Serge Ibaka’s back, Thunder are home and look like different team, roll Spurs in Game 3 win

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It turns out, getting one of your best players back really does help.

It was more than just getting Serge Ibaka back in the lineup, although that mattered. A lot. It was also being home where clearly the Thunder role players were more comfortable. It was a couple days off to gather themselves. It was some lineup changes by Scott Brooks that changed the dynamic on the court and gave the Thunder scoring.

Brooks inserted the suddenly healthy Ibaka plus Reggie Jackson in the starting lineup and got what he wanted — the spacing, ball movement and just plane good shooting was back in the Thunder offense. OKC was the team attacking again, rather than settling. Ibaka was 6-of-7 Parker for 15 points with seven rebounds and four blocked shots. With Ibaka in the paint Tony Parker and the Spurs were more hesitant inside the Thunder defense was aggressive and athletic and all that threw the Spurs well-oiled machine off — the Spurs shot just 50 percent in the restricted area.

Oklahoma City won Game 3 106-97 to cut the Spurs lead in the series to 2-1.

The real questions are can Ibaka come back and play like this in Game 4 Tuesday in OKC (he was clearly limping at points late in Game 3)? Will the Thunder defense follow with him again be a force? And how will the Spurs respond?

If the Thunder win Game 4 we have a series, if the Spurs do this series could end in five.

The key in Game 4 for Oklahoma City will be Tony Parker, who was 4-of-13 shooting for 9 points and he was just 1-of-6 inside 8 feet. A more aggressive Russell Westbrook guarding him and the presence of Ibaka made Parker hesitate in the paint, and he is the catalyst for all things San Antonio on offense.

Ibaka was the catalyst for the Thunder, from the opening tip the Thunder were moving the ball and attacking in transition off Spurs misses.

The Thunder put up 28 first quarter points on 12-of-19 shooting, Ibaka was 4-of-4, and the tempo was up. It was everything the Spurs have wanted offensively. Problem was, the Spurs scored 29.

That is how the first half went. Tony Parker started the game 1-of-6 shooting with three turnovers, in fact the Spurs got sloppy with the ball and the Thunder turned that into a 13-2 run. Kevin Durant had 13 in the first half, Westbrook 12 and Ibaka 10, the Thunder shot 56 percent as a team in the first half.

Yet at the half it was a four point Thunder lead, 57-53.

Credit Manu Ginobili for a lot of that, he was 5-of-7 from three and had 20 points. San Antonio hit 7-of-15 from three in the first half to stay in it. Well, that plus the 12 Thunder turnovers helped.

In the third quarter the Thunder were on a parade to the free throw line — 22 times to the Spurs zero in the quarter. In the NBA foul calls usually go to the aggressor and that stat tells you all you need to know about how that quarter looked. At the end of the third it was a seven point OKC lead, you could see which way the game was tilted but the Thunder just could not pull away.

Then the Thunder opened up fourth on 7-0 run as Boris Diaw, who had been reliable from three the first two games of this series, missed a couple and at the other end the Thunder were making plays with Reggie Jackson driving the lane and Caron Butler hitting a corner three.

From there the rout was on. By 5 minutes left in the game Gregg Popovich pulled his starters and made it garbage time.

Westbrook had 26 points and Kevin Durant 25 (both were 8-of-19 shooting) but it was the 15 a piece from Ibaka and Jackson that were the key.

Ginobili finished with 23 points, Tim Duncan had 16 points on 17 shots, Kawhi Leonard had 10 on 11 shots. As a team the Spurs shot 39.6 percent on the night.

The Thunder’s defense, when they are healthy, has given the Spurs trouble for a couple years now. If the Spurs don’t figure it out by Game 4 this is going to be a best-of-three.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge: “Who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team?”

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Isaiah Thomas is the best and most popular Celtics player, leading his team to the No. 1 seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals — both significant steps forward for an up-and-coming team.

Yet, from the moment the Warriors landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the talk about Thomas has been about his future with the Celtics: If/when they draft Markelle Fultz, will the Celtics want to pay Thomas max or near max money next summer? Do they want to be locked into four or five years with an undersized guard who will start that contract at age 29? Do they extend him this summer at a likely better price? Trade him?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge doesn’t understand all the talk. He certainly didn’t sound like someone looking to trade Thomas this summer speaking to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

“All I’m saying is those are things I have to worry about that even I don’t like to think about. And I know that those are going to be difficult decisions at some point. But we want to keep Isaiah.

“All I know is that he’s had an amazing year, and who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team? Like, you’ve got to be kidding me…

“Why do the fans need to worry about how much money he makes?” he said. “I can understand if Isaiah and his wife and his agent are worried about that, but I don’t understand why that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the media.”

Two things I want to unpack from all that. First, that’s a “get off my lawn” take from Ainge that completely misses the mark with where sports fandom online has shifted. It’s not that he’s wrong at the core of his argument — we all should appreciate the season Thomas just had, Celtics’ fans in particular. Thomas is a joy to watch play and one of the good guys in the league on top of it. Name anyone in the NBA who has gotten more out of his natural abilities than Thomas — the man has put in the work to rise way past expectations. He needs to be appreciated and lauded for that.

But here’s the thing: Fans more than ever like to play GM, and they now have the tools to understand the tough financial decisions that fall on Ainge and others in his shoes. Let me explain it this way: The NBA Finals start June 1, but as a website, the NBC NBA page will draw way more traffic around the NBA Draft at the end of the month, then free agency in July will blow that away. Always does. Player movement — including both rumors of trades and talk of free agents and moves teams should make — is a much bigger draw than the games themselves. That’s not just the NBA, it’s true of the NFL and MLB and NHL and the Barclays’ English Premiere League and on down the line.

Second, Ainge may not like the speculation, but the questions are valid — he and the Celtics have some hard decisions coming up. At the core of them is the question of patience: Push their assets into the middle of the table now, get a couple of players ready to win next season, and make a run at LeBron James and the Cavaliers, or be patient and build to be better than Cleveland in three years (then sustain that for five or more years beyond that)? Ainge has been on the patient side of that equation from the start, and likely will be again — don’t expect him to trade that No. 1 pick or do anything but bring Thomas back. He can be a decision for the summer of 2018.

Then again, he has shopped Thomas before. Ainge is as good or better than any GM in the league of keeping his cards close to his vest, he’s impossible to read.

That said, the smart money is on him being patient. There’s no need to trade Thomas now, that’s the kind of rash overreaction that got the Knicks where they are over the last decade plus. Ainge can wait things out.

 

Adding Durant and thinking dynasty, it’s championship or bust for Warriors’ legacy

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The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA for three seasons now. That’s not my opinion, that’s LeBron James‘ — here is what he said after advancing to his seventh straight NBA Finals.

“That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Adding Durant did make them more difficult to beat, but it also added to the Warriors’ burden — after a 67-win season and a historic 12-0 sweep into the Finals, the series that their season will be judged on is the one still to be played. They may as well be 0-0 because the second they added Durant it was championship or bust in terms of how they want to be seen.

Win and a pattern of dominance over years starts to come into focus, they will have a couple rings and beaten LeBron — who will go down as one of the all-time greats in his own right — to get them. Lose and this season will be viewed as another failure.

The Warriors want us to look back on them in 10-15 years and see a dynasty. They talked quietly about it last season during their chase for 73 wins — they saw that as a part of their resume as one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s part of the reason for the push last year. They, like LeBron, are chasing the ghosts of greatness at this point, and the Warriors had a Jordan record in their sights.

Regular season marks are nice, but in the NBA the great teams’ legacies are built around championships. Plural. If you’re going to go down as one of the dominant teams of an era — like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls, or the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, etc. — there needs to multiple rings on fingers. The Warriors have one, but their historic season unraveled last year when a combination of LeBron’s utter dominance, Draymond Green‘s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury (that one was underrated as an issue) all came together to snatch victory from their hands (and help cement LeBron’sa legacy).

The Warriors need the 2017 title for their legacy.

Not just the team, but the legacies of Warriors players will be impacted by this series. Injured or worn down or just in a shooting slump (or, most likely, a combination of the three), Stephen Curry struggled defensively and was outplayed by LeBron last Finals when the Warriors needed him. Curry has been fantastic through these playoffs, but like the team he will be judged as much or more for the games to come than the ones already played. Fair or not.  Can Green keep his head about him when LeBron pushes his buttons? Durant is back on the Finals stage, will he rise to that moment?

The championship or bust mentality is too often the prism through which fans — and media — view sports. It’s unfortunate because it clouds the joy of the game itself, the growth of players, of guys doing the unexpected and rising to heights we did not expect from them. Isaiah Thomas‘ brilliant season in Boston is not diminished because it didn’t end in a ring, to use one easy example. But there are hundreds more like that around the league. Championship or bust blinds people to the little things that can make the game joyous.

However, the Warriors have put themselves in a different place. They are chasing legends. They have the wins and the statistics to make a case, more importantly, they also have a style of play being copied (even by college teams) and is changing how the game is played. That is a hallmark greatness.

Now they need the rings to go with it. They need more than one, but it starts with this year’s title — it is championship or bust for them. Fair or not. If the Warriors want to be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time greats, it will take the 2017 title to be part of it.

Underdog Cavs insist they have plenty of bite for Finals

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — They are defending champions and decided underdogs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, however, say they aren’t using any snubs to get ready for the NBA Finals.

Set for a third straight championship matchup against Golden State, the Cavs are ignoring the Las Vegas odds makers and others who don’t think they have a shot at beating Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant & Co.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t feel his team needs the underdog label for inspiration, saying being in the NBA Finals is “enough motivation alone.”

Kevin Love was reminded that Warriors forward Draymond Green said earlier this season that he wants to “destroy and annihilate” the Cavs in the Finals. Says Love said: “He wanted us, and he has us starting next Thursday.”

 

Check out Kawhi Leonard’s highlights from this past season (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and James Harden were putting up the bigger numbers, they were drawing more attention. And while MVP is a regular season award, nobody has boosted their MVP credentials more in the postseason than Kawhi Leonard.

He had a really impressive regular season, too. Since we’re on a long break between games, enjoy the highlights of Leonard’s season. He may enter next season as the MVP favorite.