The Inbounds: Kevin Durant says his time is now. It had better be.

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In an interview with the Washington Post, Kevin Durant takes the subtle leap forward from “all humble all the time” in interviews to “No, really, I’m exceptional at basketball.” Specifically, Durant says that he’s done with people talking about how eventually he’ll have the league in his grasp, that it’s here, it’s now. The future and present are one, and no matter what happened in June, it’s Kevin Durant’s world.

“I’ve heard a few times, in three or four years, this league is going to be yours. . . . I don’t like that. Because I think I’m established now. My time is now,” Durant said. “I feel as though I’ve proved myself these last five years that I can be one of the top players in the league. I’ve got a long way to go to being the ultimate best, but I think my time is now. And I’m starting to enter my prime.”

via Kevin Durant: ‘My time is now’ – The Washington Post.

It’s true that Durant can be considered “there.” This is the prime of his career, he’s just now getting there, and he’s got such a long way to go with it at just 23 years of age. But there’s a subject that should probably be gently unearthed here. It’s just the Thunder’s third season in the playoffs. It’s just their second of title contention. They’ve moved closer each year, taking significant steps forward.

But if they don’t get it done this season, there’s a very real possibility the window closes.

That concept sounds preposterous considering they were just a few good quarters away from stealing the Finals. The Thunder are going to have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka together for the next four years at least. They could very well have James Harden as well. They have no albatross contracts. Kendrick Perkins’ is pretty close, but they have retained their amnesty clause in the event they need to use it there. The four primary members of the core are only going to get better.

But how many times have we seen a young core never get there in their first few seasons, and then have the future robbed? You have to make the climb, and you have to reach the summit. Victory serves as a pacifist for things that can derail a team; unrest, injury, the desperation trade and the like. Sam Presti has been exceptionally patient with this group, but there’s now going to be the lure of that which has ruined so many young cores, the chance at a superstar gamble, a major move, a huge upgrade. The fact that the Thunder are so good guards against that to a degree, but eventually , the pendulum swings and teams find themselves looking “to make a change” for whatever reason.

The Blazers in 2008, the Magic in 2009, the Bulls in 2007, the Wizards in 2007. None of these teams look now like they’re in the same league as the Thunder and in many ways, they aren’t. But their falls were not foreseen. They had either young or stable cores, limitless potential, and players in the elite ranks. They and countless teams before them seemed destined for great things, if not a championship. That’s how quickly these windows close. Yes, you have the Spurs and you have the Mavericks, who kept cores essentially intact for over a decade but those teams stand out precisely because of that longevity, not as standard bearers.

Durant could wake to find himself as the best player on the planet in three years, but surrounded by talent that cannot get it together to compete. This is not built as an “anything is possible” kind of postulate, but as a simple reminder that contending teams that do not win a title seldom are able to keep the core together. Things fall apart, so to speak. Durant can talk to any number of stars about the situation. Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Brandon Roy, it seemed all would inevitably win a title (Garnett later would — when he was traded to another team). The Thunder play in a small market, and while Clay Bennett has been the very model of a modern major owner for OKC (not so much for Seattle), there’s still a lot to learn about how Bennett will react if the luxury bills start piling up.

Durant will be great no matter what, barring injury, knock on wood. He’s going to get better in every phase of the game. But the kind of youthful “golly, we’re just excited to be here” enthusiasm in the Thunder locker room is already shifting to a more focused, determined desperation to win the title, to get over the hump. Most stars don’t win a title before 27. Experience wins, traditionally, in this league. The Thunder are trying to buck that, and they have a great chance. But they have to get past that final hurdle. They needed to make the playoffs, then they needed to advance in the playoffs, then they needed to make the Finals. They’ve done that, but the last step is hardest to climb, especially with how the Heat have built themselves and the Lakers’ standing in the West ready to cause mayhem.

Durant said over the weekend that the Lakers are impressive “on paper.” But think back to how many teams thought they were great the season after they made the Finals only to discover that it was a fleeting moment in the sun, and that the league passed them by. Durant doesn’t have to go down like that, to toil for years. But he’s got to get there. Winning begets winning, stagnation begets change.

The expectations have caught up with Durant. His time is now. It has to be. It better be.

Watch Bogdan Bogdanovic hit game-winning 3-pointer for Kings vs. Thunder (video)

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Another game, another Kings game-winning 3-pointer.

After Nemanja Bjelica hit a buzzer-beater against the Rockets on Monday, Bogdan Bogdanovic sunk the go-ahead 3-pointer against the Thunder last night. That stood as the game-winner once Richaun Holmes successfully defended Chris Paul on the other end, clinching Sacramento’s 94-93 victory.

The Kings have won three straight – over the Mavericks, Rockets and Thunder. The schedule softens over the next week and a half, giving Sacramento a real chance to rise in the Western Conference standings.

And if he keeps playing like this, Bogdanovic might find his way into a starting lineup.

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team. Board man got his ring.

The Toronto Raptors and their fans handled the return of Kawhi Leonard with nothing but class. The video tribute was spot on, and having the court light up to retrace his “shot heard around the World” was brilliant. Having the guys Leonard played with out to greet him at center court was a great touch, having Kyle Lowry present him the ring was perfect, and the crowd responded with an extended standing ovation (a few did boo Paul George, as if Leonard leaving was his fault). Doc Rivers said after the game he’s not seen any team do it better and he’s right.

Leonard then repaid that love by showing what he and his new teammates can do, crushing the Raptors with relative ease.

Lenard had 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, but credit OG Anunoby for making him work for those buckets. Leonard has struggled at points this season — he shot 2-of-11 against Toronto at Staples Center last month — and part of that was his knee was bothering him. Scouts talked about him not looking as explosive or comfortable, but that has changed of late, he is moving well and getting tho his spots.

Another former Raptor, Lou Williams, added 18 points. The Clippers bench, as it usually does, had their way and outscored the Raptors bench 44-18. It was a good win for the Clippers after getting thrashed themselves by the Bucks last Friday night. They needed a quality road win.

The Raptors are 1-4 in their last five with losses to Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, and now the Clippers in that stretch. Toronto is 3-8 against teams over .500. It’s concerning, and it will force Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office to consider their plan to keep this core together through another playoff push — if a team comes calling with a good offer for Marc Gasol, do the Raptors say yes?

Wednesday was a reminder that without Leonard, there is a ceiling on this Toronto team.

2) Cleveland opts not to trap James Harden, he drops 55 and carries Houston to win. For the past couple of weeks, teams have adopted a new, aggressive strategy against Harden — aggressively double team him at midcourt, force him to give up the ball, and dare any other Rocket to beat them. (Zach Lowe breaks it all down beautifully at ESPN.)

The strategy has had mixed results. When good defensive teams do it (the Clippers, for example, tried it) they’ve had some success, especially if they can force Russell Westbrook to take threes. When bad defensive teams do it (say, Atlanta) Harden still carves them up. The Rockets are 5-5 since teams started trying it, but they have the fourth-best offense in the NBA in that stretch (their defense and mental vacations during games are what has let them down).

Cleveland is not a good defensive team, third-worst in the NBA coming into Wednesday night, so the Cavaliers didn’t try to trap The Beard. They went with a more traditional defense, and Harden carved them up for 55 points.

Houston had a comfortable lead in this game but had one of its in-game mental vacations and let Cleveland score 24 in a row to take an 11 point lead. That’s when Harden took over and scored the Rockets’ next 15 points to get them back into the game.

Harden is carrying the Rockets this season (which is why he’s in the thick of the MVP race, again), but if the team can’t tighten up its game and stop having those in-game lapses there is only so much Harden can do.

3) Grizzlies’ rookie Ja Morant may have thrown down the dunk of the year. When we talked about athletic freaks leading up to the last draft, talk instantly turned to Zion Williamson. With good reason.

However, people seemed to sleep on what a good athlete Ja Morant is. If you want proof, why not go as Phoenix’s Aron Baynes about it. Morant flat-out destroyed Baynes on an early contender for Dunk of the Year.

Notice that came on a critical fourth-quarter possession — you’ve got to love the way Morant is willing to attack in that situation.

• Bonus Thing to Know: DeAndre Jordan is going to make sure Jarrett Allen looks good before taking the court.

No Giannis Antetokounmpo, no problem as Bucks win 16th straight

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — No Giannis was no problem for the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night.

Reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out but the Bucks kept on rolling, getting 29 points from Eric Bledsoe and 24 from Khris Middleton in a 127-112 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans that extended their winning streak to 16 games.

The Bucks (22-3) tied the second-longest winning streak in franchise history and moved closer to the franchise record of 20 set during the team’s 1970-71 championship season.

Antetokounmpo sat out with a right quad tendon injury, missing his first game this season. He has missed time with concerns about overuse injuries in his leg before.

Antetokounmpo did not participate in the team’s shootaround on Wednesday morning and quickly was ruled out.

“I don’t think we know exactly when it happened,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “This morning the soreness was such that he was not able to play tonight. The severity of it, we’re hoping it’s not too serious.

“We’ll take it day by day and we’re always going to err on the side of caution.”

The rest of the Bucks stepped up.

“I think we took a little more ownership of what’s going on out there,” Middleton said. “When Giannis is out there, he draws such a huge crowd that we play through him a lot. Without him tonight, we know we have to do a little bit more.

“It was a great test; they play with a fast pace just like us. I think we did a great job.”

Veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova, starting in place of Antetokounmpo, had a season-high 18 points and nine rebounds. George Hill contributed 13 points off the bench.

Bledsoe drove aggressively and scored 11 points in the third quarter to answer a Pelicans rally, and he finished making a season-high five 3-pointers and going 10 for 13 from the field while adding six assists.

“I try to get in the paint as much as possible,” Bledsoe said. “If I don’t have a shot, I kick it out to my teammates and trust them to make the right play.”

New Orleans (6-19) lost its 10th straight game despite a season-high 31 points from J.J. Redick. Brandon Ingram had 25 points and 10 rebounds and point guard Jrue Holiday added 21 points.

A frustrated Redick spoke up in the locker room at halftime, when New Orleans trailed by 23 points.

“It’s not like this is the first time we’ve had a talk at halftime,” Redick said. “I would say emotionally sometimes you reach a tipping point. That’s the timing of that.”

New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said his team needs to communicate better.

“It’s the quietest group I’ve ever been around, even on the plane and in the meal room,” Gentry said. “But we do have to get them talking on the court and have them communicate on the court.

“When we do, we’re pretty solid. I thought we did a good job in the second half of communicating. But when you’re trying to come back from 25 to-28-point deficits, the least little thing is going to have a glaring effect.”

The Bucks hit six of their first eight attempts from 3-point range, including 3 of 3 by Bledsoe, to take a 28-12 lead.

Milwaukee led by 23 points in the opening quarter before New Orleans closed the period on an 8-0 spurt to pull within 35-20.

The Bucks used a 17-0 run to grab a 56-28 lead in the second quarter before settling for a 69-46 halftime margin. Middleton and Bledsoe each had 13 points and Ilyasova and Hill added 11 apiece.

The Pelicans outscored the Bucks 40-36 in the third quarter.

New Orleans pulled within 120-108 with 2:51 remaining but Middleton hit a pair of jumpers to put the Bucks safely ahead.

 

Watch James Harden score 55, including 10 threes, to beat Cleveland

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CLEVELAND (AP) — James Harden scored 55 points – 20 in the fourth quarter – and Russell Westbrook added 23 points as the Houston Rockets withstood an unexpected scare from Cleveland and held on for a 116-110 win Wednesday night over the free-falling Cavaliers, who have lost eight straight and 14 of 15.

Harden matched Kyrie Irving‘s arena record for points in a game, and his fourth with 50 or more this season bailed out the Rockets, who allowed the Cavs to score 24 straight points in the second half.

Cleveland was still up 108-107 when Harden, who came in leading the NBA in scoring at 38 points per game, dropped a floater in the lane. After a turnover by Cavs guard Jordan Clarkson, P.J. Tucker hit a 3-pointer from the corner and Clint Capela had a dunk following another Cleveland miscue.

The inexperienced Cavs crumbled in the final minute, making three turnovers.

Capela added 13 rebounds for Houston, which figured to have an easy time with the Cavs, who are struggling under first-year coach John Beilein.

Cleveland, though, came to play and was led by rookie Kevin Porter Jr.‘s season-high 24 points. Collin Sexton added 18 and Kevin Love had 17 points and 11 boards.

Harden connected on a pair of 3-pointers during a 16-2 run in the third quarter when the Rockets, who were sleepwalking through long stretches of the first half, appeared to take control.

But Houston relaxed, and Cleveland went on a jaw-dropping 24-0 run – all without Love, who was on the bench with a head laceration – over a 4:43 stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters to a take a 99-88 lead on Porter’s bucket.