Thunder even Western Conference finals with Game 4 win over Spurs

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The reason that home-court advantage makes a difference in the NBA postseason is because of the fact that the role-players, bench guys, or simply lesser-known producers tend to play above their average capabilities with the home crowd behind them.

That was certainly the case in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder got big-time performances from some unlikely sources to notch their second straight win, while evening the series at two games apiece with a 109-103 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday.

The Thunder won this game not because of the heroics of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, or James Harden, but because of other-worldly performances from Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Nick Collison.

Ibaka finished with 26 points on 11-of-11 shooting and was just one more made basket from tying the NBA playoff record for most made field goals without a miss. OKC moved the ball the way the Spurs had the first two games of the series, and everyone who ended up with the opportunity seemed to be able to make the Spurs pay.

Kendrick Perkins came out uncharacteristically aggressive on the offensive end and had nine points and six rebounds in less than 10 first-quarter minutes to spark his team. Perkins finished with 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, and Collison was solid with eight points on 4-of-5 shooting.

If you’re scoring at home, that’s a combined 22-of-25 shooting from Ibaka, Perkins and Collison. And that’s before we even begin to talk about what Durant did while taking over offensively in the fourth quarter.

Durant did virtually nothing offensively in the first half. He had eight points at the break; he wasn’t looking for his shot, and his teammates weren’t looking for him, either. But he got going with 10 points in the third, before taking things over completely in the fourth, scoring 16 straight points for his team during a stretch where they absolutely needed a reliable threat as the Spurs came back from 15 down to once again make it a contest.

Durant finished with a game-high 36 points on a night when Westbrook and Harden combined for just 18 points on 6-of-23 shooting.

The Spurs jumped out to a lead early, and rallied late to cut a 15-point lead down to two late in the third quarter. But the efficiency of their offense that we saw from them in the first two games of this series is long gone, with the buckets coming more and more off of dribble penetration or isolation plays rather than more fluid passing leading to open shots out of predetermined sets.

The Thunder aren’t likely to get 41 combined points from Ibaka and Perkins again in this series, and Tony Parker’s 5-of-15 shooting seems like an aberration, as well. As the series shifts back to San Antonio, the Spurs will need to rediscover their execution on offense, while the Thunder will need to do what they do in making sure that their best weapons offensively are the ones who are getting the ball in positions to make the open shots.

With all of that being said, both teams know what they need to do at this point in the series. Game 5 will be an absolute war, and the team that’s able to impose their will offensively will be the one that ends up with the chance to close things out in Game 6.

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.