Kevin Durant scores 41 points as Thunder take care of Suns

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PHOENIX — The Thunder were shorthanded for the second game in as many nights on Monday, with Serge Ibaka sidelined due to injury. But at this point, with this team, all they need is a healthy dose of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and they’ll be able to beat most teams on most nights.

The Suns were the latest victims of the team with the best record in the league, as Durant and Westbrook combined for 77 points to help Oklahoma City become the first team to reach 30 wins this season with a 102-90 victory over the Suns.

“You don’t see that often,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said afterward. “Two guys just take over the game offensively in that second half. You can’t say anything other than just make sure you set good screens, make sure you execute, and run the plays … Those guys are special players, they make baskets and just make the team go.”

The takeover from Durant and Westbrook was massive, especially in the second half.

The two combined to score 47 of the Thunder’s 51 second-half points, which would have been enough to beat the Suns over the final two periods all by themselves. Phoenix had 45 total points over that same span, but Durant’s fourth quarter was special, and was enough to seal the game for his team down the stretch.

“Yeah, that’s our time,” Durant said. “We play so well off each other, and it’s not like it’s drawn for us to take all the shots in the fourth. We move the ball pretty well throughout the game and that allows us to make shots in the fourth quarter.”

Phoenix closed the third on a 14-4 run to pull them within just four heading into the final period. But while the Suns had to execute perfectly to get only occasionally decent looks, the Thunder had Durant, who could score essentially at will on this night, and did so deliberately on several late consecutive possessions.

After Westbrook scored five straight points to turn a five-point OKC lead into 10, Durant scored his team’s next 10 points, and did so in a cold-blooded manner that was simply unstoppable.

Durant’s 10-point burst came against just two for the Suns during a span that lasted less than two minutes. When it was over, so was the game, as the Thunder led by 16 points with 2:23 remaining.

The final field goal from Durant came in emphatic fashion, as he shook Michael Beasley out top enough to blow by him into the lane, and finished with a vicious dunk over Marcin Gortat that put the exclamation point on both his night and his team’s victory at the same time.

“I’m just out here having fun,” Durant said of the dunk. “I might have gotten away with a carry on that play, but I was able to free myself up and when I saw the lane, they’d been doing such a great job of contesting at the rim that I just tried to finish with some strength.”

Durant himself is the strength of this Thunder team, and he, along with Westbrook, can be two virtually unstoppable offensive forces when necessary. That’s what makes them one of the toughest teams in the league to contain, and it’s why Oklahoma City finds itself at the top of the league-wide standings 38 games into the season.

Dwight Howard is talking a lot of trash

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The Lakers put Dwight Howard on final warning BEFORE even signing him.

And for most of the season, Howard kept a low profile.

But he has been breaking out of his shell in the bubble. Related to basketball, too.

Howard has played excellent defense on Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference finals. The day after Game 1, Howard told Jamal Murray about it.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

The Nuggets were wrapping up their practice, which took place not far from the Lakers’, with Murray about to begin his media session in the convention center hallway. Howard, as it so happened, walked by right then and the banter restarted.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said to Howard, with both men smiling.

“What?” Howard said.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said again.

“Where’s Joker at?” Howard replied. “Where’s his room?”

As was the case in the series opener, there was no answer.

Then, Howard (and JaVale McGee) pointed out Jokic’s defensive deficiencies against Anthony Davis in Game 2.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Once the Lakers’ bench saw it was Jokic tasked with guarding Davis, it brought the noise with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard screaming, “Thanksgiving, steak dinner, appetizers, filet mignon and potatoes, a glass of champagne!”

Davis, who faced up Jokic and maneuvered his way around the big man for a bucket in the paint. McGee shouted, “Told you it was a feast out there!”

Howard didn’t let up after Davis’ game-winner.

Amick:

As the Lakers mobbed Davis on the court after his shot, big man Dwight Howard broke off from the group and decided to taunt the Nuggets as they exited the basketball stage. If you somehow haven’t noticed, Howard is leaning hard into this tough-guy approach.

“Go home!” he yelled over and over while laughing, jumping, pumping his fist and getting closer to the Nuggets’ side of the floor with every second. “Go home!”

A small group of Nuggets staffers, including one of Jokic’s biggest supporters in assistant strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, did not take kindly to the mocking that had taken place all game long and returned to the court to shout back. The two sides exchanged words, and eventually retreated to their corners that came with conflicting emotions.

This works because Howard is playing well – in his role.

Howard was slow to recognize he’s no longer a superstar. Yet, he still has the energy for being the center of attention. That used to mean doing things like posting up too much,

Now, Howard is focused on defending, screening and sometimes finishing at the rim while playing all-out in limited minutes. It’s what the Lakers need and what Howard can provide at age 34.

If he wants to talk trash along the way, more power to him. It’s a lot of fun.

But there’s also a fine line between the endearing villain and loathed jerk. Outside Denver, Howard appears to be the former. For now.

Report: Pacers interview former Thunder coach Billy Donovan

Billy Donovan coaches Thunder vs. Pacers
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
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The Pacers were reportedly expected to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach.

But if set on the former Rockets coach, Indiana isn’t acting like it.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Former Thunder coach Billy Donovan interviewed for the Pacers last week, sources said. The Pacers are expected to interview a pool of around 12 candidates, trim the candidates approximately in half, and conduct in-person interviews.

Donovan joins a list of known candidates that’s already way longer than 12:

  • Former Thunder coach Billy Donovan
  • Former Kings and Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger
  • Former Pistons and Nuggets star Chauncey Billups
  • Warriors assistant and former Cavaliers and Lakers coach Mike Brown
  • Nets assistant and former Magic coach Jacque Vaughn
  • Spurs assistant Becky Hammon
  • Spurs assistant Will Hardy
  • Heat assistant Dan Craig
  • Heat assistant Chris Quinn
  • Mavericks assistant Jamahl Mosley
  • Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas
  • Bucks assistant Darvin Ham
  • Bucks assistant Charles Lee
  • Magic assistant Pat Delany
  • Timberwolves assistant David Vanterpool
  • 76ers assistant Ime Udoka
  • Trail Blazers assistant Nate Tibbetts

Leaving the potentially rebuilding Thunder, Donovan clearly expected to land on his feet. The Pacers are equipped to win now, but maybe only moderately.

Donovan has shown impressive adaptability to his roster. That’d come in handy if Indiana is set on continuing the talented but challenging Domantas SabonisMyles Turner pairing.

Report: Clippers teammates rolled eyes at Paul George’s postseason calls for togetherness

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Paul George and Montrezl Harrell reportedly had a heated exchange on the bench during the Clippers’ loss to the Nuggets.

Apparently, that wasn’t an isolated incident.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Paul George had a disappointing series against Denver, and had several moments that left him in compromising positions with his teammates — beyond just his production. Multiple teammates had verbal spats with George throughout the postseason, citing in their exchanges a lack of accountability from him.

In the postgame locker room Tuesday night, George was preaching to teammates to remain committed, for all the players to return to the team this offseason and stay ready to make another run. It was met by some eye rolls and bewilderment, sources said, because George did not back up his words with action in the series and the team has multiple free agents with decisions to make.

George wanted more time with his teammates. They already had enough of him.

This had been a simmering problem – George and Kawhi Leonard getting preferential treatment, their teammates resenting it. Harrell sounded particularly bothered by the dynamic.

Losing exacerbates issues like that, and getting upset by Denver was a big loss. Both George and Harrell faced oncourt and offcourt stressors – only further contributing to squabbling.

Harrell will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The Clippers should try to keep him. He’s a good player, and they wouldn’t gain much cap flexibility without him.

But the 26-year-old might also want to explore the market and secure the most lucrative deal. It’d be reasonable for him to resent a teammate pressing him just to take the Clippers’ offer – especially if Harrell felt George wasn’t as committed to the team in the first place.

George and Leonard have earned preferential treatment. Leonard in particular has shown he benefits from load management.

However, that can annoy teammates. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad plan. It just means that downside should be accounted for.

It’d be nice if Leonard were more vocal or George rubbed fewer people the wrong way. But their basketball talent means dealing with their shortcomings. It’d be nice if George’s eye-rolling teammates realized that, too.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers bears responsibility for managing this tension. A this best, he connects well with players and gets everyone pulling for the same goal. That’s his job as the Clippers try to make the next step.

Miami’s Meyers Leonard adjusting to going from starter to out of rotation

Meyers Leonard
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Meyers Leonard was bent forward at the waist, standing a few feet away from Miami coach Erik Spoelstra on the Heat sideline, screaming with every bit of the volume that his deep and booming voice can generate.

This is his role right now for the Heat.

His only role.

Leonard is in a tough spot these days; a full-time starter during the regular season, he is now out of the rotation as the Miami Heat have made their run to the Eastern Conference finals. It is a bitter pill for him to swallow — yet to his credit, he hasn’t acted the least bit bitter about his current reality.

“My team knows this, and our coaching staff knows this,” Leonard told The Associated Press. “I would do anything to be out there. And I’d be lying if I said that I’m not competitive as hell. I wish I was impacting the game on the floor. I’m not, but as a person and as a player, I want what’s best for everybody.”

So for now, the 7-foot, 260-pound, chiseled center is the tallest, strongest and best-paid assistant coach in these playoffs. He calls out what he’s seeing on every possession, pulls aside teammates for quick one-on-one chats when necessary, and on off days he’s getting his on-court work in just in case he’s needed to play.

Leonard has started 49 of his 51 appearances with the Heat this season, more starts than he made in his seven seasons with Portland combined. But in the playoffs, he’s logged a total of nine minutes, all in one appearance.

“Meyers is one of the most special people I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach and to be around,” Spoelstra said. “He is just an incredible human being and teammate. He has all our hearts. We will do anything for him because he is so pure.”

Leonard, more than anything else, got unlucky at the worst possible time.

He badly sprained his left ankle in early February and wasn’t anywhere near being ready to return to the lineup when the NBA season was suspended March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. And then when team facilities shut down as a precaution, Leonard’s rehab process had to be amended as well.

That was the first issue. The second was Miami became a different team a few days after he got hurt, pulling off a trade to bring Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to the Heat. Crowder has become a starter, and Spoelstra told Leonard before Miami resumed play in the NBA’s restart bubble that he was taking the rotation in a different direction.

It was tough on Leonard mentally. He was struggling when he got to the bubble because of his ankle, then spent days wrestling about whether he should stand for the national anthem or kneel with his teammates, and on top of all that he essentially lost his job as well.

“There’s just two things that I won’t ever let be questioned and that’s character and work ethic,” Leonard said. “Every day when I walk through the door, I’m going to be a great guy, a great teammate. It’s not fake. So I’m trying to make my impact now from the sideline.”

There are a few starters who aren’t in the same roles that they were for the four teams remaining in this NBA season. Avery Bradley opted out of joining the Los Angeles Lakers in the bubble. Will Barton — who led Denver in minutes per game this season — has a knee injury and has missed the Nuggets’ entire postseason run. Gordon Hayward has missed much of Boston’s playoff stint while recovering from a sprained ankle. Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn, a starter all season, is in Miami’s second unit now.

Leonard saw the Heat change, and his role change with it. He didn’t sulk, lash out or complain.

“It’s not easy, being in this kind of situation, going through the injury he went through and having the hiatus where he didn’t get the full opportunity to rehab it,” Spoelstra said. “But he’s making the most of it, and if he gets his opportunity, he will be ready.”

Leonard also sees the reason why he should be helping the Heat however he can right now. He’s never been this close to an NBA championship; the Heat lead the Celtics 2-1 in the East finals, with Game 4 on Wednesday night.

He’ll be ready to scream some more then, too.

“I am, in the best way possible, the most jealous of watching our team’s success,” Leonard said. “I literally said this to my wife the other night. I said, ‘Elle, we are six wins away from a ring.’ That is so damn special.”