Knicks look very much a contender out-scoring Thunder in OKC

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What do you want from your title contender?

A superstar to lead the team? How about Carmelo Anthony with 36 points and 12 rebounds — nine offensive? He took over the league’s scoring title race with that performance.

Toughness inside? How about 19 offensive rebounds on one end and your big center Tyson Chandler contesting shots in the paint at the end on the other? (And that was without Kenyon Martin or Amare Stoudemire.)

Three point shooting? How about 10 in the first half and 15-34 for the game”

Quality play off the bench? How about 54 points and 10 threes?

Sunday the Knicks went into Oklahoma City and checked off a lot of boxes on the contender card, beating the Thunder 125-120 in a one of the more entertaining games of the season. That would be a dozen wins in a row for the Knicks as they have found their groove before the playoffs.

If you believe playoff statements can be made in the regular season, the Knicks made one this week beating a depleted Heat and an at-full-strength Thunder.

When talking about the Knicks as contenders, the hesitation was simply are not a good defensive team. There was never any doubt they could score but can they get stops? This game certainly didn’t alleviate that concern but it showed the Knicks can overcome it. On the season their defense is average (15th in NBA in points per possession) but in their 10 games before this they were allowing 1.5 points per 100 possessions fewer, which has them 8th in the NBA in that stretch.

Meanwhile, the Thunder looked beatable. Again. They have two fantastic scorers in Russell Westbrook (37 points on 27 shots) and Kevin Durant (27 points on 17 shots), but their system has a little isolation heavy and that makes them easier to defend. The difference in ball movement between the two sides was stark — the Knicks rate up there with the Heat and Spurs as the teams really sharing the rock right now.

This game was what the Knicks look like when the three ball is falling — they can score in bunches. In the first half it was the long ball that carried the Knicks — 10 threes and a total of 65 points by the break.

The other part of that was their bench. Jason Kidd was 4-of-6 from three for the game, J.R. Smith had 22, and Chris Copeland exploited his matchup with Nick Collison in the first half (Collison isn’t quick enough to cover him on the perimeter and Scott Brooks stuck with that matchup for way longer than he should have).

This was a close game — 110-109 New York with 4 minutes left — and it was the Knicks that made plays down the stretch.

It was Anthony driving baseline again, missing and getting his own rebound again and scoring. It was Tyson Chandler contesting and forcing Durant to miss a floater. It was a J.R. Smith stepback 20 footer then a possession later a 26-foot three off a broken play.

The Thunder made plays also down the stretch — Westbrook in particular with a steal and bucket, then a key three — but it wasn’t enough. When the Knicks offense is clicking they can just outscore teams. That’s what they did.

It felt like a playoff game and the Knicks have won again. They look ready for the postseason in 10 days and like a team that can do a lot of damage when it starts.

Nets’ national anthem singer kneels to finish performance

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NEW YORK (AP)—  The national anthem singer at the Brooklyn Nets’ home opener took a knee at the end of her performance.

Justine Skye was nearing the completion of the song Friday night when she went to one knee for the finish. There were some cheers, but appeared to be more boos from the crowd at Barclays Center to see the Nets play the Orlando Magic.

NBA players have continued to stand during the playing of the anthems, as required by league rule.

Mavericks’ rookie guard Dennis Smith Jr. misses game with knee swelling

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DALLAS (AP) — Dallas Mavericks rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. missed Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings with swelling in his left knee.

Smith, the ninth pick in the NBA draft out of North Carolina State, had 16 points and 10 assists in the Mavericks’ season-opening loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Smith participated in the Mavericks’ shootaround on Friday morning and was a late scratch. It is not known if Smith will play Saturday for Dallas.

The Mavericks were also missing guard Devin Harris, who was granted leave of absence after his brother died on Thursday.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s 29 point, 11 rebound, 9 assist game Friday night

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This was more of what fans expected from Lonzo Ball.

After a rough first game against the Clippers — with Patrick Beverley in his face all night — Ball found plenty of room to operate against the soft defense of the Phoenix Suns. With room to operate Ball had 29 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists — just one assist short of a triple-double. He helped the Lakers pull away to a lead in the third then hold on for a 132-130 win over the Suns.

Ball wasn’t terribly efficient, 12-of-27 shooting, but he was 4-of-9 from three, he played with great pace, he was decisive, and was finding guys with his passes. It was a step forward, even if it was against a sad defense (Eric Bledsoe can be a good defender, but he has seemed disinterested in recent years).

Ball and the Lakers are going to be up and down this season, the goal is for there to be more ups near the end of the season.

LeBron James rejects Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim

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Through the first couple games of the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has put up impressive numbers — he dropped 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Cavaliers Friday night.

But the Cavaliers still have LeBron James.

He had 24 points and 8 assists, leading Cleveland to the win.

LeBron also reminded the Greek Freak just how good a rim protector he is. Few people can slow Antetokounmpo on the drive, but LeBron is one of them.

Is it too early to root for a Cavs vs. Bucks playoff series?