Kevin Durant was back and, while there were fits of rust, mostly showed reminders of why he has an MVP trophy on the mantle. It wasn’t just the 27 points on 18 shots, it was that signature effortless, polished scoring touch that has made KD one of the NBA’s biggest stars. That was back.
Durant and Russell Westbrook were back. The Thunder were supposed to be back.
But this movie didn’t follow the script the Thunder expected and frankly need — Oklahoma City lost to New Orleans 112-104.
Rather, this game was a reminder of what a mountain remains in front of OKC just to make the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference. The 5-13 Thunder will need to finish with at least 47 wins (the current pace of the eight-seed Phoenix Suns), and likely a little more. That means going at least 42-22 the rest of the way — a makable number, they had a higher winning percentage than that last season, but one that leaves little margin for error.
However, it’s going to be easy because the West is so deep with talent, which is what they were reminded Tuesday — going up against New Orleans is automatic win anymore. Not with Anthony Davis playing like he wants Durant’s MVP trophy. And it’s not just the Big Easy, there is no easy win in Sacramento or really any stop in the West.
Durant looked good for a guy who missed 17 games with the first significant injury of his career. His first play of the game he drained a three pointer. Over the course of the game he showed off his burst and handles that let him get to the rim and finish, he knocked down catch-and-shoot jumpers, and that Nowitzki-esque fadeaway jumper is back too.
Which is good — for the Thunder, and just for fans of basketball. There are few more compelling players in the league. Few guys are just a joy to watch like KD.
But he and the Thunder can’t afford the moral victories of just being back anymore. They need actual victories to get their goal of making the playoffs out West.
As I watched this play start to develop, as Stephen Curry was bringing the ball up the court, I had no doubt in my mind he was going to take and make a three. He’s that cold blooded.
He’s that clutch.
The Warriors have now won 10 in a row but surprisingly were down nine with just over four minutes left to visiting Orlando. Then Curry and Klay Thompson got hot. They hit three quick threes and we had a game. Tobias Harris hit a key shot late to put Orlando up two late.
But it was Harris who made the mistake of not running Curry off the three-point line with the game in the balance. Curry’s going to shoot, but don’t let him pull up and beat you with a three.
Because he will. He’s that cold blooded.
Washington improved to a second best in the East 11-5 Monday night after a comfortable, impressive win over the Miami Heat. After the game Washington coach Randy Wittman said it was the best his team has played all year, Rasual Butler was scoring and John Wall was doing a little bit of everything.
So just how good are the Wizards?
Chris Bosh has had a front row seat for some pretty good teams the past couple seasons, plus he got a good look at the Wizards up close Monday — and he likes what he sees, he told Ben Standig of CSNWashington.com.
“Whether it’s the schemes, whether it’s one-on-one, they picked us apart. This is a team that has a steady menu of everything. They’ve got cross screens, they’ve got duck-ins, they’ve got pin downs. They’ve got high screens. …It’s tough. We knew that.”
So where does he see the Wizards moving up the Eastern Conference pecking order? Too early to say.
“You don’t know how a team is mentally until they’re doing extremely bad,” Bosh said following Monday’s game when I asked about the Wizards’ mental toughness this season. “That’s when you find things out. They probably won’t find that about themselves until the playoffs, when they’re down [and] see if they can recover.”
Bosh is right. He’s been there before and gets it, it takes some adversity and testing for teams to truly find themselves. The Wizards are still trying to figure some of that out.
But what should really concern Bosh is the Wizards are a better team than Miami right now. Tested or not.
People care about whether LeBron James throws chalk into the air pregame. They just do. In the past week at PBT the story that LeBron has stopped doing the pregame ritual is the sixth most viewed story on this site. It’s become part of his iconography. People care.
LeBron knows they care — before the season he asked fans on twitter if he should resume the ritual. Fans overwhelmingly voted yes.
LeBron hasn’t done the chalk toss in at least four games, but he wants you to know he hasn’t abandoned the ritual. Apparently it’s just on hiatus, taking a winter break like some network television series during the holidays. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN:
LeBron also said he’s just confused as to why there is such “a fuss” about this and how it became a story in the first place.
Why? Explaining the move’s popularity is like explaining why cat videos own YouTube. People gravitate toward that and nobody really accurately explains the taste of some segments of the American public.
But LeBron, you helped feed this.
You asked fans before the season if you should start doing it again, they said yes. They wanted to see it. Then you stopped. The Cavs have played their best ball the last few games, maybe LeBron is just respecting the streak. Fans can get behind that.
But you helped fuel this, Nike helped fuel this, don’t pretend you’re shocked it’s a story.
There was no intent to injure in that play, Denver’s Arron Afflalo was trying to make a play on the ball. But intent only goes so far — he hit the head hard of an airborne player, Utah’s Alec Burks. That is a dangerous play. Fortunately Burks was okay and continued playing, but Afflalo was rightfully ejected from the game for it.
Tuesday the NBA added a $15,000 fine for the foul.
There was no suspension, which seems fair based on the intent. After the game Afflalo said:
“I’m not trying to be a tough guy, not trying to commit a hard foul. Things that ensue after that is all verbal in front of the refs and a lot of people. To me that means nothing. Honestly I just thought I committed a hard foul and he finished the game so he was OK.”
It was a hard foul. And also a dangerous one. The play may not have been dirty but there is a price to pay for the Nuggets guard. He knows it.