less than two minutes. When it was over, so was the game, as the Thunder led by 16 points with 2:23 remaining.

The final field goal from Durant came in emphatic fashion, as he shook Michael Beasley out top enough to blow by him into the lane, and finished with a vicious dunk over Marcin Gortat that put the exclamation point on both his night and his team’s victory at the same time.

“I’m just out here having fun,” Durant said of the dunk. “I might have gotten away with a carry on that play, but I was able to free myself up and when I saw the lane, they’d been doing such a great job of contesting at the rim that I just tried to finish with some strength.”

Durant himself is the strength of this Thunder team, and he, along with Westbrook, can be two virtually unstoppable offensive forces when necessary. That’s what makes them one of the toughest teams in the league to contain, and it’s why Oklahoma City finds itself at the top of the league-wide standings 38 games into the season.

Former NBA player Paul Shirley: ‘Of course’ John Wall and Bradley Beal dislike each other.

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 21:  John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards react in the final seconds of their 117-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 21, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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John Wall and Bradley Beal admitted they clash on the court.

That caused controversy as the outside world expressed dismay at the Wizards guards’ attitudes.

Paul Shirley – who played for the Hawks, Bulls and Suns from 2003-05 – shrugged.

Paul Shirley on NBA.com:

What I learned, when I got to the NBA, was that my dreams of fraternity were naïve ones. I sat in locker rooms where players barely spoke to one another. I endured team plane rides where one guy stared daggers at the next because of a contract dispute.

Consequently, I barely batted an eye at the recent “revelation” that Bradley Beal and John Wall don’t much like one another.

Of course they don’t like each other, I thought. That’s just the way it is.

This is a secret of the NBA: Not all teammates get along. Some are friends, but many are just coworkers – and consider your relationship with your coworkers. Frequent travel for work and the closed-off nature of locker rooms can push players toward forging bonds – but those conditions can also magnify any rifts.

In theory, Wall (a slashing passer) and Beal (an outside shooter) should complement each other well. But it’d be hard to find a team where each of the top two scorers doesn’t believe he should get more shots.

The successful teams manage that tension productively. They can convince each player to accept a role, sacrifice and contain his displeasures.

Maybe the Wizards can get there.

But that – not a fantasy friendship between Wall and Beal – should be the goal.

Report: Lance Stephenson to work out for Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 30:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks to pass the ball around Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers at the New Orleans Arena on October 30, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Two years ago, Lance Stephenson was 23 years old and nearly an All-Star.

Now, he’s stuck trying out for a team without an open regular-season roster spot.

Brett Dawson of The Advocate:

The Pelicans have 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries plus Chris Copeland, Robert Sacre and Shawn Dawson on unguaranteed deals.

In other words, Stephenson is trying out just to enter a competition for a roster vacancy that doesn’t even exist.

New Orleans has taken major steps to add perimeter help this summer, drafting Buddy Hield and signing E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Solomon Hill. If he somehow makes the team, Stephenson likely wouldn’t make the rotation, even with Tyreke Evans injured.

Still, Stephenson is just 25, and he showed major talent with the Pacers just two years ago. He made positive contributions to the Grizzlies last season, too.

But a disastrous stint with the Hornets and an underwhelming run with the Clippers weigh down his résumé.

Stephenson probably did enough in Memphis to prove he still has NBA-caliber ability. More than anything, he’ll have to convince the Pelicans – and other potential suitors – he has the right attitude to work in the league.

Phil Jackson says his goal for Knicks last season was 35 wins

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Phil Jackson predicted the playoffs for the Knicks in 2014-15, and he’s again drumming up postseason buzz for 2016-17.

Between, he was much more cautious.

The Knicks president didn’t make any bold proclamations entering last season. But, somewhat after the fact, he revealed his goal for the team.

Jackson in a March interview with Charley Rosen of Today’s Fastbreak that was published this month:

I’m also still hopeful that we can win the 35 games I had said was our goal before the season. That would be a vast improvement. More than twice the number that we won last year. We need to go 7-5 to get there.

“I know the guys don’t care about winning 35. They’re not marking it as their own goal. They just feel better about winning.

That’s a pretty pathetic aspiration – and the Knicks still didn’t meet it. They finished 32-50.

Jackson can say the players didn’t care about 35 wins, and they probably didn’t. It’s hard to see Carmelo Anthony appreciating aiming so low (though he might not resent it enough, which is anther issue).

But part of Jackson’s job is setting a tone for the organization. If he’s shooting for merely nearing mediocrity, that trickles down.

Jackson said entering the season he changed the Knicks’ culture. I’m not nearly as convinced.

51Q: Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 27:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court before the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Toyota Center on November 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. 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 Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

It’s hard to remember an NBA star whose perception has changed as much in five years as Dwight Howard’s has. He hasn’t really helped matters — his messy exits from the Magic and Lakers, as well as his rumored feud with James Harden in Houston and declining production due to injuries have clearly lowered his standing. It’s easy to forget that five years ago, he was a three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, legitimate MVP candidate and had recently been the best player on a team that went to the Finals.

As insane as it is to think about, the three-year deal Howard signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks this summer is something of a reclamation project for a once-perennial All-NBA player. And the Hawks may be the perfect situation for him to rehabilitate his career.

From a pure talent standpoint, Howard in 2016 is a downgrade from Al Horford, who left Atlanta for Boston in free agency. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s system is predicated on spacing, and Howard offensively is useless from outside five feet. But he does undeniably fill holes. Last season, the Hawks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, with the third-lowest rebound rate, per NBA.com. Rebounding is one of the things that Howard can still do consistently at an elite level.

Howard also brings enormous value as a pick-and-roll finisher, when he wants to accept that role. In Los Angeles and Houston, he was still under the impression that his best use was as a post-up big, likely in large part due to Shaquille O’Neal’s nonstop criticisms of his game on Inside the NBA.

If Howard is willing to play the pick-and-roll and doesn’t demand touches, he can still be an impact player in Atlanta. The hope would be that after leaving three teams on bad terms, Howard accepts that at this point in his career, he isn’t a first option on offense anymore, and he’s willing to play a role similar to what Tyson Chandler was on the Mavericks’ 2011 title team: a rebounder and rim protector who feasts offensively on putback dunks and scores in the pick and roll.

If Howard can do that, the Hawks have enough talent to stay in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference despite losing Horford. They have other question marks on their roster — they still haven’t found a full-time replacement for DeMarre Carroll, and the transition from the just-traded Jeff Teague to Dennis Schroder is going to be rocky.

But they have the pieces, the coach and the culture for Howard to be successful in Atlanta if he wants to be.