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Thunder overcome late rally by Clippers to win a physical one in Los Angeles

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The Thunder and the Clippers are likely second round playoff opponents, should neither team be able to overtake the Spurs for the number one overall seed in the Western Conference. If it ends up happening, and if Sunday’s contest at Staples Center was any indication, we’d be in for a battle of epic proportions.

Oklahoma City led by as many as 19 points late in the third, before L.A. staged a furious comeback. Things were tight, physical, and chippy down the stretch, with a flagrant foul by Serge Ibaka on Blake Griffin — and its aftermath — among the deciding factors. In the end, the Thunder hung on for a thrilling 108-104 victory that snapped the Clippers’ four-game winning streak.

It was a sleepy first half for the Clippers, who started off slowly and trailed by as many as 16 points early. Chris Paul opened just 1-of-7 from the field, and the Thunder were getting whatever they wanted offensively.

It took some time, but Paul woke up, and sparked a 15-5 run to end the third by scoring nine points during that span to cut the Thunder lead to single digits.

The Clippers cut the lead to two with just over six minutes remaining, thanks to a 10-0 run that was sparked by a curious substitution from Thunder coach Scott Brooks. He sat Russell Westbrook in favor of Reggie Jackson, and Jackson missed a long three-pointer and committed a turnover to help fuel L.A.’s comeback.

The Thunder had the lead back up to seven, before consecutive corner threes from Matt Barnes had the game back within reach for the Clippers. And that’s when things went off the rails.

Ibaka and Griffin were engaged in a physical battle in the paint for the entire game, and Ibaka crossed the line with the Thunder leading by three and 1:52 remaining. With a downward chopping motion, Ibaka swung and landed a hit to Griffin’s groin with his right arm, resulting in an initial ruling of a flagrant foul one by the officials.

The referees reviewed the play, and the call stood. But the rule book defines what Ibaka did as a “punching foul,” which should come with it an automatic ejection. Ibaka was allowed to stay in the game, and he made two key plays down the stretch that sealed the win for his team.

Initially, the foul call benefited the Clippers, as they scored seven points on a single possession (the three from Barnes, the technical free throw, and another three from Jamal Crawford) to take a one-point lead.

But as Ibaka was allowed to stay in the game, he scored inside on an and-one play where he was fouled by Griffin with under a minute remaining. It was Griffin’s sixth foul, so he was done for the afternoon.

Then, Ibaka blocked a layup attempt from Matt Barnes with seven seconds remaining that would have cut the Thunder lead back down to two.

Big win for the Thunder, and a valiant effort by the Clippers to come back and compete after falling behind by so much so early.

We can only hope that the playoff bracket looks in April the way it does today, so we can see many more games between these two teams as early as the postseason’s second round.

LeBron James considering return to US Olympic team under Gregg Popovich

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12:  LeBron James #6 of the United States celebrates after the Men's Basketball gold medal game between the United States and Spain on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympics Games at North Greenwich Arena on August 12, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) LeBron James says Gregg Popovich taking over as coach of the U.S. Olympic team will be a factor in whether he plays in the 2020 Tokyo Games.

James has won two Olympic gold medals, but he skipped last summer’s Rio de Janeiro Games to get rest after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA championship. On Saturday, James said Popovich “factors a lot” in his plans going forward with the U.S. team.

James was asked about Popovich, San Antonio’s longtime coach, before the Cavs hosted the Spurs.

James considers “Pop” the greatest coach in NBA history and called him a “great mastermind of the game of basketball.”

Popovich is replacing Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who led the U.S. team to three consecutive gold medals.

Stan Van Gundy to Reggie Jackson: “We’re not trading you for Ricky Rubio”

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It was rumored this week that the Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves were mulling a trade that would send Ricky Rubio to Michigan and Reggie Jackson to Minnesota. Now, Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy says that isn’t happening.

Nor was it a real offer that was even on the table.

In a video posted to the Detroit Free Press, Van Gundy went off on one of his classic fireside chats — the kind that involves profanity — on how he sees the NBA as it works.

Warning: NSFW language ahead.

While the whole thing is worth watching for the Van Gundyness of it all, here’s the meat you’re looking for:

All these rumors and stuff look I mean know it’s fun for everybody and you’ve got some source somewhere and it’s also all bullshit. Im not denying that discussion — they take place all the time – -that’s a lot different than considerations. Somebody says ‘Hey would you consider Ricky Rubio for Reggie Jackson that discussion might have taken pace. And clearly we didn’t make that move. We wanted to see if they’d go [Michael] Gbinije for LeBron.

Van Gundy said he didn’t know if the specific Jackson-for-Rubio discussion even happened, saying that Pistons president Jeff Bower only brings him trades they are actively considering.

Meanwhile, Van Gundy confirmed that he did text Jackson after his agent made contact with Bower.

“This is the crazy season. We’re not trading you for Ricky Rubio,” said Van Gundy about his text to Jackson.

Report: After fining Wizards, league issues memo warning teams on bench etiquette

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 12:  Courtney Lee #5 of the New York Knicks takes a three point shot in the first quarter against the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden on January 12, 2017 in New York City. 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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The NBA league office fined Washington Wizards assistant coach Sidney Lowe $5,000 — and the team an additional $15,000 — for his role in distracting a New York Knicks shooter during a game this last week.

Now, the league has issued a warning to teams: make sure you’re practicing good bench etiquette, or we’re coming for your wallets.

According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the NBA sent a memo to all 30 teams on Saturday reminding them to remain on their own bench in accordance with league rules. Obviously that means no stepping onto active basketball courts:

So what are coaches needing to confine themselves to?

Official NBA rules state simply:

The coach’s position may be on or off the bench from the substitution box line (closest to the coach’s bench) to the baseline. A coach is not permitted to cross the midcourt line and violators will be assessed an unsportsmanlike technical foul immediately. All assistants and trainers must remain on the bench. Coaches and trainers are not permitted to go to the scorer’s table, for any reason, except during a dead ball.

Like we see with preseason points of emphasis, it’s possible we see additional fines in the weeks to come. Several coaches enjoy toeing the line (literally) to see what they can get away with and how far out on the court they can stand. Tom Thibodeau immediately springs to mind.

Or, it could go the other direction. Perhaps we see more coaches sitting back, respecting their distance?

Hopefully we just don’t see any more of them trying to close out on opposing shooters.

Joel Embiid wants the center position to return to the NBA All-Star ballot

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The NBA got rid of the center position on the All-Star ballot starting in 2013, thanks in part to some positional confusion around former San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan. But just a handful of years later, Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid says it should make a comeback.

Embiid — who finished third in the Eastern Conference for forwards in All-Star fan voting — told CSN Philly that due to the plethora of talented big men in the NBA, the position should return.

Via CSN Philly:

“There’s a lot of talented big men in the league, especially at the center position,” Embiid said. “That’s something the NBA should think about, putting the center back on the All-Star ballot.”

There has been a resurgence of talented and burgeoning centers that have entered the league and are performing at a high level. Embiid is one of them, and so too is DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Hassan Whiteside, Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, Steven Adams, and Jahlil Okafor.

Adding the center position back might be a tough sell as having it doesn’t reduce eliminations from the roster. It’s much more free-flowing now, and there’s nothing keeping great centers off the All-Star team.

It would also be a little strange if center was added back but there wasn’t a point guard spot, too. ESPN’s Zach Lowe has suggested three categories for the roster in point guard, wing, and frontcourt. That idea is as good as adding the center position, perhaps moreso to many folks in the NBA.

I don’t think adding the center position will make a comeback any time soon. Meanwhile, we’re all just waiting to see if Embiid makes the All-Star reserves.