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Three Things to Know: Thunder win third straight, are they figuring it out?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Thunder come from behind to win third straight, are they turning a corner?
This was the kind of game playoff teams — and teams that believe they are top four seed in the West — win. Put more directly, it was the kind of game the Thunder should win. Oklahoma City was rested, and while Utah had won six straight it was coming in on the second night of a back-to-back. The Jazz play as a unit and get as much out of their roster as coach Quin Snyder can squeeze, but the Thunder have way more talent.

Yet at the end of three quarters, Utah was up by 12.

This is the kind of game the Thunder have lost all season but not on Tuesday, coming back to win 100-94. What turned it around for OKC was elite defense and Russell Westbrook — a combination the Thunder can ride into the playoffs. Maybe deep into the playoffs.

The Jazz scored 12 points on 30 percent shooting in the fourth, going 1-of-8 from three. Part of that was tired legs on the back-to-back — Joe Ingles has been nailing threes all night, and suddenly his shots were short and hitting the front rim — but part of it was a more aggressive Thunder defense. OKC had been on its heels in the first half (in part due to a lot of turnovers) but now was pressuring Jazz shooters and taking away easy buckets.

Westbrook had dominated the third quarter and finished the night with his seventh triple-double of the season — 34 points, 13 rebounds, 14 assists — but in the fourth he got help from his fellow stars and deferred to them. Carmelo Anthony entered the fourth shooting 2-of-13 but hit 4-of-6 in that final frame, while George hit 3-of-4 and found his rhythm in the quarter. Steven Adams was a beast in the paint all night and finished with 20 points and six offensive rebounds, and he outplayed Rudy Gobert (who was back but clearly not yet himself again) down the stretch.

This is three straight wins in close games for the Thunder. We can pick those games apart — Minnesota doesn’t play defense, San Antonio was without Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and Utah was on a back-to-back — these are the kinds of games the Thunder were not winning before. It feels like this team is starting to turn the corner into becoming what we expected of them, and with a fairly soft schedule coming up they can build on these wins at home and turn their season around.

They have found a combination that works — defense and Westbrook. Now they just have to bring it nightly, and play better down the stretch, like they did against the Jazz.

2) Stephen Curry out for a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle. When it happened, it was the kind of injury that made everyone wince — it was nasty. Curry stepped on the foot of E'Twaun Moore while going for a steal and… ouch

The good news is the X-rays and MRI showed no structural damage, but his ankle is so swollen that he is going to miss some time.

Golden State is the one team in the NBA that can lose a recent MVP and keep on winning — more Kevin Durant with the ball is a good thing. Shaun Livingston will sub in nicely (with Patrick McCaw behind him). The Warriors just can’t coast like they have been doing — not playing hard got them into overtime against the Lakers, down 20 at the half against the Pelicans — but a focused Warriors team is going to keep winning, Curry or no.

 

3) Bradley Beal dropped career-high 51 points on Portland. The Trail Blazers, surprisingly, have been one of the NBA’s better defensive teams all season, fourth best in the NBA allowing just 100.8 points per 100 possessions.

But Tuesday night they had no answer for Bradley Beal.

The Wizards two guard, playing at an All-Star level all season, scored 51 points on 21-of-37 shooting, doing a lot of his damage getting to the rim (6-of-9 there) and from the midrange where he was 8-of-12. Beal put on a show, and a Wizards team that has not played hard and respected every opponent this season did so on the road in Portland and got the 106-92 win.

Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis still not talking off court

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The Bulls are 5-0 since Nikola Mirotic returned from an injury suffered when Bobby Portis punched him in the face during a preseason practice. Mirotic and Portis are both excelling individually, and Chicago has outscored opponents by a whopping 34.3 points per 100 possessions when those two share the court.

Jack Maloney of CBSSports.com:

When asked if the two former combatants have spoken yet, Mirotic said, “We did on the floor. We’ve always spoken because we need to have good communication.” As for whether they’ve talked off the floor, however, Mirotic was succinct in his response: “No.”

I guess Mirotic hasn’t completely moved on, though he said he did. But that’s fine. How could someone get past a teammate punching him in the face?

Importantly, this is becoming just a regular NBA problem. The extent of that practice punch was practically unprecedented. But plenty of players have loathed teammates while making it work on the court. That happens more than people realize.

Mirotic and Portis can make this their status quo – at least the on-court cooperation. I’m not convinced Chicago will keep winning like this.

Watch Kobe Bryant’s ‘Dear Basketball’ short film (video)

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Kobe Bryant announced his retirement in a letter called “Dear Basketball,” which was made into a short film.

Now, on the day the Lakers retire his Nos. 8 and 24, you can watch it. It’s quite beautiful:

Double number retirement fitting for Kobe Bryant

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Kobe Bryant’s career truly occurred in two acts.

He was Shaquille O’Neal’s super sidekick for three championships. Then, Kobe led the Lakers to another two titles himself after Shaq departed.

He was an athletic, high-flying slam-dunk-contest champion. Then, he became known for his cerebral play and footwork.

He faced trial for rape in Colorado (the case was ultimately dismissed, and he settled civilly), blame for Shaq getting traded and criticism for being too selfish when the Lakers struggled in the aftermath of Shaq’s departure. Then, Kobe – still beloved by his fans – again became a socially acceptable marketing force.

His 2007 trade request serves as the more accurate intermission point, but his 2006 jersey change from No. 8 to No. 24 works well enough. He had a Hall of Fame career in No. 8 then a borderline Hall of Fame career in No. 24. Think Tracy Mcgrady’s career followed by Bernard King’s – but it was just Kobe followed by Kobe and with far more postseason success.

Here are the win-share leaders with a single franchise during Kobe’s career:

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So much about Kobe is excessive – his accolades, his shot selection, his reputation as clutch. He had an all-time great career, but the myth outpaces reality.

Yet, Kobe becoming the first player with two numbers retired by the same team – which the Lakers will do at halftime tonight – feels incredibly appropriate. In his 20-year career with the Lakers, Kobe had time to succeed then succeed again in an extravagant way only he could manage.

He was dedicated and disciplined, flashy and fastidious, No. 8 and No. 24

Warriors will watch Kobe Bryant’s numbers get retired, Lakers might not

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The Lakers will retire Kobe Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24 at halftime of their game against Warriors tonight.

The road team won’t miss it. The home team might.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr, via Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“I want our guys to see it,” Kerr said Saturday. “It’ll be a pretty cool moment.

“Just to experience of one of the greatest players in the history of the game getting his jersey retired and we happen to be there? I’m not going to keep them in the locker room watching tape from the first half. The players would look at me like I was nuts.”

Lakers coach Luke Walton, via Harrison Faigen of Lakers Nation:

“I hadn’t thought much about [watching the ceremony],” Walton said Sunday. “We’re still deciding how we’ll approach halftime.

“Our first priority is still the job that we have. I’m sure there’s going to be some halftime adjustments we need to make against the Warriors. We’re toying with a couple different ideas to let guys at least see part of it.”

Kerr seems like a pretty cool guy, someone who understands what truly matters. This will be a historic moment, and that can take priority over watching video for one night in a long season.

But he also has the luxury of coaching an all-time great team. Even with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia and Shaun Livingston injured, the Warriors are favored.

Walton has a young team that needs every break it can get. But he too should embrace the significance of the ceremony. His franchise is.

After reportedly initially being scheduled for pregame, the ceremony will occur at halftime. The NBA implemented a hard 15-minute limit on halftimes this season. Any team not ready will be assessed a delay-of-game penalty. So, lengthy speeches tonight could hinder the current team on the court. And that’s well worth the cost of doing business.

In the same regard, current Lakers watching Kobe’s ceremony would gain pride in being a Laker. There’s real value in that, probably more than in going over adjustments for a December game during a season very likely to end outside the playoffs regardless.