Serge Ibaka’s back, Thunder are home and look like different team, roll Spurs in Game 3 win

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It turns out, getting one of your best players back really does help.

It was more than just getting Serge Ibaka back in the lineup, although that mattered. A lot. It was also being home where clearly the Thunder role players were more comfortable. It was a couple days off to gather themselves. It was some lineup changes by Scott Brooks that changed the dynamic on the court and gave the Thunder scoring.

Brooks inserted the suddenly healthy Ibaka plus Reggie Jackson in the starting lineup and got what he wanted — the spacing, ball movement and just plane good shooting was back in the Thunder offense. OKC was the team attacking again, rather than settling. Ibaka was 6-of-7 Parker for 15 points with seven rebounds and four blocked shots. With Ibaka in the paint Tony Parker and the Spurs were more hesitant inside the Thunder defense was aggressive and athletic and all that threw the Spurs well-oiled machine off — the Spurs shot just 50 percent in the restricted area.

Oklahoma City won Game 3 106-97 to cut the Spurs lead in the series to 2-1.

The real questions are can Ibaka come back and play like this in Game 4 Tuesday in OKC (he was clearly limping at points late in Game 3)? Will the Thunder defense follow with him again be a force? And how will the Spurs respond?

If the Thunder win Game 4 we have a series, if the Spurs do this series could end in five.

The key in Game 4 for Oklahoma City will be Tony Parker, who was 4-of-13 shooting for 9 points and he was just 1-of-6 inside 8 feet. A more aggressive Russell Westbrook guarding him and the presence of Ibaka made Parker hesitate in the paint, and he is the catalyst for all things San Antonio on offense.

Ibaka was the catalyst for the Thunder, from the opening tip the Thunder were moving the ball and attacking in transition off Spurs misses.

The Thunder put up 28 first quarter points on 12-of-19 shooting, Ibaka was 4-of-4, and the tempo was up. It was everything the Spurs have wanted offensively. Problem was, the Spurs scored 29.

That is how the first half went. Tony Parker started the game 1-of-6 shooting with three turnovers, in fact the Spurs got sloppy with the ball and the Thunder turned that into a 13-2 run. Kevin Durant had 13 in the first half, Westbrook 12 and Ibaka 10, the Thunder shot 56 percent as a team in the first half.

Yet at the half it was a four point Thunder lead, 57-53.

Credit Manu Ginobili for a lot of that, he was 5-of-7 from three and had 20 points. San Antonio hit 7-of-15 from three in the first half to stay in it. Well, that plus the 12 Thunder turnovers helped.

In the third quarter the Thunder were on a parade to the free throw line — 22 times to the Spurs zero in the quarter. In the NBA foul calls usually go to the aggressor and that stat tells you all you need to know about how that quarter looked. At the end of the third it was a seven point OKC lead, you could see which way the game was tilted but the Thunder just could not pull away.

Then the Thunder opened up fourth on 7-0 run as Boris Diaw, who had been reliable from three the first two games of this series, missed a couple and at the other end the Thunder were making plays with Reggie Jackson driving the lane and Caron Butler hitting a corner three.

From there the rout was on. By 5 minutes left in the game Gregg Popovich pulled his starters and made it garbage time.

Westbrook had 26 points and Kevin Durant 25 (both were 8-of-19 shooting) but it was the 15 a piece from Ibaka and Jackson that were the key.

Ginobili finished with 23 points, Tim Duncan had 16 points on 17 shots, Kawhi Leonard had 10 on 11 shots. As a team the Spurs shot 39.6 percent on the night.

The Thunder’s defense, when they are healthy, has given the Spurs trouble for a couple years now. If the Spurs don’t figure it out by Game 4 this is going to be a best-of-three.

Rockets to add Spurs buyout DeMarre Carroll, free agent Jeff Green

Spurs forward DeMarre Caroll
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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that DeMarre Carroll and the San Antonio Spurs have agreed to a buyout. Carroll will then sign with the Houston Rockets:

ESPN’s Tim McMahon added in a subsequent report that the Rockets will bring in free agent forward Jeff Green:

Green will first sign a 10-day contract with the Rockets, so he can get used to their system and see if there is a fit, Woj reported.

Carroll signed a three-year, $20.65 million contract as part of a sign and trade from the Brooklyn Nets to the Spurs this past summer. That agreement was part of a three-team trade that saw San Antonio send forward Davis Bertans to the Washington Wizards. The 10-year veteran is owed $7 million for this season, $6.65 million for 2020-21 and $1.35 million guaranteed for 2021-22. San Antonio will incur a cap hit for each of the three seasons as part of the buyout process with Carroll. How much of a cap hit will depend on how much money Carroll gave up as part of the buyout agreement.

Carroll was added via sign and trade after Marcus Morris spurned the Spurs in free agency. Morris had originally agreed to sign with San Antonio, but backed out after the New York Knicks offered him $15 million as a free agent. The Spurs moved on to Carroll as a backup plan, but he was never able to crack the rotation. He’s played only 135 minutes over 15 games with San Antonio.

Green was with the Utah Jazz earlier this season, before being waived to create a roster spot for Rayjon Tucker. The 11-year veteran Green averaged 7.7 points per game in 30 appearances with Utah. The Rockets will be the ninth different franchise Green has played for.

In Houston, Carroll and Green will join Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball crew as big man depth. Carroll and Green will likely back up P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington up front. Their experience at both forward spots will give the Rockets additional depth for their playoff run. Carroll and Green are also likely be to asked to play some center, as Houston has downsized dramatically at that position, including trading Clint Capela at the trade deadline.

NBA players’ union votes to support formation of G-League union

Kyrie Irving
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Better pay. Better working conditions. Not to be treated as disposable parts by their employers.

The players in the G-League want the same thing out of a union that auto workers, teachers, and (most obviously) NBA players do. As had been expected (talks had been going on for a while), on Monday the National Basketball Players Association (the NBA players’ union) voted to support the formation of a G-League union, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The G-League players are expected to support this. Sources have told NBC Sports that team and league officials will not oppose the players unionizing, they believe there will be benefits, too.

The primary issue will be pay. Most players in the G-League earn a $35,000 salary, unless they’re an elite high school prospect, or on a two-way contract (which means they are tied to an NBA team and can be called up for 45 days a season). Some players make more through an Exhibit 10 contract with a team — meaning they go to training camp with a team, then get a bonus ($50,000 or so) if they sign with that team’s G-League team.

Other issues would include freedom of player movement, work benefits, and giving the players a voice in other matters like discipline issues.

The NBA continues to push toward each of its teams having a minor-league affiliate. Right now, only the Trail Blazers and Nuggets do not. As the G-League grows, it’s understandable the players want a larger voice in how things are run.

In other news out of the players’ union meeting, Kyrie Irving was voted in as vice president, replacing Paul Gasol. Via Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Chris Paul remains the union president.

Check out Dr. Dre’s Kobe Bryant tribute

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CHICAGO — In a weekend filled with spectacular tributes to Kobe Bryant, this one stood out.

Legendary rapper, songwriter, record producer, and businessman Dr. Dre — a guy who grew up in Los Angeles — released a tribute that stood out (and was highlighted on TNT). Dre did this with Gibson Hazard and Jackson Bannon.

Kobe’s public memorial service takes place Feb. 24 at Staples Center.

Giannis Antetokounmpo on team’s All-Star plan: Attack James Harden

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
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CHICAGO – James Harden has griped about Giannis Antetokounmpo winning Most Valuable Player last year.

After his team lost to Harden’s in the All-Star game Sunday, Antetokounmpo got in a dig at Harden.

“Offensively, we were just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding,” Antetokounmpo said of his team’s strategy late. “That’s who we thought we’d have the opportunity to score on.”

Harden is not a good defender. But this is playing right into his hands. He’s at his best in isolation, especially in the post. He faces far more difficulty when run through actions off the ball or trying to keep up in transition.

Down the stretch, Harden defended more effectively than usual. Not great, but above his usual standard. Good enough for LeBron James‘ team to win.

At least, as Giannis previously noted, the MVP trophy is at his house.