NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Thunder_crowd.jpgLast season: 50-32, which tied them three ways for the sixth seed, but due to tiebreakers they got the eighth spot — and the Lakers in the first round. The athleticism of the Thunder pushed it six games, but you have to learn to win in the NBA and the Thunder are still learning.

Head Coach: Scott Brooks, who has formed a real connection with his young team.

Key Departures: None (because as much as you consider Etan Thomas “key” I do not)

Key Additions:
They locked up Kevin Durant for five years at the max. Put the meaningless comparisons to LeBron’s summer aside and realize that this was one of the biggest moves of the entire summer. Maybe the biggest.

Also, brought in were Daequan Cook, Mo Peterson and draft pick Cole Aldrich. So basically not a lot in terms if key minutes. Maybe the best pickup was a swap to get a future Clipper first rounder (if it’s lottery protected they should see it around 2020).

Best case scenario: They take the next step forward, get home court in the first round (at least) and win a series or two in the playoffs. A Western Conference finals series against the Lakers is the ultimate dream.

For that to happen: Kevin Durant has to continue to be THE Kevin Durant, they have to play better team defense, they have to continue to see growth and improvement out of their young core, and they have to stay healthy.

Yes, you can say “they have to stay healthy” about all 30 teams, but what went largely unnoticed last year was the Thunder were one of the healthiest teams in the league. Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha all played 82 games. James Harden and Nenad Krstic missed just six games each. Nick Collison missed seven, Serge Ibaka nine. Basically, none of the Thunder core had a serious injury last season. That is rare in the NBA (just ask the other young power in the West up in Portland).

As for Durant, if you watched him in the FIBA World Championships this summer you have no doubt he will be THE Kevin Durant again. That may have less to do with scoring more or being a much better player — he is already getting mentioned in the Kobe/LeBron sentences — than it is about public perception. Durant is exploding on the scene, moving from the guy all the basketball fans rave about to a guy the average fan tunes in to watch.

I’ve written this story before but I’ll do it one more time for our many new readers: At a late-season Clippers/Thunder matchup last season I was seated next to a couple of advanced scouts, both whose teams had upcoming games against the Thunder. Three times during that game Durant did something that left these two guys — whose job it is to watch and break down games for a living — looking at each other and just shaking their head. At one point one said, “How the (expletive) are we supposed to stop that?” If you can do that to the most jaded, you are special.

What really matters for the Thunder is continued improvement and defense.

The Thunder were ninth in defensive efficiency in the league last season, not bad but something they can improve on. That starts with Ibaka — he has become the team’s go-to shot blocker and they need someone to protect the rim (every team needs that in today’s NBA). Cole Aldrich may also help in that role, but he is more of a project than a guy playing huge, key minutes this season. Ibaka comes off the bench and may not supplant Krstic as the starter, but look for him to close out more games when the Thunder need defensive stops.

Also, as the season wore on the Thunder’s defense seemed to improve, they seemed to better use their athleticism to disrupt, create turnovers then turn that into easy (sometimes spectacular) points going the other direction.

The other big question is: Can Westbrook and Green and Ibaka and James Harden and the rest of the core all continue to take steps forward. Last season all showed dramatic improvement in their games, fueling the Thunder. If you project them on that same arc, they become a force

Westbrook has become elite in dishing out assists, but can he cut his turnover rate (16.6) down this season. More importantly, can he become more of a scoring threat. Yes, that is an odd thing to say about a guy who put up 16.1 points per game, but he was not efficient where it matters — he shot just 22 percent on threes and finished just 52.7 percent of his shots at the rim (that’s layups, dunks and the like). Those are both very low numbers. Westbrook can get in the lane seemingly at will, but he has to finish better in there to take the next step forward. His quickness also affords him open threes, he has to hit more.

You can say the same kinds of things up and down the Thunder roster. Everyone has things they need to improve on if this team is to continue its assent.

More likely the Thunder will: Be close to last year’s Thunder. Understand that not taking a step back — not having a big sophomore slump — really would be s sign of improvement. But to expect everyone to stay healthy all season and for all the players to keep improving at an exponential rate may be asking too much. Some will improve, some will stay flat, and GM Sam Presti will have a better idea what tweaks need to be made.

What really matters more than anything is that the professionalism and intensity that characterized the young Thunder locker room remains. That is what ultimately will take them where they want to go.

Prediction: 50 wins, which if it gets them anyone but the Lakers in the first round will lead to a first round upset and a trip deeper into the playoffs. You have to learn how to win at the NBA level and the Thunder are learning that. It may be another year or two before those lessons really bear fruit, but they are being learned. Durant is taking them to heart, you can be sure.

LeBron James’ Lakers edge Dwyane Wade’s Heat in final meeting

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James scored 28 points and the Los Angeles Lakers survived Dwyane Wade‘s 15-point performance in the second half of the superstars’ probable final on-court meeting for a 108-105 victory over the Miami Heat on Monday night.

The game appropriately ended with James guarding Wade, who missed a difficult 3-point attempt in the waning seconds. After the buzzer sounded, and they shared a hug and a chat to close perhaps the final joint chapter of two careers that have intersected repeatedly since they entered the NBA together in 2003.

Wade and James teamed up with the Heat in 2010 to win two championships while reaching four consecutive NBA Finals, and they spent half of last season together in Cleveland.

Wade intends to retire after this season, and Staples Center sent him out of Los Angeles in style with multiple standing ovations and a tribute video in the first quarter.

James and Wade both missed big shots down the stretch, but James hit two free throws with 22.5 seconds left to stretch the Lakers’ lead to three points.

Kyle Kuzma scored 33 points for the Lakers, who have won 13 of 17 overall and five straight at home.

Justise Winslow scored a career-high 28 points for Miami, hitting six 3-pointers in the third stop on the Heat’s six-game road trip.

Wade’s wife, Gabrielle Union, was among the fans at courtside as the high-scoring guard played 32 minutes. Wade went 0 for 5 in a scoreless first half, but still had six assists.

He got rolling in the third quarter with eight points in a flurry that recalled his heyday, and he kept up the pressure in the fourth while finishing with 10 assists and five rebounds.

Marcus Morris scores 31, leads depleted Celtics past Pelicans 113-100

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BOSTON (AP) — Kyrie Irving‘s shoulder wasn’t sore enough to keep him from cheering for Marcus Morris Sr. when he hit three 3-pointers to start the second half and propel Boston to a double-digit lead.

Al Horford‘s injured knee didn’t keep him from leaping to his feet when Jayson Tatum drove past Anthony Davis for a dunk.

With four of their regulars relegated to cheerleaders, the Celtics got a season-high 31 points from Morris and another 21 from Tatum to beat New Orleans 113-100 on Monday night for their sixth straight victory.

“The first thing was be a leader,” Morris said. “We had a lot of guys down … and keep trying to play the right way with the guys out there.”

Anthony Davis scored 41 points and Julius Randle had 20 points and 11 rebounds for New Orleans, which was playing back-to-back games after beating the Pistons in Detroit on Sunday. But Davis also had two shots blocked by Celtics rookie Robert Williams III.

“He had 41,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “I think everybody has gotten their shot blocked at one time or another.”

Jaylen Brown scored 19 for Boston, which was also without Gordon Hayward and Aron Baynes. Williams, in the longest appearance of his career, had career highs of seven points and 11 rebounds, while picking up three blocked shots – two on Davis.

“Well, he held him to 41,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens joked. “I thought Robert did a lot of good things. When you’re shooting jumpers and Robert’s in the vicinity, you feel him.”

The Celtics scored nine straight points in the last four minutes of the first quarter to take a lead they would never relinquish. They led 59-53 at the half before Morris hit three 3s – one from the left corner, one from the right wing and one from the top of the key – to make it 68-55.

New Orleans never got closer than nine points after that.

 

Lakers fans give Dwyane Wade standing ovation; check out L.A. tribute video

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Lakers fans take a lot of abuse from other fan bases, some of it well deserved, but the core fans know the game.

And they know how much Dwyane Wade has meant to it.

Which is why they gave him a standing ovation when he checked into the game Monday night in Los Angeles.

The Lakers also put together a tribute video that played in the arena.

Classy move, Lakers. Well done.

Pacers’ Myles Turner shuts down Bradley Beal at the rim (VIDEO)

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Myles Turner owned the paint in the first half — the Pacers’ center had five blocked shots in the first 24 minutes.

The big shut down was on Bradley Beal, this is how a big man recovers and goes after it.

Then later there was this play leading to a bucket on the other end.

Turner has had a strong defensive season in the paint so far for the Pacers, a big step for him. He’s sixth among centers in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus stat (which has its flaws but is a good snapshot).

Washington learned that the hard way.