Russell Westbrook,

Westbrook’s 40 points lead Thunder to blowout Game 4 win over Spurs

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In the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs demolished the Thunder with precision execution on the offensive end of the floor, and enough defense against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to force them into low-efficiency performances.

Serge Ibaka returned in Game 3, and so did Oklahoma City’s collective swagger. But in Game 4, it was Durant and especially Westbrook who took control, and ensured the Thunder would even the series at two games apiece.

Behind an incredible 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals, Westbrook produced a statistical line matched only by Michael Jordan over the past 30 years in leading OKC to a 105-92 victory that wasn’t at all that close.

“Russell’s defensive toughness really set the tone in this game I thought,” said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks afterward. And as monstrous as Westbrook was offensively — playing efficiently and under control, while distributing to his teammates at the same time — his defensive intensity was what really made the biggest difference.

The Thunder have beaten the Spurs seven straight times with Ibaka in the lineup, and while he was fine in this one with nine points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots, this game was about Westbrook on both ends of the floor, and Durant picking his spots.

This season’s MVP wasn’t exactly invisible in finishing with 31 points, and did most of his damage in the second quarter where he scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting in just nine minutes of action. But Westbrook was everywhere, disrupting the Spurs offense by getting into the passing lanes and then making largely smart decisions offensively.

There’s a “let Westbrook be Westbrook” mantra chanted by his supporters, which essentially means that his frenetic style of play is bound to produce some frustrating sequences, and that you need to accept the good with the bad in order to truly embrace the Thunder guard’s brilliance.

But that’s utter nonsense.

When Westbrook is just playing with speed and without thinking, his shot selection is destructive more than it is helpful. He showed how his energy can be properly utilized in this one, however, and if the Thunder can somehow get these types of performances out of him consistently — not in terms of the raw numbers, but in terms of the defensive effort and the efficiency — they will be very difficult to stop.

San Antonio trailed by as many as 27 points in the third quarter, before the bench was emptied and the reserves were left to clean up the mess. The likes of Boris Diaw, Corey Joseph and Matt Bonner made enough of a run to force the Thunder to play their starters to close things out, but the Spurs were never close enough to warrant putting the starters back in.

That might bode well for Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili heading into Game 5, but the rest will only help so much. San Antonio needs to figure out a way to slow the Thunder down enough to turn around a 21-0 deficit in fast break points that the team faced in this one, while reverting back to the style of play that enabled the Spurs to get out to the 2-0 lead in the series that has now completely vanished.

Coach Steve Clifford: Poor defense has led to Hornets’ losing streak

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 04:  Teammates Michael Kidd-Gilchrist #14 and Marvin Williams #2 of the Charlotte Hornets react at the bench as head coach Steve Clifford reacts during their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Spectrum Center on January 4, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hornets coach Steve Clifford points to one factor when explaining his team’s five-game losing streak – a lack of defense.

Charlotte went 0-5 on its recent road trip, surrendering an uncharacteristic 109.6 points per game during that span. The Hornets return home Wednesday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers, part of a stretch of five-game home stand which Clifford hopes will help turn things around.

But Charlotte’s fourth-year coach said nothing will get better until the Hornets start playing better man-to-man defense.

“It starts with our ability to guard our guy,” Clifford said. “When you get blown by a lot on the perimeter where you are constantly in need of help, then you are going to give up 3s – and that’s what is happening.”

The Hornets raced to a 14-9 start this season and were third-best in the league in points allowed through 23 games.

Since then, things have steadily fallen apart, culminating with Charlotte giving up at least 100 points in eight straight games. The Hornets have since dropped to 12th overall in points allowed.

The Hornets have fallen to 20-21 on the season and are on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff picture. It hasn’t helped that Nic Batum and Cody Zeller have been in and out of the lineup with injury problems, but Charlotte’s struggles on the road – where it has lost 11 of its last 13 – is concerning.

Zeller said the Hornets spent Wednesday morning watching cutups of defensive miscues over the last five road games.

“All four years I have been here it starts with defense,” Zeller said. “That is what coach Clifford preaches.”

The 7-foot center said it is mostly simple things that can be corrected.

“There are sets that we know are coming – and we just aren’t defending them right,” Zelller said. “We are making too many mistakes.”

Added guard Marco Belinelli: “We need to speak a lot more on the court and help each other.”

Getting the defensive mistakes fix won’t be easy.

After Portland, the Hornets host Toronto, Brooklyn, Washington and Golden State. All five teams rank in the top 14 in the league in scoring offense, with the Warriors being No. 1 overall and Raptors No. 3.

A year ago, Hornets general manager Rich Cho pulled off a quality late-season trade, landing “three and D” guard Courtney Lee. He proved to be the driving force on the team’s playoff run and played well in the postseason.

The problem was Lee did so well it made it impossible for the Hornets to re-sign him. Charlotte re-signed Batum and Marvin Williams, and let Lee walk in free agency. He signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the New York Knicks.

The Hornets figured with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist returning this year from a shoulder injury they would be fine defensively, but the struggles are mounting.

Clifford wouldn’t discuss whether the team needs to make a similar trade before the NBA deadline.

As for the offense, Clifford likes what he sees.

Kemba Walker, a first-time All-Star candidate, is in the midst of the most productive season of his career, averaging 23 points per game while shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range.

“I mean he’s having a great year,” Clifford said. “He’s worked really hard and it’s paying off for him.”

Chris Paul to have surgery on torn ligament in left thumb, out 6-8 weeks

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When the Clippers last were without Chris Paul (then due to a hamstring injury), they dropped six games in a row. Granted, that was without Blake Griffin, too, but this team struggles on offense without the Point God running the show.

He’s not going to be running the show again for them until March.

Paul will miss 6-8 weeks due to a torn ligament in his left thumb that will require surgery, the team announced Tuesday. He is set to have surgery on Wednesday.

Raymond Felton and Austin Rivers will get a lot more run with CP3 sidelined.

The injury happened in the second quarter of Monday night’s game against the Thunder. Paul was trying to get over the top of a Joffrey Lauvergne screen when he ran into Russell Westbrook, who had pulled up to take a three. Paul’s hand was on Westbrook’s hip and got caught in his shorts and Westbrook elevated for the shot.

It looked serious as Paul walked off the court — he kicked a chair and was cursing, a sign that he knew something was very wrong. He went straight to the locker room, where X-rays were taken that found nothing broken. It was an MRI on Tuesday that found the damage.

The Clippers are the four seed in the West but are likely about to lose ground, being without Paul until March and with Griffin still sidelined from knee surgery (but should be back in the next few weeks, according to his timetable). Starting Saturday The Clippers have 10-of-11 games on the road — and the one home game is the Warriors. That’s a brutal stretch of games under the best of circumstances, and now the clouds over this team got much darker.

PBT Podcast: Debating NBA midseason awards with Dan Feldman

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Western Conference and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets and the Western Conference warm up before the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. 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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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Russell Westbrook or James Harden for MVP?

Is Mike D’Antoni the runaway Coach of the Year?

Can anyone catch Giannis Antetokounmpo for Most Improved Player?

The PBT staff gave their picks for midseason awards already. Now Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports debate all of that, plus Sixth Man, Defensive Player of Year, and even takeaways​ from the Warriors win over the Cavaliers Monday.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (check there to see all the NBC Sports podcasts), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

LeBron James reminds heckling Warriors fans he has three rings (VINE)

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers stands on the court during their game against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on January 13, 2017 in Sacramento, California.  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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Monday night was not exactly the best game of the season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They looked like a team on the final night of a six-game, 12-day road trip and they were mailing it in. Then they ran into a rested Warriors team looking to gain a little confidence. The result was a Red Wedding-level blood bath.

LeBron James was none too bothered. He was downplaying the rivalry and the importance of the game before it tipped-off, and after the game he rightly said this was not going to have any impact in June.

And when Warriors fans heckled him, he reminded them of the hardware — he’s got rings. Three of them. The last one at the expense of the Warriors.

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I’m going to miss Vine when it goes away.

Hat tip Matt Moore Eye on Basketball.