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.

Timberwolves working on (max?) extension for Andrew Wiggins

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Andrew Wiggins is eligible for a contract extension that projects to be worth $148 million over five years. The Timberwolves could even include a clause that increases Wiggins’ compensation up to a projected $153 if he makes an All-NBA team or wins Defensive Player of the Year next season.

Jerry Zgoda of the StarTribune:

The Wolves have until October to complete a negotiation that shouldn’t take all that much negotiating if Wiggins accepts a contract that’s expected to approach $150 million.

Timberwolves president/coach Tom Thibodeau appears to be talking just generally about an extension. Zgoda brings up a max offer. It’s unclear whether Zgoda is reporting or supposing Minnesota has offered/plans to offer that much.

I’d hesitate to offer Wiggins the full max.

He’s a high-volume scorer with below-average efficiency (carrying enough of a load where that tradeoff is helpful). But his rebounding and defense lag WAY behind where his athleticism suggests those skills should be. For someone who dominated the ball, he’s not much of a distributor.

On the other hand, Wiggins is just 22 and possesses the physical tools to grow into a complete player. It’s reasonable to bet on him getting there, and an extension should be based on what Wiggins will do in future seasons, not what he has done already.

Plus, a max salary is the only allowable rate for a five-year extension. Offer any less, and the Timberwolves would be limited to a four-year extension. Do they really want to face his unrestricted free agency – in the midst of his prime – a year sooner.

It’s not as if they’d lose him now by forgoing an extension, though. Wiggins would be a restricted free agent next summer, and Minnesota could always extend a maximum qualifying offer, which would mean any offer sheet must be for three or four years (not including option years). The Timberwolves would also have a five-year max contract on the table (which would carry the same terms as a five-year max extension signed this offseason). Wiggins could accepted the $9,846,619 one-year qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in 2019, but that would be an unprecedented risk with so much money on the table.

Minnesota can all but guarantee locking him up for the next four seasons (including the final year of his rookie-scale contract this year). A max extension would secure him for the five (six if it doesn’t include a player option).

Ultimately, I’d lean toward offering Wiggins less than a max extension. It’s a tight market with the salary-cap stagnating in coming years, and a max offer sheet might not be available to him in restricted free agency. The Timberwolves could evaluate him another season and offer Wiggins the max next summer if he deserves it. If Wiggins wants security now, he can take a slight discount. That might come with complications down the road, but so would overpaying a one-dimensional player. A five-year max extension wouldn’t be terrible – if Minnesota doesn’t grant a player or early termination option.

By the way, don’t worry about another Kevin LoveRicky Rubio situation. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement allows teams to sign two designated-player rookie-scale extensions, so the Timberwolves could still offer Karl-Anthony Towns (who more clearly deserves it) one after giving Wiggins one.

Celtics add toughness with Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris

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WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris are happy to be coming to Boston at the same time, if only so they don’t have to play against each other.

Baynes signed with the Celtics as a free agent on Wednesday, and he already has a familiar face in the team’s locker room: Morris, who was acquired in a trade for Avery Bradley on July 7. Baynes said Morris “brings a lot of toughness” to the court, and Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren said the 6-foot-10 Australian can do the same.

“Red Auerbach said, `Get the instigators, not the retaliators,”‘ Zarren said before introducing Baynes to the media. “He’s definitely an instigator.”

The two former Pistons shared the day, with the Celtics announcing Baynes’ signing an hour before a media call with Morris. Bradley, the longest-tenured member of the team and the only remnant from the New Big Three era, needed to go to clear the salary cap space for prize free agent catch Gordon Hayward.

Baynes and Morris join a team that earned the No. 1 seed in the East last season but lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals in five games. Baynes, who averaged 15.5 minutes last season for a team that missed the playoffs, said coming to Boston was “a basketball decision.”

“Hopefully, I’m a piece that helps them bring the puzzle together,” he said. “You always want to be able to play more. I didn’t see myself having much bigger a role than I’ve had the past two years.”

An undrafted free agent who won an NBA title with the Spurs in 2014, Baynes averaged 5.2 points and 4.1 rebounds in his five-year career. He played in 75 games last year for the Pistons, starting two, averaging 4.9 points and 4.4 rebounds.

After working out at the team’s facility in the morning, Baynes came out to greet children at a basketball camp taking place on the practice court. A noted BBQ enthusiast who tweeted out a request for recommendations in the area, Baynes said he hadn’t tried the local offerings yet.

“There’s a few lobster rolls around here,” he said.

Morris averaged 14 points last season in Detroit, where he was a mainstay in the starting lineup. He saw the Celtics up close while watching his twin brother, Markieff, play for the Wizards in a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal series against Boston last year.

Morris said coming to Boston cushioned the blow of being traded.

“How can I be upset about being a Boston Celtic?” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m a competitor. I want to play against the best. I want to play for championships.”

Morris said he reached out to longtime Celtics star Paul Pierce after learning he was traded.

“He said I’m going to love it,” said Morris, who like Pierce went to Kansas. “That’s all I needed to hear.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Adam Silver on sports gambling: “My sense is the law will change in the next few years”

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This isn’t new ground for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. He has called legalized sports gambling in the United States “inevitable” and advocated in the New York Times for the federal government to put in a framework to control it. He’s not been shy about telling the heads of the other major sports leagues what he sees coming. Mark Cuban has Silver’s back on this one.

The commissioners of the four major sports were all on hand for a panel called “GameChangers: Creating the Future of Sports” in New York on Wednesday, and Silver’s position hasn’t changed, reports ESPN.

“My sense is the law will change in the next few years in the United States,” Silver said when asked about gambling.

He also stressed the importance of in-game wagering to fan engagement, noting, “People want to bet throughout the game … It results in enormous additional engagement with the fans.”

I’m not sure about “the next few years” timeline. I would rather be forced to watch The Emoji Movie than try to predict what the current Congress will do, but with its current conservative makeup legalizing sports betting seems unlikely.

But in the next decade or two… it feels like Silver may be right. The Supreme Court is taking up the case of whether the federal government can block states — in this case, New Jersey specifically — from allowing sports gambling. That could open the door for other states to follow.  Governments state and federal will not see it as a moral issue so much as a new revenue generator — they can tax it. So it will happen. Eventually.

With that Silver is right, professional sports leagues need to be prepared for that reality. The NBA seems to be out in front of that, ready to ride the wave when it crests. For now, they are just paddling around waiting for the right wave to ride.

Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis: “My prediction is John Wall will sign his extension”

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John Wall is one of the handful of NBA players who qualifies for the new designated veteran “super max” contract extension — and the Wizards want to give it to him. A four-year, $170 million extension of his current deal is on the table (it would kick in after the two years, $37 million on his current contract).

Wall has yet to sign it. He said at the time it was offered he wanted to talk about it with his family and see what the Wizards did this offseason. He’s not unhappy, he just wants to be sure before he locks himself in with Washington through his prime.

Washington owner Ted Leonsis told Candace Buckner of the Washington Post he thinks Wall will sign.

Maybe, but there’s not a lot of motivation for Wall to sign right now. Wall can bet on himself that he will make the All-NBA team again next year — there’s a deep class of guards but if he stays healthy he stands a good chance — at which time he’s still eligible for a designated veteran “super max” contract extension that would be five-years, roughly $200 million (and would kick in after the one year on his current deal).

That delay would also keep pressure on the Wizards to find ways to improve the roster. Washington is largely capped out and didn’t make any major moves this summer other than re-signing Otto Porter to a max extension (they matched a Brooklyn offer sheet). Washington is good, likely the third or fourth best team in the East, but a notch below Cleveland and Boston right now. Wall wants to push them to get another star and help Washington move up into contender status — he pushed for the Wizards to chase Paul George and have him replace Porter (a deal that was never going to happen, but you can see what Wall is thinking about being one star player short).

Ultimately, I think Leonsis is right, Wall will sign. It’s just a matter of when. Does he take this deal now, or wait until next summer and do it?