Knicks look very much a contender out-scoring Thunder in OKC

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What do you want from your title contender?

A superstar to lead the team? How about Carmelo Anthony with 36 points and 12 rebounds — nine offensive? He took over the league’s scoring title race with that performance.

Toughness inside? How about 19 offensive rebounds on one end and your big center Tyson Chandler contesting shots in the paint at the end on the other? (And that was without Kenyon Martin or Amare Stoudemire.)

Three point shooting? How about 10 in the first half and 15-34 for the game”

Quality play off the bench? How about 54 points and 10 threes?

Sunday the Knicks went into Oklahoma City and checked off a lot of boxes on the contender card, beating the Thunder 125-120 in a one of the more entertaining games of the season. That would be a dozen wins in a row for the Knicks as they have found their groove before the playoffs.

If you believe playoff statements can be made in the regular season, the Knicks made one this week beating a depleted Heat and an at-full-strength Thunder.

When talking about the Knicks as contenders, the hesitation was simply are not a good defensive team. There was never any doubt they could score but can they get stops? This game certainly didn’t alleviate that concern but it showed the Knicks can overcome it. On the season their defense is average (15th in NBA in points per possession) but in their 10 games before this they were allowing 1.5 points per 100 possessions fewer, which has them 8th in the NBA in that stretch.

Meanwhile, the Thunder looked beatable. Again. They have two fantastic scorers in Russell Westbrook (37 points on 27 shots) and Kevin Durant (27 points on 17 shots), but their system has a little isolation heavy and that makes them easier to defend. The difference in ball movement between the two sides was stark — the Knicks rate up there with the Heat and Spurs as the teams really sharing the rock right now.

This game was what the Knicks look like when the three ball is falling — they can score in bunches. In the first half it was the long ball that carried the Knicks — 10 threes and a total of 65 points by the break.

The other part of that was their bench. Jason Kidd was 4-of-6 from three for the game, J.R. Smith had 22, and Chris Copeland exploited his matchup with Nick Collison in the first half (Collison isn’t quick enough to cover him on the perimeter and Scott Brooks stuck with that matchup for way longer than he should have).

This was a close game — 110-109 New York with 4 minutes left — and it was the Knicks that made plays down the stretch.

It was Anthony driving baseline again, missing and getting his own rebound again and scoring. It was Tyson Chandler contesting and forcing Durant to miss a floater. It was a J.R. Smith stepback 20 footer then a possession later a 26-foot three off a broken play.

The Thunder made plays also down the stretch — Westbrook in particular with a steal and bucket, then a key three — but it wasn’t enough. When the Knicks offense is clicking they can just outscore teams. That’s what they did.

It felt like a playoff game and the Knicks have won again. They look ready for the postseason in 10 days and like a team that can do a lot of damage when it starts.

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.