Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Clippers

Kevin Durant delivers daggers as the Thunder roll over the Clippers

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In a big road test against the Los Angeles Clippers for Western Conference supremacy, Kevin Durant was unproductive and almost non-existent to start the game. Those aren’t words you typically use to describe Durant at any point, but it was inexplicably true. The league’s leading scorer was quiet throughout the first quarter, scoring only one lonely bucket.

The slow start spurred a few lines of thought. Maybe the Clippers really did have Durant’s number. Did it make any sense? No, but how do the Bobcats have an all-time series advantage over the Lakers? These things don’t always have to make sense. And after all, Durant had shot just 21-for-58 (36 percent) and turned it over 13 times in his last three games against the Clippers. Maybe something was going on here.

As it turned out, the perfect storm wasn’t brewing for the Clippers — it was just the calm before the storm for Durant, who turned it on late in an impressive 109-97 victory.

While there are many things that contribute to a team’s greatness, the ability to compensate for a star player’s off night ranks high on the list. With most of the action early on taking place in the restricted circle, Thunder guard Kevin Martin broke the game out in a big way. Martin rattled off three straight 3-pointers without a miss between the first and second quarters, capping off a 17-2 Thunder run with a steal and breakaway dunk.

The Clippers will go bench against bench with any team, but Martin’s barrage put them on their heels. Jamal Crawford’s struggles (6-for-18) were a symptom of a greater problem. The bench struggled to outplay the Thunder as a whole, and that’s a main avenue to victory for the Clippers on most nights.

But this wasn’t like most nights for more than a few reasons. Without Chris Paul in the lineup, the steady diet of open looks didn’t come quite as spoon-fed. While Blake Griffin was incredible around the rim with 31 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists, there was a lot of standing and watching him offensively. With the length of Oklahoma City’s defenders on the perimeter, that usually spells trouble.

Still, it wasn’t the Clippers’ offense that doomed them in this one, and even though the Thunder shot 52.6 percent from the field, it’s hard to degrade the defense either.  With Durant scoring just 8 points in the first half, Oklahoma City received unexpected perimeter performances from Thabo Sefolosha (3-for-5 from deep) and Russell Westbrook (3-for-6). Most defenses will gladly live with that instead of Durant, but the Clippers wouldn’t live for long.

After cutting Oklahoma City’s lead to eight about halfway through the fourth quarter, Durant finally made some real noise. After banking in a 3-pointer minutes earlier, Durant touched nothing but net on his next 3-point attempt. That one felt so nice that the very next time down the floor, Durant pulled up from the left wing and did it again. Nylon.

It was right about this time that you figured the Clippers were done. The life was understandably sucked out of the crowd, there was no Chris Paul to break in case of emergency, and 14 points is an awful lot to make up in half a quarter.

But who knows? Maybe they could have, if only Durant’s flair for the dagger wasn’t contagious. Out of the timeout, as he faked a pull-up and penetrated, Durant kicked it to a wide-open Serge Ibaka in the corner for 3. Forget that Ibaka has made exactly 9 shots form behind the arc in his career — it fell in like it was from Durant’s hands himself.

If there were a referee more of the Mills Lane variety than the Joey Crawford type, he would have called the fight right then and there. But after a Matt Barnes 3-pointer on the other end to answer Ibaka’s, Durant made extra sure to drive the point home with an emphatic spike right down the heart of the defense.

That finally did it. The Clippers never stopped playing, but Durant had an answer for everything, and that answer was usually a 3-pointer. Durant finished 5-of-6 from behind the arc, while Oklahoma City finished a ridiculous 15-of-27. And after what looked like a slow night, a quiet night, a night where the Clippers could beat the best team in the league without Chris Paul, Durant finished with 32 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists on 12-for-19 shooting.

It may have seemed for a fleeting moment that the Clippers had Kevin Durant’s number, but in the end, like he usually does, Durant got his.

LeBron James on surpassing Michael Jordan: “It’s a personal goal”

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Since he was a teenager, LeBron James has been compared to Michael Jordan. That comparison has usually been used as a way to cut him down or explain why he’s not in the same class, but that’s changed since he won his third championship, and first in Cleveland, in June. Now, LeBron has started to be a lot more open about his desire to eventually surpass Jordan. He said so in an interview with the AP’s Tom Withers after practice on Tuesday:

Now that LeBron James has won a championship for the ages, he’s set a loftier goal:

Catching Michael Jordan.

Long flattered to be mentioned in the same company with Jordan and other NBA legends, James has been hesitant to publicly acknowledge that he wants to be remembered as the greatest in league history.

It’s time now.

“It’s a personal goal,” James told The Associated Press on Monday. “I just never brought it up. It’s my own personal goal to be able to be greater than great. I think that should be everybody’s personal goal.”

Now that James has indisputably cemented his legacy as one of the handful of greatest players ever to play the game, he has a lot less to lose by openly talking about these things. Five years ago, he would have gotten killed for bringing it up. Now? It just seems plausible more than anything else.

Kevin Durant says Nike didn’t influence his free-agency decision

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses for NBA team photographer Noah Graham during the Golden State Warriors Media Day at the Warriors Practice Facility on September 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Many different factors went into Kevin Durant‘s decision this summer to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors — basketball fit, location, his friendships with Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, and more. But one thing he wants to make sure you know didn’t influence him is Nike. Durant told reporters this week that the shoe company, which he endorses, didn’t steer him one way or another in free agency, and they didn’t even know his plans beforehand.

It’s a little hard to believe that Nike had zero advance knowledge of Durant’s plans — if not a hard answer, at least a strong indication of which way he was leaning. Durant was one of the most popular players in the league in Oklahoma City, so Nike would have been fine either way. But his presence in Golden State, a much bigger market and the dominant story in the NBA this season, will only help them. It doesn’t hurt, either, that they now have one of their biggest athletes in the same market as Stephen Curry, who had been taking advantage of all the attention on the Warriors to raise Under Armour’s profile. Now, Nike can get some of that spotlight back in the Bay Area.

Barnes, Bogut highlight latest round of changes for Mavs

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 08:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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DALLAS (AP) Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are in, Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia are out and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has a retooled roster for the sixth consecutive time since winning a championship.

“Well, we love it,” Carlisle said at media day this week as someone chuckled. “What’s more exciting than getting seven new guys? New blood. It’s fresh every year.

“Really, that wasn’t meant to be a joke,” he added. “If you view it as a negative, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be a negative. I don’t look at it that way.”

The Mavericks have made the playoffs all but one season since the constant turnover started after owner Mark Cuban chose salary cap flexibility over keeping a few key players when a new labor agreement was reached six months after his team won the title in 2011.

But Dallas still hasn’t won a postseason series since beating Miami in six games in those NBA Finals.

Repeated efforts to land big names in free agency failed, which this year led to the additions of Barnes and Bogut from 2015 champion Golden State after the Warriors lured Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City and had to unload both starters to make cap room for the four-time NBA scoring champion.

Barnes headlines the group of newcomers because he’ll be a top option on offense after signing a four-year, $94 million max contract. Over his four seasons with the Warriors, he was always a role player behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“It’s going to be bigger expectations and I’m going to have a larger role on this team,” Barnes said. “I feel like we have a lot of pieces this year, either coming back off injury, guys who are motivated, have a lot to prove. So hopefully we can all come together and do something special.”

There’s actually some stability in the starting five because point guard Deron Williams is back for a second season with his hometown team.

Nowitzki, going into his 19th season at age 38, says Williams was the best player on the team at times last season, and the Mavericks missed him in their five-game loss to Oklahoma City. He was limited by a sports hernia injury that required offseason surgery.

Parsons signed a max deal with Memphis, and Pachulia went to the Warriors after the trade that landed Dallas the 7-footer Bogut, who should be a much stronger shot-blocking presence than his predecessor.

The changes fit the formula of at least two new starters each season going back to the title year.

“There are similarities to other years,” Carlisle said. “The ability to add Bogut and Barnes was huge for us. We caught some good luck on that.”

The other notable newcomer is Curry’s younger brother, Seth Curry, who is on his fifth team in his fourth season but finally had a more prominent role last season in Sacramento. Former Baylor standout Quincy Acy is in Dallas after bouncing around his first four years.

The Mavericks are deep at guard with holders J.J. Barea and Devin Harris behind Williams and Wes Matthews, in his second season as the shooting guard and now more than a year removed from tearing an Achilles tendon his final season in Portland.

Also returning are athletic young forwards Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell along with 7-2 Tunisian center Salah Mejri, a surprising shot-blocking presence last season as a 30-year-old rookie.

“They’re definitely athletes and we should be able to have a great defensive lineup once I’m out,” said Nowitzki, poking fun at his defensive skills. “I think we have a (backup) lineup out there that could be really, really good, and obviously youth and athleticism is a big part.”

Barnes wanted to be a part of it even though the Mavericks appear further from championship contention than other Western Conference teams.

“I think when you look at what this franchise has done year in, year out, stable on their ship,” Barnes said. “And be able to learn from a guy named Dirk who’s done it year in, year out. He’s pretty much built this place through his work ethic.”

And now Nowitzki is getting used to another new collection of teammates.

Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

Jazz’s Dante Exum says his knee is completely healed from 2015 ACL tear

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 17:  Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz drives to the lane during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 17, 2014 in Miami, Florida. 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. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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After a promising rookie season, Dante Exum missed all of 2015-16 rehabbing a torn left ACL he suffered during an exhibition game with the Australian national team in summer 2015. As the Jazz kick off training camp, Exum says he’s fully recovered after his year off and he’s ready to go.

Via Jody Gennessy of the Deseret News:

“I was just excited to get back out there,” Exum said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I was feeling good. … I was just ready to come out there, talk when I can and run between every drill.”

Both his attitude and his body were at 100 percent as he returned from a yearlong rehab that followed his September 2015 surgery on his left knee that had been injured in a friendly international game with the Australian team.

With the Jazz’s trade for George Hill over the summer, Exum won’t have to be the starting point guard, which will take some pressure off of him to get back to full strength right away. A torn ACL is something that usually takes time to return from, and having guard depth to ease his workload will help with the transition. If the Jazz get good production out of Exum, it will be a bonus for what looks to be one of the most exciting young teams in the Western Conference.