Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant thoroughly, easily – and, yes, reliably – dismantles Grizzlies in Game 6

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The Oklahoman. Tony Allen. An elimination game in the Grindhouse.

Kevin Durant faced pressure from all directions.

Yet, the the Oklahoma City Thunder relied on their MVP-to-be to extend their season. And it worked!

Mr. UnReliable scored 36 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Thunder’s 104-84 Game 6 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday.

Durant earned a stay of scrutiny, though only temporarily. The Oklahoman’s point, even if initially miscommunicated, was accurate. Durant had not been reliable throughout this series. A cold Game 7 on Saturday against the battered and bruised Grizzlies – Mike Conley left the game with an injury – and the criticism of Durant will return in greater force than ever.

But, until proven otherwise, Durant has earned the benefit of the doubt. Reliability is not proven in five games, and adding Durant’s Game 6 (11-of-17 on 2-pointers, 0-for-6 on 3-pointers and 14-of-15 on free throws) to the scale tips it in a different direction.

This was not Durant’s best game,  mostly because that bar is absurdly high. He was just reliably good when his team’s season was on the line.

Durant needed barely more than 14 minutes to score 18 points, doing most of that damage before his defensive nemesis, Allen, even entered the game. Allen later had his moments, but Durant was not nearly as bothered as he’d been previously.

The Thunder leading by at least 15 for the final 25 minutes also helped keep Durant comfortable.

Russell Westbrook (25 points on 9-of-21 shooting, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals and four turnovers) provided his usual compromise – sometimes-erratic, but much-more-often-effective, play.

Scott Brooks’ decision to start Caron Butler over Thabo Sefolosha paid off with Butler spacing the floor by making 2-of-4 3-pointers. Many wanted Reggie Jackson inserted into the starting lineup instead, but Brooks kept Jackson in the second unit, and the point guard scored 16 points on 4-of-5 3-point shooting.

Serge Ibaka (four blocks) and Steven Adams (five blocks) anchored a defense that held the Grizzlies to 37 percent shooting and a series-low 84 points. Of course, ending the game after the fourth quarter helped keep Memphis’ scoring down.

For the first time in five games, the Thunder and Grizzlies didn’t play overtime – and that reminded us of something that was getting lost

The Thunder are better than Memphis.

They were better all season, and they’re better now. Not so much better that they’ll necessarily win Game 7, but better.

Oklahoma City has won games in this series by 14 points and 20 points. That leaves four overtime – i.e., coin-flip – games, three of which the Thunder lost. Had they won one more of those, this series would be over. You can claim “What if?” about overtime games, not 14- and 20-point losses.

Wednesday, Marc Gasol (17 points) and Zach Randolph (16 points), but by the end of the game, they were sitting sullenly on the bench. More worrying, Conley was in the locker room.

Conley went to the lock room late in the third quarter with a right hamstring strain. He returned for 56 seconds in the fourth quarter, but then he went back the locker room for the rest of the game.

The Grizzlies point guard struggled Wednesday (2-for-10 shooting), but it’s difficult to see Memphis winning a Game 7 on the road without him. He’s a major plus on both ends of the floor – especially for a team that already lost its backup point guard, Nick Calathes, to suspension.

In 18 playoff games against each other in the last four years, including 308 minutes in this series, the Thunder and Grizzlies have grown tired of each other. Butler and James Johnson got into a tizzy, drawing a double technical foul, and Randolph and Adams later had to be separated. Play got chippy at points, even though the lack of drama in the game’s result probably eased tension.

The battle hasn’t ended. We have, at least, 48 minutes left in what’s been a mostly well-played series.

Durant proved tonight the Thunder can rely on him when it matters most, but he proved it only for a night. Now, Saturday matters most.

Is Kevin Durant reliable? It’s a question he’ll answer – again – in Game 7.

Iman Shumpert injures hand while missing open dunk (video)

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Plenty went right for the Cavaliers in their 126-94 win over the Knicks last night, but there were a few snags.

LeBron James and his teammates repeatedly failed the water-bottle challenge in the closing moments (though Kyrie Irving eventually nailed it).

Kevin Love‘s nose malfunctioned.

And Iman Shumpert injured his hand while missing an open dunk.

If Shumpert was faking as an excuse for missing, he sold it hard. Defending 4-on-5 on the other end, Cleveland ceded a 3-pointer. Then, Shumpert remained hunched over while the Cavs brought the ball up-court. It seems Shumpert might have been popping back in a dislocated finger, which jibes with him staying in the game – and shows his toughness.

But it also doesn’t erase the shame of hurting yourself while missing an open dunk.

Gregg Popovich calls coaching Tim Duncan-less Spurs a ‘refreshing’ and ‘fun’ challenge

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 26: Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs argues a call against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on November 26, 2016 in Washington, DC. 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.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP)–  For so many years, the San Antonio Spurs have been defined by their consistency, an unprecedented level of stability that has brought five championships and established the organization as a model franchise in professional sports.

The colors don’t change. The coach doesn’t change. The core never changed.

After 20 years and those five titles, change has finally come to San Antonio.

Tim Duncan, the tone setter from the moment he was drafted in 1997, retired last summer. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have taken reduced roles this season, and the Spurs brought in seven new faces as part of a rare roster shuffle as they try to retool around Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

“It’s been at the same time a challenge and a refreshing sort of situation,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “The team is changing personnel-wise and where the ball goes and a few different players so we have to do things a little bit differently. There’s a give and take, strategy wise, to fit the group. It’s been a lot of fun. Watching some of the young guys get minutes and develop has been fun.”

Fun because while the faces have changed, the results have not. The Spurs (18-4) have navigated the bumps in the road that come with unfamiliarity and have the second-best record in the league, tied the star-studded Golden State Warriors (18-3) in the win column. They have started the season 13-0 on the road and can match last year’s Warriors for the best road start in league history with a win in Chicago on Thursday night.

It hasn’t always been pretty for these Spurs. They’re not the same ruthless, precise machine that steamrolled the league during championship runs. They have had to muddle through things, overcome mistakes and struggle while they get acclimated to one another.

Newcomers like six-time All-Star Pau Gasol, steady veteran David Lee, Argentinian point guard Nico Laprovittola and shot-blocking center Dewayne Dedmon have had to work hard to integrate into a culture that is as enduring as any.

“You could see it in our games. Sometimes our offense is stagnant, our defense isn’t moving well or in our help positions,” Leonard said. “We have a big playbook on the offensive end. It’s just hard to learn it. It was hard for me to learn it. I didn’t get it down until probably my second or third year. We’ve just got to keep giving a consistent effort and being into the game and into our playbook and just keep moving from there.”

The result has been a team that tends to start slow, fall behind and then gradually digs its heels in. They are 5-4 at home, where they only lost once all of last season. They’ve lost to the Magic at home, were thumped by the Clippers and have not recaptured the breathtaking form they showed in a 29-point win at Golden State on opening night. But the wins keep coming.

“I think the first eight to 10 games was the coaching staff trying to figure out what lineups we’re going to play and there were a lot of changes, a lot of trying what works best,” said Gasol, who signed as a free agent this summer. “But now I think there’s more consistency, there’s more defined lineups. Guys know when to come in, when they’re going to play and what’s expected of them.”

The Spurs have won 13 of their last 14 games, and Popovich has leaned on his core more than he has in years to get them off to a good start. Leonard and Aldridge both average more than 33 minutes per game, the first time San Antonio has had two players averaging that much playing time since 2008-09.

“It’s been interesting to see how the team develops and comes together and who the leaders will be without Timmy being that overriding factor for so long,” Popovich said.

Leonard, for years the ultra-quiet storm trooper of the Spurs army, has been much more vocal this season. Gasol’s personality and approach have been a perfect fit as most expected and Ginobili and Parker are still there to help filled the void left by Duncan’s retirement.

And little by little, the new guys are getting up to speed.

“They’ve done a great job of making it easy for us and for Pop to throw them into the fire and trust them to know the system,” Green said. “We’ll continue to help them and they will continue to be sponges and absorb it.”

Kyrie Irving sticks water-bottle challenge before Cavaliers-Knicks buzzer (video)

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The Cavaliers were trying the water-bottle challenge on the bench late in their 126-94 win over the Knicks last night, but the national telecast showed Cleveland players only failing to flip a water bottle and have it land upright on the floor – including an erratic attempt from LeBron James that bounced onto the court.

Thankfully, the local post-game show had an angle of Kyrie Irving nailing the bottle flip just before the game ended, his toss just leaving his hands before the final buzzer. Count it!

Nicolas Batum zips pass between Tobias Harris’ legs to assist Frank Kaminsky (video)

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Listen up, defenses: Nicolas Batum will throw passes between your legs.