NBA Playoffs: Durant + Defense = Date with Dallas for Thunder

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No doubt, Kevin Durant was special Sunday. In the biggest game of his NBA career he remained undaunted through a slow start and hit 11 of his last 16 shots on his way to 39 points. He played smart, used back-door cuts to get easy baskets, and once he got rolling everything fell.

But that’s not what won the Thunder Game 7 — it was their defense.

And they’re going to need more (and actually better) defense like that against Dallas. But for a night they can celebrate that defense and a 105-90 win that gave the Thunder a 4-3 series win and a trip to the conference finals.

Memphis, whether due to the tightness of the situation or the tightness of the Thunder defense (or likely a little of both), could not buy an outside shot in this game. On shots outside of 10 the Grizzlies shot just 34 percent. They were just 5-of-15 from three. (Stats via Hoopdata.)

That allowed the Thunder pack the paint with defenders and contest everything close to the basket, where the Grizzlies like to make their music. The Thunder had 11 blocked shots in the game. They had a hand up on everything. No quarter was given. The result there was the Grizzlies shooting 6-of-25 outside the restricted area out to 9 feet. (That makes it 29 percent total shooting for Memphis when they were outside the restricted area in this game.)

The Thunder defense bottled up Zach Randolph, who had just two shots inside the restricted area. Fantastic defense by Nick Collison off the bench helped hold Randolph to 2-of-9 shooting from 3 to 9 feet (Collison had three blocks in the first half). With his struggles the Grizzlies started to more and more go away from Randolph as the game wore on. Then, when he would get the ball back, you knew he was going to force up the shots because he wasn’t getting the touches he wanted, all of which made him easier to defend.

That opened the door for Durant to be the hero … although didn’t look like he was going to walk through it early on. He went 2-for-9 to start, but then he got two dunks on back cuts and lobs from Russell Westbrook, and that seemed to wake him up. He shot 11-of-16 the rest of the way.

In the later parts of the third the Thunder went on a 13-2 run that was a whole lot of Durant (with some James Harden thrown in), including Durant blocking a Mike Conley shot at one end then coming back and draining the three in transition. The Grizzlies could never recover from that.

Russell Westbrook, who took a lot of heat this series for at times shooting too much and passing to little, but he recorded a triple-double with 14 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Westbrook has this kind of game in him and he does it during the season, if inconsistently. But he did a great job of hitting Durant on back door cuts and he left the ball to him as a trailer in transition that led to a three. Westbrook can score almost at will, and there will be games the Thunder need that, but when he gets everyone involved like this the Thunder are almost unbeatable.

Harden was so hot his beard was about to catch fire. He and 17 points and hit 4-of-8 from three.

Sunday could be the kind of big, statement game from the Thunder that says they have arrived as contenders. But they will need to prove that against a well-rested Dallas team starting Tuesday night. There is no time to rest.

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Report: Markelle Fultz was available in trade packages on draft night

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The Philadelphia 76ers are saying all the right things about Markelle Fultz — they are patient, they believe in his work with his new trainer to rebuild his jump shot, and they see him as part of the future. Plus, his handles look sharp.

That doesn’t mean the Sixers are not willing to trade him in their pursuit of a star player. In fact, he was available on draft night in packages, reports Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Sixers say they aren’t shopping him. However, there was a report that they had internal discussions about packing him with Nos. 10 and 26 picks to move up into the Top 5 in Thursday’s draft. And multiple league sources have said that Fultz was available to be traded.

But it’s hard to get equal value in return for trading someone relearning how to shoot. The Sixers know that. They also know that if things do come together, Fultz will be a special player. He has the potential to become the type of player they would regret trading away.

Outside of a handful of superstars, every player in the NBA is available in a trade, at least in theory. Fultz is no different. The question in his case is what do they see as an upgrade vs. his potential?

Kawhi Leonard would be an upgrade, unquestionably. Fultz could be part of a package to land Leonard in a trade (Fultz, Robert Covington, the Miami 2021 first rounder, and probably more picks would be a starting point). Once the Spurs get serious about a potential Leonard trade (they are not there yet) how enticing that offer might be comes down to what they think of Fultz and his potential.

The Sixers are not shy about their desire to land an established All-Star to pair with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. If they don’t get Leonard, they will be looking at the next All-Star who becomes available, and Fultz could be part of those deals, too.

Fultz is not playing in Summer League for the Sixers, but if he comes back this fall trusting his jumper and starting to look like the player who was drafted No. 1 that trade value goes way up (and the Sixers may be less inclined to move him).  It may be then before the Sixers can get a respectable return on any Fultz trade.

Report: Indiana to retain Bojan Bogdanovic, he could start again next season

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Bojan Bogdanovic is the kind of floor spacing shooter the Pacers need next to the attacking Victor Oladipo. He started 80 games for the team, scored 14.3 points per game and shot 40.2 percent from three.

Bogdanovic is due $10.5 million next season, but the Pacers can buy him out before next Friday (June 29) for $1.5 million.

They’re not going to do that, the Pacers are going to retain Bogdanovic, reports Ben Gibson at the Pacers site 8points9seconds.com.

The Indiana Pacers currently plan to retain Bojan Bogdanovic — whose contract is only partially guaranteed for next season — and would be comfortable going into next season with him as a starter, according to a source familiar with the Pacers offseason plans.

There’s no surprise here, it was expected. Bogdanovic provides genuine value to the team — they need him on the court as a shooter, he averaged the second most threes per game on the squad. And, as an expiring contract, he could be used in any potential trades for another star.

The Pacers also have a decision to make on Darren Collison, who is owed $10 million next season but has a $2 million buyout by July 1. They will probably keep him around.

Al Jefferson is owed $10 million next season but can be bought out for $4 million before next January 10. Expect the Pacers to exercise that option and buy him out well before that date.

Carmelo Anthony sends message to haters: ‘Take A Step Back… And Enjoy Life’

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When the expected became official and Carmelo Anthony opted to take the $27.8 million contractually owed him next season, there were groans from the Thunder faithful.

It was Anthony’s right — and everyone knew he was going to take the cash (we all would have done the same) — but his value on the court has shrunk and that’s what eats at the OKC faithful. Anthony’s response on Instagram was, essentially, “relax, it’s just basketball.”

It will be interesting to see if Anthony is back with the Thunder next season, or if he gets bought out. If he does return, how do they better fit him in the offense?

Anthony’s defense has long been a concern, but his offense used to be efficient enough, and his ability to create shots important enough, that teams lived with the defense. However, his efficiency has slid in recent years and, as we saw in the playoffs in April, it’s not enough anymore. The Thunder played better with other lineups. To which Anthony responded he has to get back to his old style of play more.

It’s going to be a wild summer in OKC. Whatever happens.

Suns to sign French point guard Elie Okobo to first-round style contract

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The Suns have an impressive young core four: Devin Booker at the two, Mikal Bridges at the three, Josh Jackson at the four, and Deandre Ayton at center.

The hole: Who will be the point guard?

The Suns like Elie Okobo of France a lot. They drafted him 31st overall, the top pick of the second round, but they will give him a first-round style contract with two guaranteed seasons and two team options after that, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Suns hinted they were going to do this, and it’s a smart move at a fair price if they can develop Okobo (even as a backup).

Okobo has potential. Last season, at the highest level of the athletic French league he averaged 13.2 points on 57 percent shooting (38 percent from three) plus 4.4 assists per game. Okobo is an NBA level athlete who has all the tools to be a good NBA point guard — and he already knows how to score (he had 44 points in a playoff game this season). He’s going to have to round out his game and adapt to the NBA style, but the Suns think they have something.

And they are betting they have with a nice sized contract.