Kurt Helin

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on prior to Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, 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)

Russell Westbrook on what Thunder need to improve: “Mental toughness”

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The Oklahoma City Thunder played a brilliant series against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. It was the toughest test the defending champions have faced in their two-season run. By far.

Yet there is a narrative that the Thunder choked, something even Jason Terry said on his new show on SiriusXM NBA Radio.

“In that type of situation, late game situations, yeah, you choked.  I mean, let’s just be honest.  I mean, those are my guys and I’m going to tell you that first hand but, yeah, they choked.  And the thing about it is, it’s bad habits.  I mean, these are the same type of habits they had throughout the season when they gave up a historic number of fourth-quarter comebacks they allowed to happen.  It came back and bit them again in that series.”

To me, “choked” is too strong a word and discounts the superhuman effort and shotmaking of Klay Thompson in Game 6 — if he’s not hitting every ridiculous shot he throws up the Thunder do win. That said, the Thunder did revert to bad habits — they tried to run the clock down and started plays with not enough time to get to second options, and they ran too much isolation. They became defendable. That opened the door.

Russell Westbrook owned up to that in his exit interview. He was asked what the Thunder need to do to improve for next season in his exit interview and gave an honest answer, as reported by The Oklahoman.

“Mental toughness,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten very, very well at that point, but I think to make the next step, we have to constantly do that throughout the whole season, not just late in the playoffs, because I thought we turned the page when it got to this time of year, but I think if we constantly keep that from start to finish, it makes it easier for us in certain situations.”

He’s right. And how the series against Golden State ended may help teach the Thunder that lesson.

The Thunder are legitimate contenders to win the NBA title next season. Providing they can keep Kevin Durant. But painful losses on the doorstep can sear lessons into teams — think 2014 San Antonio Spurs, coming off that loss to Miami in the Finals (and the Ray Allen shot). That could be the Warriors next season.

James Harden doesn’t know why he didn’t make All-NBA Team

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 13:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets runs upcourt during the first half of a game  against the Sacramento Kings at the Toyota Center on April 13, 2016 in Houston, Texas. 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 Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Generally speaking, if you put up numbers 29 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.1 rebounds per game, you are going to make one of the All-NBA teams.

Not James Harden. Not this season.

And he doesn’t get it, as Harden told Jason Terry on the latter’s new show on SiriusXM NBA Radio.

“I mean, there’s no answer for me. I don’t know. That’s something that I’ve been thinking about…

“But like I said, man, you know, it wasn’t a good year.”

Harden certainly put up numbers, and the Rockets did slip into the playoffs on the final night of the season, but the team was a disappointment from opening day — remember they started 0-3 and all the losses were by at least 20 points — and Harden was a big part of that.

He didn’t show up to training camp in shape and ready, he was inconsistent, and over the course of a full season the Rockets followed that lead. Also, while Harden scored a lot, his defense slid back into atrocious old habits. Harden had improved as a defender two seasons ago — not great, but better and playing within the team concept — but that went out the window this season. All of it got Kevin McHale fired (that and Harden didn’t like him), but the slow start wasn’t on the coach. The Rockets won 15 fewer games than the season before, and Harden needs to accept the blame for a lot of that.

Which is why he didn’t make the All-NBA Teams. He came close, but he finished behind guys such as Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry in the voting for guards, in part because their teams exceeded expectations and the Rockets did the opposite.

Maybe next season under Mike D’Antoni — and with Dwight Howard playing elsewhere — things will change for Harden next season.

NBA world reacts to passing of Muhammad Ali

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He was the greatest.

A legend in the ring and a man who stood up for what he believed outside of it, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. He was a transcendent figure in sports, and someone beloved and admired by those around the NBA, as he was by people worldwide.

“Muhammad Ali transcended sports with his outsized personality and dedication to civil rights and social justice,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Friday in a statement. “He was an inspirational presence at several major NBA events and was deeply admired by so many throughout the league. While we are deeply saddened by his loss, Muhammad Ali’s legacy lives on in every athlete who takes a stand for what he or she believes.”

Numerous NBA players chimed in as well.

LeBron James said this to ESPN’s Chris Broussard not long before Ali passed away.

“It’s what he did outside of the ring, what he believed in, what he stood for, along with Jim Brown and Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor — obviously who became Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] — Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson. Those guys stood for something. He’s part of the reason why African-Americans today can do what we do in the sports world. We’re free. They allow us to have access to anything we want. It’s because of what they stood for, and Muhammad Ali was definitely the pioneer for that….

“People forget what you did as a professional. People forget the championships and all the other things you were able to accomplish. But they will never forget how you made them feel. That’s a Maya Angelou quote, but I’ll transcend that into what Muhammad Ali was able to do. So it’s very important.”

Was one of the most special moments of my life. R.I.P to the one and only @muhammadali #GOAT #hislegacylivesforever

A photo posted by Karl-Anthony Towns (@karltowns) on

RIP ALI the most high. Striving to be like you.

A photo posted by Jabari Parker (@jabariparker) on

Livingston, close-knit band of backups bring best in Game 1

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 02:  Shaun Livingston #34 of the Golden State Warriors runs through the tunnel after the Warriors 104-89 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 2, 2016 in Oakland, 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Shaun Livingston put up nearly 100 free throws at the end of Friday’s NBA Finals practice, and that is somewhere around his norm.

Cleveland might have built the most expensive roster in the NBA. Way out West, Golden State developed arguably the league’s deepest and best bench with a group of hard-nosed guys like Livingston eager to take the pressure off starters Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green whenever their names are called.

Or downright outplay the first unit when necessary on the biggest stage.

This close-knit band of backups regularly discusses how dependable they must be, telling each other to stay ready for any role.

“When you see a guy down, you make sure you pick him up and when you see a guy up make sure you keep him level-headed because, you never know what’s going to be next in this game,” Marreese Speights said Friday. “When we’re at the gym, it’s, `Come on, let’s go get some shots,’ or hanging out on the road we sit down and talk about it, `We need each and every one of these players on this team to win another championship.’ Lunch, dinner, brunch, all that, we talk.”

The reliable reserves did just that in a 104-89 Game 1 Finals win Thursday night, and the Cavaliers have to be at least a little bit concerned going into Sunday’s Game 2 knowing the Splash Brothers of Curry and Thompson will start sinking shots again soon enough.

Livingston played nearly 27 minutes in the opener of the rematch with his former Cleveland team and made 8 of 10 shots on the way to a postseason career-best 20 points.

Leandro Barbosa made all five of his shots for 11 points and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala contributed 12 points, seven rebounds, six assists.

“We’re not coming in to just give guys rest. We’re coming in to be productive and make plays and make things happen. It’s all about the mindset,” Livingston said. “It feels good to come out of a game like that when our stars don’t have it going and we still get the win. We believe in each other, and anybody can step up.”

Back to the drawing board for LeBron James and the Cavs to stop Golden State’s bench.

Livingston is the one who nine years ago nearly needed his left leg amputated after a gruesome knee injury. His comeback from that frightening 2007 fall suffered while with the Clippers has inspired Coach of the Year Steve Kerr.

Going for a layup, the guard’s leg buckled backward, parallel to the court, when he fell in a freak accident. He screamed and writhed in agony.

Livingston tore three major ligaments in his knee – the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral as well as his lateral meniscus, then required extensive surgery.

It was during his time with Cleveland at the end of the 2012-13 season that Livingston began to truly trust his body again. It was a long road emotionally and physically to reach that point, so much so that Livingston said it was “almost like I was a retired player.”

Now, he’s on the court at Oracle Arena all smiles and gearing up for more in Game 2 when he gets his chance. Free throw after free throw.

“Shaun shoots the most. That’s how he keeps his rhythm,” Kerr said. “I think part of that is his injury history. He can’t afford to put a lot of wear and tear on his legs by shooting a ton of jump shots, so he shoots a ton of free throws.”

Livingston already proved his reliability this postseason when he stepped in for Curry as the MVP dealt with ankle and knee injuries that sidelined him for six games.

The 30-year-old Livingston scored 16 points in each of his three starts in place of Curry during Golden State’s 4-1 first-round series win against the Houston Rockets.

“Shaun’s a guy who has battled through much more than having to step up in a game. He’s been from the top to the bottom and back,” Green said.

Sure, Cleveland fell behind 1-0 in last year’s Finals after an overtime defeat in the opener, yet these record-setting Warriors believe they are far better equipped for the Finals stage the second time around.

Even with the superstars out of sync, Golden State took care of the ball – committing only nine turnovers – and played solid defense.

Those are the little things Kerr has been stressing all along as what it would take to capture another championship.

“Look, our two main scorers, every now and then, very, very rarely, are going to have a game like this, but it’s up to other guys to carry the load and step up and make shots,” center Andrew Bogut said, “and numerous different guys can do that.”

NOTES: Kerr has a small cut on his right pinkie from his clipboard chop Thursday, his third broken white board of the season for those counting. No medical treatment needed. “I just gutted it out,” he said. “I coached on heart the rest of the way.”

Tyronn Lue’s Game 2 plan: Play faster, move ball better, but no major changes

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 02:  Head coach Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers claps in the first half while taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 2, 2016 in Oakland, 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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OAKLAND — Cleveland’s lineups in Game 1 where LeBron James, Kevin Love, or Channing Frye were the center were -13 on the night. Those lineups struggled to score and had a hard time getting consistent stops against the ball movement of the Warriors.

So what is Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue changing up for Game 2?

“I don’t see a reason for change,” Lue said Friday. “I think the way they play defense, they switch 1 through 5, and it makes you play one-on-one basketball. So your movement with floppy stuff coming off of pin-downs, they just switch out and try to deny those passes. And then you’ve got to post Kevin, you’ve got to post LeBron against those mismatches. So I don’t see any reason for change. We’ve just got to convert.”

That was the theme of the day for the Cavaliers — they think their defense did a good enough job holding the Splash Brothers and Warriors in general in check, they just need to knock down their shots. And get better ones by playing faster and moving the ball more.

“I just told LeBron I need him to play faster,” Lue said. “I need him to pick up the pace for us offensively, getting the ball out and just beginning to play faster….

“Pace, so we can get up the floor and get guys open shots in transition like J.R. (Smith) and Kevin and Channing and those guys. But I think the floor’s more open when you’re able to play with pace and LeBron and Kyrie (Irving) can get downhill. Ball movement, we’re running our sets. When you’re switching 1 through 5, it makes you stagnant. It makes you play one-on-one. So the best thing you can do is try to get the matchup you want and try to explore it.”

If Cleveland trying to play faster seems counterintuitive to you, you’re not alone.

If you watched the game and thought Cleveland’s defense looked scattered, and not used to having to stay sharp for 24 seconds of ball movement and passing, you’re not alone. Did Cleveland’s defense make the Warriors look uncomfortable or rushed at any point?

I’m not sure more of the same is the answer for what ails Cleveland. That said, making drastic changes after one game or moving away from your identity is not wise either.

Lue is not wrong — the Warriors smooth defensive switching threw off the Cavaliers offense because Cleveland stopped the ball, tried to isolate the mismatch, then pounded the ball and became predictable. That can’t happen, and they know it.

“You know, when you’re out there and they’re switching and you have a one-on-one matchup, I think quick moves and not holding it as long is good,” LeBron said. “I think when you keep the ball on one side for too long and you’re pounding and pounding and pounding, then that can — too much of that won’t result in good basketball. It won’t result in good rhythm for everyone out on the floor. So there is a fine line. I’m okay with us having some isolation basketball if we’re going quick.”

As it was Thursday night after the loss, this was not a downtrodden Cavaliers team — they believe they could have won Game 1 if they had just made the shots they usually make.

“I’m not discouraged at all,” LeBron said. “I understand we had our opportunities. We played some good basketball for 36 minutes, and the fourth quarter got away from us. We definitely missed some really easy looks. Some looks that we’re accustomed to making that we’ve made all year long. But not discouraged in the fact that we were able to get into the paint, get where we want to go, but we’ve got to be able to knock them home.”

Shooting better from three and in the paint will help.

Will it be enough is another question.