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.

Dikembe Mutombo to receive Sager Strong Award

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NEW YORK (AP) — Hall of Fame basketball player Dikembe Mutombo will receive the Sager Strong Award at this year’s NBA Awards show.

The award is named for longtime Turner Sports sideline reporter Craig Sager and presented annually to an individual who has been a trailblazer while exemplifying courage, faith, compassion and grace.

Mutombo’s honor was announced Tuesday by the NBA and Turner.

The four-time Defensive Player of the Year created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve conditions for people in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital has treated nearly a quarter of a million people since opening in 2007.

He will receive a colorful suit jacket, the kind Sager fashioned during his years on air before dying of leukemia. The award will be presented on June 25 in Santa Monica, California.

Former New Orleans coach Monty Williams was last year’s inaugural recipient.

Kyle Kuzma says Lonzo Ball hitting weight room hard this offseason

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It wasn’t just Lonzo Ball‘s awkward jumper that was a problem for him, so was his finishing around the rim — Ball shot less than 50 percent in the restricted area and 43.6 percent inside eight feet. In today’s NBA, he has to become more of a consistent scoring threat to open up his passing lanes.

Part of that is Ball getting physically stronger, something that also would help him avoid injuries and play in more than 52 games (what he did as a rookie). That part he is working on already, Kyle Kuzma told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“Consistency in the weight room, that is the biggest thing,” Kuzma said on Tuesday of what he has seen out of Ball this offseason so far. “He has been in there pretty much every day I have been in here around this time. You can tell he is taking the weight room a lot more serious and that is going to help him by allowing him to recover faster and hopefully next year be on the court more because of that weight room.”

The Lakers are counting on the development of their young core — Ball, Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, etc. — as well as free agents they can attract this summer to lift them into the playoffs next season.

Magic Johnson told Ball this is going to be the most important summer of his life, that now he has to put in the work to take his body and game to the next level. To play like a No. 2 pick.

So far, so good.

Re-watch highlights from the final minutes of Houston’s series-tying win

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After the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said his team ran out of gas, which is what led to their 3-of-18 fourth-quarter shooting and just 12 points. There’s some truth to that, particularly with Andre Iguodala out forcing other guys into the rotation and a heavier load on the stars.

But give the Rockets credit here.

Part of what wore down the Warriors was fantastic pressure defense from Houston that made Golden State really work on offense. As Golden State got tired, players settled for midrange jumpers, not getting to the rim much (three times in the quarter) and not having the legs under their threes (0-of-6 in the quarter).

Meanwhile, it wasn’t pretty, but James Harden and Chris Paul were making plays.

Check out those plays again in the video above — we finally got a good game in a series, we should savor that.

Steve Kerr on Warriors’ late possession vs. Rockets: “I wanted the timeout”

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The Houston Rockets leveled the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night by a margin of 95-92. The win for the Rockets was ugly, but it leveled the series at 2-2 heading back to Houston.

It was a close game down the stretch, and it looked like Golden State’s last chance to get the win was going to come on a possession with 11 seconds to go following a missed James Harden jumper.

The Warriors immediately turned up the floor and did not call a timeout. The resulting possession was messy, and it wound up ending on a difficult Klay Thompson turnaround jumper. Golden State would get another shot at a 3-pointer with half a second left thanks to a foul on Thompson’s miss, but many were still left wondering why Steve Kerr did not choose to call a timeout during the possession before.

Kerr addressed the decision after the game.

Via Twitter:

You sort of have to side with Kerr in principle, but if you’d seen the way the Warriors played the rest of that fourth quarter you would probably err on calling a timeout and letting them set something up. Curry was 1-of-8 in the fourth, Durant shot poorly most of the game, and Golden State scored 12 total points in the final period.

When you consider Curry got a look at a wide open 3-pointer in the corner with 0.5 seconds left on the clock when the Warriors did call a timeout on the next possession, it makes it look even worse.

In any case, Houston beat out Golden State in a close game and we’re headed back to Texas for Game 5 on Thursday.