Thunder learn one more painful lesson, talk about taking one more step

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To a man, as they hugged the Larry O’Brien trophy, Miami Heat players said the sting of losing in the finals last year drove them to their win this year. They felt the pain, absorbed the lessons and got better.

As the clock was winding down and the party was winding up inside AmericanAirlines Arena Thursday night, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden stood together, huddled at the end of the bench talking. Saying exactly what Heat players said a year ago.

“We hugged each other and told each other to embrace this feeling and remember this feeling,” Westbrook said. “We’ve got to be the guys that just got to get better, man, before we can find a way to get back here.”

And everyone — including LeBron James, who said as much after the game — expect the Thunder will be back on this stage. And they will be better.

We’ve seen it before. For the past three years the Thunder have been eliminated by the eventual champion — first the Lakers, last year the Mavericks and this year the Heat. The previous two years the Thunder used those lessons to come back a smarter, more ready NBA team.

To a man after they were eliminated from the finals in Game 5 — a 121-106 Heat win — the Thunder players talked about what it will take to get back to here and be better next year.

“There’s things that wen have to work on,” coach Scott Brooks said. “I’ve never used age as an excuse. But we got some incredible experience these last three years of being the playoffs and it kind of – it has helped us get to this point and to compete at this level.”

The next step is on the defensive end for this team — they were a solid defensive team (OKC was ninth in the league in points allowed per possession) but the Heat won this series because they could find a level of defense the Thunder could not.

“But just one thing, (the Heat) played extremely physical basketball,” Brooks said. “They are a very athletic team and they use it every possession, and that’s something we will talk about. You have it, you better use it.”

There is also the focus that is needed.

“I think now we know that every possession in the finals matters. It counts,” James Harden said. “There were several possessions that we just gave away (in Game 5). I think that third quarter, we brought the lead out to five quick (it was 7), and then they hit two threes in a row. Every possession matters in the finals. We just gave too many away.”

They gave away a few all series. And that stung the Thunder. A lot. Thunder players all talked about being a family and you could see the tears and feel the emotion as they left the floor. You could see it as Kevin Durant talked to his mom. The key — the thing the Thunder’s three leaders were already talking about — was to use that as fuel.

“You just have a lot of regrets but the only thing you can do is get back to work,” Kendrick Perkins said. “And each individual has to think about it when you’re lifting weights, as you run suicides, just think about this feeling, think about this moment and how close we came. We just fell short.”

You get the sense this team will be back. And once again they will have learned a lesson. They will be better. And that could be scary good.

Shaq donates a year’s rent to a paralyzed Atlanta boy

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ATLANTA (AP) — Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal has donated a year’s rent in a new home to an Atlanta woman whose 12-year-old son was paralyzed in a shooting at a football game.

O’Neal tells WXIA-TV  that Isaiah Payton’s family had been living in a one-bedroom apartment that wasn’t accessible for people with disabilities.

“It’s just sad. It could have been any one of us,” Shaq told the Atlanta station. “It could have been my son. It could’ve been your cousin. She was living in a one-bedroom apartment with her two boys, so we found her a house in a nice area.”

Now they have a home in a good neighborhood. He says he’s helping furnish the home and will pay its rent for the next year.

Isaiah was shot through the spine in August after a football scrimmage between two high schools. Sixteen-year-old Damean Spear also was wounded and treated for minor injuries. Isaiah’s mother, Allison Woods, has said relearning how to care for Isaiah meant she had to leave her job, adding financial stress to her emotional turmoil.

Jazz reportedly extend contract of coach Quin Snyder, locking him down well into future

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Quin Snyder has evolved into one of the best coaches in the NBA (and my pick to win Coach of the Year this season). He’s built a development program and system in Utah that has turned Rudy Gobert into a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Donovan Mitchell into the face of a franchise, and Joe Ingles into a guy other teams covet. His players like and respect Snyder, and he has worked well with the front office of Dennis Lindsey and Justin Zanik.

So the Jazz are locking him up with a contract extension beyond the two seasons remaining on his deal. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder has agreed to a long-term contract extension, league sources tell ESPN. Snyder had two years left on his deal, and a new contract extends multiple years beyond that term, sources said.

After upgrading the team’s talent base over the summer, locking Snyder into an extension had been a top organizational priority.

Jazz fans should be ecstatic about this.

Snyder has built a system team in Utah, one that moves the ball beautifully on offense, and that has been tough to defend in the regular season, with the Jazz winning 50 games last season. Utah has made it to the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons, but when the level of play made that leap a lot of the system gets taken away by good defenses, and the Utah offense became Donovan Mitchell against the world. It didn’t work, Mitchell (still just 22) wasn’t fully ready and there was not enough shooting around him.

This past summer, the Jazz added Mike Conley at point guard and Bojan Bogdanovic on the wing, two excellent shooters who also can create off the dribble. Expectations are high in Utah.

Whatever happens, Snyder is their coach now for a long time.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he learned from Kawhi Leonard: “He was calm”

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Milwaukee was up 2-0 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals on Toronto, having won those games by an average of 15 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo had scored 54 points, pulled down 31 rebounds, dished out 11 assists, and was looking every bit the MVP.

Then the games shifted to Toronto, Kawhi Leonard took over — including guarding Antetokounmpo more — and the Raptors rattled off four straight wins to take the series on their way to the NBA title. The Greek Freak still averaged 20.4 points a night in those final four games, but the buckets were much harder to come by.

Milwaukee returns this season as the Eastern Conference favorites and legit title contenders, in part because of what they learned from that loss. Antetokounmpo told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports he learned a lot directly from Leonard in that series.

“I learned a lot from him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He knocked down free throws. He was calm. When double-teams came, he was swinging the ball but getting it right back. He was aggressive. He was calm but he was on a mission.”

Leonard is the living embodiment of the old John Wooden axiom “be quick, don’t hurry.” He’s not rushed, he’s rarely forced into shots he doesn’t want to take or plays he doesn’t want to make.  That’s true of all champions on some level. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan all bring an inner calm.

If Antetokounmpo brings that to his game, the Bucks are one big step closer to a title.

Domantas Sabonis on trade rumors: ‘I know exactly how the Pacers feel about me now’

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The Indiana Pacers have started to explore the trade market for Domantas Sabonis. There are logical reasons for this: Sabonis is good (he was second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season), yet he and the Pacers are nowhere near agreement on a contract extension, and the Pacers already paid big money for Myles Turner to be their center, how much do they want to pay Sabonis, too?

That’s sound logic if you’re in the Pacers’ front office.

If you’re Sabonis, it can feel like a slap in the face to a guy who put in a lot of sweat and passion for the franchise. That’s what Sabonis sounded like in this quote, via Scott Agnes of The Athletic.

The Pacers are not talking about the report, which started with the well connected and reliable Sam Amick at The Athletic.

Pacers’ brass needs to talk about this with Sabonis (and likely already have, behind closed doors). If the Pacers trade him, it’s likely not until after Dec. 15 at the earliest (when most players signed this summer can be included in a deal) and probably closer to the February trade deadline. That’s a lot of season to play out, and Sabonis remains a vital part of the Indiana rotation.

There is likely to be a lot of interest in Sabonis on the market. However, because he’s a center (a position teams are careful not to overspend on in today’s market) and in the last year of his rookie deal — meaning he becomes a restricted free agent next summer and gets more expensive — teams are not going to overpay for him. Right now the Pacers are asking for too much and interested teams are lowballing their offers. The sides will meet in the middle.

That middle could shift if Sabonis has a rough start to the season. Both sides need him to play well and feel comfortable, whatever is going on with the business side of his contract.