Oklahoma City Thunder v Miami Heat

Kevin Durant, Thunder overwhelm and blow out Heat

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For the first six minutes of this game, it felt like 2012 all over again — Miami’s defense was smothering, Miami’s offense was finding space and knocking down shots. Meanwhile the red-hot Kevin Durant could not fine room to make his play.

For six minutes the Heat looked like the two-time defending champs and the Thunder looked a couple steps behind them.

Then everything turned.

It started when Jeremy Lamb and Derek Fisher came in and started knocking down threes. Kept going as Scott Brooks sent Kendrick Perkins to the bench and went with a smaller, more mobile lineup — then broke form and kept it for the second half, with Perry Jones starting in place of Perkins (and not shockingly, it worked, I don’t understand why Brooks is so stubborn sticking with Perk). It started when the Thunder started sharing the ball like a contender — two passes after the Heat’s defensive trap to get an open look.

It ended with a 112-95 Oklahoma City rout of the Heat.

If you had any questions about if the Thunder were really title contenders this season, here was your answer.

Kevin Durant finished with 33 points, making it a dozen games in a row over the 30 point mark. The league record is 16 by Tracy McGrady and Durant could well catch him.

However, what really matters is he was efficient racking up those points — 12-of-23 shooting overall and 4-of-9 from three, plus he had seven assists and five rebounds.

LeBron James had 34 points on 20 shots, the rest of his game was bottled up and he had three rebounds and three assists.

What’s more is Miami turned the ball over on 22.7 percent of its possessions Wednesday night — more than 1-in-5 times down the court they coughed it up without a shot. Those became fast break points going the other way for OKC — 11 of those fast break points in the second quarter when the Thunder turned the game around. After his cold start Durant got his rhythm converting those turnovers into easy transition buckets, and once he got his rhythm he was knocking down threes from Epcot Center.

Miami wants to play fast but as part of that they want to attack the rim and the heat stopped that and settled for jumpers much of night. Often ones early in then shot clock. Which went poorly. After starting 2-of-3 from deep the Heat missed their next 15 three pointers. Yet they kept settling, they kept firing away.

Meanwhile Oklahoma was 10-of-16 from three at one point in the third quarter and finished the game 16-of-27 from deep. The Thunder’s fantastic ball movement exploited the Heat traps, on Durant and everyone above the three-point line, by making two and three passes after the trap to find the open man. Then they hit the shot.

Serge Ibaka finished with 22 points, Jeremy Lamb 18 and Derek Fisher 15 as he turned back the hands of time and was 5-of-5 from three.

Chris Bosh had 18 points and 9 rebounds, playing a solid game. Dwyane Wade had 15 points and looked just a step slow.

That’s nine wins in a row for the Thunder, who still get to add to Russell Westbrook to the mix. That was Kevin Durant grabbing ahold of the MVP race.

As much as can happen in a January game (which isn’t much), that was the Thunder making a statement.

Bull for Bull: Pau Gasol to replace Jimmy Butler in All-Star Game

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 6:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Chicago Bulls prepares to shoot a free throw against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 6, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Jimmy Butler is out of the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto this weekend due to a strained knee. Which suck, because he earned that spot, and while the fans didn’t vote him in the coach’s did.

Butler’s teammate Pau Gasol will replace him.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver gets to make the call on a replacement, and he stayed in Chicago, but he added a front court player to replace a guard. Keeping a Bulls representative might have been part of the thinking. The coaches’ votes on replacement players has been weighed in the past (Gasol may have been high on that list, coaches love him). Also, the East roster has a lot of wings and was light on bigs (Andre Drummond, Paul Millsap and Chris Bosh are the only real bigs), so this gives coach Tyronn Lue some flexibility up front.

The East leading Cleveland Cavaliers remain with just one representative, LeBron James (voted in by the fans).

Gasol is averaging 17 points, 10.9 rebounds, and a couple blocks a game, and is the only thing close to a consistent performer the Bulls have. Besides the injured Butler.

Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler out 3-4 weeks with strained knee

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It was concerning when it happened — Jimmy Butler injured his knee and had to be taken off the court on a stretcher.

But then the reports came back saying the X-rays were negative, this was just a strain. Butler was going to miss some time, but the question was how much?

Turns out, 3-4 weeks — including the All-Star Game, the team announced Tuesday. From the official team press release:

Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler was re-examined by Bulls Head Team Physician Brian Cole.  Butler is expected to miss the next three to four weeks with a strained left knee. Butler has begun rehabbing his injury and he will be allowed to engage in all activities as tolerated with the primary goal of maintaining his conditioning over the ensuing weeks.

Butler is the Bulls best player, averaging 22.4 points a game and handling a lot of the shot creation for the team (along with Derrick Rose, who was out Monday injured). The Bulls offense is 1.6 points per 100 possessions better when Butler plays, plus he usually draws the other team’s best wing player as his defensive assignment.

Following an ugly loss to the Hornets Monday night, the Bulls are now 5-12 in their last 17 games. Since Joakim Noah went out for the season with an injured shoulder in particular, their defense has struggled. They still have no offensive identity.  Chicago has fallen to the seven seed in the West, just 1.5 games ahead of Charlotte and falling out of the playoffs completely. This injury is simply going to add to that slide.

The Bulls thought they were the team that could challenge Cleveland for supremacy in the East at the start of the season. Now they may need a late push just to make the playoffs.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will pick his All-Star Game replacement. In the past, he has picked the player highest in the fan voting not selected as a reserve, in this case that would be Kyrie Irving. But Silver can go any direction he chooses.

Report: George Karl to remain Kings coach following face-to-face meeting with GM

George Karl
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George Karl isn’t going anywhere as coach of the Sacramento Kings after all.

At least for now.

Marc Stein of ESPN, who had the report that the Kings decided to fire Karl during the All-Star Break — now says the two sides have sat down and hashed things out. For now.

Those first reports went too far down the line, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

First things first, the Kings are a leaky organization right now. Which is never a good sign.

This has become a power struggle in the organization — DeMarcus Cousins has said the Kings’ problems go beyond the players, and he is known not to be a fan of Karl (Rajon Rondo is the coach’s biggest supporter because Karl gives him a green light). Owner Vivek Ranadive remains too impatient, stability is needed.

But there are still big picture questions to be answered.

Ranadive, with Vlade Divac, needs to sit down and set the long-term course for this team, including style of play they want to have, then decide if Karl can be part of that future. Also, if Cousins can be part of that future. If those two can be part of the future together (I’m not sure they can).

There needs to be more meetings with the Kings, and then this summer some significant decisions must be made. But doing it now at the All-Star break isn’t going to change anything. So Karl stays.

Adam Silver remains optimistic there will be no 2017 lockout

Adam Silver
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By this coming December 15, both the NBA owners and the NBA players can opt-out of the current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. At least one side (likely the players) is expected to do so, setting up a potential lockout in the summer of 2017. The last one in 2011 lasted 161 days and forced the NBA to start its season on Christmas Day.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is optimistic it will not come to that.

The two sides are already talking about an extension of the deal, and Adam Silver talked about that on the USA Today A to Z Podcast with Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt, something they detailed in a story.

Encouraging signs exist – even if there is a lockout – that regular-season games won’t be lost, as was the case in 2011. The two sides are meeting regularly, building relationships and trust. The league is dealing with new leadership on the union’s side: Michele Roberts, the NBPA executive director, has been on the job about 17 months and NBPA general counsel Gary Kohlman was hired at the start of the 2014-15 season.

“My cause for optimism is based on to me the spirit of the discussions and the directness in which we’ve been dealing with each other,” Silver said.

The two sides have done a good job keeping the negotiations private and not negotiating through the media. So far. And the number of optimists that a CBA extension can be worked out is growing around the league daily. The new faces at the negotiating table help with that, some of the old animosities are gone.

But the main reason for optimism: There is too much money on the table now for both sides to screw it up. The new television deal brings $2.6 billion to the table annually in addition to gate and other revenues. It’s putting money in the pockets of owners plus dramatically driving up their franchise values. For players, it means larger paydays — in the new system the average NBA player salary will be around $8 million annually, and the average starter will make $12 million a season (ballpark numbers, of course). Players are not going to want to miss paychecks for esoteric, or even good, reasons.

Never underestimate the corrupting power of human greed. These talks can go sideways. But there is reason to be hopeful that no lockout is coming. And that starts with the fact both sides are already talking to each other (and not the media).