ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 NBA Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: Russell Westbrook was out and Kevin Durant stepped up with (or if you prefer, finally showed off) the well rounded, complete game we’ve always expected of him. He earned the league MVP with his carrying of the Thunder to 59 wins. OKC was again strong on both ends, seventh in the league in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating. Reggie Jackson stepped up as Thabo Sefolosha faded, and Serge Ibaka took another step forward with his game. With Westbrook back to his terrorizing form the Thunder entered the playoffs as title contenders but again they were undone by injury, a calf strain to Ibaka. The Thunder again made it to the conference finals but with Ibaka missing a couple games they could not overcome the eventual champion Spurs.

Signature highlight from last season: It’s almost impossible to chose, this team has so many. I think the best one was Russell Westbrook’s overtime corner three to beat the Warriors:

But if you prefer a Kevin Durant game winner, here he goes basically one-on-five to beat the Hawks:

Offseason moves: For a years now, coach Scott Brooks stuck with certain guys no matter what logic or eyeballs dictated, but a couple of those fallbacks are now gone. Thabo Sefolosha (a regular starter) was allowed to walk in free agency after a down year, while Derek Fisher retired and will coach the Knicks.Last year’s free agent pickup Caron Butler left as well. Oh, and they traded Hasheem Thabeet.

In their place they picked up Anthony Morrow as a free agent as well as Sebastian Telfair, plus they drafted Mitch McGary.

Keys to the Thunder season

Just stay healthy. Of course this is true of every contender, but two years ago it was Westbrook’s knee that ended their real playoff hopes. Last season Ibaka suffered a grade two calf strain in the playoffs that kept him out for a couple weeks, including the start of the series against the powerhouse Spurs. We don’t know how that series turns out if Ibaka’s healthy, but we know if this team can’t keep its big three healthy they can’t get back to the Finals. Not in this loaded Western Conference.

Is there enough around Durat/Westbrook/Ibaka? This is ultimately the question. They have a championship caliber core, but since the James Harden trade they have not been able to get back to the Finals (in part due to that health issue). The question is do they have the right role players in the right system to lift this team up to the Finals and to win a ring?

If the answer is going to be yes, it has to start with Reggie Jackson, who by the end of the playoffs last year had taken Sefolosha’s starting job and this season. He is going to get a lot of time paired with Westbrook in the backcourt and he brings a more dynamic offensive game with him to that role. He can make the Thunder offense that much more dangerous — and it doesn’t hurt this is a contract year for him (he’s a restricted free agent next summer if a contract extension is not reached by Oct. 31).

Another key role player is Steven Adams, who hopefully will supplant Kendrick Perkins this season (Perkins is another one of Brooks’ crutch guys). Adams brings toughness and defense, but more importantly a little better offense than Perkins. Defenses ignore Perkins (the Thunder try to get him going every game by giving him a couple early touches in the post) but Adams is a rim runner and more athletic, a guy defenses have to keep an eye on.

Finally, the Thunder need growth from Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III, they will need to play larger roles. Anthony Morrow needs to space the floor. If they can get something from the rookie McGary and the veteran Telfair all the better.

The pieces seem to be there, can Brooks put them in a less-predictable offense that makes the Thunder harder to defend? If so there is no limit to where the Thunder can finish this season.

How do the Thunder deal with Durant’s constant free agency questions? In every city — and especially in Washington, Los Angeles and New York — Kevin Durant is going to get questions about his 2016 free agency. Then reporters will ask the other Thunder players about Kevin Durant’s free agency in two years. Every answer will pretty much get national play. It’s a potential distraction and something the Thunder need to learn to deal with because it is not going away. (Durant doesn’t know what he’s going to do in two summers yet anyway, but staying with the Thunder is still the smartest bet.)

Why you should watch: Have you ever seen Durant and Westbrook play? Go look at the highlights above. This is as entertaining a team as there is in the league, with two of the game’s most dynamic stars leading them. Plus you should watch just to see what Russell Westbrook wears to the arena on any given night.

Prediction: 61-21, which will have them as one of the top two seeds in the West, maybe the top seed. Kevin Durant likely will pick up another MVP award (LeBron now has some real help around him and with that his numbers are likely drop a little, then guys like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will split the Clipper vote). But what really matters to him and the franchise is getting a ring. If they are relatively healthy, and if the role players have stepped up, the Thunder have a very real shot at that title. They are legit title contenders, the only real problem they face is that there are a couple others of those in the West.

If the Thunder don’t get back to the Finals, Scott Brooks could be the next change the Thunder seriously consider.

Watch Eric Gordon’s 50-point night spark Houston win over Jazz on night Harden, Westbrook sit

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Eric Gordon scored a career-high 50 points to lead the short-handed Houston Rockets to a 126-117 victory over the Utah Jazz on Monday night despite playing without James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Danuel House Jr. added 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Austin Rivers also had 21 points as Houston handed the Jazz their first home loss since Dec. 9.

Gordon became the first Rockets player besides Harden to score 50 points in a game since Hakeem Olajuwon had 51 in January 1996, according to STATS. Harden has done it 23 times since then.

Donovan Mitchell scored 36 points and Bojan Bogdanovic added 30, but Utah lost for just the third time in 22 games despite shooting 51% from the field.

Gordon had his first game with more than 30 points this season. His previous career best of 41 came against Oklahoma City on Jan. 23, 2009. The veteran guard stepped up and filled the scoring void with Harden, Westbrook and Clint Capela sitting out.

Harden missed his second straight game with a bruised left thigh. Capela (bruised right heel) and Westbrook (rest) sat out after playing Sunday against Denver.

Their absence had minimal impact on Houston’s offense early.

Gordon bookended an 11-0 run with a dunk and a 3-pointer to give the Rockets an 11-4 lead early in the first quarter. Houston stayed in front throughout the period.

The Jazz went ahead with a 13-2 run to open the second. Mitchell scored three baskets to fuel the spurt, and Mike Conley drove for a layup to cap it off.

Gordon provided a spark to help Houston regain the lead. He totaled 15 points in the second quarter and helped the Rockets close the first half on a 17-6 run to take a 59-46 lead into the break. Thabo Sefolosha started and finished the run by driving for a layup.

Utah trimmed the deficit to 72-66 midway through the third on consecutive 3-pointers from Bogdanovic, but got no closer. Rivers and House answered with back-to-back baskets to stop the rally. That sparked a 15-6 spurt that gave Houston an 87-72 lead near the end of the quarter.

Watch Buddy Hield score career-high 42, rally Kings from 27 down past Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS — Buddy Hield scored a career-high 42 points to help the Sacramento Kings rally from a 27-point deficit for a 133-129 overtime victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night.

De'Aaron Fox scored 22 for the Kings, putting back the rebound of his intentionally missed free throw as part of a 33-11 run over the final 5:42 of regulation.

Andrew Wiggins had 36 points, nine rebounds and eight assists for the Timberwolves, who lost their 10th consecutive game.

With the Kings down three with 4.7 seconds left in regulation, Fox made his first free throw. He intentionally fired the second off the front of the rim, grabbed his own rebound and laid it in to tie the game with 3.6 seconds left.

Hield scored 18 points in the final 4:36 of regulation on a night that featured tributes to his childhood hero, Kobe Bryant. Fox scored 17 points in the second half and overtime. Nemanja Bjelica finished with 20 points.

The Timberwolves built their lead thanks to a franchise-record 23 3-pointers. Wiggins was 7 for 11 beyond the arc.

Robert Covington had 24 points and Karl-Anthony Towns added 23 for Minnesota. It was the first time three Timberwolves have scored 20 or more points in a game since Dec. 13.

To open the game, both teams honored Bryant, who died Sunday in a helicopter crash. Minnesota took an 8-second backcourt violation and Sacramento took a 24-second shot-clock violation on the ensuing possession. While taking the 8-second violation, Wiggins placed the ball on the free throw line where Bryant scored to pass Michael Jordan for third place on the career scoring list on Dec. 14, 2014, at Target Center.

Minnesota hit 10 of its first 15 3-point attempts and shot 14 for 23 from 3 in the first half. That set a franchise record for 3s in a half and helped the Timberwolves to a 68-50 halftime lead.

The Timberwolves honored Bryant prior to tipoff with words from Towns, a video tribute and a moment of silence. Towns wore No. 24 and Covington wore No. 8 while being introduced as part of the starting lineup to honor Bryant. They donned their regular Nos. 32 and 33 before the opening tip.

LeBron James on Kobe Bryant: ‘I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!!’

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Often on social issues (or just because it’s Taco Tuesday), LeBron James can be quick to post on social media.

With the death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others — in a tragic helicopter accident, it took LeBron some time. LeBron and Kobe were close, they won Gold Medals together and competed against each other at the highest levels of the game. There became close, even more so in the past couple of years when LeBron came West and joined the Lakers. LeBron got to know Kobe’s family — when Gianna was at a recent Lakers game, LeBron was asking her about her fadeaway (which looked a lot like her dad’s).

Understandably, it took a grieving LeBron some time to comment on what happened, but Monday night he issued his first public statement on the passing of Kobe through an Instagram post.

View this post on Instagram

I’m Not Ready but here I go. Man I sitting here trying to write something for this post but every time I try I begin crying again just thinking about you, niece Gigi and the friendship/bond/brotherhood we had! I literally just heard your voice Sunday morning before I left Philly to head back to LA. Didn’t think for one bit in a million years that would be the last conversation we’d have. WTF!! I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!! 😢😢😢😢💔. Man I love you big bro. My heart goes to Vanessa and the kids. I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man! You mean so much to us all here especially #LakerNation💜💛 and it’s my responsibility to put this shit on my back and keep it going!! Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here! There’s so much more I want to say but just can’t right now because I can’t get through it! Until we meet again my brother!! #Mamba4Life❤️🙏🏾 #Gigi4Life❤️🙏🏾

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

There’s nothing else to say.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook both sit for Rockets game vs. Utah

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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When going up against a Utah team that has won 14-of-15, and outscored teams by 14.6 points per 100 possessions in that stretch, an opponent needs to be at full strength.

The Houston Rockets will be without James Harden and Russell Westbrook for the game. The Rockets have lost 5-of-7 heading into this game.

Harden will miss his second consecutive game with a thigh bruise. The rest ultimately may be good for him, Harden has struggled of late and looked a little worn down — in his last five games he’s averaging 23 points a game (13.1 below his season average), shooting 33.3 percent overall and 13.6 percent from three.

Harden is not expected to miss extended time, the Rockets play again on Wednesday vs. the Trail Blazers.

For Westbrook, this is a planned rest game. The Rockets are on a back-to-back and Westbrook took on a heavy load in Denver Sunday with 32 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and also 10 turnovers in the Houston loss.