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.

Dwyane Wade yanks Justin Anderson to ground, Anderson responds with blow to Wade’s back while falling (video)

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There should be no place in the game for potentially injury-causing moves like Dwyane Wade yanking Justin Anderson‘s arm and pulling him to the floor. That’s not an appropriate response to Anderson’s (perhaps overly) physical defense.

But I also wouldn’t be surprised if Anderson – who delivered a blow to Wade’s back while falling – received additional punishment beyond the double technical fouls issued during the 76ers’ Game 3 win over the Heat last night.

Hassan Whiteside frustrated he’s a non-factor for Heat again

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MIAMI (AP) — Hassan Whiteside‘s numbers are down. He’s trying not to be the same way.

Game 3 of the Eastern Conference first-round series was difficult on many levels for Miami’s center. He was in foul trouble throughout, finished with only five points and was largely a nonfactor in his team’s 128-108 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night.

Whiteside has a total of 11 points in three playoff games this season, after averaging 14 points in the regular season.

“It’s just different, man. I feel like our offense is a lot different,” Whiteside said. “I’m not involved in as many dribble-handoffs as I was and post-ups as I was during the regular season. That’s what Coach wants. Coach wants me to just be in a corner and set picks. I mean, that’s what he wants so I’ve just got to trust it.”

For his part, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he’s trying to find ways to get Whiteside involved.

“That’s part of my job, is to figure it out,” Spoelstra said.

The Heat trail the series 2-1, with Game 4 on Saturday afternoon. Whiteside finished with only one field-goal attempt in Game 3, an alley-oop lob from Dwyane Wade that got turned into a dunk in the fourth quarter, seconds before Whiteside was taken out of the game for good. He had a bad turnover shortly before the dunk, and Spoelstra sent Kelly Olynyk to the scorer’s table almost immediately after that miscue.

“I want to get more minutes out there,” Whiteside said. “I’m going to keep trusting Coach’s decision-making. Even with the fouls I still could have been out there. I wouldn’t have fouled out.”

Whiteside played only 13 minutes – five minutes in the first quarter that ended with his second foul, 2 1/2 minutes in second that ended with foul No. 3, 3 1/2 minutes in the third that led to foul No. 4, then two minutes in the fourth where he had two turnovers.

Meanwhile, 76ers center Joel Embiid scored 23 points in his return after a 10-game absence to recover from surgery to repair a broken left orbital bone.

“They run enough plays for him that he’s going to get his numbers,” Whiteside said. “I don’t really get caught up in that. He lives a big-man’s dream. He gets the ball, he gets the post-ups, he posts up every other play and they pretty much run a lot of stuff through him and Ben Simmons.”

Whiteside’s inference was clear: He’d love to get that many touches.

He was asked how he can contribute in this series, and paused before answering.

“I’m trying to figure that out right now,” Whiteside said. “I’m trying to figure it out. I guess I’ve got to crash, try to score off offensive rebounds maybe, keep running the floor and try to get alley-oops. But other than that, it’s a lot different than the regular season. It’s a lot different.”

Report: Stan Van Gundy to meet with Pistons’ owner next week

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After a disappointing 39-43 season that has the Pistons sitting at home watching the playoffs — even after trading for Blake Griffin mid-season, — the sense around the league is that coach and GM Stan Van Gundy is going to lose one if not both of those titles. He’s expected to no longer be the team’s president of basketball operations, whether he stays on to coach the team is another question.

The meeting where Van Gundy’s fate is decided will come next week, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN.

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy have set a meeting for next week to discuss Van Gundy’s future with the franchise, league sources told ESPN.

The two had initially planned to sit down late this week, but the meeting was pushed back, leaving the Pistons organization to await word on how, if at all, the franchise’s structure could be altered.

Feuling the speculation on Van Gundy’s status is the fact that former super agent Arn Tellem works for the Pistons on the business side. He was brought in to help transition the franchise to the new building where it plays in downtown Detroit, but with that done the sense is Gores will give him a different job, running the basketball side.

If he loses his GM title, would Van Gundy stay on as coach?

Whoever sigs in the big chair has his work cut out for him. With that Griffin trade, the Pistons are basically capped out. Making changes to the current roster will not be easy.

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.