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.

A half-dozen players with especially intriguing contract-year seasons ahead

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After increasing 7%, 11%, 34% and 5% the previous four years, the NBA’s salary cap increased just 3% this year. Plus, teams were already overstocked with highly paid players signed during the 2016 – and, to an extent, 2015 – cap booms.

That meant many players signed one-year deals this offseason, allowing them to hit the market again next summer, when the cap is projected to rise 7% and many players signed in 2015 and 2016 come off the books.

The result is a deep 2019 free-agent class.

Some potential 2019 free agents, like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, are assured max-contract offers. Even Kawhi Leonard, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, is practically guaranteed of max offers.

But there are many more players with their future compensation in flux. Here are six players with a ton on the line next season:

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins shocked the league by taking the Warriors’ taxpayer mid-level exception. It’s probably a one-year rental. The highest starting salary Golden State can offer him next summer through Non-Bird Rights is $6,404,400. This year will give him a chance to get healthy, show he can contribute positively to winning and expand his versatility. Cousins isn’t the perfect fit with the Warriors, and some teams are still scared off by his attitude. But, if all goes well this season, Cousins won’t be able to claim no offers next summer.

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas learned the hard way Brinks trucks typically carry an amount near his $2,029,463 minimum salary – not the nine-digit max contract he hoped for. That dream has probably passed, but Thomas can still land a lucrative contract next summer if he thrives with the Nuggets this season. First, that means getting healthy, as his hip injury still lingers. Then, the 5-foot-9 point guard must show he can still get separation and lift to get buckets. And it’d help if he meshes better with his teammates and coaches. It’s amazing how big of a hit Thomas’ value has taken in the last year, but he has proven his determination before. Will he do it again?

D'Angelo Russell

Russell entered last season as a potential franchise player for the Nets. Then, he got outplayed by Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell missed 34 games due to injury and stagnated in his growth while on the court. The shine is off the former No. 2 pick. But Russell is still just 22 and talented, and point guards tend to develop later. He could earn a huge payday, though it’ll require a major breakthrough. He and Brooklyn can technically sign an extension by Oct. 15, but that seems unlikely – especially with Dinwiddie, another pending 2019 free agent, also in the mix. Most likely, Russell becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

Tobias Harris

Harris reportedly rejected a four-year, $80 million extension from the Clippers this summer. That’s a lot of money to turn down, but the upside is there. Harris could be the Clippers’ focal point this season, especially in the starting lineup (which probably won’t include Lou Williams). Harris is just 26 and has the all-around skills and work ethic to cash in. The Clippers are aiming higher, so Harris might have to leave L.A. to get paid.

Trey Burke

The No. 9 pick in 2013, Burke gradually fell out of favor with the Jazz. He got a change of scenery with the Wizards and struggled even more in Washington than he had in Utah. Burke seemingly blamed everyone but himself. He fell out of the league until the Knicks called him up in the middle of last season. Burke flourished in New York, showing the offensive command everyone expected when he declared for the draft out of Michigan. Burke must fend off Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay – more recent and higher picks – at point guard, and the Knicks’ reported top target in 2019 free agency is point Kyrie Irving. But if Burke maintains his play with New York over a full season, he’ll have lucrative options somewhere.

Marcus Morris

Morris signed a four-year, $20 million extension with the Suns in 2014, taking a discount to play with his twin brother, Markieff Morris. Then, Phoenix traded Marcus to the Pistons. Marcus vowed never to let personal relationships get in the away of business again. Now with the Celtics, he’ll have his chance to maximize his earnings next summer. Marcus is a hard-nosed and skilled combo forward in a league where his versatility is increasingly valued. He’ll try to prove his worth on a stacked Boston team that has too many strong pieces to allow any individual to fully fly.

Report: Kings trying to get involved in Jimmy Butler trade by taking bad contracts

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The Timberwolves are reportedly seeking, among other things, “salary-cap relief” in a Jimmy Butler trade. But Butler is on a de facto expiring contract, and Minnesota is already below the luxury-tax line this season. There isn’t significant relief to be gained by dealing just him.

So, that likely means unloading Gorgui Dieng, who’s due $48,687,640 over the next three years, including $15,170,787 this season.

That’s a toxic contract that will be difficult to move. Some potential Butler trade partners don’t have viable expiring contracts to trade for Dieng, and some potential Butler trade partners will flat refuse.

Enter the Kings.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In recent days, Sacramento has been aggressive in courting Minnesota and several of Butler’s trade suitors — offering to use its space as a landing spot for bloated contracts.

The Kings have about $11 million in cap space (not counting Jamel Artis‘ unguaranteed deal). They also have a few ill-fitting veterans on expiring contracts that could facilitate a trade: Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234) and Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500).

In return for taking bad contracts, Sacramento will seek draft picks and young players. This is the exact type of trade the rebuilding Kings should make. They just must hope Minnesota’s best offer involves them.

PBT Podcast: How do Victor Oladipo, Pacers take next step forward?

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Last season Victor Oladipo burst on the scene, making the leap from solid rotation player to All-NBA level star who could score and defend — and he dragged the Pacers up to being a solid playoff team with him.

The Pacers were the surprise of the NBA, which leads to the question: Can they do it again? More than that, how can they take a step forward? Kurt Helin of NBC Sports talks with J. Michael of the Indy Star about the Pacers and their key role players — Myles Turner, Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, Thaddeus Young and more — and what has to happen to move this team into the top three or four of the East.

The pair also discusses the East a little, including whether Toronto is for real, and how big a threat will Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks be.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Report: Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau, owner Glen Taylor unaligned on Jimmy Butler trade

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Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau reportedly initially expressed no interest in granting Jimmy Butler‘s trade request. Then, owner Glen Taylor reportedly ordered Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden to deal the star. Yet, Thibodeau was still reportedly trying to convince Butler to stay in Minnesota as of yesterday.

Does that mean Thibodeau was defying his boss? Not necessarily. Thibodeau could be trying to persuade Butler on one front while Thibodeau and Layden also explore trades on another front. There’s room for simultaneous strategies.

But it doesn’t sound as if the Timberwolves are all on the same page.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden, who is the point man for trade conversations, continue to leave rival executives and owners unclear about both the specific players and broader kinds of assets that the Wolves value in a deal, sources said. Even more doubt exists about whether there’s even yet alignment between Taylor and Thibodeau on a structure and a timetable for a deal, league sources told ESPN.

From starting the week insisting to other teams that Minnesota wouldn’t trade Butler to slow-playing return phone calls and failing to share guidelines for the kind of deal that Minnesota wants to execute, Layden has graduated to the next phase of negotiations with teams: Asking for stars, starters, draft picks and salary-cap relief for the chance to acquire Butler, league sources said.

there’s a belief among interested teams that Thibodeau is reluctant to bring strong offers to his owner for examination because he’s still holding out hope to get Butler on the floor for Minnesota this season.

As the trade process grinds along, some interested teams are working to bypass Layden and go directly to Wolves ownership with trade offers. Teams dealing with Minnesota describe an unusual level of confusion. Some have heard separately from Taylor and the Layden/Thibodeau management team, with little apparent coordination between the two levels of Minnesota’s organization.

This all sounds believable. Thibodeau can be stubborn. He feuded with Bulls management until he got fired, and there’s a rumor he’d rather leave the Timberwolves than trade Butler for lesser young players and picks. There’d be a selfish logic to that approach, as missing the playoffs next season – more likely without Butler – could get Thibodeau fired, anyway.

But a dose of skepticism about this report: If you were a team trying to trade for Butler, would you rather deal with Thibodeau – a basketball expert who is adamant about getting a good return – or Taylor, a businessman who built his fortune outside basketball then bought an NBA team? The answer is probably Taylor, and a way to do that is sow discord in Minnesota with leaks like this. This report could cause Taylor to take over Butler-trade negotiations completely.