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


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.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.

Celtics draft pick Marcus Thornton gets beer dumped on head during Australian game (video)

Marcus Thornton, Will Cherry
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The Celtics drafted Marcus Thornton with No. 45 pick in the 2015 NBA draft. That essentially entitled him to the required tender – a one-year contract offer, surely unguaranteed at the minimum.

Thornton rejected that, which is almost always a mistake.

Rejecting the tender is a favor to the drafting team, which gets to keep the player’s exclusive rights for a year. If Thornton tries to join the NBA now, he’s stuck negotiating with only the Celtics.

By accepting the tender, the player typically gets one of two outcomes. He either plays on that contract and draws an NBA salary or he gets waived. But even getting waived is better than rejecting the tender, because at least the player becomes a free agent and can negotiate with any team.

Players who reject the tender go to another league and play for less money. In Thornton’s case, that mean Australia.

How’s that going?

(Almost) never reject the required tender as a second-round pick.

Byron Scott says they just have to get Kobe Bryant better looks

Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson, Byron Scott

Kobe Bryant is averaging 15.2 points a game at age 37. It’s just taking him 16.4 shots per game to get there. After his 1-of-14 shooting performance against the Warriors the other night — with too much isolation and too many plays run just for him — there has been a lot of talk about his shot. With reason, this is his shot chart so far this season.

Kobe shotchart season

So what do the Lakers’ do? Get Kobe to shoot less and get the ball in the hands of the young stars they supposed to be developing more? Nah.

They just need to get Kobe better looks, Scott told the Los Angeles Times.

“I know his mentality is that he can still play in this league,” Scott said. “And we feel the same way….

“Obviously he’s struggling right now with his shot, and I think everybody can see that,” Scott said. “So it’s trying to get him in better position to be able to have an opportunity to knock those shots down on a consistent basis. That’s No. 1.

“I don’t know if it’s his legs. I don’t think so. Again, our conversations are pretty blunt. … He tells me when he is tired and he tells me when he’s not tired. And the last few days, he said he feels great. So, I don’t think it’s a matter of him being tired or his legs being tired. I think it’s a matter of his timing being a little off.”

Yes, how could it be his legs? It’s not like he’s a 37-year-old with more than 55,000 NBA minutes played, and coming off an Achilles rupture and major knee surgery.

Honestly, I hope the Lakers and Kobe find a balance soon, because they have become just hard to watch. And I don’t want Kobe to go out this way.