Breaking down the final couple minutes of Thunder win over Trail Blazers

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For much of the season, this is the kind of game the Portland Trail Blazers have won — every close game they seemed to be the team making the big shots, getting the big steals, they had the players who stepped up. That includes the last time Portland and Oklahoma City met — the Thunder shot 20 percent down the stretch and blew a double digit fourth quarter lead to the Trail Blazers.

Tuesday night it was the Thunder with the late 15-0 run to win. Simply put, there was just too much Kevin Durant for Portland to contain. Playing like an MVP Kevin Durant. Forty-six points Kevin Durant, 14 in the final frame.

So lets take a look at how it went down, starting with three minutes remaining.

95-92 Trail Blazers, 3:00 left: LaMarcus Aldridge has a trusty turnaround jumper, but he missed a 12 footer this time and Kevin Durant gets the rebound and brings the ball up the right side. It’s not all out transition but the Thunder have not set their offense yet, and Kendrick Perkins stays out high and sets a screen, which you can see here:

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Durant comes around the pick, finds that Aldridge has laid back and given him a little room so Durant just goes up with the three. Splash.

95-95 tie, 2:50 left: Damian Lillard and Aldridge are trying to play a two-man game out top, but Aldridge isn’t holding the picks long and Lillard isn’t taking great angles off it, so the Thunder keep blowing it up. Eventually Lillard comes off a pick and goes right, Aldridge pops out, Lillard tries to hit him with a pass he whips across his body, it goes off Aldridge’s hands out of bounds. That was not pretty.

It’s the Thunder’s ball and they run a play where Reggie Jackson comes off the Serge Ibaka high screen and Lillard tries to fight over the top while Aldridge stays back, which allows Jackson to get into the paint and hit a 10-foot floater.

97-95 Thunder, 2:15 left: Nicolas Batum has the ball out top for Portland, LaMarcus Aldridge cuts to the basket off a Robin Lopez pick on the left wing, and Batum feeds him the ball coming across the lane, a nifty little play. Kendrick Perkins switched on to Aldridge off the aforementioned screen and when he gets the ball Aldridge takes a dribble then stops and does a little up and under going back the way he came move — it burned Perkins. However, Serge Ibaka rotated over and blocked the shot.

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That block landed in the hands of Wesley Mathews, and Ibaka blocked his shot, too. Portland wanted a foul call there but this was playoff-style ball and no easy whistles were coming. With 2.1 seconds left on the clock the Blazers ran Damian Lillard off some picks and got him the ball driving to the basket — and Perkins rejected Lillard’s lay-up. With 0.9 left Aldridge tried a desperation three that missed.

Then Thunder come down, Jackson comes off the high Ibaka screen and gets in the paint, draws the defense, kicks it out to Perkins who is wide open 15 feet out on the left baseline and he drains it.

99-95 Thunder, 1:36 left: Portland isolates Aldridge on the left block against Perkins, Aldridge does his thing and gets in tight but just misses a five-foot jump hook. Aldridge went 1-of-8 shooting in the fourth quarter. However Portland got the offensive board and in an attempt to make a bounce pass out to reset there is a kicked ball by OKC (at which point the ball bounces to a frustrated Scott Brooks, who bangs the ball down six times in a bit that will end up as fodder for NBA TV’s “The Starters”). On the next inbounds Aldridge gets a clean look at a 19 footer from just to the right of the top of the key, but it rims out.

That’s pretty much how the quarter went — Portland shot 33.3 percent in the fourth quarter, the Thunder 68.8 percent.

The Thunder get the ball and aren’t in a rush to shoot, Jackson probes a little but with six seconds left on the clock he kicks it out to Durant and says “have at it.” Durant shows a little like he’ll drive then pulls up with the straight away 25 footer and buries it.

And with it pretty much buries the Blazers.

102-95 Thunder, :48 seconds left: The Blazers need a quick bucket here, so after a timeout they have a sideline out of bounds and play called yet Nicolas Batum decides to throw a risky pass across the court to Wesley Mathews but instead it finds Perkins, who hauls down the turnover.

OKC comes down and again they are in no rush to shoot, and again they give the ball to Durant. He dribbles it out for a bit at the top of the key, stops and over two defenders drains another three from pretty much the exact same spot as the last one.

Ballgame.

The Thunder go on to win the game 105-97, and they keep winning without Westbrook. Thanks to Durant.

Three things to know from All-Star Weekend: New format worked, for now

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LOS ANGELES — Our regular feature “Three Things to Know” usually wraps up and breaks down the news of the day in the NBA, but in this case we are stepping back to take in all of All-Star Weekend. Three Things will then be off this week until Friday (there are no games until Thursday night as the league takes a little break).

1) The new “captains pick teams” format may have worked as intended. But will it last? This much we can agree on: This was the best played, most dramatic All-Star Game we have seen in a while. There was some actual defense played, guys tried and played with a little pride, they played hard, we had a close and intense ending, and (unlike last season) the night featured something that resembled basketball. There was even a game-tying and game-winning shot.

The new format — where captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry (the highest vote-getters from fans) picked the teams playground-style — got the credit for the change.

“The great thing about our commissioner, he’s absolutely okay with trying something new, to change the format, and it definitely worked out for everybody,” said LeBron, who scored 29 points including the go-ahead bucket late, and was named MVP. “It worked out not only for the players, not only for the league but for our fans, for everybody. It was a great weekend, and we capped it off the right way.”

Was it really the format that led to the change? Tune in next year, and frankly the next few years, to find out.

First off, the players were genuinely embarrassed by the lack of defense and level of play in last year’s game, they talked about it afterwards in New Orleans and it was players’ union president Chris Paul who first pushed for the format change as a way to inject some energy into the game. To a man, the players and coaches talked about “changing the narrative” around the game.

The reality is the game was close, and often in the past when the All-Star Game was close late we got real energy and something resembling defense the final six minutes or so of the game. This year’s game was close, so the genuine energy late was not wildly out of character.

If the league had stuck with East vs. West (but upped the payout to winners and kept the new charity component) would the players have come out and played with this same energy and defense from the start to change the narrative anyway? My sense is probably, again they didn’t want to embarrass themselves again. We’ll never know for sure, but the format got credit for bringing a new energy to the game that may have been coming anyway.

The NBA is going to keep this format — although expect the player draft to be televised next time around — so we will see in Charlotte next February and in Chicago in 2020 if the change was about the format or just a conscious effort by the players to make the product better.

Either way, let’s hope it continues.

2) Donovan Mitchell, welcome to the spotlight. Utah’s rookie Donovan Mitchell is averaging 19.6 points and 4.5 assists a game (and much more than that the past couple of months), has become the Jazz’s go-to scorer and shot creator late in games, and for my money is the current frontrunner for Rookie of the Year (with Ben Simmons a close second). Yet for casual fans Mitchell was flying under the radar — people don’t really tune in to see the Jazz play (they don’t get on national television much) and in a deep rookie class with big names the No. 13 pick out of Louisville was not one of the pre-draft hype guys.

People know who he is now — he took over the spotlight in Los Angeles for a while. He was featured Friday’s Rising Stars challenge, then on Saturday went out and won the Dunk Contest.

“I’ve always been a player who’s not really been talked about a lot,” Mitchell told NBC Sports heading into the weekend. “Never really hyped coming out of high school — I was ranked top 50, but I wasn’t a name that was all over Ball is Life and all those platforms. Then coming into college I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, I wasn’t one of those guys averaging 30.

“Playing under (Rick) Pitino (in college), it’s grit and grind basketball, and that’s how I was perceived. That just adds to the chip I have on my shoulder.”

Mitchell had plenty of style and flash in Los Angeles. First, he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Then he sealed his Dunk Contest win with a tribute to Vince Carter and one of his legendary dunks.

No player did more for his national profile over the three-days in Los Angeles than Donovan Mitchell.

3) Dunk of the weekend? Give that one to Larry Nance Jr. The newly-minted Cleveland Cavalier Larry Nance Jr. (he was traded from the Lakers at the deadline just more than a week before) may have come in second in the Dunk Contest to Mitchell, but he had the best dunk of the weekend. No doubt.

It was the double self-alley-oop off the backboard.

That was the dunk we’ll be talking about out of the weekend.

‘Tired’ Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest, according to both parties (despite speculation this was really a win for the Los Angeles nightlife). Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

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“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.