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Thunder’s Paul George prepares to face former team Wednesday

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Just four games into the season, Paul George has to face the team he just left under less than ideal circumstances.

During the offseason, George’s camp let it be known he planned to become a free agent after next season. The disappointed Pacers opted to trade the face of their franchise to Oklahoma City rather than play a season with a star they had no long-term future with and perhaps get nothing in return.

With the Pacers, George was a four-time All-Star and helped Indiana reach the Eastern Conference Finals twice. The Thunder host the Pacers on Wednesday night.

“It’ll be emotional from a standpoint of it’s an organization that I started with, had a wonderful journey with, that I had seven unbelievable years with,” George said.

George was especially close to Larry Bird, who was team president when the Pacers made him the 10th pick in the 2010 draft. George said he appreciated the time he spent with Bird, who has stepped down as president but remains with the franchise as a consultant.

“His stories, his knowledge of the game, talking with him through playoff battles and his understanding,” George said. “He’s a legend. Hall of Fame player, Hall of Fame across the whole board – executive, coach. It meant a lot as a young player coming into this league. I was grateful to have that time talking to him and sharing conversations.”

New Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony had to face his old team, the New York Knicks, in the season opener. He said he spoke with George during the preseason about facing their former teams so soon.

“If I sit here and say he’s not excited about that game tomorrow, I’d be lying to you,” Anthony said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said he expects George to handle the situation well.

“I’m sure that there’s things he’s going through, but he’s a pro,” Donovan said. “He’ll handle things how he sees fit to handle them. I think he’ll be fine.”

The Pacers got Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis from the Thunder in exchange for George. Oladipo is averaging 22.3 points per game. Donovan said Oladipo is in a good place because his athletic ability can be maximized in Indiana’s up-tempo style.

“The greatest Victor has always had in my opinion has been his energy,” Donovan said. “That’s the way it was in college. He’s worked exceptionally hard to develop his shooting, develop his ballhandling.”

Sabonis is averaging 12.3 points and nine rebounds.

George’s adjustment has been a mixed bag so far. He’s averaging 21.3 points, but he’s shooting just 37 percent from the field.

“The more of these games come around, the more I see teams play us, the more opportunities I see that are opening up. The game is different for me now, in an easier way that I’m not taking advantage of.”

 

Report: Seattle hosting Kings-Warriors preseason game

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Kevin Durant spent his rookie season in Seattle, before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He has said Seattle fans deserved to see him grow up in the NBA after supporting his promising start.

They’ll get their chance.

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

The Kings and Golden State Warriors have scheduled a preseason game next season in Seattle, according to multiple league sources.

The Oct. 6 meeting between Northern California teams will be the first NBA game in the Key Arena since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season and became the Thunder.

This game will be loaded with storylines. Not only Durant, but the Kings considered moving to Seattle a few years ago. And of course, the return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

At some point, Seattle will get its own team again. For now, this preseason game creates intrigue there.

Report: Kawhi Leonard cleared medically, seeking second opinion

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again this season, a stark reversal from just a month ago. Back then, even while announcing Leonard was out indefinitely with a quad injury, the San Antonio coach said Leonard wouldn’t miss the rest of the season.

What’s going on?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.

Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said.

The uncertainty surrounding this season — and Leonard’s future which could include free agency in the summer of 2019 — has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said.

At first glance, this sounds like Derrick Rose five years ago. Even after he was cleared to play following a torn ACL, the then-Bulls star remained mysterious about when he’d suit up. His confidence in his physical abilities seemed to be a major issue, and he was never the same player since (suffering more leg injuries).

But the Spurs famously favor resting players to preserve long-term health. They seem unlikely to rush back Leonard. They might even sit players who want to play more often. And Leonard isn’t Rose.

Still, it’s clear something is amiss in San Antonio. Maybe not amiss enough to end Leonard’s tenure there, but the longer this lingers, the more time for tension to percolate.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.