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Thunder GM “encouraged” after talks with Paul George; also discusses Westbrook, Anthony

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have a lot of questions heading into this summer. We know the answer to one of them: Billy Donovan will be back as coach. Another is not official, but we know it’s happening: Carmelo Anthony is going to opt into his $28 million contract for next season.

However, the most significant question will hang out there until early July: Will Paul George return?

Thunder GM Sam Presti addressed that in his end-of-season press conference Wednesday.

Is that relationship enough? George genuinely has enjoyed his time and experience in Oklahoma City, but does that outweigh the desire to go to Los Angeles and the place he calls home? Will how the playoffs ended in the first round — with Russell Westbrook dominating the ball and George struggling much of the series — factor into his decision? Only one person has that answer, and right now he’s not saying much.

Presti also discussed Carmelo Anthony and his post-season press conference where Anthony said he wouldn’t come off the bench and had to get back to playing his way.

‘Melo is going to opt into that $28 million, which makes him almost impossible to trade. He’s also not going to take a discount to facilitate a buyout. That’s going to lead to an interesting offseason — it became clear in the playoffs the Thunder were better defensively, and on both ends, with Jerami Grant on the court. With Anthony in the starting five in the playoffs (Westbrook, George, Steven Adams, and Corey Brewer) the Thunder were outscored by 7.6 points per 100 possessions. Substitute Grant into that lineup for Anthony, and the Thunder outscored teams by 10.6 per 100 (small sample size alert in both cases).

Anthony would be best suited at this point, with his skills where they are, in a sixth man role. He doesn’t want that. Which means things are going to get interesting.

As for Westbrook…

Which means him working more off the ball. That would be a good start to adding some diversity to the OKC attack.

 

Thunder clinch playoff spot by running past Heat 115-93

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MIAMI (AP) — Paul George scored 27 points, Russell Westbrook got his 25th triple-double of the season and the Oklahoma City Thunder clinched a playoff spot with a 115-93 win over the Miami Heat on Monday night.

Westbrook finished with 23 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists for the Thunder, who were down 18 in the opening minutes before outscoring the Heat 39-12 in the fourth.

The 27-point margin was the third-worst for any quarter in Heat history, and the worst ever in a game at Miami.

Jerami Grant scored 17 points and Carmelo Anthony added 11 for Oklahoma City, which made 14 3-pointers.

Josh Richardson scored 18 points and Hassan Whiteside added 16 for the Heat, whose playoff seed won’t be decided until the season-finales Wednesday. Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson each scored 12 for Miami, and James Johnson added 11.

For George, it was a rare win in Miami – his Indiana teams were 2-18 overall and 0-10 in regular-season contests when he faced the Heat on the road.

Westbrook needs 16 rebounds in the Thunder finale Wednesday to average a triple-double for the second straight season.

The Thunder missed their first 10 shots, gave up the game’s first 12 points and wound up trailing by 18 during the opening quarter. They eventually settled in and got the deficit down to single-digits late in the first.

And from there, it stayed that way.

Miami’s lead was down to three by halftime, and Oklahoma City tied the game twice in the third quarter – only to have the Heat immediately answer with bursts, first an 8-0 spurt after the initial tie, then a 5-0 run to take an 81-76 lead into the fourth.

Corey Brewer‘s driving layup with 10:28 left put the Thunder on top for the first time all night, 85-84. Before long, it became a runaway.

 

Watch C.J. McCollum drop 34 points, hit game winner as Trail Blazers beat Thunder

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Thunder could regret this missed opportunity.

CJ McCollum scored 34 points to help the Portland Trail Blazers beat Oklahoma City 108-105 on Sunday night. Portland doubled its lead to two games over the Thunder for third place in the Western Conference.

The Thunder had several chances to win. Oklahoma City got possession trailing by two with 18.5 seconds remaining. Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony got trapped in the corner and forced his way through before turning the ball over. Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook then fouled Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu with 7 seconds to play and fouled out. Aminu made the first free throw and missed the second to give the Thunder a chance to force overtime, but Anthony missed a 3-pointer as time expired.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan felt Anthony was the right person to take the final shot with Westbrook out, despite the fact that he had made just 3 of 12 shots before taking that last jumper.

“Carmelo is a proven scorer in this league and has made shots – big shots – for a large portion of his career,” Donovan said. “I’ve got confidence in him. So we’ll go with him in that situation. That’s just how I felt.”

The arena had the energy of a playoff game, especially in the second half. McCollum liked the way the Trail Blazers had to scrape and claw to get the win in a hostile environment.

“Being down and having to compete, going on runs, coming back and just having to get stops down the stretch,” he said. “They are a good team and made the game very difficult. We executed well on offense to come away with a win.”

Damian Lillard scored 24 points, and Jusuf Nurkic added 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Trail Blazers, who swept all four games with the Thunder this season.

Westbrook led the Thunder with 23 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Steven Adams had 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Jerami Grant added 17 points.

Oklahoma City trailed 44-29 in the second quarter before going on a 16-0 run to take the lead. Portland regrouped and led 57-52 at halftime.

In the third quarter, Portland’s Ed Davis came down on Oklahoma City guard Terrance Ferguson‘s back, and Davis shoved him as the two fell toward the ground. Ferguson got up quickly and went after Davis, and a skirmish followed. Four technical fouls were issued – to Evan Turner and Davis for Portland and to Ferguson and Westbrook for the Thunder. Shortly after that, Oklahoma City’s Paul George hit a 3 to give the Thunder a 75-74 lead. Portland’s Maurice Harkless made a 3-pointer as the third quarter expired to put the Trail Blazers up 82-80.

“I thought it was a hell of a basketball game,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “You can tell this meant a lot to both teams. I thought we made a lot of good plays defensively. We were very good when we needed to be.”

 

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Thunder a two-star team once again

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

What’s the difference between the Russell WestbrookKevin Durant pairing and the Russell Westbrook-Paul George pairing?

Durant is better than George, sure. But Westbrook now is also better than the Westbrook who played with Durant. George might also fit better with Westbrook than Durant did, which can go a long way in overcoming the talent deficit.

For a star, George is exceptionally comfortable off the ball – important as Westbrook dove headfirst into controlling everything post-Durant last season. George can also be a lockdown defender. And when Westbrook sits, George can dominate the offense himself.

Plus, simply being a lesser player might help in some ways. While Durant and Westbrook countered each other for supremacy, George is clearly Westbrook’s sidekick. That understanding could help chemistry and, ultimately, performance.

The Thunder needed more spot-up shooting surrounding Westbrook and someone capable of creating when he sits. In George, they got both – for pennies on the dollar. The cost – Victor Oladipo (a fine player owed $84 million over the next four years) and Domantas Sabonis (the forgettable No. 11 pick last year) – was so low, Oklahoma City needn’t panic about George becoming a free agent in only one year. The Thunder could do enough damage just this season, also the final year of Westbrook’s contract unless he signs the offered super-max extension, to justify the trade.

The difference might be semantic, but we might be erring by treating Oklahoma City as merely an upgraded version of the team that lost in five games in the first round last year as opposed to a slightly reduced version of the team that was a perennial conference finalist when healthy.

Of course, this team has nobody as good as Serge Ibaka or James Harden were with the Thunder. But Oklahoma City boasts solid depth beyond its stars.

Patrick Patterson is the major addition, signed with the taxpayer mid-level exception. A stretch four and versatile defender, he should start – if healthy. I loved the signing when it occurred, but his subsequent knee surgery makes me wonder whether his low price tag is just due to being damaged goods. Patterson’s injury concern is the only reason I dropped the Thunder’s grade.

They also re-signed Andre Roberson to a reasonable three-year, $30 million contract. He’ll form a tenacious defensive duo with George and platoon with Alex Abrines, a dangerous shooter.

Down to minimum salaries, the Thunder still needed to find an NBA-caliber backup point guard – and did with Raymond Felton. The 33-year-old won’t necessarily solve Oklahoma City’s issues, but he should at least hold his own.

With Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and Jerami Grant returning, the Thunder can play big or small. They’ll have the luxury of developing No. 21 pick Terrance Ferguson slowly.

Of course, the timeline depends on whether George re-signs. The Lakers loom.

But Oklahoma City has already changed its entire paradigm. It’s no longer “Westbrook and the supporting cast.” It’s “Westbrook, George and the supporting cast.” To nab a star who transcends being grouped with Westbrook’s underlings without surrendering a single draft pick was remarkable.

For now, that’s more than enough.

Offseason grade: A

Rumor: Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder ‘officially circling each other’

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Carmelo Anthony prefers to be traded to the Rockets. He might soon be traded to the Rockets.

Are the Thunder trying to interject themselves before it’s too late?

Bill Simmons of The Ringer:

Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver was an assistant coach at Syracuse when Anthony played there. Weaver is also well-connected in the Washington area (D.C./Maryland/Virginia). I’m not sure how much that means to Anthony, who grew up in Baltimore – in many ways, a different world from the DMV (which includes only parts of Maryland and Virginia closer to D.C.). Still, Weaver and Anthony at least share their Syracuse connection.

The problem: An Oklahoma City trade for Anthony would almost have to include Steven Adams (way more valuable than Anthony) and/or Enes Kanter (way less valuable than Anthony). There’s no easy way to bridge either gap, especially considering how much the Thunder need Adams’ interior presence.

Here’s my best stab at a workable framework for a trade, via ESPN’s trade machine:

screenshot-www.espn.com-2017-07-24-12-26-16

The Clippers would get a more-skilled backup center while just shuffling bad contracts (at least that’s how it seems they view Wesley Johnson‘s deal). The Thunder would still need to send the Knicks more assets (Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant and/or draft picks). The Knicks would get a veteran point guard in Austin Rivers while Frank Ntilikina develops and, more importantly, additional young assets. It’s just a matter of determining whether there’s an overlap in the picks Oklahoma City would trade and New York would receive. That window might be tight – or not exist.

Adding Paul George and Anthony to a team led by Russell Westbrook would be exciting. I’m just not sure it’s realistic.