Kevin Durant thoroughly, easily – and, yes, reliably – dismantles Grizzlies in Game 6

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The Oklahoman. Tony Allen. An elimination game in the Grindhouse.

Kevin Durant faced pressure from all directions.

Yet, the the Oklahoma City Thunder relied on their MVP-to-be to extend their season. And it worked!

Mr. UnReliable scored 36 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Thunder’s 104-84 Game 6 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday.

Durant earned a stay of scrutiny, though only temporarily. The Oklahoman’s point, even if initially miscommunicated, was accurate. Durant had not been reliable throughout this series. A cold Game 7 on Saturday against the battered and bruised Grizzlies – Mike Conley left the game with an injury – and the criticism of Durant will return in greater force than ever.

But, until proven otherwise, Durant has earned the benefit of the doubt. Reliability is not proven in five games, and adding Durant’s Game 6 (11-of-17 on 2-pointers, 0-for-6 on 3-pointers and 14-of-15 on free throws) to the scale tips it in a different direction.

This was not Durant’s best game,  mostly because that bar is absurdly high. He was just reliably good when his team’s season was on the line.

Durant needed barely more than 14 minutes to score 18 points, doing most of that damage before his defensive nemesis, Allen, even entered the game. Allen later had his moments, but Durant was not nearly as bothered as he’d been previously.

The Thunder leading by at least 15 for the final 25 minutes also helped keep Durant comfortable.

Russell Westbrook (25 points on 9-of-21 shooting, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals and four turnovers) provided his usual compromise – sometimes-erratic, but much-more-often-effective, play.

Scott Brooks’ decision to start Caron Butler over Thabo Sefolosha paid off with Butler spacing the floor by making 2-of-4 3-pointers. Many wanted Reggie Jackson inserted into the starting lineup instead, but Brooks kept Jackson in the second unit, and the point guard scored 16 points on 4-of-5 3-point shooting.

Serge Ibaka (four blocks) and Steven Adams (five blocks) anchored a defense that held the Grizzlies to 37 percent shooting and a series-low 84 points. Of course, ending the game after the fourth quarter helped keep Memphis’ scoring down.

For the first time in five games, the Thunder and Grizzlies didn’t play overtime – and that reminded us of something that was getting lost

The Thunder are better than Memphis.

They were better all season, and they’re better now. Not so much better that they’ll necessarily win Game 7, but better.

Oklahoma City has won games in this series by 14 points and 20 points. That leaves four overtime – i.e., coin-flip – games, three of which the Thunder lost. Had they won one more of those, this series would be over. You can claim “What if?” about overtime games, not 14- and 20-point losses.

Wednesday, Marc Gasol (17 points) and Zach Randolph (16 points), but by the end of the game, they were sitting sullenly on the bench. More worrying, Conley was in the locker room.

Conley went to the lock room late in the third quarter with a right hamstring strain. He returned for 56 seconds in the fourth quarter, but then he went back the locker room for the rest of the game.

The Grizzlies point guard struggled Wednesday (2-for-10 shooting), but it’s difficult to see Memphis winning a Game 7 on the road without him. He’s a major plus on both ends of the floor – especially for a team that already lost its backup point guard, Nick Calathes, to suspension.

In 18 playoff games against each other in the last four years, including 308 minutes in this series, the Thunder and Grizzlies have grown tired of each other. Butler and James Johnson got into a tizzy, drawing a double technical foul, and Randolph and Adams later had to be separated. Play got chippy at points, even though the lack of drama in the game’s result probably eased tension.

The battle hasn’t ended. We have, at least, 48 minutes left in what’s been a mostly well-played series.

Durant proved tonight the Thunder can rely on him when it matters most, but he proved it only for a night. Now, Saturday matters most.

Is Kevin Durant reliable? It’s a question he’ll answer – again – in Game 7.

LeBron James rips AAU workload: ‘AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid’

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Last week, during the pointless debate about Kawhi Leonard missing a game for load management, the most salient point came from former Suns coach Earl Watson.

He echoed a must-read story (from Baxter Holmes at ESPN) that reverberated around the NBA this summer (but for many fans got lost in the shuffle of player movement): How NBA team medical staffs — as well as just doctors working on young athletes — were noticing the extreme wear and tear on the body of AAU basketball players. The volume of games, often without enough training and conditioning to properly strengthen their young bodies or let them recover, sets young players up for injuries later in their playing career. NBA teams and doctors, with their load management techniques, are trying to make up for damage that started long before.

LeBron James, with two sons playing AAU ball right now, is in full agreement.

LeBron ripped the volume of games played in the youth basketball culture, speaking to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

“These kids are going into the league already banged up, and I think parents and coaches need to know [that] … well, AAU coaches don’t give a f***,” James told Yahoo Sports. “AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid and what his body is going through…

“I think [AAU] has something to do with it, for sure,” James told Yahoo Sports. “It was a few tournaments where my kids — Bronny and Bryce — had five games in one day and that’s just f- – -ing out of control. That’s just too much… So, I’m very conscious for my own son because that’s all I can control, and if my son says he’s sore or he’s tired, he’s not playing.

“Because a lot of these tournaments don’t have the best interest of these kids, man. I see it. It’s like one time, they had to play a quarterfinal game, a semifinal game and a championship game starting at 9 a.m., and the championship game was at 12:30 p.m. Three games. I was like, ‘Oh, hell no.’ And my kids were dead tired. My kids were dead tired. This isn’t right. This is an issue.”

It is an issue. A big issue. The NBA can talk about reducing the number of games — they are, and they should, the season is too long, but cutting the number of games becomes a complex financial issue — but it goes beyond just the NBA level.

There needs to be fundamental changes in youth basketball in the NBA, down to the AAU level. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has talked about this.

“So, where historically it’s been an area, particularly AAU basketball, that the league has stayed out of, I think these most recent revelations (from the NCAA scandal) are just a reminder that we’re part of this larger basketball community. I think ultimately, whether we like it or not, need to be more directly involved with elite youth basketball,” Silver said a couple of years ago. Since then, the league has taken steps in that direction.

However, like shortening the NBA season, there are a lot of competing interests in a complicated situation. A lot of people are making money the way things are now and don’t want them to change.

For the health of players, it needs to.

 

Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton to miss 3-4 weeks with thigh contusion

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Khris Middleton, coming off a summer with Team USA, has quietly continued his All-Star level play this season — an efficient 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three but also finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

However, he’s not going to be on the court for a few weeks due to a deep thigh bruise, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

In the third quarter of the Bucks win over the Thunder Sunday, Middleton suffered the thigh bruise, which sent him to the locker room. While he returned to the bench, he did not return to the game. Afterward, in the locker room, Middleton didn’t seem to think it was that serious.

It turned out to be a little more than that, it has to be a deep bruise to have him out for up to a month.

Kyle Korver would be next in line to get those minutes, but he sat out Sunday with a “head contusion.” Behind him look for smaller lineups with Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown, and Wesley Matthews to get more minutes, plus maybe a little Thanasis Antetokounmpo.

After 0-6 start, Raptors coach Nick Nurse celebrates successful challenge like he won a championship (video)

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After the Raptors won the 2019 NBA title, Toronto coach Nick Nurse hugged Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Masai Ujiri.

Some of the hug recipients changed, but Nurse’s celebration didn’t look that different last night.

Nurse missed his first six coach’s challenges then finally got one right during the Raptors’ win over the Lakers. He responded by hugging everyone – including a Los Angeles fan – around him.

This was a long time coming. Even after a couple early failed challenges, Nurse sounded exasperated.

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

Maybe Clippers coach Doc Rivers, a noted challenge critic, will eventually experience this euphoria.

Report: Gordon Hayward to have surgery on left hand

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How good would Gordon Hayward be if he could just stay healthy?

Hopefully we will find out someday, but probably not for the next couple of months after his agent told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Hayward will have surgery on his non-shooting hand to repair a broken bone.

There will be no official timeline for recovery until after the surgery, but after going under the knife Hayward is likely out at least six weeks. Stephen Curry is out three months after surgery on his non-shooting hand (that is a different injury, but it shows how long the timeline can be).

The play where the injury happened was innocuous.

Even so, it has left Boston with some big questions to answer through New Year’s Eve, or whenever Hayward returns. Hayward was having a bounce-back year, averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds and dishing out 4.1 assists per game. He’s been a critical playmaker for the Celtics.

For Boston, this likely means a lot more Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye, and maybe Javonte Green.