Too much Kevin Durant, MVP leads Thunder past Clippers to Conference Finals

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It was a game about poise.

The Clippers showed a lot of it to start the game. Two days after a devastating loss the Clippers showed the growth and maturity Doc Rivers has been trying to instill since he walked in the door — they moved the ball on offense, they defended well (Russell Westbrook started 0-of-4, Kevin Durant 1-of-7) and the Clippers were up 14 in the first quarter. OKC’s offense was stagnant, the Clippers were the ones attacking.

Then Kevin Durant woke up.

Midway through the second quarter, after the Clippers took a mental vacation on defense. Three times in a couple of minutes they left Durant wide open for a three point shot. He hit them, scoring 9 straight. Then it was on

From that point on Durant had 36 points on 11-of-16 shooting, looking every bit the MVP. He even had 16 rebounds. He and the Thunder were the more mature team, looking more like a veteran, battle-tested team.

He carried the Thunder all the way to a 104-98 win over the Clippers.

Oklahoma City takes the series 4-2, moving on to face the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals starting Monday night in San Antonio.

The only question for Oklahoma City is will Serge Ibaka be ready to go for that game — he left the game less than five minutes into the second half with a strained calf and did not return. After the game coach Scott Brooks said he did not know the severity and if Ibaka would be able to go on Monday.

If Durant plays like this, it may not matter. Once the Clippers let him get his rhythm there was no stopping his offense. He rained down jumpers, made moves to the rim, drew a charge on Blake Griffin (who eventually fouled out after a spectacular game) and generally was impressive every time he touched the ball.

Russell Westbrook looked like himself and had 17 of his 19 points on the night after the break, and more importantly he added 12 assists as he shared the rock.

With Ibaka down Scott Brooks played the Steven Adams/Nick Collison combination together more and it worked well — they defended with strength, both are good passers and both ran the floor. Adams played continued his great run scoring 17 points and pulling down 11 rebounds — more of him and less of Kendrick Perkins is good for the Thunder. We’ll see if Brooks plays more Adams and less Perkins in the next round. Thunder fans hope so.

The Clippers got more and more desperate and for a second straight game made too many mistakes down the stretch. Players said that was less about the Donald Sterling drama (although the weight of that certainly didn’t help them) as much as it was about them not making plays. Doc Rivers signed off on that in his press conference.

“We’re a team in process,” Rivers said.

That process saw 57 wins and a trip to the second round of the playoffs, one where they showed themselves to be on the cusp of being a championship team. In the NBA teams often have to learn how to win and the Clippers look like a team that took big steps down that road this season and in these playoffs.

Those were steps the Thunder had already taken.

When they were down early then again late in the game the Thunder showed more poise, more maturity. They dealt with both adversity and success well in this series.

Those are things they will need a lot of next round against the Spurs.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK (AP) — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

 

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.

Cavaliers: Ante Zizic out indefinitely with vestibular condition

Ante Zizic
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Kyrie Irving left the Celtics for the Nets after two seasons. The Cavaliers flipped Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder their first season in Cleveland.

The last player remaining with his team from that monumental-looking Cavs-Celtics trade, Ante Zizic might not be long for Cleveland, either.

In fact, it’s unclear whether he’ll play again for the Cavs.

Cavaliers release:

Center Ante Zizic, who has missed the team’s last five games after being diagnosed with a vestibular condition, will be OUT indefinitely. After experiencing symptoms of nausea and dizziness, it was determined by the Cavaliers medical team that Zizic requires a period of vestibular rehabilitation to evaluate those symptoms further. His return to basketball activities will be updated as appropriate.

“Indefinitely” always sounds scary. That’s especially so with an uncommon basketball medical update.

If the Cavaliers unload veterans like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love before the trade deadline, Zizic could be in line for more playing time down the stretch. He could use a showcase entering unrestricted free agency this summer.

Hopefully, he’s healthy enough to be up for it.