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.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.

Celtics look to push win streak to 16 vs. Mavs

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DALLAS (AP) — The Boston Celtics aren’t yet halfway to the NBA record for consecutive victories, a mark the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers still hold, but at 15 in a row, they are in rare territory.

Since 1946-47, there have only been 35 instances of a 15-game win streak or longer. And of all the legendary Celtics teams, this squad already holds the franchise’s fifth-longest win streak. A victory Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks, who are an NBA-worst 3-14 overall and 2-8 at American Airlines Center, would tie the 1964-65 Boston team’s 16-game win streak.

If the Celtics (15-2) get the win, they would climb closer to the 1959-60 team’s 18-game win streak, and then comes the club mark of 19 in a row accomplished by the 2008-09 team.

This version of the Celtics has to be considered the most unexpected to string together so many wins. The team has a slew of new players, starting with guard Kyrie Irving, and Boston lost another prized newcomer, forward Gordon Hayward, in the season opener.

After starting 0-2, Boston hasn’t lost. Yet, it’s not exactly as if the Celtics are steamrolling the league. For the Mavericks, who are coming off snapping the Milwaukee Bucks’ four-game win streak Saturday, the fact that Boston has actually had to rally to get a handful of its wins must be seen as an opportunity to steal a decision.

In fact, four of the Celtics’ victories during the streak have come after Boston trailed by 16 points, including a 110-109 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

“Most of us have never been on a winning streak like this,” Irving said following the win over Atlanta. “I don’t know if we even know how to pay attention to all the hoopla that goes on in terms of the excitement of it. I just think that every single game we take it as a challenge.”

Irving has been accepting that challenge with tremendous success after asking to be traded away from Cleveland, where he won one title with LeBron James and lost twice in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors.

He closed out those same Warriors last week, scoring 11 of the last 15 points in the final 4:21. The clutch play has Irving already being talked about as an MVP candidate.

“He’s so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Globe about Irving. “Maybe it’s finding a matchup. Maybe it’s creating a two-man game with Al (Horford).”

Irving will be a major test for Mavs rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who has displayed some tremendous flashes while also showing he is a green 19-year-old with one season of college ball under his belt.

Dallas, one of the league’s lowest-scoring offensive teams, is relying heavily on Smith and Harrison Barnes to carry the load. Dirk Nowitzki, 39, has dropped off significantly, averaging just 10.3 points a game, his lowest output since his rookie season in 1998-99.

Unlike the Celtics, Dallas has lost its share of games by being unable to close out games late. On Saturday, the Mavericks won a rare game going away, blitzing the Bucks with a franchise-tying 19 3-pointers. Guard Wesley Matthews said he thinks all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The history-chasing Celtics will put that claim to test.

“We can actually see everything that we’ve been trying to do come together, and hopefully that just carries the momentum into the off day where everybody’s feeling good,” Matthews said after Dallas’ victory. “We’ve got another tough battle Monday against Boston, who is the hottest team in the league right now, but it’s another opportunity for us.”

Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone suspended one game for confronting referee

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Denver coach Mike Malone decided if he was going to get tossed and fined/suspended, he was going to get his money’s worth.

During the second quarter of the Nuggets’ Sunday loss to the Lakers, Malone ran onto the court during play to argue a no-call on a play by Nikola Jokic around the basket. Malone furiously confronted referee Rodney Mott, who swiftly ejected the coach. As he should. Malone was suspended one game for “entering the court, halting play and making contact with a game official,” the league announced. Malone will serve his suspension tonight when the Nuggets face the Kings in Sacramento.

Mott also tossed Jokic when he entered the argument Sunday night, but the NBA rescinded the ejection saying Jokic earned a technical but should not have been thrown out. A lot of good that does the Nuggets now, who had to go more than half the game without their best player and lost (not that he changes the outcome of the game, but a comeback is less likely without him).

 

 

Kevin Garnett: Thon Maker “is going to be the MVP of the league one day. Mark it down.”

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Not to get to inside baseball on NBA journalism, but one fundamental truth is player trainers pump up their guys. There usually is some truth in what they say, but it is in their interest to spin the player the best way possible. On and off the record it happens. It’s like asking a political campaign manager about his candidate, you will only get the positive.

Kevin Garnett worked out and helped the Bucks’ Thon Maker this summer.

In just his second season, Thon Maker has been in and out of the starting lineup for the Bucks at center, and he’s struggled this season with a true shooting percentage of 48 getting him 4.5 points a game, and PER of 9.3. (Bucks fans are understandably disappointed, but this is a second-year player, some patience is required).

Garnett had Makers’ back in a Q&A with Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Abrams.

Thon Maker reminds me a lot of myself. He loves the game. He’s a young, exuberant athlete who has a lot of tools—he has touch; he has agility; he has really, good feet. He has a really good shot from three-point all the way up to 19 to 21 feet. He has very good bones, as we say.

Thon is going to be the MVP of the league one day. Mark it down. He has the bones. He has the appetite to be able to chase something like that.”

Garnett may have the wrong young-stud Buck with an MVP in his future.

Maker has gotten KG comparisons for years, he’s a very mobile and athletic but thin big who can shoot from the wing… but the physical similarities are not enough. Maker is no KG. Not yet. Maker showed promise against the Raptors last playoffs but has not taken a step forward off that progress this season, looking far more prone to fouling than defending. The effort is there, but the maturity of game has a long way to go to catch up.

Garnett is right that Maker has the tools, and he is just in his second NBA season so patience is required, but there were concerns around the league before the draft if he had the makeup to put it all together and become a quality NBA player. That question is still out there, let’s get past it before we heap on accolades.