Associated Press

Nicolas Batum scores 28 points, Hornets beat Thunder 123-112

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Nicolas Batum says there is an art to drawing a foul on a 3-point shot. Nicolas Batum says there is an art to drawing a foul on a 3-point shot.

“It’s not easy,” Batum said with a wide smile.

Batum twice drew whistles on 3-pointers en route to a season-high 28 points in the Charlotte Hornets’ 123-112 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Batum was a regular at the foul line Wednesday night, converting 13 of 15 free throws. As a team, the Hornets made 40 of 49 foul shots to snap a two-game losing streak.

Batum said he watched others like Kevin Durant and Reggie Miller work to perfect that art of drawing the foul, which includes reading the defender’s movements.

“Sometimes it works and sometimes you throw up a really bad shot,” Batum said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said Batum just has a good feel and understanding on how to play the game.

“He subtly, very calmly impacts the game,” Donovan said. “He lets it come to him. He has a great pace and tempo to his game. Obviously, he’s very, very crafty in terms of understanding how to draw fouls. He’s a really good passer.”

Russell Westbrook had 33 points and 15 rebounds, but fell two assists shy of his 17th triple-double of the season for Oklahoma City.

The MVP candidate was assessed a technical foul in the first half after he hit a referee in the head with a ball. After the Thunder called a timeout Westbook was retreating toward the bench and tossed an overhead pass toward the referee, who wasn’t looking as the ball hit him in the side of the cranium. Another official came running into the Thunder huddle and called a technical. Westbrook reacted in utter disbelief, putting his hands over his face.

Donovan said it was “unintentional.”

Enes Kanter added 22 points, and Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams each had 18 for the Thunder.

The Thunder led by one after Kanter hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to beat the buzzer at the end of the third quarter. But they couldn’t sustain the momentum after erasing a double-digit deficit.

The Hornets took control with about six minutes left, outscoring the Thunder 22-11 the rest of the way.

Kemba Walker, who scored 34 and 37 points in his last two games while making an All-Star push, had nine points in the decisive final quarter. Frank Kaminsky carried the Hornets early, scoring all of 17 points in the first half as Charlotte took a 60-55 halftime lead.

TIP INS

Thunder: Had beaten the Hornets 11 straight times before Wednesday night. … Westbrook has 28 double-doubles on the season.

Hornets: Marco Belinelli returned to action after missing the last five games with a sprained left ankle. … Roy Hibbert was called for a technical foul in the third quarter after exchanging words with Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams.

A BETTER FINISH

Before the fourth quarter, the Hornets gathered together in a huddle making sure they were all on the same page heading down the stretch.

“The fourth quarter has been an issue for us defensively and we really wanted to play as well as we can,” Walker said. “We did a good job. We wanted to clamp down as best as we can. And we have to continue to be that way.”

DEFENDING WESTBROOK

Hornets coach Steve Clifford said he felt Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did a solid job defending Westbrook. Even though he had 33 points, Westbrook shot just 10 of 31 from the field.

“There weren’t a lot of easy (shots),” Clifford said. “I thought Mike played with great discipline and I thought our guys off the ball were great.”

Clifford called Westbrook “the MVP of our league right now.”

 

Reports: Phil Jackson attending Shaq statue ceremony, Magic Johnson missing it to scout UCLA-Kentucky

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The Lakers are formally unveiling Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside their arena tonight. Also tonight: UCLA-Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which features NBA prospects Lonzo Ball, Ike Anigbogu, T.J. Leaf, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.

That makes an interesting choice for the NBA’s two highest-profile team presidents – the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Knicks’ Phil Jackson (who coached Shaq in Los Angeles), both of whose teams are headed toward a high picks in the upcoming draft.

And the front-office heads are going different directions.

Arash Markazi of ESPN:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Watching a single game in person is unlikely to swing anything. Both Johnson and Jackson could send scouts to watch UCLA-Kentucky live and then the presidents could watch video later.

But attending in person is ideal, and there are already questions about Jackson’s work ethic. This will only fuel them.

If nothing else, this is an opportunity for Johnson, new on the job, to establish an image. He can clearly juxtapose himself with the failing Jackson and establish himself as a diligent alternative. The Lakers hired Johnson at least in part due to his high profile, but that needn’t stop him from grinding now that he has the position. Anyone doubting him would respect that.

Tyreke Evans: Giannis Antetokounmpo is like a taller me

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Giannis Antetokounmpo torched the Kings for 32 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals in the Bucks’ 18-point win Wednesday.

Afterward, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans paid the Greek Freak the ultimate compliment.

Sean Cunningham of ABC 10:

Do you see many players like Antetokounmpo? Evans:

Nah. He like me, but 6-7 – I mean like almost 6-8, 6-7, whatever height he is. He just long, athletic. He get to where he want to go. He got good handle for his size, and he athletic. Once he get around the rim, he can finish.

If only you were an inch taller? Evans:

That’d be a problem. I mean, it’s still a problem, I think, for me to get where I want. But just the athleticism he have and the way he get up off the ground – he got quick bounce. He pretty good at it.

Antetokounmpo is listed at 6-foot-11, Evans 6-foot-6.

This isn’t totally unreasonable. Make Evans five inches taller and add none of the dexterity awkwardness that tends to accompany growth, and he might look a lot like Antetokounmpo. Both are usually slotted at forward while possessing point-guard skills.

But Evans isn’t 6-foot-11, and most 6-foot-11 players can’t move like Antetokounmpo. That fluidity for his size is a big part of what makes Antetokounmpo special. If Evans grew up to be 6-foot-11, he likely would have developed a different skill set than he has now.

Antetokounmpo is the rare player with both the height of a big man and skills of a guard. Evans didn’t miss out on that just because his genes kept him from growing another five inches.

This discussion is also silly for another reason. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s 6-foot-1 and certain he’d be as good as Evans if only he were five inches taller.

Rumor: Blake Griffin increasingly believed to be open to leaving Clippers in free agency

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The Clippers were rumored to have already verbally agreed to terms with pending unrestricted free agents Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

But with formal contract extensions unviable, L.A. was always going to have to play out the season and hope those players remained committed into July.

There might be a hitch in that plan.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

That Griffin would also stay and reap the biggest payday he can seems likely, too—in theory. But more and more people around the league believe he would be open to a fresh start—perhaps with the Lakers or the Boston Celtics, who have coveted Griffin for years and would offer a new chance to win.

Does Ding have credible information to suggest Griffin could join the Lakers or Celtics, or is that just speculation on the writer’s part about potential fits? It’s unclear. This is already fairly loosely sourced.

But we should gather more information quickly once free agency begins. Griffin reportedly planned to re-sign quickly. If he shows the faintest hint of exploring the market, that could open the floodgates.

Griffin had been frequently linked to his home-state Thunder, but Oklahoma City would interfere with his burgeoning Hollywood connections.* The same issue would exist with Boston, though obviously not the Lakers. That said, the Celtics are WAY better than the Lakers – and maybe soon the Clippers and Thunder, considering those Nets picks headed to Boston.

*Oklahoma City also since nuked its cap space with contract extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo, though trades could always clear room if Griffin wants to come home.

The Clippers are in a bad place right now. One one hand, that forebodes another disappointing end to the season. On the other hand, there’s still time to overcome and send Griffin into free agency on a more positive note.

These are dangerous times for the Clippers, who wouldn’t have cap space to adequately replace Griffin, Paul or Redick if one leaves. So, if one bolts, the others seems more likely to follow. Interpersonal relationships matter, but the Clippers’ primary selling points were always going to be money and winning (with Hollywood proximity a bonus). Winning gets harder if talent walks.

They can still offer the most money, and they’re not leaving L.A. But the Clippers better win more to help avoid what could be a tenser-than-expected summer.

Suns use youngest starting lineup in NBA history

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The Suns have shut down their veterans or been shut down by their veterans with two goals in mind – developing young talent and tanking.

Incidentally, Phoenix also made history.

Against the Nets last night, the Suns started:

ESPN:

Elias on ESPN:

The previous youngest was the Clippers’ starting five consisting of guards Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon, forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Blake Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan, who averaged 21 years and 143 days old in a matchup with the Nets on November 15, 2010.

The young Suns gained quality experience – and helped their team to an important loss, 126-98 to Brooklyn.

Phoenix is still 1.5 games “behind” the Lakers for the No. 2 seed in the lottery, but the Suns are within striking distance in case the Lakers screw up and win too much down the stretch.