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.

Rudy Gay finally feels 100 percent after torn Achilles: ‘I feel athletic again’

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Rudy Gay, coming off a torn Achilles in 2017, was not quite his vintage self last season for the Spurs. In the 57 games he played he looked like a solid third option — 11.5 points per game, a surprisingly good defensive rating — but he played fewer minutes than ever before in his career, and he shot just 31.4 percent from three. In the playoffs he showed his importance — the Spurs were 9 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court — but he was never going to make up for what they lacked with Kawhi Leonard out.

Gay is preparing for his next season in San Antonio and told Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News that he is finally healthy.

Everything is clicking,” he said. “I feel athletic again.”

“I’ve been working hard, man,” Gay said at his boys’ high school basketball showcase for East Coast teams he hosts annually. “I lost about five pounds. Last year was a little bit of a struggle for me, so I tried to alleviate that by taking the weight off my feet by losing a couple of pounds through working out and eating better. It’s now or never right now for me.”

Gay is also close to new Spur DeMar DeRozan, and he sees potential there.

“That’s the thing about this whole team – everybody has a chip on his shoulder,” Gay said. “His is just more publicized. But, look, I’m healthy (and have something to prove), LaMarcus (Aldridge) always finds someway to have a chip on his shoulder. Jakob wants to prove he can be a great player. DJ (Dejounte Murray) has a chip on his shoulder because he wants to be known as one of the best at his position.”

The Spurs won 47 games last season essentially without Leonard, and now they sub an All-NBA player in DeRozan into the mix. If Gay is healthy and can be that third option, if the defense stays tight, if Gregg Popovich can work his magic, this is a dangerous playoff team. Not a contender, but are you going to bet against the Spurs making the playoffs?

Jordan Clarkson urges NBA to allow players to compete in more global events

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The NBA is trying to walk a fine line. On the one hand, the league and its owners want to globalize the NBA — it is the best, most watched basketball league on the globe and they want people in Europe and Asia to follow the NBA the way American soccer fans follow the Barclays’ Premiere League. That will make the owners more money, and never forget this is a business first, second, and third. With that, the owners allow players to compete for their native countries in major events, such as the FIBA World Cup or Olympics.

However, there is a “club vs. country” tug of war in the NBA. Players want to represent their countries — and sometimes are pressured to do so — while NBA teams see injury risk. They look at the story of Dante Exum blowing out his ACL playing for Australia as a cautionary tale.

So when the Cavaliers’ Jordan Clarkson wanted to play for the Philippines in the Asian Games (his mother is a native of that country, so he is allowed), the NBA shot it down at first saying this tournament was not part of the agreement between FIBA and the NBA that allows the league’s players to take part in major international events (the Olympics, the basketball World Cup, etc.). However, the league eventually flipped and allowed a “one-time exception” for Clarkson (plus Houston’s Zhou Qi and Dallas’ Ding Yanhuyang).

Now Clarkson says he wants the NBA to allow players to compete in more global events, he told Agence France-Presse at the Asian Games.

“After being told no so many times, I refused to give up. I kept fighting,” he said. “I’m here now, ready to compete.”

“I think they get the point — in Asia kids are picking up a basketball. I feel like the NBA is allowing us to do our thing.”

Basketball is a growing sport in Asia — it’s huge in the Philippines already, and it’s growing fast there and in countries such as China. The NBA wants its foot in the door there. It wants to be part of that market — the NBA plays exhibition games in China every year for a reason.

The Asian Games — the second largest multi-national sporting event in the world behind the Olympics — is a good exception to make. Clarkson and other NBA stars playing there — including in the future — is good for the NBA.

However, the league is going to face a challenge trying to find that line in future years between promoting the game and the NBA internationally and protecting its investments in its players.

Watch the top 60 blocked shots of last NBA season

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We love blocked shots. One player is attacking the rim, another gets in his way and rejects that shot. Frankly, we overestimate their importance on defense at points (because it’s a quantifiable stat in a world where defense is hard to quantify), but they matter.

And they are fun.

Check out the top 60 blocks from last season, as put together by NBA.com. It all starts with a chase down block by Kevin Durant (who has improved his rim protection in recent years) and ends with Anthony Davis showing why he is a beast.

It’s Sunday, and what else are you going to do? Watch preseason football?

Grizzlies expected to bring rookie Jaren Jackson along slowly

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Jaren Jackson was one of the standout rookies of Summer League. It started in Salt Lake City at the Jazz Summer League, where he looked like the future of the NBA five — knocking down threes, being athletic enough to run the court on the break, blocking shots, and being physical inside. In Utah, he averaged 15.7 points per game and five boards a night.

Expect the Grizzlies to bring Jackson along slowly, however, once the regular season starts. Jackson likely will come off the bench behind the starting frontline of Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green. That will not be popular with the fan base, but the Grizzlies want to trust their veterans and make a playoff push.

Look at what Grizzlies executive John Hollinger told the Peter Edmiston of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

I think whatever happens, we want it to happen organically, and not get ahead of ourselves, and make sure we’re taking all the right steps on him, and not getting too excited and skipping ahead….

“We don’t want to put him into overtly physical matchups yet because he’s 18 and his body is still filling out,” he said.

Strength is almost always the biggest challenge facing young big men in the NBA (and Jackson is still 18, he will turn 19 during training camp). These are grown men they are going against nightly, and while Jackson had plenty of strength to hang with the Summer League crowd, things are very different when the big boys come to play. Even in an NBA moving away from old-school power ball, it still matters.

While the Grizzlies will work to not rush Jackson, that plan is somewhat dependent on players with a history of injury issues staying healthy. Jackson is not going to get 30 minutes a night, he’s not going to get the touches that fellow rookies such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic will receive, and he may not be in the mix for Rookie of the Year. We’ll see how things shake out, but on a Grizzlies team looking to put itself in the playoff conversation, the coach likely will lean on veterans he trusts.

Where Jackson will rank in this draft class three years from now could be very different. He has the potential to be the star of this class (or at least one of a few breakouts, this is an interesting group).