Thunder-Spurs Game 4: Let’s get serious

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Seriously, this is the most serious of seriousness. This is the business. This game is monstrous. All those games before that were big? No, this one is big. BIG. Like, those commercials big.

Thunder-Spurs Game 4 is going to have dramatic ramifications either way. If the Spurs win, the Thunder’s Game 3 win is meaningless and the series is over. The Thunder could force them back to Oklahoma City for Game 6, maybe even drag it back to the Alamo for Game 7. But if the Spurs go up 3-1, that’s all she wrote. NBA players know the reality. They’ll say they’re not paying attention those things but that’s a lie. They watch NBC Sports Net just like you do. They know the stats about a team going down 3-1. The spirit is crushed if the Spurs prevail in OKC.

Likewise, a Thunder win? Forget those two dominant Spurs wins, forget the streak and the aura of invincibility the Spurs carried with them. Two straight losses and it’s a three-game series, with the Thunder with all the momentum. On a shortened schedule, steal Game 5 in San Antonio where they played decent enough, and the Spurs will be on their heels going back to the Thunder dome. Tying this series up isn’t about getting the Spurs off their back, it’s about wiping the slate clean. Everything changes if they win Game 4.

So how is it done for both sides? Five things to watch in Thunder-Spurs 4.

1. The Ol’ Switcheroo: The Thunder switched extensively in Game 3 instead of trying to recover with their man and it worked wonders. Kendrick Perkins guarded Tony Parker effectively. Thabo Sefolosha defended everyone effectively. It was a switching festivus and the Thunder were partying. To counter this, the Spurs have some options. For starters, Tony Parker can drag the screen to the wing as far as possible, putting the larger player in a tough position to get to the baseline. He can be quicker with the pass, quicker with the drive, and more aggressive. Likewise, running the 3-4 pick and roll with Ginobili and Duncan could do damage. The Thunder aren’t equipped to guard Duncan in space and you have to think he’ll bounce back after a poor shooting performance. How this elements is handled by both sides is a fascinating chess match within a “Risk” game going on.

2. Harden Attack: James Harden got his game together in Game 3. It’s a pivotal matchup with Manu Ginobili and whoever wins the battle wins the game, so far. Harden was more aggressive and not as tentative in Game 3, and he understands better how to get the angle on the Spurs’ defense. I’d expect a lot more of Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard on Harden. They can survive the points from the Big 2, not the Big 3. Speaking of…

3. Inevitable Barrage: Durant or Westbrook are going to shake loose. They’ve gotten points, but neither has had a truly brilliant, efficient game yet. Game 4 provides that opportunity. It’s not that the Spurs can’t defend them well. It’s that those two specifically are stars because of their ability to confound defenses with scoring despite good defense. The Wonder Twins have to activate and have a performance worthy of their brand value for the Thunder to even the series.

4. How Diaw, Brown Cow? Boris Diaw played excellent defense against Blake Griffin. Boris Diaw played excellent defense against Serge Ibaka, for a while. But Game 3 provided some exploitation of the things that made Diaw a bad contract in Charlotte. He couldn’t stay out of foul trouble, he was throwing passes into steal lanes, he was off his element and was outrun. The Spurs may turn to DeJuan Blair in Game 4, after he played well at the end of Game 3 and may be a better matchup. The passing is really crucial. If Diaw isn’t creating perimeter rotations out of the post, his value on the floor becomes limited. How the Spurs react will be interesting given Popovich’s trust in veterans.

5. The Best Offense: Is a good defense for OKC. In Games 1 and 2, Scott Brooks tried to score with the red-hot Spurs. In Game 3, he deployed defensive lineups and got the desired result. Yes, Thabo Sefolosha won’t score that many again, but with Danny Green struggling, he doesn’t really need to. The Thunder’s offense has been very consistent in this series, and compared to last year. The Thunder are going to get points. It’s whether they can slow down the awesome power of the Spurs that will determine who wins the west. You could honestly say a bowl of salad on Sunday could alter players’ careers in this game. The Spurs know they have to stop OKC’s transition attack. The Thunder have to prevent open looks, something no one has been able to do in a long, long while.

Paul George scores 28 as Thunder beat Raptors 116-109

Associated Press
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TORONTO (AP) — Paul George scored 28 points, Russell Westbrook had 18 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds, and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Toronto Raptors 116-109 on Friday night.

Dennis Schroder came off the bench to score 26 points and Jerami Grant had 19 as the Thunder snapped a four-game losing streak and avenged Wednesday’s 123-114 home defeat to Toronto.

The Thunder made 20 of 43 shots from 3-point range. Oklahoma City made a season-high 22 3-pointers against the Lakers on Jan. 17.

Kawhi Leonard scored 37 points and Pascal Siakam had 25 for the Raptors, who played without All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry.

Lowry missed his second straight game because of a sprained right ankle. Coach Nick Nurse said there’s no structural damage to Lowry’s ankle, but soreness remains following a collision with New York’s Mitchell Robinson on Monday. Nurse said Lowry is expected to return next week.

Danny Green scored 19 points and Serge Ibaka had 11 but Toronto couldn’t hold a double-digit lead in the third quarter for the second straight game. The Raptors gave away a 20-point lead before recovering to win in overtime Wednesday, but weren’t able to match that on their home court.

Oklahoma City trailed by 10 points to start the second half, and was down 13 with 5:23 to go in the third before rallying. Westbrook gave the visitors the lead for the first time since early in the first quarter on a layup with 1:18 left in the period, putting them up 80-79. The Thunder closed the third with a 20-4 run to take an 83-80 lead into the fourth.

Leonard cut the gap to 93-91 on a free throw with 7:33 to play but George hit 3-pointers on either side of a fast-break layup by Grant, giving Oklahoma City a 101-91 edge with 6:21 left.

The Thunder missed eight of their first 10 shots of the game. Toronto was 5 of 6 from 3-point range in the first, with Green making all three of his attempts, and the Raptors led 29-22 after one.

Leonard scored nine points in the second and Green had six as Toronto led 58-48 at halftime.

 

James Harden ties career best with 61, Rockets beat Spurs 111-105

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden matched his career high with 61 points, including 27 in the first quarter, to lead the Houston Rockets to a 111-105 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night.

Harden hit three straight 3-pointers to give the Rockets a 103-100 lead and scored all of Houston’s points in a 13-2 run late in the fourth quarter.

Harden topped the 50-point mark for the eighth time this season, compared with 10 such performances from the rest of the league combined. He matched his career-best total set earlier this season against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

The NBA’s leading scorer surpassed the 30-point mark in the second quarter and the 40-point mark with 9 minutes remaining in the third.

Before Harden’s late surge, the Spurs led by six points with 4 minutes left in the game. The Spurs had overcome a 15-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 81 entering the fourth quarter.

Harden was 7 of 10 from the field in the first quarter, including 3 of 4 from the 3-point line, and also went 10 for 12 from the free throw line. His 27 points in the period were the second-most in franchise history, trailing only Vernon Maxwell’s 30 in 1991.

Harden finished 9 of 13 from 3, 19 of 34 from the field and 14 of 17 from the free throw line.

Houston has won 13 of its last 15 games and eight of its last nine at home.

Bryn Forbes led San Antonio with 20 points, while Derrick White added 18 and DeMar DeRozan had 16.

Houston led 36-24 at the end of the first quarter and 62-47 at halftime.

 

LeBron James’ playoff streak ends at 13 years

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The last time LeBron James missed the playoffs, YouTube hadn’t yet launched to the public.

LeBron had reached the postseason every year since 2005, when his Cavaliers went 42-40 and finished ninth in the East – another good marker. The last time LeBron missed the playoffs, it was so long ago, an Eastern Conference team could be that good and not qualify.

But his Lakers were officially eliminated from the playoff race Friday with a loss to the Nets.

That ends LeBron’s postseason streak at 13 years – tied for the 13th-longest of all-time. Karl Malone and John Stockton hold the record, each playing in 19 straight postseasons.

Here are the longest playoff streaks of all-time:

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Obviously, LeBron joining the Western Conference put his playoff streak in greater jeopardy. And the Lakers’ fate has been known for a while.

Still, it’ll be a little jarring to watch a postseason that doesn’t include a player who ruled half the bracket for so long.

That said, LeBron might not have the longest playoff streak snapped this year. Tony Parker, who reached the playoffs in all 17 of his seasons with the Spurs, could fall short in his first season with the Hornets.

If Charlotte misses the playoffs, 76ers guard J.J. Redick is in line to hold the longest active streak at 13 years.

Here are the players with the longest active streaks that could continue this season.

Players are listed with the teams they made the postseason with during their streaks. If they haven’t reached the playoffs in their stint with their current team, that team is listed in brackets.

Players whose teams are currently in playoff position are in teal. Players whose teams are currently outside playoff position but not yet eliminated are in purple. Free agents who’d be eligible for the playoffs if they sign before the end of the regular season are in white:

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There’s no reason to believe Manu Ginobili will come out of retirement. But he has played in every postseason since missing the entire 2009 playoffs due to injury. It’s technically possible for him to play in the 2019 playoffs and keep his streak alive.

Which is more than LeBron can say.

Knicks’ fans chant “Free IT” as Isaiah Thomas sits on Nuggets bench

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Well played, Knicks fans.

Denver went into Madison Square Garden Friday night to be the latest team to defeat the Knicks. Isaiah Thomas, out of the rotation in Denver, was the only dressed player not to play for the Nuggets. That did not sit well with Knicks fans.

Denver has better on court options than IT — Monte Morris should get Most Improved Player votes — but I hope he gets fully healthy and lands somewhere next season where he gets a chance to show what he can still do.