Thunder will try to bounce back after big loss to Warriors


OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) The Oklahoma City Thunder have valuable experience bouncing back from disaster.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, the San Antonio Spurs rolled past the Thunder by 32 points. Oklahoma City responded by beating the Spurs in San Antonio 98-97 the next game, and the Thunder eventually took the series 4-2.

The Thunder seized homecourt in the Western Conference Finals against Golden State by winning Game 1 before the Warriors responded by blowing past them 118-91 in Game 2. The Thunder will try to recover again Sunday as the series shifts from Oakland to Oklahoma City.

“Yeah, it helps a little bit with our confidence just knowing that we’ve been in this position before,” Thunder forward Kevin Durant said. “It’s not foreign land to us. But last series – we can’t really worry about that too much. We’ve got to focus on who we’ve got in front of us right now. We know it’s easier said than done. Just because we did it last time, doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to happen again.”

The Thunder remain in an ideal position. Hold serve at home, and they will return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2012.

“We know they’re going to come here and try to steal one,” Thunder guard Dion Waiters said. “As long as we take care of home court advantage and do what we’re supposed to do and leave everything out there, then we’ll be fine.”

The Warriors realize winning at Chesapeake Energy Arena won’t be easy. The Thunder are 36-11 at home this season, including the playoffs, in the building nicknamed “Loud City.”

“It’s definitely one of the loudest venues in the league,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Fans have a lot to cheer about the last six, seven years. It’s a great venue. It will be a lot of fun to be there facing a great team on their home floor. That’s the best challenge there is. I think our guys are up for the challenge.”

In their only regular-season meeting in Oklahoma City, the Warriors needed Steph Curry’s dramatic 37-foot 3-pointer to beat the Thunder 121-118 in overtime. Curry scored 46 points that night, tied an NBA record with 12 made 3-pointers and set the single-season record for made 3s in a season. The shot was a defining moment in Curry’s run to his second straight MVP award.

“It’s a big shot, a big play, a very eventful night overall for a lot of different reasons,” Curry said. “To get that win meant a lot. Just having been down in that game, claw our way back, and the way we even got into overtime. Regular-season wise that was a big win for us and a big shot. But it doesn’t mean anything going back there for the playoffs.”

The Warriors are confident, having posted the league’s all-time best regular-season road mark at 34-7 this season. Oklahoma City’s Game 1 win makes Game 3 more urgent for Golden State.

“They did their job,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “They came and won one. When you’re going on the road in the playoffs, your motto is always go win one game, and they did that. Now it’s up to us to do our job and go win one game and try to take home-court advantage back. Game 3 will be important. It’s not the end all, be all, but it’s a game we want to win.”

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AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri