Russell Westbrook, Thunder defense proves too much for Clippers

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If this is going to be a second round series out West — and it very well may be — we are in for a treat.

And the Clippers may be in some trouble.

Oklahoma City showed off the two things it has in abundance — athleticism and scorers — and that was too much for Los Angeles. The Thunder went almost wire to wire in knocking off the Clippers in Los Angeles 107-101, although Los Angeles made it interesting late. Russell Westbrook had 30 points and 11 assists while Kevin Durant chipped in 27 on the night.

The win basically locks the Thunder into the two seed in the West and the Clippers as the three seed. In the incredibly deep West you can never rule out an early upset, but these two teams are on track to meet in the second round.

If those games are anything like this, I’m good with that. This was a great show.

Credit the Clippers for making life difficult for Kevin Durant, making him really work for his shots all night (it took him 26 shots to get his 27 points). Problem for the Clips was the Thunder also have Westbrook — he was able to get into the lane seemingly at will and had 14 of Thunder’s first 25 points on 7-of-8 shooting, with 4-of-5 of those at the rim. Westbook’s hot shooting cooled but he still put up 30 and was making plays all night.

The bigger issue for Los Angeles was the OKC defense — the Thunder are so long and so athletic, they can cover ground and contest everything. It really bothered the Clippers. Los Angeles shot 41.2 percent for the game and more importantly shot just 50 percent (21-of-42) inside eight feet. It seemed every shot the Clippers took there was a hand in their face. The Clippers also had 17 turnovers.Early in the second half the Thunder upped their aggressiveness handling pick and role, trying to force mistakes, and result was they race out to 13 point lead early after forcing four quick turnovers.

The best example of this was Thabo Sefalosha on Chris Paul (he was on that assignment for more than half the game). CP3 would come off picks and not only see no room but see long arms disrupting his passing lanes. Paul still finished with 25 points and 8 assists — he is Chris Paul after all — but like Durant he really had to work for it.

The Clippers really miss Jamal Crawford, who should be back for the playoffs. Just returned J.J. Redick looked rusty as well, something that should change with some game action.

The Thunder seemed to be in control and cruising in for an easy win until a 14-0 run in the fourth quarter made this a ballgame. The Clippers seemed to find some things that worked — for example a small ball lineup with Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and shooters around them that spaced the floor after the pick-and-roll. You can bet Doc Rivers filed that one away for a potential use if there is a playoff meeting.

The Clippers got the lead all the way down to 1 twice in the fourth quarter, and both times turned the ball over. It was that kind of night for them.

This was not the best of the Clippers — although Blake Griffin had 30 and Chris Paul added 25. Still the length and athleticism of the Thunder disrupted the Clippers offense all night long. Los Angeles can do better.

It is going to need to if they want to get past OKC in the postseason.

Gregg Popovich says he was ‘guilty of over-coaching’ LaMarcus Aldridge

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LaMarcus Aldridge has been much better for the San Antonio Spurs this season. This comes after a tumultuous offseason in which it became clear that Aldridge was unhappy with his time in Texas.

That information came to light over the summer, and indeed both Aldridge and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat down to have a discussion to work out their differences in preparation for the upcoming season.

The results have been stupendous, with Aldridge playing better than ever in San Antonio despite the team lacking star Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge is averaging career highs in points per-100 possessions, which makes sense given his career-high 119 offensive rating.

Apparently part of Popovich’s change in dealing with Aldridge was how he coached him. Popovich told NBA.com recently that he made the mistake of over coaching Aldridge, saying that the veteran didn’t need as much guidance as young star players did when they came to him in the past.

Via NBA.com:

“We broke bread a few times, talked about it, laughed about it, discussed what we thought needed to happen, and frankly 95 percent of it fell on me because I made an error in trying to change him too much. That might sound odd, but he’d been in the league nine years and there’s one way he plays on the offensive end and feels comfortable with. I tried to turn him into Jack Sikma, told him I was going to teach you how to play on the elbow, go on the wing, face up. It was confusing for him. It really didn’t fit his style of play. I was guilty of over coaching in a sense.

“We came to an agreement on what had to happen. Well, on defense, I told him ‘I’m going to get on you like I do everyone else. But on offense, I don’t even want to talk to you. When they double you, kick it. Other than that, you be LaMarcus Aldridge.’ You see the result right now. He’s happy, confident and kicking everybody’s butt.”

Now that everything is sorted for the Spurs, we just have to watch out for them as they gain momentum heading into 2018. Leonard made his debut for the season on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, and as a publication time he had nine points in 10 minutes.

God help us if Gregg Popovich has finally found a way to make the mercurial LaMarcus Aldridge happy and pair him with a fully healthy Leonard.

Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas offers advice to Ball brothers on Lithuania

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Lithuania is a hoops-mad country.

The Baltic nation has fewer people in it than the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, yet it has three players in the NBA right now — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total (such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis). The country has won three bronze medals in the Olympics ( 1992, 1996, and 2000). It’s Lithuanian league also has been the launching pad for Celtics’ Aron Baynes to make the NBA.

Now the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo are headed there on professional contracts.

One of those players — the Raptors’ Valanciunas, had advice for the Ball brothers, speaking to ESPN.

“They’re getting themselves into a great opportunity. Lithuania is beautiful country… We have great basketball history. We’re such a small country, but we have many, many great players. Our basketball school is good., so they chose a really good school. They just gotta work hard — it’s all about working. You can be as good as you can be by working. Talent is one thing, but work you put in, that’s gonna show up.

“If they have any problems, let me know. I can help them out.”

Good luck finding anyone around the NBA who thinks this ends well, especially those who know the Ball family. They are sending a college freshman and a high school junior to a small city in a former Soviet bloc country with a very different culture, that will be a major adjustment. The coach doesn’t speak English and his former American players have not spoken highly of him. The Lithuanian league itself has men — far more physically developed than the Ball brothers — and is known for a physical style of play. It’s also known as a league where the players have a reasonably high hoops IQ and don’t like undisciplined players.

But if LiAngelo and LaMelo have any problems, they can call Valanciunas.

Paul George on return to Indiana Wednesday: “For whatever reason, I’ll be booed”

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This week is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s “you can’t go home again” week of the schedule. On Saturday night, Carmelo Anthony will return to New York where Knicks fans should welcome him with cheers and open arms — he meant a lot to that franchise in recent years — but may very well not.

First up, however, Paul George returns to Indiana in a Thunder uniform Wednesday night.

There’s little doubt how he will be greeted by Indiana fans, who felt betrayed by a man they stuck by through recovery from a severe injury. George knows what is coming,

Here are the key lines from PG13:

“Boos. I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way. The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to. For whatever reason, I’ll be booed, but I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna thrive on that.”

For whatever reason? You asked to be traded and fans take that personally. There is no loyalty in sports — I have no problem with players asking out because teams show no hesitancy in dumping players they no longer have a use for (and fans are almost always good with that) — but he had to know how this would be taken in Indiana.

What George might want to worry about is stopping the red-hot Victor Oladipo (he averaged 35.7 points per game last week), because he and the Pacers are playing better than the Thunder right now.

Kawhi Leonard returns Tuesday on minutes restriction

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The Spurs have been the Spurs this season, going 19-8 with an elite defense and offense that’s good enough to get them wins, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level.

Starting Tuesday, they add Kawhi Leonard back to the mix.

He will return to the lineup against Dallas, but will be on a minutes restriction, coach Gregg Popovich said on Tuesday. He would not say how many minutes, although around 20 seems a logical starting spot.

Leonard is one of the five best players in the NBA (and that may be selling him short). He averaged a career-high 25.5 points a game last season, he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and he finished third in the MVP voting last season.

However, there are going to be adjustments. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the focal point of the offense, but he could see fewer touches, particularly in crunch time. Kyle Anderson could see fewer minutes, and Rudy Gay may as well because Popovich liked some small-ball lineups last season with Leonard at the four. A lot of players will see their rotations change.

That said, it’s the Spurs. Do we really expect them to be anything but an incredibly good regular season team? One that is about to get better?