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Kevin Durant drops 39 on Westbrook, Thunder as Warriors win 122-96

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It started without much of anything, really. No handshake. No fistbump. No acknowledgement. Just a tip between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder to quietly start the most anticipated game of the season as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant faced off as foes for the first time.

The Warriors began slow, mismanaging their gameplan save for Durant, who had 13 points in the first quarter. Oklahoma City played as well as could be asked of them given the raucous crowd at Oracle Arena, but by early in the second quarter Golden State opened up a massive lead as Westbrook sat on the bench.

From that point on, there wasn’t much Westbrook or the Thunder could do to stop the four-time NBA scoring champion. Durant was everywhere — pouring in long-range threes, slashing to the lane, and talking smack to supporting members of the Oklahoma City roster.

At one point, Durant and Westbrook exchanged vicious blocks on each other that almost made you think the game wasn’t ridiculously out of hand. But it was, 68-43, at halftime in favor of the Warriors.

Durant had 29 points on 17 shots while Westbrook struggled on just 3-of-13 shooting after two quarters. The Thunder couldn’t seem to lend a hand to Westbrook, who remained surprisingly reserved given the circumstances. Only a few times did Westbrook force it, instead deciding to pass genially and with frequency in order to supply his teammates with opportunities.

Then came a clear shift.

After the second half started, Westbrook still raced up and down the floor to start the break, but instead of attacking he began passing by the time he got to the 3-point line. He defaulted to his teammates too early and too often. Maybe because he believed in them, or maybe because he wanted them to take some of the blame. It seemed as though he had purposely faded into the background.

Meanwhile, it seemed Durant was determined, with the help of this game, to steer the national conversation away from what it has been this year. Up nearly 30 points, Durant stayed on the floor for the Warriors until the 6:41 mark in the fourth quarter, playing with Steve Kerr’s bench unit. He needed it to be definitive.

Durant — long the quiet, humble star next to Westbrook’s raging, spinning asteroid — had the narrative flipped on his head. Somehow, Durant’s move to Oakland made Westbrook the sympathetic figure. The lanky 7-footer didn’t seem to like that very much, so he went out focused on to burying the Thunder. He succeeded, but I don’t think Durant changed the narrative.

Golden State would go on to beat Oklahoma City, 122-96. Durant had 39 points on 15-of-24 shooting, adding seven rebounds, one assist and one block. Westbrook wasn’t even the highest scorer for the Thunder, an honor that went to Victor Oladipo. The Thunder point guard went 4-of-15 from the field to match 10 assists, six turnovers, two blocks and one steal.

After an embarrassing stumble against the San Antonio Spurs to start the season, the Warriors have counterbalanced and appear to be, as it were, who we thought they were.

They clobbered Portland on Tuesday during a game in which Damian Lillard was in mid-season form. They slammed the Thunder, a projected playoff team by many, on Thursday. They are a Superteam™. I’m not sure that absolves Durant in the public eye.

If anything, destroying the newly branded anti-anti-hero in Westbrook with such force confirms the rest of the NBA’s fears about Golden State. That is, they are a team so powerful when fully integrated that not even Adam Silver thinks they should exist. That basketball, for us mere mortals, may be a futile exercise. That when the gods have decided they are bored in five or six years time, that we may have it back.

Until then, this looks like the Warriors’ league. We thought it would be this way. We even thought it might come this soon. But there were doubts. Doubts that they would have chemistry issues a la The Big 3 in Miami. That we could call upon lone heroes — the Lillards, Westbrooks, and James Hardens of this earth — to make them bleed.

In Westbrook, Durant helped slay at least one gladiator. When he left the court, it was the same as how it started: No handshake. No fistbump. No acknowledgement.

Just a win, and a dangerously waning hope for the rest of the NBA.

Watch Bogdan Bogdanovic hit game-winning 3-pointer for Kings vs. Thunder (video)

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Another game, another Kings game-winning 3-pointer.

After Nemanja Bjelica hit a buzzer-beater against the Rockets on Monday, Bogdan Bogdanovic sunk the go-ahead 3-pointer against the Thunder last night. That stood as the game-winner once Richaun Holmes successfully defended Chris Paul on the other end, clinching Sacramento’s 94-93 victory.

The Kings have won three straight – over the Mavericks, Rockets and Thunder. The schedule softens over the next week and a half, giving Sacramento a real chance to rise in the Western Conference standings.

And if he keeps playing like this, Bogdanovic might find his way into a starting lineup.

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team. Board man got his ring.

The Toronto Raptors and their fans handled the return of Kawhi Leonard with nothing but class. The video tribute was spot on, and having the court light up to retrace his “shot heard around the World” was brilliant. Having the guys Leonard played with out to greet him at center court was a great touch, having Kyle Lowry present him the ring was perfect, and the crowd responded with an extended standing ovation (a few did boo Paul George, as if Leonard leaving was his fault). Doc Rivers said after the game he’s not seen any team do it better and he’s right.

Leonard then repaid that love by showing what he and his new teammates can do, crushing the Raptors with relative ease.

Lenard had 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, but credit OG Anunoby for making him work for those buckets. Leonard has struggled at points this season — he shot 2-of-11 against Toronto at Staples Center last month — and part of that was his knee was bothering him. Scouts talked about him not looking as explosive or comfortable, but that has changed of late, he is moving well and getting tho his spots.

Another former Raptor, Lou Williams, added 18 points. The Clippers bench, as it usually does, had their way and outscored the Raptors bench 44-18. It was a good win for the Clippers after getting thrashed themselves by the Bucks last Friday night. They needed a quality road win.

The Raptors are 1-4 in their last five with losses to Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, and now the Clippers in that stretch. Toronto is 3-8 against teams over .500. It’s concerning, and it will force Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office to consider their plan to keep this core together through another playoff push — if a team comes calling with a good offer for Marc Gasol, do the Raptors say yes?

Wednesday was a reminder that without Leonard, there is a ceiling on this Toronto team.

2) Cleveland opts not to trap James Harden, he drops 55 and carries Houston to win. For the past couple of weeks, teams have adopted a new, aggressive strategy against Harden — aggressively double team him at midcourt, force him to give up the ball, and dare any other Rocket to beat them. (Zach Lowe breaks it all down beautifully at ESPN.)

The strategy has had mixed results. When good defensive teams do it (the Clippers, for example, tried it) they’ve had some success, especially if they can force Russell Westbrook to take threes. When bad defensive teams do it (say, Atlanta) Harden still carves them up. The Rockets are 5-5 since teams started trying it, but they have the fourth-best offense in the NBA in that stretch (their defense and mental vacations during games are what has let them down).

Cleveland is not a good defensive team, third-worst in the NBA coming into Wednesday night, so the Cavaliers didn’t try to trap The Beard. They went with a more traditional defense, and Harden carved them up for 55 points.

Houston had a comfortable lead in this game but had one of its in-game mental vacations and let Cleveland score 24 in a row to take an 11 point lead. That’s when Harden took over and scored the Rockets’ next 15 points to get them back into the game.

Harden is carrying the Rockets this season (which is why he’s in the thick of the MVP race, again), but if the team can’t tighten up its game and stop having those in-game lapses there is only so much Harden can do.

3) Grizzlies’ rookie Ja Morant may have thrown down the dunk of the year. When we talked about athletic freaks leading up to the last draft, talk instantly turned to Zion Williamson. With good reason.

However, people seemed to sleep on what a good athlete Ja Morant is. If you want proof, why not go as Phoenix’s Aron Baynes about it. Morant flat-out destroyed Baynes on an early contender for Dunk of the Year.

Notice that came on a critical fourth-quarter possession — you’ve got to love the way Morant is willing to attack in that situation.

• Bonus Thing to Know: DeAndre Jordan is going to make sure Jarrett Allen looks good before taking the court.

No Giannis Antetokounmpo, no problem as Bucks win 16th straight

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — No Giannis was no problem for the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night.

Reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out but the Bucks kept on rolling, getting 29 points from Eric Bledsoe and 24 from Khris Middleton in a 127-112 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans that extended their winning streak to 16 games.

The Bucks (22-3) tied the second-longest winning streak in franchise history and moved closer to the franchise record of 20 set during the team’s 1970-71 championship season.

Antetokounmpo sat out with a right quad tendon injury, missing his first game this season. He has missed time with concerns about overuse injuries in his leg before.

Antetokounmpo did not participate in the team’s shootaround on Wednesday morning and quickly was ruled out.

“I don’t think we know exactly when it happened,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “This morning the soreness was such that he was not able to play tonight. The severity of it, we’re hoping it’s not too serious.

“We’ll take it day by day and we’re always going to err on the side of caution.”

The rest of the Bucks stepped up.

“I think we took a little more ownership of what’s going on out there,” Middleton said. “When Giannis is out there, he draws such a huge crowd that we play through him a lot. Without him tonight, we know we have to do a little bit more.

“It was a great test; they play with a fast pace just like us. I think we did a great job.”

Veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova, starting in place of Antetokounmpo, had a season-high 18 points and nine rebounds. George Hill contributed 13 points off the bench.

Bledsoe drove aggressively and scored 11 points in the third quarter to answer a Pelicans rally, and he finished making a season-high five 3-pointers and going 10 for 13 from the field while adding six assists.

“I try to get in the paint as much as possible,” Bledsoe said. “If I don’t have a shot, I kick it out to my teammates and trust them to make the right play.”

New Orleans (6-19) lost its 10th straight game despite a season-high 31 points from J.J. Redick. Brandon Ingram had 25 points and 10 rebounds and point guard Jrue Holiday added 21 points.

A frustrated Redick spoke up in the locker room at halftime, when New Orleans trailed by 23 points.

“It’s not like this is the first time we’ve had a talk at halftime,” Redick said. “I would say emotionally sometimes you reach a tipping point. That’s the timing of that.”

New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said his team needs to communicate better.

“It’s the quietest group I’ve ever been around, even on the plane and in the meal room,” Gentry said. “But we do have to get them talking on the court and have them communicate on the court.

“When we do, we’re pretty solid. I thought we did a good job in the second half of communicating. But when you’re trying to come back from 25 to-28-point deficits, the least little thing is going to have a glaring effect.”

The Bucks hit six of their first eight attempts from 3-point range, including 3 of 3 by Bledsoe, to take a 28-12 lead.

Milwaukee led by 23 points in the opening quarter before New Orleans closed the period on an 8-0 spurt to pull within 35-20.

The Bucks used a 17-0 run to grab a 56-28 lead in the second quarter before settling for a 69-46 halftime margin. Middleton and Bledsoe each had 13 points and Ilyasova and Hill added 11 apiece.

The Pelicans outscored the Bucks 40-36 in the third quarter.

New Orleans pulled within 120-108 with 2:51 remaining but Middleton hit a pair of jumpers to put the Bucks safely ahead.

 

Watch James Harden score 55, including 10 threes, to beat Cleveland

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CLEVELAND (AP) — James Harden scored 55 points – 20 in the fourth quarter – and Russell Westbrook added 23 points as the Houston Rockets withstood an unexpected scare from Cleveland and held on for a 116-110 win Wednesday night over the free-falling Cavaliers, who have lost eight straight and 14 of 15.

Harden matched Kyrie Irving‘s arena record for points in a game, and his fourth with 50 or more this season bailed out the Rockets, who allowed the Cavs to score 24 straight points in the second half.

Cleveland was still up 108-107 when Harden, who came in leading the NBA in scoring at 38 points per game, dropped a floater in the lane. After a turnover by Cavs guard Jordan Clarkson, P.J. Tucker hit a 3-pointer from the corner and Clint Capela had a dunk following another Cleveland miscue.

The inexperienced Cavs crumbled in the final minute, making three turnovers.

Capela added 13 rebounds for Houston, which figured to have an easy time with the Cavs, who are struggling under first-year coach John Beilein.

Cleveland, though, came to play and was led by rookie Kevin Porter Jr.‘s season-high 24 points. Collin Sexton added 18 and Kevin Love had 17 points and 11 boards.

Harden connected on a pair of 3-pointers during a 16-2 run in the third quarter when the Rockets, who were sleepwalking through long stretches of the first half, appeared to take control.

But Houston relaxed, and Cleveland went on a jaw-dropping 24-0 run – all without Love, who was on the bench with a head laceration – over a 4:43 stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters to a take a 99-88 lead on Porter’s bucket.