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.

Report: NBA not bringing other eight teams to Disney World bubble

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The NBA bringing the “Delete Eight” teams to its Disney World bubble to train as other teams depart?

Like other plans for the Knicks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks, Hornets, Timberwolves and Warriors… it’s not happening.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBPA has no interest in that idea, sources said. It’s a non-starter. The inevitable solution for the eight teams left out of Orlando: The NBA and NBPA agreeing upon voluntary workouts in the team facilities, sources said.

The NBPA won’t agree to mandatory reporting for players on the eight teams outside of the restart but will eventually allow it on a voluntary level, sources said.

Bringing those other eight teams to the Disney World bubble was always a ridiculous idea. Why would the NBA jeopardize its highly profitable setup just so some lousy teams could train and maybe hold glorified scrimmages?

Voluntary team workouts are a reasonable allowance. Though it’s difficult to ensure players coming and going from a team facility won’t spread coronavirus, some players are playing basketball in groups, anyway. At their own facilities, teams can at least enforce protocols to increase safety. And players who’d rather be more careful wouldn’t be forced to participate.

There’s no reason to make anything mandatory. These eight teams’ seasons are over.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.