Who takes the last shot for the Oklahoma City Thunder?

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Last season, it wasn’t even a question worth asking.

This season, things are going to be different in Oklahoma City. Picture the situation: Thunder down one, :12 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and the ball is being inbounded on the side. Who gets the shot? Russell Westbrook took them all last year, and he knows how to close out games with the best of them. Last season in Indiana Paul George was ticked when he didn’t get the last shot even though it was the right basketball playCarmelo Anthony has hit more than his share of game-winners, too.

So who takes that shot?

Royce Young explored this at ESPN, and that included asking coach Billy Donovan, who said exactly what you expect a coach to say.

“Carmelo’s been a closeout guy the places he’s been, the same thing with Paul. But any time you have a team you have to do it by finding the open man,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Clearly for us last year, somebody creating and generating a shot for himself or someone else, it was Russell. But obviously now with Carmelo and Paul being here, I think it’s about making the right play and right decision.”

This gets into the central question about the Thunder, the one that will define just how good they are this season — are Westbrook, George, and Anthony really willing to make the sacrifices to their games needed to push for a title? Of course, the guys are saying all the right things.

“All three of us are comfortable with whoever has that shot,” George said a couple of weeks ago. “… I trust Russ, I trust Carmelo, that they are going to do whatever is best for the team. I trust they are going to knock that shot down. Really I have no concern when it comes to that. I know with those guys, they are going to give us a chance to win. That’s ultimately what we want.”

“Whoever’s open. It’s simple,” Anthony said. “We’ll run the play, and whoever gets open will take the shot. It’s not like I’m coming and saying, ‘I want the last shot,’ or Russ is saying he wants the last shot, or Paul. Whoever’s open will take the shot. We all feel comfortable in those situations and those moments, so no need for any one of us to demand it at that point.”

Part of the challenge is that all three of them — Westbrook, George, and Anthony — get a lot of buckets out of isolation sets. They are all comfortable in that spot. Last season Westbrook isolations were the go-to end of game call for OKC (and first quarter call, and second quarter, and…) but now does Donovan call another number? Does he want a pick-and-roll action between George and Westbrook, with Anthony spacing the floor on the weakside?

ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy was on Zach Lowe’s podcast recently and had a great line (which I paraphrase here): Stars always say the right thing about sacrificing for the team, but they don’t think that applies to them. I’d say that changes over time, but look at how much Chris Bosh and then Kevin Love had to change their games to fit with LeBron James, and it took both more than a season to do it.

Westbrook had the ultimate green light last season, will be comfortable doing more playmaking for others and not taking those key shots? Will we see Olympic ‘Melo or Knicks’ ‘Melo? Will George be good with fewer touches and points heading into a contract year (not that it impacts his value much) for the betterment of the team?

I think eventually OKC’s big three will figure it out — I predicted Oklahoma City will reach the conference finals — but not until after some bumps at the start of the season. How the stars will handle end-of-game situations is a fair question to ask. Much like the Warriors last season, where Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry took a while to figure clutch situations, the Thunder have some hard questions to answer that will take some time.

And in the end, my money is still on Westbrook creating, he’s just got better passing options now.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.