Kevin Durant scores 41, Thunder take 3-0 lead, but Rockets show how Russell Westbrook’s injury could hurt Oklahoma City later

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Kevin Durant swarmed Jeremy Lin as the Rockets point guard tried to call timeout early in the second quarter, hacking at the ball and Lin until a official granted the timeout. That play – intentionally similar to the one where Patrick Beverly injured Russell Westbrook in Game 3 – aggravated Lin’s chest injury, and he didn’t return.

The message was sent.

But it wouldn’t have mattered much unless the shot was sunk, too.

Durant scored his 39th, 40th and 41st points on a 3-pointer that bounced (higher than the backboard), bounced, bounced before finally falling to give the Thunder their last lead in a 104-101 Game 3 win over Houston. Oklahoma City led by as many as 26 points before the cracks sans Westbrook began to show.

The Thunder needed just 13 minutes to build a 25-point lead, and at that point, Durant had 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. For the rest of the game, he shot 6-for-20.

Working well or not, the Thunder ran their offense through Durant.

Durant took 23 shots per 36 minutes without Westbrook during the regular season. He matched that mark during the third quarter tonight and finished with 30 shots, his most in a playoff game.

Oklahoma City is still finding its way with Reggie Jackson, who got his first career start, and Derek Fisher. Jackson (14 points) played better individually, but the Thunder played better with Fisher, who stayed out of Durant’s way. Fisher had no turnovers in 24 minutes and was +14, and Jackson had three turnovers in 25 minutes and was –9.

However, The Rockets knew they couldn’t simply wait for the Thunder to self-destruct without Westbrook. Francisco Garcia (32 minutes) and Terrence Jones (17 minutes) played larger roles off the bench. Garcia actually played more tonight than he did in the first two games combined, and he reward Houston with 18 points, his most as a Rocket.

Beyond those seemingly preplanned changes, Houston’s in-game adjustments to its defense on Durant made the biggest difference. As the Rockets realized Oklahoma City’s offense had become so Durant-focused, they gave him greater attention.

The Rockets revealed a blueprint for slowing the Westbrook-less Thunder. Down 3-0, it’s probably too late for Houston to take advantage, but Scott Brooks faces the tall order of having Oklahoma City ready to counter the Clippers or Grizzlies, who will likely follow a similar gameplan in the second round.

James Harden (30 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks) played very well, and though Chandler Parsons (21 points on 8-of-12 shooting with seven rebounds and seven assists) and Garcia were solid, it’s difficult for one star to carry his team without the help of another star.

That’s a lesson it might be too late for the Rockets to teach Durant, but it’s one he’ll learn soon enough.

J.R. Smith reportedly met with Bucks Thursday to talk about contract

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After five seasons in Cleveland, the Cavaliers waived J.R. Smith. The 34-year-old veteran wing is not part of the Cavaliers future, and by waiving him before the guarantee date they only had to pay him $4.4 million of this $15.7 million salary.

That makes Smith a free agent.

He sat down with the Bucks on Thursday, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bucks can only offer minimum contracts at this point.

Smith will turn 34 before next season starts and his skills are in decline, he shot just 30.8 percent from three last season. The Bucks will likely start Khris Middleton and Wesley Matthews on the wing with Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, and Donte DiVincenzo behind them. They have the roster spot to make the addition. The questions are does Smith fit, does he want the small role that’s really available, and how often will he wear a shirt around the facility?

Mark Cuban says NBA player movement reflects job market across many industries

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It’s a question that came up a lot in the wake of a wild summer where eight of the 24 players in the All-Star Game just last February ended up on new teams:

Is all this player movement good for the NBA?

It got asked everywhere from the league’s headquarters to your local bar, from sports talk radio shows to the NBA’s owners meeting in Las Vegas. There’s no easy answer to that. However, the divide seems to be somewhat generational — older fans miss the stability of knowing their stars would be there next year, young fans like the volatility and fast-changing landscape.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had an interesting perspective on all this: What you see in the NBA is what you see in almost every industry now. From Cuban’s blogmaverick.com:

Some feel that the player movement we have seen, particularly players asking to be traded or leaving teams that have the ability to pay them more money is a problem. I don’t. I think it is exactly what we should expect and it reflects what is happening in the job market across industries in our country.

No longer do college students graduate in search of a career where they expect to spend their entire adult lives working for a single company. Just the thought is crazy. I tell college graduates to look for a job where they get to learn about themselves, the business world, adulting and what they love to do and can be good at it. That their first job is just that, their first job. There will be many more…

Your best of the best will be impactful not only within the company, but via social media and other online platforms, visible as the best in their industry. It is important to give them reasons to want to stay. Great employees are effectively always free agents with the ability to move anywhere.

Why should it be any different for the NBA?

It’s interesting to hear from an owner (guys who traditionally want to control the workers). From a player’s perspective, this makes a lot of sense (and Cuban is as player-friendly an owner as the league has).

In a lot of ways, what bothers fans really applies to only the elite players, the guys with leverage, the guys who change the course of a franchise. If Paul George wants out of his contract, the reaction of Thunder management and fans would be different from if Dennis Schroder tried that kind of power move.

However, does this player movement erode the traditional fan base? Fans in Dallas/Miami/Boston/Los Angeles/everywhere want to identify with players, not just the logo across their chest. If the star players are changing teams more often how does that impact that traditional fandom? Do younger players become fans of players more: A LeBron James fan, a Stephen Curry fan, a James Harden fan, and their loyalties follow the player not the franchise? We seem to have more of that with Lebron and Curry. Cuban worked hard to make sure Dirk Nowitzki never left Dallas. (Going back there was a split between Lakers fans and Kobe fans, it’s just their interests largely always aligned.)

Which leads to the original, key question: Is all this player movement good for NBA business?

For the league and owners, the real question is will the undeniable social media buzz of the NBA offseason lead to increased ticket sales, increased viewership (or at least stopping that decline), more purchasing of League Pass packages (in whatever form), more jersey sales and all the rest of it? Can the league monetize this buzz?

Nobody has the answer to that, in part because how we as a nation (and world) consume media is changing so fast. What will the viewing landscape for the NBA’s television and streaming deals look like in 2024? 2029? Nobody knows.

Which means predicting how this player movement impacts the NBA is an unknown.

All the movement is creating a lot of buzz, which is nice, but buzz will not pay the NBA’s bills.

Damian Lillard on shot to beat Thunder: ‘That was for Seattle’

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Damian Lillard is a legend in Portland. He’s a legend in Oakland.

And now he’ll be a legend in Seattle.

The Trail Blazers star’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer wave goodbye ended the season for the Thunder, who moved to Oklahoma City from Seattle 12 years ago.

Lillard on Sports Business Radio Podcast:

What can I say? That was for Seattle.

Just when I thought Lillard’s shot and celebration were as cold as could be.

Clippers executive Jerry West: ‘I’ve never been around any organization that is better than this one’

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Jerry West played 14 years for the Lakers, making the All-Star game every year and winning a championship in a Hall of Fame career. He coached the Lakers to a few playoff seasons. Then, he ran the Lakers’ front office for 18 years, winning five titles and setting the stage for several more by acquiring Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Now, West works for Clippers owner Steve Ballmer.

West on The Dan Patrick Show:

Steve Ballmer has really put together an unbelievably terrific organization. He’s spared no expense. It’s a really fun place to be. There’s not ego-driven at all. It’s just a fun place to be, and he’s got an awful lot of basketball people over there.

He’s just a great owner and one of the nicest men I’ve ever been around in my life. I’ve never seen a person like this with his success. It’s just remarkable how even-keeled he is. If people knew how philanthropic he was. He keeps all that stuff quiet. I guess he’ll get mad at me for mentioning it. But he’s just a remarkable man himself.

People always ask me what he’s like. And I say he’s just like you and I, normal. I’ve never seen – he’s willing to spend on players. He’s willing to spend on personnel within the front office. And as I mentioned before, I’ve never been around any organization that is better than this one. That’s for sure.

Maybe West is bitter at the Lakers. Maybe West is just gushing about his current boss, because that’s who pays him now.

But the wider respect held for the Clippers is evident in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George picking them without the team first getting an incumbent star. That says a lot about the organization, one that Ballmer has put his stamp on.

This also feels like a shot at the Lakers, whether or not West intended it. Many consider them to be the NBA’s golden franchise.

But their operations have had no shortage of problems lately.

The Lakers would have a stronger relative case further back, when West worked for them. However, organizations generally run better now. The league is more advanced. Maybe West is considering that.

Biases aside, his endorsement of the Clippers might be accurate.

West also worked for the Grizzlies.