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Three things we learned Thursday: The Warriors are who we thought they were

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Thursday night the eyes of the NBA were focused on the Bay Area, as were ours. Here’s a recap of what you should have learned from the Thursday night slate of games around the league.

1) Golden State is figuring everything out, Kevin Durant is unstoppable, The Destructor’s form has been chosen.
So much for that slow start to the season…

Kevin Durant is not going to be able to change the narrative this season — for many fans he is a traitor to a small market team he helped build, he took the easy path to a ring (as if there is an easy path), the Warriors are the villains — but that doesn’t make the potential in Golden State any less real. The Warriors unleashed the full force of their machine on the previously undefeated Thunder Thursday night, and it was an awesome show. Oklahoma City was basically Alderaan. A fired-up Durant was everywhere, scoring 39, hitting seven threes, and playing strong defense.

By the way, Oklahoma City had the best defense in the NBA as of Thursday morning, and Golden State just toyed with it starting in the second quarter — OKC had allowed 88 points per 100 possessions through four games, the Warriors put up 123. It wasn’t just KD, the Warriors kept getting Steven Adams switched onto Stephen Curry, then Curry would blow by him and get the shot he wanted. A lot of Warriors got the shots they wanted.

More importantly, the Warriors are playing strong defense again. Russell Westbrook was just 4-of-15 shooting, as a team the Thunder shot 40.2 percent (with a true shooting percentage of 48.3, well below average). Look at OKC’s second-quarter shot chart (hat tip Nate Duncan), and notice the shots at the rim.

Thunder shotcart

When Golden State plays like this, when focused and motivated, maybe one or two teams in the NBA stand a chance to steal a game. To win four-out-of-seven against the Warriors when they play like this… good luck with that.

2) The best part of the Thunder/Warriors game was Durant and Westbrook blocking each other’s shots.
Okay, the best part was Westbrook showing up to the game in a photographer’s vest, which no matter what he says was a dig at Durant. But Westbrook and Durant rejected each other’s shots during the game and it was fun.

3) LeBron James is 5-0 to start the season for the first time in his career. One team that looks like a threat to Golden State is in the East — the defending champs and the NBA’s only undefeated team. Cleveland brushed aside a short-handed Boston team Thursday (no Al Horford or Jae Crowder), and Cleveland seemingly has picked up right where it left off last season. Don’t take my word for it.

LeBron was the ridiculous version of himself we’ve come to take for granted — 30 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds — but what has been most impressive is that for much of this young season he has pulled back. As he has done the past couple of seasons, we see a largely restrained LeBron during the regular season as he paces himself so he can unleash his full force in the playoffs. The difference has been that peak Kyrie Irving — playing with a post-Olympics bounce — and the rest of the Cavaliers have stepped it up. Tristan Thompson was a force against the Celtics, with 15 points on seven shots, plus 14 boards. Oh, and he did this to poor Tyler Zeller.

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

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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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