Thunder find some answers, still have many more questions

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If you were looking for them, there were glimmers of hope for the Oklahoma Thunder in this series from Game 2.

Their “big three” showed up — Kevin Durant had 31, James Harden 30 and Russell Westbrook 27. There was a run, early in the fourth quarter, when the Thunder were able to clog the lane, stall out the Spurs offense and make a little run. They may have found a lineup to close out games (if they just replace Derek Fisher in it).

The problem was it wasn’t enough. They are down 0-2 to a Spurs team playing beautiful and smart basketball.

But the series is not over. There is a chance as they head home.

But the Thunder need to find some answers. Fast.

The questions are mostly on the defensive end — the Thunder put up 111 points and were far more aggressive attacking the rim.

But they could not stop the Spurs. And that really comes back to they could not stop the Spurs penetration — once Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili get in the lane you are at the mercy of a little floater or a kick out to an open corner three. You have to cut them off early.

And for a stretch of the second half they did.

“I think we did a good job at the end of the third to the middle of the fourth just putting more heat on them, on the ball, really making it difficult for (Parker) to see those gaps, to see those passes,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the game.

The Thunder found some answers with a lineup of Westbrook, Durant, Derek Fisher, James Harden and Serge Ibaka — a variation on their small lineup — that clogged the lane on the Spurs in and disrupted passing lanes. Oklahoma City made a 13-4 run in the fourth quarter that made you think maybe. It’s an athletic lineup (save Fisher), and that bothered the Spurs. San Antonio was forced to shoot contested jumpers that for a while they missed. The Thunder ran off turnovers (particularly Harden). The Spurs 22-point lead evaporated. To single digits.

But then Brooks made his second fourth quarter substitution mistake of the series — he stuck with Fisher once the Spurs started exploiting his defense. With Thabo Sefolosha, his best perimeter defender, sitting on the bench Brooks stuck with Fisher. Who missed shots (save one three) and was getting torched on the other end. Brooks can’t make that kind of mistake again.

Still, the idea was right. The Thunder blew up the Spurs rhythm with hack-a-Splitter them built on it. The Thunder did better for stretches guarding the paint. It’s just that the Spurs can beat that, too.

“You take away the paint, you give up something,” Brooks said. “They made 11 threes. That’s what makes them a good team.”

The Spurs are a relentless offensive machine, but the Thunder have the athletes to at least slow them. They just need to do it more consistently. They need more Ibaka and less Kendrick Perkins (a great one-on-one post defender, perfect for the Lakers series but less effective here).

They need the energy the home crowd brings in OKC, which elevates the Thunder game. The Spurs, it’s not changing them. These games could be played outdoors on asphalt with chain-link nets and they would do the exact same things. Gregg Popovich has probably even thought up special plays for a potential outdoor game. Just in case.

The Thunder have another gear, they need to find it, particularly on defense. They are learning what works, what they need to do. Now they need to execute it. Right now. At home, with all the energy that building brings.

That or this series will be over faster than a Kim Kardashian marriage.

President Donald Trump awarding Medal of Freedom to NBA star Bob Cousy

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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WASHINGTON (AP) President Donald Trump is set to present basketball legend Bob Cousy (KOO’-zee) with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The award is being handed out Thursday. It celebrates individuals with a wide range of achievements and is the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The 91-year-old Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame member played for the Boston Celtics from 1950 to 1963. He won six league championships and the 1957 MVP title.

Cousy is also known for speaking out against racism. He was an ardent supporter of black teammates who faced discrimination during the civil rights movement.

Cousy will be the second person to receive the award this year from Trump. Golfer Tiger Woods received the honor in May.

Report: Shelly Sterling, members of Clippers organization heard Donald Sterling audio in advance and didn’t act

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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In 2014, published audio of a racist rant by then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling rocked the country.

It shouldn’t have. Sterling’s racism and sexism were well-established by then. But few cared. The audio poured gasoline on the fire and moved people to act. I wish it didn’t require that. But it did.

What if the audio didn’t become public through TMZ? Apparently, there might have been opportunity for another outcome.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

The fact is Shelly and several people in the Clippers organization heard the recording and decided not to act on it or weren’t appalled enough to act on it. Maybe they didn’t understand how big a splash this tape could make.

It’s unclear when Shelly Sterling (Donald’s wife) and other members of the Clippers organization heard the audio. Maybe it was while TMZ was doing due diligence. If so, it was probably too late to change the course of history.

But perhaps it was when V. Stiviano – Donald’s girlfriend who made the original recording and was being sued by Shelly – was still the only one in possession of it. Stiviano was clearly upset with how things were going financially between her and the Sterlings. For the right price, maybe the audio would have gone away before becoming public.

I’m glad it didn’t happen that way. The world is better off knowing exactly who Donald Sterling is.

Yet, this leads to an incredible “what if?” What if the people who heard the audio in advance understood the magnitude, acted in Sterling’s best interest and paid to have the audio kept secret? Would Sterling still own the Clippers today?

Kyle Kuzma scores on own basket in Team USA-Australia game (video)

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The Lakers are desperate at center. They might even need Kyle Kuzma to play the position. He’ll have to work on, among other things, rebounding.

At least it usually won’t go as poorly as this play in Team USA’s exhibition win over Australia.

Rockets betting on talent of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, everything else be damned

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

There is a tried-and-true method for winning an NBA championship: Get two recent MVPs. It has worked every time.

The Celtics paired Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Won a title.

The 76ers paired Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Won a title.

The Warriors paired Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Won a title.

By acquiring 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook to join 2018 MVP James Harden, the Rockets are testing the limits of this plan.

Houston upgraded from Chris Paul to Westbrook in its trade with the Thunder. There’s certainly logic to that. Harden is in his prime, so this is the time to push in. It’s almost impossible to win a championship without stars. Stars are also hard to come by. Sometimes, you must just get whichever stars you can and hope for the best.

But Westbrook came at a significant cost.

Houston had to send Oklahoma City top-four-protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, a top-four-protected pick swap in 2021 and a top-10-protected pick swap in 2025. By the time most of those picks convey, the Rockets could be far worse.

The trade is salary neutral for the next three seasons, which partially explains why Houston gave up so much. Most teams would require a sweetener for taking Paul’s contract. But Westbrook’s contract runs a season longer, and the Rockets will owe him $47,063,478 at age 34.

There will be diminishing returns with Harden and Westbrook, two ball-dominant guards. They have the talent to figure it out offensively, though it will require major adjustments to how they’ve played lately. The defensive concerns are far bigger. Both players have frequent lapses on that end.

Westbrook, 30, has also declined the last few years. He remains quite good. But the way he relies on his athleticism, he could fall rapidly.

Based on name recognition on both sides, this is the most monumental trade in NBA history. In Houston, it will likely define the rest of Harden’s prime then – with those picks outgoing – the Rockets’ next phase.

Beyond that, Houston did well to build depth on a budget. The Rockets re-signed Danuel House (three years, $11,151,000 million), Austin Rivers (1+1, minimum) and Gerald Green (one year, minimum) and signed Tyson Chandler (one year, minimum). Most of the mid-level exception remains unused with the free-agent market largely dried up. But hey, luxury tax. Houston could still re-sign Iman Shumpert through Bird Rights.

The Rockets look pretty similar to last year – except Westbrook replacing Paul. That’s the enormous move.

I’m not even sure it will help next year, though. Houston could’ve kept Paul and fit squarely into a wide-open championship race. At least on paper.

The big unknown: How toxic was the relationship between Harden and Paul? Several Rockets denied a problem, but there was plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Westbrook is better than Paul. The two stars will likely get along better.

But will Westbrook add enough value to justify the high cost? All those draft considerations could have gone toward addressing other needs. Really, just needs. Houston didn’t need another ball-dominant guard one bit.

I support the Rockets prioritizing the present. Westbrook could propel them to a championship.

But given the fit concerns, the cost was too steep for my liking.

Offseason grade: C-