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Three Things We Learned Wednesday: Kevin Durant saves his best games for Thunder

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Here are the big takeaways from a busy night around the NBA:

1) Kevin Durant saves his best games for Russell Westbrook, Thunder. Prior to Wednesday night, Kevin Durant’s highest-scoring game this season was 39 points, something he broke out the first time his new Warriors team faced his old Thunder squad. Then Wednesday Durant an incredibly efficient 40 points on 16 shots — again against the Thunder. Just in case there wasn’t enough salt rubbed in that OKC wound (Golden State won the game 121-100).

Whatever you think of his choice, Durant’s team is way better than Westbrook’s, which is both expected and why KD made the move — he is closer to a ring now. (If you say that winning rings is the ultimate defining factor in a player’s legacy then rip his moves to make it easier to get said ring, you’re a hypocrite.) Part of the gap between the sides is obviously what Durant brings to the Golden State offense — and how efficiently he’s been doing it this season, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9, his career best (for some perspective, the league average is around 52). But also he’s been bringing it on the defensive end this season, particularly of late, having a strong game against LeBron James Monday then doing well when switched onto Westbrook a couple of times in this game. Durant would be having an MVP-level season most years, but Westbrook and James Harden change the equation this time around.

Westbrook himself had a triple-double (that’s 21 this season) in the loss… actually, it was a quadruple-double when you throw in the 10 turnovers. Westbrook wasn’t efficient, hitting 8-of-23 from the field, and when he isn’t this team struggles to win, they rely on him that much. Of course, that’s not the play everyone is talking about — rather, it’s Zaza Pachulia with the hard foul, and then taunting Westbrook by standing over him.

When Westbrook saw that, he promised to “get his ass back.” These teams meet again Feb. 11 — when Durant returns to Oklahoma City for the first time in a Warriors’ uniform.

Bonus thing we saw: Russell Westbrook had the travel of the year.
Even in the NBA, this is a travel — and a funny one.



2) The Sixers beat the Raptors and have now won 7-of-9.
When this run of wins from the Sixers started, it was easy to say “they are just beating other weak teams.” Then they beat the Bucks. Wednesday night they beat the Raptors. Brett Brown has settled on a 10-man rotation, found lineups he likes with Joel Embiid starting (surrounded by shooters) and Nerlens Noel relieving him off the bench. Plus, the Sixers are finding their defensive identity. It’s coming together.

Still, this is all about Embiid — the Sixers are outscoring teams by 3.5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season. He had 26 points — including 12-of-14 from the free throw line — plus nine rebounds against Toronto. The man is a force. The only question the next couple of weeks is will he be an All-Star?


3) Rudy Gay is out for the season, which changes West playoff chase and trade picture.
This is bad news for the Kings, and it is worse news for Rudy Gay himself — trying to drive out of the right corner Wednesday night, Gay tore his left Achilles tendon (something the team announced, although it needs to be confirmed by an MRI Thursday).

Gay is done for this season and likely the start of the next one.

In the short term, that is a blow to the Kings’ playoff chances. Technically they are just 1.5 games out of the eight seed after Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers, but the Kings have been outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions this season when Gay is off the court. This isn’t the same team without him. Gay has scored 18.7 points per game, which was second-best on the team, and now that role falls to Matt Barnes and Omri Casspi (once Casspi returns from his calf injury in a couple of weeks). Those two are a drop off from what Gay brought to the Kings, meaning don’t be surprised if Sacramento tries to add a scorer at the trade deadline.

It also changes the trade deadline. Gay was clear he wanted out of Sacramento and said he planned to opt out of the $14.3 million final year of his contract to be a free agent next summer, which made him someone on the trade block. Teams were calling about him, including the Thunder (although the Kings being in the playoff hunt impacted what the team might do). Now obviously that is off the table, and the question becomes will Gay even opt out?

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.