Kevin Durant, Thunder overwhelm and blow out Heat

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For the first six minutes of this game, it felt like 2012 all over again — Miami’s defense was smothering, Miami’s offense was finding space and knocking down shots. Meanwhile the red-hot Kevin Durant could not fine room to make his play.

For six minutes the Heat looked like the two-time defending champs and the Thunder looked a couple steps behind them.

Then everything turned.

It started when Jeremy Lamb and Derek Fisher came in and started knocking down threes. Kept going as Scott Brooks sent Kendrick Perkins to the bench and went with a smaller, more mobile lineup — then broke form and kept it for the second half, with Perry Jones starting in place of Perkins (and not shockingly, it worked, I don’t understand why Brooks is so stubborn sticking with Perk). It started when the Thunder started sharing the ball like a contender — two passes after the Heat’s defensive trap to get an open look.

It ended with a 112-95 Oklahoma City rout of the Heat.

If you had any questions about if the Thunder were really title contenders this season, here was your answer.

Kevin Durant finished with 33 points, making it a dozen games in a row over the 30 point mark. The league record is 16 by Tracy McGrady and Durant could well catch him.

However, what really matters is he was efficient racking up those points — 12-of-23 shooting overall and 4-of-9 from three, plus he had seven assists and five rebounds.

LeBron James had 34 points on 20 shots, the rest of his game was bottled up and he had three rebounds and three assists.

What’s more is Miami turned the ball over on 22.7 percent of its possessions Wednesday night — more than 1-in-5 times down the court they coughed it up without a shot. Those became fast break points going the other way for OKC — 11 of those fast break points in the second quarter when the Thunder turned the game around. After his cold start Durant got his rhythm converting those turnovers into easy transition buckets, and once he got his rhythm he was knocking down threes from Epcot Center.

Miami wants to play fast but as part of that they want to attack the rim and the heat stopped that and settled for jumpers much of night. Often ones early in then shot clock. Which went poorly. After starting 2-of-3 from deep the Heat missed their next 15 three pointers. Yet they kept settling, they kept firing away.

Meanwhile Oklahoma was 10-of-16 from three at one point in the third quarter and finished the game 16-of-27 from deep. The Thunder’s fantastic ball movement exploited the Heat traps, on Durant and everyone above the three-point line, by making two and three passes after the trap to find the open man. Then they hit the shot.

Serge Ibaka finished with 22 points, Jeremy Lamb 18 and Derek Fisher 15 as he turned back the hands of time and was 5-of-5 from three.

Chris Bosh had 18 points and 9 rebounds, playing a solid game. Dwyane Wade had 15 points and looked just a step slow.

That’s nine wins in a row for the Thunder, who still get to add to Russell Westbrook to the mix. That was Kevin Durant grabbing ahold of the MVP race.

As much as can happen in a January game (which isn’t much), that was the Thunder making a statement.

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.