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.

Sixers’ Joel Embiid upgraded to “probable,” will decide after warm ups

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Everything you saw in the first two games of this Miami/Philadelphia playoff series you can throw out in the trash.

Joel Embiid is back and is now “probable” for Game 3, the Sixers announced, upgrading his status from “doubtful” earlier in the day. Embiid had been out with a concussion and orbital bone fracture.

Embiid will go through warmups — trying out both a mask and goggles — then will make a formal decision. However, he is expected to go. He certainly wants to play.

This changes the Sixers and the series. Yes, Philly has likely Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons and high quality role players such as J.J. Redick and Robert Covington, however, is Embiid that makes it all work. Put simply, when Embiid is on the court the Sixers are 15.2 points per 100 possessions better — their defense is elite and their offense is outstanding.

The Sixers will be better with their best player back in the fold, but don’t think this makes the series a cakewalk for Philly. It changes everything about matchups, but things are not all positives. When Embiid is on the court, the up-tempo, ball-movement style that the Sixers built around Simmons slows down and stops at points. The Sixers have played Hassan Whiteside and his rim protection off the court with floor spacing shooting bigs, now he has a place to be in the matchups. There are things the Heat can do now that may work for them.

It just may not matter — Philadelphia just got a lot better.

PBT Podcast: NBA first round playoff series breakdowns

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LeBron James‘ Cavaliers looks to be in a battle royal in the first round — and they could lose to Victor Oladipo‘s Pacers.

Miami’s defense and versatility is challenging the Sixers and shaking the faith of all those that just jumped on the bandwagon.

Utah stole a game in Oklahoma City showing great grit and resolve, not to mention a lot of Donovan Mitchell.

Anthony Davis has done everything but walk on water for the Pelicans.

The first round of the NBA playoffs has been filled with fascinating storylines — and we are just two games into each series. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all eight first-round series in this podcast, starting in the East and the tight races there, then move into the West. There’s even some “who wants to pay Jabari Parker this summer?” talk thrown in.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

James Dolan says Knicks must build around ‘great’ Kristaps Porzingis, offers fair rebuke of meddling charges

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Phil Jackson received a standing ovation in his first game at Madison Square Garden as Knicks president. Don’t forget how excited New York was for Jackson, who coached the Bulls and Lakers to 11 championships and played for the Knicks’ last title team. He was welcomed as a potential savior.

The common refrain: Jackson would have a chance to succeed if Knicks owner James Dolan didn’t meddle.

Immediately, Dolan said he would cede control to Jackson “willingly and gratefully.” Dolan later pledged to honor Jackson’s full five-year contract.

But fans turned on Jackson as he did an awful job and the Knicks struggled. Dolan opted into the final two years of Jackson’s contract, anyway, as he said he would all along. Fans got angrier. When Jackson publicly flaunted Kristaps Porzingis trade talks, outrage reached a fever pitch. Finally, Dolan stepped in to fire Jackson.

Dolan, via Larry Brooks of the New York Post:

“A great player in hockey is the difference, but a great player in basketball is the team.

“And I think we have a great player in Porzingis. We just have to build around him.”

“Everybody who wants to talk about the Knicks wants to ask me about Phil Jackson,” Dolan said, smiling and shaking his head. “The entire market wanted to me to hire him and when I did, the entire market said it was a great move. The only thing was, everyone said that I shouldn’t interfere with him.

“Three years later, everyone wanted to know when I was going to do something about Phil. The same people who told me not to interfere wanted me to interfere. But that’s OK. I just think that Phil underestimated the job.”

Dolan makes a salient point about how people perceive his involvement. The problem isn’t that Dolan meddles. It’s that he makes poor decisions.

Hiring Jackson – an out-of-touch former coach with no front-office experience – was a poor decision. I’m not enthused about Steve Mills as Jackson’s replacement, either, though we’ll see how that plays out.

Building around Porzingis is a better decision. He’s an extremely talented 22-year-old.

But it’s hardly a foolproof plan. Porzingis is recovering from a torn ACL. Dolan said Porzingis could return in December – or miss next season entirely.

Either way, the Knicks must surround Porzingis with better teammates. Dolan will and should be a part of that process. Whether he’ll positively affect it is another matter.

76ers: Joel Embiid doubtful for Game 3 against Heat

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MIAMI (AP) — Joel Embiid remains listed as doubtful by Philadelphia for Game 3 of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference playoff series at Miami on Thursday night.

Embiid was on the floor with the 76ers for their morning shootaround practice, but coach Brett Brown says there’s no change in the All-Star center’s status.

Embiid has missed Philadelphia’s last 10 games while recovering from a concussion and surgery that repaired a fractural orbital bone around his left eye. He’s no longer in the NBA’s concussion protocol.

He took to social media after the 76ers lost Game 2 of this series to the Heat, saying he’s tired of being “babied.”

Embiid has averaged 22.9 points and 11 rebounds in 63 games for the 76ers during the regular season.