Game of the Night: Bulls get reminder Kevin Durant and friends are good

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Damn. This was so much more fun to watch than the slog that was Miami and Boston the night before. Wednesday night in Oklahoma City wasn’t perfect — it looked like an opener with some poor decisions because players are not used to the speed of the game — but it was exciting and athletic.

And by the way, the Thunder are really good. That’s why they won 106-95.

This game was fast — 11 more possessions per team than last night’s big dirge in Boston — and that means we had athletes in the open court. That is fun. It also was one of the problems Chicago faced on the night — they needed to run and get some easy transition offense with Boozer out, but they don’t really have the horses to run with the Thunder.

You can bet Tom Thibodeau will bring up the words “transition defense” in the next film session. And likely not in a nurturing and caring way. But it’s not that simple — did you see the late game break by the Thunder where three quick touch passes led to a Westbrook dunk-and-one? Few teams can do that. Fewer still can defend it.

That Westbrook flush was part of the last five minutes of a game where the Thunder just found another gear the Bulls did not have and went on a 9-0 run to pull away.

That last sentence — about the other gear in the closing minutes — is the kind of thing people have said about the Lakers for years. And the Celtics. And the Spurs. And all the great teams dating back to Magic and Bird, and probably before them. That closing kick, that’s what great teams have. That the Thunder broke it out opening night is a good sign of things to come. A very good sign.

The other thing the Thunder did right was attack the basket. Oklahoma City shot 25 more free throws on the night. (Somewhere in Chicago a fan is complaining about the call disparity, but this wasn’t the refs it was about who attacked and who tried to draw contact, and who shied away from it for the most part.) Foul shots were key to how Durant had 30 points and Westbrook added 28 (combined they shot 32 free throws on the night).

Chicago, looked good, but without Carlos Boozer in the lineup they have nobody who can create offense outside Derrick Rose. So the Bulls would run some flex action or whatever the offensive set called for was, then eventually Rose would call out a high pick and then off of it he’d attack. He had to create and score because nobody else on the team did it consistently.

Rose started 6-of-8 from the floor, but then hit 6 of his next 23. The Thunder are and active and long defensive team, they do that to a lot of people. You sense Rose will be able to do more once he has Boozer in the lineup — Noah and Deng are nice players, but they are not the roll men that Boozer is. Taj Gibson is quality but his midrange game is not.

Chicago is going to get better. They are going to get used to Thibodeau’s defense, they will get used to the pace. They will get Boozer back. If they can hold it until then they will be good.

The Thunder are already there. And they have the closing kick to do it.

Dwight Howard reportedly to return to Washington D.C., start on-court steps in recovery

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The return of Dwight Howard should solve all the Wizards problems…

Low hanging fruit jokes aside, Howard was expected to be out two-to-three months for back surgery that happened at the end of November, that would have him back in the coming weeks, and he is now on his way back to the nation’s capital, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Howard played in nine games for the Wizards this season, scoring an efficient 12.8 points and grabbing 9.2 rebounds a game.

The Wizards have been starting Thomas Bryant, with Bobby Portis playing some five behind him, in recent games. How Howard fits into that when healthy will be a question for coach Scott Brooks.

The Wizards would need to make up three games and jump three teams in the final 24 games of the season to make the playoffs.

Surprise: Emanuel Terry joins Heat, not Team USA as planned

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MIAMI (AP) — Emanuel Terry’s plans to play for his country this weekend have been thwarted, for a very good reason.

He’s back in the NBA instead.

Terry was signed to a 10-day contract Wednesday by the Miami Heat, who made the move after he spent a few days with USA Basketball in its training camp at the University of Miami this week. So instead of playing Panama on Friday and Argentina on Monday in the last games of qualifying for the FIBA World Cup, Terry will be with the Sioux Falls Skyforce for a G League game in Long Island on Thursday and then with the Heat this weekend.

Terry got told of the move just before Team USA broke camp in Miami. He says he’s “had dreams about this.”

Terry averaged 4.5 points in two games with Phoenix earlier this season.

Team USA has already won enough games to qualify for the World Championships in China this summer.

Joel Embiid out week with left knee soreness, no structural damage found

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What the Philadelphia 76ers need is time on the court to get all their new players used to each other, their rotations set, and just to find a way to get the most talented starting five in the East to gel before the playoffs start. They have 24 games to make it happen.

This does not help that cause.

The Sixers announced Joel Embiid will miss at least a week to get treatment on a sore left knee, the team announced. Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia has the details.

Embiid felt some soreness and was getting treatment before the All-Star break but did not miss games.

Obviously, what matters most is Embiid being healthy in the postseason, so rest now is better than the alternative.

But this is still not ideal. Especially as the Sixers try to make up a game and climb past the Pacers to ensure home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Through four games (73 total minutes) the new starting lineup of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Embiid has been a force — a 116.5 offensive rating and a 91.9 defensive rating. Small sample size theater is at play here, things have not always looked completely smooth to the eye test (see the loss to Boston), and both Butler and Embiid have chaffed against coach Brett Brown’s system at points this season, but a +24.6 net rating through four games is an auspicious sign.

They just need more time to come together, and this injury cuts into that. At least a little.

The more significant concern starts when the bench comes into play. In the playoffs, Brown will likely want to keep two of his big four on the court with the subs (probably an eight-man rotation, nine tops). That’s where the real interesting stuff comes in the next few weeks: Which players would be willing to get their rest a little earlier in the first half to get more opportunities (read: shots) with the ball in their hands with the second unit? Butler? Harris? Which four work best together when it gets down to pairs?

Finding all of that out is now on hold temporarily.

Not just numbers, David Griffin says being GM means handling “noise” around team

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Analytics are a part of the job.

Just often not the most important part.

Part of what has fueled the rise in popularity of the NBA in recent years has been player movement around the league — and how much fans love to talk about the possibilities. Fans love to play GM. Those fans are increasingly savvy and understand analytics better, they know how to go to the NBA stat page and look up detailed data, and they know how to work ESPN’s trade machine. It leads to more “who says no?” trade Tweets than overpriced coffee shops in Seattle.

Ask any current or former general manager/team president — for example, former Suns and Cavaliers GM David Griffin — about the job and they almost cut off the question to say there is so much more to it than a spreadsheet. For example, keeping players happy and helping them understand/deal with social media is now part of the gig. Even in the evaluation of players, there is the eye test and other intel gathered about them, all of which matters as much or more than just the data.

“It’s got to be a marriage of all of them, you know analytics are never the answer in and of themselves,” Griffin told NBC Sports. “But there is infinitely more data available to us thanks not only to SAP but Second Spectrum… they have given us far more robust data sets to make decisions from. I think because of that people think the answers are in the numbers, but the reality is the numbers only answer the better questions you ask it to solve. I think people lose sight of that. The numbers are a part of the process, they are not the answers in and of themselves.”

That’s the idea behind “GM School,” a new competition show coming to NBA TV (it premieres Wednesday night at 8 ET, with repeat broadcasts throughout the week). The show takes four contestants who are data-driven, die-hard basketball fans and pits them against each other in a series of challenges to show they have what it takes to be in a front office. The contestants don’t just have to pick players to draft (out of an anonymous pool), they need to articulate why they fit with the team philosophy. They have to do a press conference.

“I thought they did an excellent job,” Griffin said of the contestants. “Being at NBA TV before this and getting to see things in a totally different light, I had a different appreciation for this process than I would have otherwise. I thought they did a fantastic job — SAP and the partners affiliated with this — of putting together four really diverse contestants who all had strengths of their own, each was unique from the other, so it was a cool process.”

Like the real GM job, this is about more than the numbers.

“It’s not just taking into account everyone thinks they understand analytics — I hope we speak to the analytics crowd — but it’s about the totality, we hope, of what the job requires,” Griffin said.

There are things that a show like this could just not do justice to with a test.

For example, how to set up an organization that can handle the volume of noise that swirls around a good team. Griffin had to deal with that first hand as the GM of the Cavaliers during LeBron James’ second tour of duty with the franchise.

“One of the things that’s critical to running an organization that’s going to be all about winning — and the only thing that will mark success is winning a championship — is that you’re naturally going to be subjected to more noise around the process,” Griffin said. There’s going to be more tension in the system — and that can be a positive thing if you make it out. You have to become really adept at dealing with adversity and turning adversity into a positive, galvanizing force.

“I think you’ve seen Golden State do that this year with the blowup between Draymond [Green] and KD [Kevin Durant]. They’ve come out of that a stronger, better version of themselves, and that’s what you have to do as an elite franchise. All adversity becomes opportunity for you.”

It’s one thing for a Warriors’ team that is now veteran and savvy to embrace adversity — and tune out the social media noise it creates around the team — and it’s something else entirely for an up-and-coming team with players who have not been there before.

“I think that for teams that are going from being lottery bound year after year to being truly elite there are several steps in that process that are very difficult and painful. And people don’t always welcome adversity…” Griffin said. “You’re not going to get to a championship caliber team from a team of young kids who were in the lottery overnight.”

Some players get thrown off seeing the media used to deliver messages about them and their trade availability — as happened a lot with the Lakers/Anthony Davis saga around the trade deadline, for example. The Lakers, as an organization, has seen more than its fair share of drama over the years and understands how to handle it, but the young core players on the team were going through this part of the business for the first time.

Griffin said the key is being proactive — talking to players to help them understand it before everything overwhelms them.

“[The Lakers] were dealing with more media and more scrutiny than most teams ever do because they are one of the flagship franchises in our league,” Griffin said. “Magic Johnson grew up in that spotlight. I doubt anything happened that they weren’t prepared for. But what happens is LeBron’s presence by itself brings that kind of spotlight. It takes some time to learn how to deal with it.

“Again, if you don’t get in front of it from a leadership standpoint, if you let it just happen, the proliferation of sports media and social media, it just creates so much around your players that, to some degree, if you’re not telling them how to decipher it, they can’t help but to take it poorly. You need to do a really deft job as a leader of getting people to ignore those things. I think Kevin Durant called it a ‘toxic’ environment around a LeBron James team. I don’t think he meant that relative to LeBron and his actions. I think he meant it just relative to the sheer volume of noise around a team. That takes getting used to.”

Handling social media and its fallout is now part of a GM’s job. Like it or not.

“All of these players are on social media, they are subject to noise from more angles and at a greater volume than any players ever have been,” Griffin said. “And because of that, I think it makes it really important that you run the kind of organization that you love each other enough that you tell each other what you need to hear. You have to have conversations. You have to be in front of those messages with Lonzo Ball ahead of time. You have to talk to Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma ahead of time. So that when those things happen, they understand it’s just a natural outcropping of being on a team of that magnitude. That it happens because you matter as a franchise.”

Whenever a GM job comes open in the NBA now, Griffin’s name is one of the first to come up. Most recently that was with the Pelicans (although the buzz All-Star Weekend is that things never really got too serious between the sides). Griffin is open to returning to the NBA, but he’s in a position to be picky about the gig he takes now.

“I think the blessing of doing what I’m doing relative to NBA TV is selectivity,” Griffin said. “It’s helped me be radically better at analyzing things than maybe I wouldn’t have been as good at. As I look at it now, the thing that would attract me to an opportunity is just the opportunity to be in lockstep with ownership. To have ownership, the coach, and the front office all on the same page moving forward and sharing a vision…

“You have to raise a family, and if you’re not going to come at it with that approach it’s probably not a situation that would speak to me.”