Game 6 preview: Is Oklahoma City’s future now?

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The potential implications are obvious: Kevin Durant’s expected flirtation with other teams in free agency is predicated on him wanting to be someplace where he contends for a title. If the Thunder off the Spurs and advance to the Western Conference Finals, how can you call them anything but a contender? And if so, why leave?

Thursday night’s Game 6 against San Antonio may not be the biggest game in Thunder franchise history — they have been to the Finals, remember — but it’s in the top handful. It’s not as simple as “win and Durant will stay as a free agent,” but it will impact his decision making.

Thursday night’s Game 6 in Oklahoma City is going to be the Thunder’s best chance to close out the series — they do not want to head back to San Antonio for a Game 7. During the past few games, the style of play has favored Oklahoma City — things the Spurs need to solve or their 67-win season will end in the second round.

At the top of the list is an improved Thunder defense under coach Billy Donovan. In the first game of this series a disinterested Thunder team was carved up by the Spurs passing and player movement, but in each successive game the Thunder defense has gotten better and better. The Thunder have limited the Spurs transition points, and in the half court are showing attention to detail and a focus we have not seen from them up to this point.

For an example, watch Russell Westbrook last game, as pointed out by the fantastic Mike Prada on Twitter.

“Really, it was a game for us where I think both teams had a hard time consistently getting into any kind of offensive rhythm because I felt both teams’ defenses were playing at a pretty high level,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said at his postgame press conference.

The Thunder’s focused defense (you can hear them call out Spurs plays), combined with their athleticism, has forced Kawhi Leonard into more and more isolation, has bothered LaMarcus Aldridge, has forced Tony Parker to become a scorer rather than a distributor, and has disrupted the ball movement of the Spurs. For OKC to move on, that must continue (and conversely, the Spurs need to get the ball movement back to win).

Second on the list, there is the Steven Adams/Enes Kanter front line. The Thunder have gone big with this combination for 34 minutes in the last two games and are +31 when they do. With those two on the court, the Thunder have dominated the glass, particularly the offensive glass, which has slowed the Spurs desire to get out in transition. This combination should kill the offensive spacing of the Thunder, but they have made it work, while on the other end it has clogged the lane on defense, disrupting the Spurs attack. San Antonio has not been able to exploit the pair’s lack of foot speed. The Adams/Kanter combination has been key in turning around the Thunder’s penchant for terrible fourth quarters — in Game 4 the Spurs scored just 16 fourth quarter points, in Game 5 they shot 6-of-21. That will not get it done.

Finally, don’t forget the Thunder have Westbrook and Kevin Durant. There are only a handful of players walking the face of the earth capable of just taking over any NBA game and changing the outcome — the Thunder have two of them. In the last four games of this series, Durant is averaging 29.5 points on 51.8 percent shooting. They combined for 58 points last game and the Thunder offense has understandably clicked when both have been on the court this season. With that improved defense forcing turnovers, the Thunder are getting transition looks and both of these men — particularly Westbrook — are nearly unstoppable in the open court.

The Spurs are too good and too proud to go quietly into that good night — they will rage, they will make plays, they will defend better, they are not going to let the light die on their season. The Thunder are going to have to put it out. They have figured out how, but closing out a quality veteran team is the final test, the final proof that the Thunder are contenders.

We will see Thursday night if they can pass that test.

We will see if the Thunder’s future is now.

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.

Lakers reportedly exploring Westbrook trade in talks with Jazz

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This feels like a “let’s leak this so our fan base thinks we’re trying” report rather than something that will come close to happening.

The Lakers have re-engaged the Jazz in Russell Westbrook trade talks, reports Chris Haynes at Bleacher Report.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz have had exploratory conversations centered around star guard Russell Westbrook, league sources tell Bleacher Report. However, the Lakers are said to be in communication with most teams to sift through the most reasonable and logical options available.

If the Lakers couldn’t pull off a trade like this over the summer, what has changed now?

The Lakers would be more than happy to move on from Westbrook and bring in more shooting and depth, but this is Danny Ainge they’re dealing with — the price would be both the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks, likely unprotected. The Jazz would send back some combination of Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk — do any three of those players make the Lakers title contenders this season? Are the Lakers willing to give up those two picks to be a team that could make the second round of the playoffs?

Now, if the Raptors get in the trade game, would the combination of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. get the Lakers to surrender Westbrook and both picks? John Hollinger at The Athletic says that scenario is floating around, although everyone continues to wait to see if the Raptors are going to jump into the trade market with both feet.

The smart money is on the Lakers making a smaller move close to the trade deadline, likely involving Patrick Beverley and some second-round picks. Something similar in size to the Rui Hachimura trade, although the Lakers want — or at least are going to project they want — to hunt bigger game.

The Lakers continue surveying the market for premium shooting. Detroit Pistons sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović remains a principal target, but there is league-wide skepticism on whether the Pistons are really willing to unload the nine-year veteran. It’s been reported that it would take at least an unprotected first-round pick to get the Pistons’ attention.

The belief within the Lakers’ organization is that they need to make at least one more move by the Feb. 9 trade deadline to give themselves a legitimate shot at competing for a championship, sources say.

Road wins over the Knicks and Pacers have the Lakers thinking they are a player away from contending? Los Angeles is unquestionably better with Davis back, and there is reason for some level of optimism in a flat Western Conference. But we’re talking “we can make the playoffs” optimism, there is still a chasm between these Lakers and contending — the gap between their second and third-best players (and the rest of the roster) is just too great.

Still, look for some kind of Lakers trade at the deadline. They are one of the more active teams out there. Just don’t expect it to be Westbrook.

Dončić leaves game with heel contusion, could miss games

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Luka Dončić was in control — he scored 21 points in the first quarter — and the Mavericks were cruising to a win.

Then Dončić went for a dunk, Brandon Ingram slid in for the block from behind, and Dončić hit the ground. Hard.

Dončić tried to stay in, but after one more play went back to the locker room and did not return due to what the team called a heel contusion. He could miss a game or two of the upcoming Mavericks’ five-game road trip — which starts with a nationally televised game Saturday in Golden State — according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes.

There likely will be more information from the team over the next 24 hours.

How much the Mavericks need Dončić was on display the rest of this game. The Pelicans stormed back and might have had a chance to tie the game with 3.4 seconds left when a blown call by the referees — Ingram blocked an inbounds pass but was ruled out of bounds in doing so, when he wasn’t — robbed them of that opportunity. Larry Nance Jr. took his shot at the officials for that.

With this win, the Mavericks moved into fourth place in the West (ahead of the Clippers, who fell to the Bucks Thursday).

Three things to Know: Who were biggest All-Star Game snubs?

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Who were biggest All-Star Game snubs? Siakam, Harden and…

The All-Star Game rosters need to be expanded — teams carry 15 players into a regular season game, but there are just 12 roster spots for the All-Star Game. J.J. Redick does a brilliant breakdown of this worth watching.

Don’t bet on it happening. The league knows the small roster leads to big-name snubs, it generates controversy and gets everyone talking — which the league loves. This system works just fine for them.

The All-Star Game reserves were announced Thursday, as selected by the league’s head coaches (or the assistant it got passed down to in more than a few cases), and there were snubs. Here are the five biggest.

James Harden. He’s averaging 21.4 points and 11 assists a game (which will lead the league, once he qualifies by playing enough games and minutes). While he has missed a few games, he’s still played in 34, and is the primary ball handler and second-leading scorer on the team with the fourth-best record in the league. The Beard deserved to be in Salt Lake City. He knows it and wasn’t subtle about his frustration, and Joel Embiid had his back.

Pascal Siakam. I don’t see how the coaches could leave him off the list. It likely goes back to the struggles of the Raptors team, but that is not on Siakam has played in 43 games and averaged 24.9 points, 8 rebounds and 6.2 assists a night, plus he’s a quality defender. He has played at an All-NBA level, not just All-Star.

Anthony Davis. You can see why coaches left the Lakers’ big off the list, he’s only played in 29 games this season. Still, that’s just six fewer than Jackson Jr. and Davis has been much better when he has played — 26.9 points and 12 rebounds a game, plus elite defense. When healthy, Davis’ name got thrown into the MVP conversation, and Thursday night he showed why with the game-winning bucket and then game-saving block for the Lakers against the Pacers.

Devin Booker. This is the same case as Davis, a guy who is clearly an All-NBA player when healthy — 27.1 points and 5.6 assists a game — but misses the cut because he’s missed time and played in just 29 games. Isn’t the All-Star Game supposed to be filled with the best players in the league? It’s not MVP or some award where games played should matter that much, if you’re in half your team’s games that’s enough to play in this exhibition.

Jalen Brunson and Jimmy Butler. We’re combining them because it is the exact same issue: Both are deserving, but the coaches only wanted to give their team one spot so it went to the big on their rosters (Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo), not them. They got squeezed, which goes back to the need to expand the All-Star Game rosters.

2) Antetokounmpo’s 54 sparks Bucks comeback as Clippers collapse

Giannis Antetokounmpo has been making his MVP case the past couple of weeks — and it is strong.

The Clippers seemed to be in control of this game — up by 21 in the second half and specifically up 19 with 2:30 left in the third quarter — and Ivica Zubac was giving Antetokounmpo as much trouble as any human could.

Then Antetokounmpo took over. From that 2:30 mark on, the Greek Freak scored 23 points, the Bucks outscored the Clippers 41-21 — Antetokounmpo himself outscored the Clippers — and Milwaukee stormed back to get a 106-105 win.

Antetokounmpo finished with 54 points, his third 50+ game in the last month. So about that MVP case…

The flip side of this game shows why I am off the Clippers bandwagon. You could see it in the recent loss to the Celtics and this game. There are moments (like the first 36 minutes in Milwaukee) where if you squint and look at Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, you can see the outline of a contender. But when the pressure of a real contender ramps up the holes in their defense, their roster, and their style get exposed. Part of it is this team hasn’t played enough games together with a healthy roster to develop the good habits — sharp defensive rotations, good ball movement on the offensive end under pressure — but is there really time left to do it considering Leonard and George are going to miss time on back-to-backs and other spots.

The Clippers closed this game shooting 0-of-9, with a to of isolation ball from Leonard and no passing out of it. That doesn’t work against elite defenses, the kind the Clippers will see come the playoffs. Adding a point guard isn’t going to solve all these issues, but in a West where nobody is running away with anything the Clippers’ dreams are alive.

3) Donovan Mitchell calls out Dillon Brooks as dirty after both are ejected

How many games suspension should the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks get for what looked like an intentional shot to Donovan Mitchell’s, um, “groin area?”

The incident came with just under six minutes left in the third quarter, Brooks drove the lane and right into the body of Michell, knocking him back (a physical but not unreasonable play). The Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley rotated over and blocked the shot, knocking Brooks to the ground. That’s when Brooks swung his arm and — it looked like intentionally — hit Mitchel in the, shall we say, family jewels. Mitchell fell to the ground, threw the ball at Brooks, and the two had to be separated.

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

Mitchell said he would appeal the flagrant and any fine, saying he should be able to defend himself, and calling out Brooks.

This incident sparked the Cavaliers, who pulled away for a 128-113 win behind 32 from Darius Garland. The Grizzlies are reeling right now, having lost 7-of-8.