Poised Thunder exploit Clippers defense down stretch, take 2-1 series lead

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LOS ANGELES — This was playoff basketball at its most intense (certainly the most intense we’ve seen this second round, anyway). The Clippers and Thunder were battling and it was emotional, chippy, loud, and foul filled. It was a roller coaster.

It didn’t have much defense, but it was fun.

Through that storm the Thunder kept their heads about them. It’s a cliche to say the most poised team wins a close game, but it’s a cliche for a reason.

While the Clippers got frustrated with each other and chirped at officials in the fourth —all of which seemed to impact their defensive rotations and offensive shot selection, their minds elsewhere — the Thunder kept executing. OKC kept trusting players like Caron Butler to make plays (he nailed three threes in the fourth), kept trusting they would win going small, and they played with the confidence they would make the big shots when they needed to. The Clippers were the team pressing, the team still learning to win on this big a stage.

Oklahoma City won the fourth quarter 32-22 and with that become the first team to trail the Clippers after three quarters and come back to win this season, 118-112.

With the win the Thunder take a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference semi-finals. Game 4 is Sunday at Staples Center and it is all but a must win for the Clippers.

When asked about the late game poise Kevin Durant talked about the journey and said this year they are way ahead of where they were in years past.

“Just from experience,” Durant said. “You grow from experience. Having been here before, it’s helped us all out. Reggie (Jackson) when Russell (Westbrook) was out, Serge playing in big games, Russell playing in big games, myself. All the way down the line.”

The other thing the Thunder were able to do is play through the physicality better.

As Doc Rivers had said pregame he wanted his team to do, the Clippers came out attacking the rim — they were not going to settle for jumpers. That’s good basketball. But with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins hanging back, the Thunder are long and physical in the paint — and that physicality threw the Clippers off. The Clippers hit just 4-of-12 at the rim to start the game and finished 24-of-47 in the paint (51 percent).

“We didn’t finish a lot at the basket,” Rivers said. “I think they hurt us…. we’re getting to the basket. That’s what you want to do. We missed a lot of shots at the rim, wide open threes.”

Meanwhile the Thunder offense showed balance — when it’s more than just Kevin Durant (36 points) and Russell Westbrook (23 points and 13 assists, 8 rebounds) it means trouble for whomever is in the other jerseys. Friday night Serge Ibaka had 20, Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler each had 14 (Butler nailing threes in the fourth quarter to make the Clippers pay for not matching OKC’s small lineup). As a team the Thunder had an offensive rating of 123.8 and a true shooting percentage of 64.6 percent.

“Listen they played well today. They really did,” Rivers said. “I thought offensively we played good, but defensively we didn’t”

“Early I thought we allowed too many easy baskets, you know, dunks, layups” Blake Griffin said. “I think we’ve got to do a better job on the boards.”

After what has been a lackluster start to the second round of the playoffs with a lot of blowouts — and a slog of a first game Friday night between Indiana and Washington — the Clippers and Thunder put on a show. It was entertaining. It was a back and forth game with both teams surviving the run of the other — the lead never got more than 8 either way util the final minute.

The Clippers had their chances. This game was 102-101 Thunder with Chris Paul at the free throw line and five minutes left. But then CP3 missed the free throw, and then Serge Ibaka scored the next four points and quickely the Thunder seemed comfortable again. Then the Clipper made another push and it was 108-107 with two minutes left Thunder when Westbrook it a three, then on the next trip down Durant hit a ridiculous turn-around, 18-foot fade-away three over the wrong shoulder. That was the dagger.

The Clippers got 34 points out of Griffin, 21 points and 16 assists from Chris Paul, and 20 points from Jamal Crawford off the bench.

But they couldn’t just outscore the other team — that other team that has two elite scorers. The Clippers were not the defensive team they know they need to be to contend.

“We’ve been a team that regardless of how we plead the first three quarts, the first part of the fourth quarter, we relied on stops down the stretch,” Paul said. “Tonight we didn’t do that.”

They have until Sunday to figure out how to get those stops or they will be free to set golf tee times very soon.

Pat Riley raves about Dwyane Wade, but avoids all contract talk

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MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade is under contract with the Chicago Bulls, meaning other NBA clubs cannot openly talk about possibly signing him until he is a free agent. As such, Miami Heat President Pat Riley was cautious Friday when asked about Wade’s future.

Wade spent his first 13 seasons in Miami before leaving in the summer of 2016 and going to the Bulls, his hometown team. But Chicago appears in full rebuilding mode after trading All-Star forward Jimmy Butler – someone Wade was close with – to Minnesota this offseason. And since Wade is in the last year of a deal that will pay him nearly $24 million this season, buyout speculation has been rampant for months.

If Wade gets a buyout, he’d be free to join any team.

“I feel great about our relationship that we had over the 13 years,” Riley said. “And anything that happens from a personnel standpoint down the road, or any opportunities that are there, we’re always going to approach that. But right now he’s under contract. He’s under contract with Chicago and I wish him the very best.”

Some Heat players, including longtime close friend Udonis Haslem, have made clear that if Wade becomes a free agent they would definitely want him to consider a return.

“He knows how I feel,” Haslem said this month.

Riley – and every other NBA executive – has to be much more guarded. But Riley made no secret of the affinity he still has for Wade, even raving about his wife, actress Gabrielle Union.

“She was stunning at the Emmys,” Riley said. “And to see him sitting in the seat next to her at the Emmys, I said `Man, we both have come a long way.”‘

The Bulls hold their media day Monday, with camp opening Tuesday. Wade spent at least part of this week in Miami, where he kept his home, and worked out at least once at the University of Miami .

Bulls President John Paxson told CSN Chicago on Thursday he and general manager Gar Forman sat down with Wade when the season ended, and plan to do so again when he returns to Chicago in the coming days.

“We were honest with him. We told him, that we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Paxson said. “At that time we were not shopping Jimmy. But we also said all along that if a deal would come along that would allow us to rebuild, we’d have to look at it. We’ve said that to everybody. So with that said, Dwyane’s under contract. He has been a professional through and through. We want to talk to him when he comes in town, and we will.”

Wade is Miami’s franchise leader in several categories, starred on all three of the Heat championship teams and has kept close ties with several people within the organization since his departure. He was the MVP of the 2006 NBA Finals.

“Probably one of the greatest series that any player has ever had in a Finals,” Riley said.

Report: Noah Vonleh likely to miss first couple weeks of Trail Blazers’ regular season

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The Trail Blazers basically have four starters penciled in: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic.

The fifth – likely a power forward, though potentially a small forward if Harkless shifts down – won’t be Noah Vonleh.

Jason Quick of CSN Northwest:

Trail Blazers’ forward Noah Vonleh has suffered a right shoulder strain that will keep him out of training camp and likely the first two weeks of the regular season, CSN has learned.

Vonleh started half Portland’s games, both regular season and playoffs last season, though the low-minute role was somewhat ceremonial. The Trail Blazers really seem to want to get the 22-year-old Vonleh going.

He’s up for a contract extension, and while that always seemed unlikely, this puts a major damper on that possibility. Portland will most likely evaluate him further before proceeding in restricted free agency next summer.

In the meantime, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, Caleb Swanigan or Evan Turner could start. It all depends how the Trail Blazers want to balance their starting lineup and their rotation. At least they have plenty of options.

Stephen Curry says Warriors can “send a statement” by not going to White House

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It’s been a simmering topic all offseason: Will the Golden State Warriors — a team with a coach and several players who have publicly criticized President Donald Trump — make the traditional champions visit to the White House?

The first question is will they be invited? As of this point, that has not happened, according to the team.

However, this is something the Warriors plan to discuss and vote on as a team, coach Steve Kerr said. Stephen Curry was clear he plans to vote “no.”

Curry was more clear ESPN’s The Jump with Rachel Nichols.

“Obviously, you don’t wanna rush to a decision on understanding the magnitude of what this means. We have an opportunity to send a statement that hopefully encourages unity, encourages us to appreciate what it means to be American, and stand for something. So whatever your opinion is on either side, that’s what we wanna take advantage of this opportunity…

(Nichols asks if the statement would be not going): Yeah, for me, that’s gonna be my vote when we meet with the team. But it is a collective, it’s not just me, it’s not just KD, it’s about the whole team and what we were able to accomplish as a team, and the opportunity that has historically been afforded to championship teams. So we’ll have that conversation obviously, and we’ll do it as a group, and we’ll have one voice.

Some sports figures did not attend the traditional White House event in the past when Barack Obama was president (even if Tom Brady wants to deny that’s why he bailed), but teams have not skipped it.

There is a philosophical question here: If one opposes the president’s policies/actions, do you make more of a statement by skipping the event or going and saying something while there? What the Warriors know (having done these before) is this is just a feel-good photo-op event designed to make the president look good (whichever president). It’s a pure PR event, like the president welcoming the girl who sold the most Girl Scout cookies or something similar.  The president shakes hands and makes a couple of jokes, the team gives him a jersey with his name on it, and photos are taken. It’s not a place for serious discussion and statements, traditionally. The Warriors can either upend tradition by saying something while there, or they can just decide not to play the game.

It sounds like they are leaning toward the latter.

Which begs the question, will the Warriors even get an invite?

Report: Gerald Green to sign with Milwaukee for training camp (at least)

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How good is the hot chocolate at the BMO Harris Bradley Center?

I ask because it appears Gerald Green is going to be playing in Milwaukee, at least for training camp, according to Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Free-agent swingman Gerald Green has agreed on a contract with the Milwaukee Bucks, league sources told The Vertical.

Green will sign a non-guaranteed deal for training camp and is expected to compete for a regular-season roster spot. Milwaukee has looked to add depth at the wing positions, bringing Green and veteran guard Brandon Rush to camp.

The Bucks have 14 guaranteed contracts, so it is Rush vs. Green for that final roster spot. Green played solidly last season in Boston despite inconsistent minutes, but was not brought back as the Celtics revamped their roster. Green shot 35.1 percent from three last season, can play decent defense, and is a good veteran presence on a team with young players.

As for why I asked about the hot chocolate…