Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant drives against the San Antonio Spurs defense of guard Tony Parker of France and forward Tim Duncan in the first half of their NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City.

Thunder take down Spurs, close the gap for top playoff position in the West

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The Spurs have been known to rest their top players when their head coach feels the timing is just right, but Thursday night in Oklahoma City there was good reason for Gregg Popovich to see what his team was capable of against the Thunder while playing at full strength.

San Antonio started the game with only Manu Ginobili out of the lineup due to legitimate injury, but finished it with Tony Parker on the bench thanks to what seemed to be a new ailment of his own. In between, the Spurs battled back multiple times after facing double digit deficits, only to ultimately fall to the Thunder 100-88.

With the loss, the Spurs’ lead over the Thunder for the best record in the Western Conference is down to just a half game, with both teams tied in the loss column.

Oklahoma City got out to a lead of 20 points in the second quarter, but the Spurs had it to a manageable eight by halftime. The Thunder ran it back up to 19 points in the third, before San Antonio came back once more to cut it to six by the end of three.

Parker was able to play just two fourth quarter minutes, thanks to what Popovich characterized as “something in his shins” which forced him to be sidelined the rest of the way. That left backup guard Nando de Colo to run the point in crunch time, and San Antonio actually had the lead down to just three with under five minutes remaining.

But a couple of free throws from Russell Westbrook, followed by a dagger of a three-pointer from Kevin Durant pushed the lead back to eight, and the Spurs couldn’t get within six the rest of the way.

Popovich likely wanted to see what he had against this Thunder team that beat his Spurs four straight times in the Western Conference finals a season ago. What he saw was a younger and faster team in Oklahoma City that San Antonio can force into tough shots at times, but that ultimately used that speed and athleticism to get out on the fast break for a 19-3 advantage in that category.

Westbrook and Durant finished with 27 and 25 points respectively, and while Kevin Martin was held to just two points, the Thunder got a rare boost from Derek Fisher, who chipped in 17 points in under 15 minutes, while knocking down five of his seven shots from three-point distance.

San Antonio can beat the Thunder, but only if they’re at or near full strength. They’ll need every bit of what a healthy Parker and Tim Duncan can give them in the postseason, and they’ll need to get at least a serviceable version of Ginobili back for the later rounds of the playoffs in order to have a fighting chance.

The Thunder might have been good enough to come out of the West even if all of their opponents along the way were at 100 percent from a health standpoint. With the Spurs struggling through injury, as well as the recent troubles in Denver, Oklahoma City may end up getting a return trip to the Finals by default instead.

51Q: Can Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson get blood from a stone in Brooklyn?

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 20:  Rondae Hollis-Jefferson #24 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts after a foul is called against him during the second half at TD Garden on November 20, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Maddie Meyer/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:

Can Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson get blood from a stone in Brooklyn?

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

For Sean Marks, the new GM of the Brooklyn Nets, the first steps last February was to buy out Andrea Bargnani and waive Joe Johnson, then sign D-League guard Sean Kilpatrick in a quest for undervalued talent.

No team in all the NBA is in a worse rebuilding situation than the Brooklyn Nets. In their owner-pushed quest to open a new building with a splash a few years back, the Nets traded young players and control of their draft picks for expensive players on the back ends of their careers (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Johnson). When that fell apart as everyone could see it would, the Nets were left without the tools for a quick rebuild. They don’t control their own first-round pick until 2019.

This is a long, slow journey of 1,000 miles.

The question today is: Can Marks and his new coach Kenny Atkinson squeeze more wins out of this team while making that journey? The Nets won just 21 games last season.

They should win a few more this season — 25? 28? — and they should be more competitive. Certainly, they will be more entertaining. However, real change is going to take time. And patience — we’re looking at you, Mikhail Prokhorov.

The Nets have one good young player who should be part of the future core: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He needs to become more confident with his jumper, but he is a long, athletic wing who can get to the rim on one end and defend on the other. He should thrive in a more uptempo Atkinson system. If he can stay healthy this season and take a step forward (as expected of second-year players), the Nets get a little better.

Then the Nets have some solid veterans around him. Brook Lopez is still one of the better offensive centers in the NBA, and while the trade waters were tested (and will be again), Lopez remains a Net.

Marks added veteran point guard Jeremy Lin to the mix — Atkinson was an assistant coach to Mike D’Antoni in New York during the Linsanity era, and he knows how to get the most out of him. The Nets brought other vets on the roster such as Luis Scola, Greivis Vasquez, and Randy Foye. Trevor Booker is still on the roster. There is rookie Caris LeVert to develop.

All of this should make the Nets considerably more entertaining (they were the hardest team in the NBA to watch last season) a little better. They should win a few more games. The issues keeping them from making any real leap begin with this was the second worst defensive team in the NBA last season and adding guys like Lin, Vasquez, and Scola to the roster is not going to improve that end. Add to that the fact this team has no true alpha players, plus a lack of depth, they have a lot of fringe players trying to establish themselves (which makes cohesion on the court difficult), they have almost no home court advantage, and it’s hard to be optimistic about the short term.

But Marks and Atkinson know it’s not about the short term.

Hopefully, ownership understands that as well, stays back, and lets the men do their jobs. Find some young talent, trade for what they can, and develop it. Progress will be incremental for years.

Marks has made a lot of good moves as GM, but no quick fixes are coming to Brooklyn. They don’t even have enough picks to trust the process. Progress is going to be incremental.

Marks and Atkinson may get a drop or two of blood from the stone — if you consider five more wins some blood — but don’t expect miracles.

Expect a long journey — and Marks to keep them walking on the right path. Which is all that can be reasonably asked.

Report: Pelicans aggressively seeking ‘one of the higher level free agent guards left’

Norris Cole, Deron Williams
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The Pelicans will reportedly work out Lance Stephenson, and whether or not they’re serious about him, they seem serious about somebody at his position.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

I’m not sure who qualifies as “‘one of the higher level free agent guards left” other than J.R. Smith, who seems extremely likely to return to the Cavaliers. (The Pelicans don’t have cap space to pursue Smith, anyway.)

Norris Cole, whom New Orleans already renounced? Mario Chalmers coming off a torn Achilles? Kevin Martin who did little with the Spurs? Kirk Hinrich who’s over the hill? Andre Miller who’s five years older?

Making this harder to decipher: The Pelicans have 15 players with guaranteed salaries, most of whom signed this offseason. How will they make room for an additional guard on their regular-season roster, which is capped at 15 players? They don’t have money or roster spot to lure a quality guard, even if you grade quality on a curve for who’s left unsigned.

Does this signal another shoe to drop in New Orleans?

Former Magic player Keith Appling charged with four more felonies after third arrest in four months

Orlando Magic's Keith Appling (15) makes a shot in front of Philadelphia 76ers' Jerami Grant (39) and Nerlens Noel (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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Former Orlando Magic and Michigan State player Keith Appling was arrested for the third time in four months.

The latest arrest brings four new felony charges.

Elisha Anderson of the Detroit Free Press:

The new charges Appling faces are carrying a concealed weapon, resisting and obstructing police, third-degree fleeing and eluding and felony firearm.

Detroit police stopped Appling, 24, on a traffic violation Sunday while he was driving in the area of 7 Mile and Russell about 9:15 p.m, prosecutors said in a news release. A police officer reached in the car to get his identification and Appling is accused of driving off while the officer’s hand was still in the window.

Authorities say Appling threw a Gucci bag from his car. Police found the bag, which had Appling’s name on it and handgun inside, near the area of the initial stop.

Appling was a fringe NBA player. It’s a shame his basketball career probably won’t work out, because he sounds like a really bad criminal.

Tossing your gun in a personalized Gucci bag? Really?

Rutgers uses NBA incomes of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Andre Drummond, Steven Adams to pitch recruits

AUBURN HILLS, MI - MAY 24:  Ray Allen #20 of the Boston Celtics goes up for a shot over Richard Hamilton #32 of the Detroit Pistons in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs on May 24, 2008 at the Palace at Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan.  The Celtics won 94-80.  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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College men’s basketball teams earn vast revenue on the backs of players while conspiring to pay those players no more than a scholarship and some expenses. In lieu of the market dictating player salaries, that revenue is funneled to administrators and coaches – like Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell, who earns $1.6 million per year.

But the money in basketball is real, and college players want a taste. So, many coaches try to sell players that they’ll prepare them for the NBA, where they can make millions.

Which led to this Rutgers tweet featuring former Connecticut players Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Andre Drummond and former Pittsburgh player Steven Adams:

The heck?

Rutgers’ only NBA players in the last two decades were Hamady N’Diaye and Quincy Douby. So, the Scarlet Knights got creative.

An assistant on Pikiell’s staff was an assistant at UConn when Allen and Hamilton played there. Another was an assistant when Drummond was a Huskie. Yet another was a Pitt assistant during Adams’ time.

Just when I thought college teams couldn’t get any cheaper when it comes to their players, here comes Rutgers using its barely earned currency in recruiting.

Connecticut took notice:

Here’s an idea: Instead of squabbling over who deserves credit for getting players paid later, use some of that revenue to pay players now.

(hat tip: Mark Sandritter of SB Nation)