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Thunder blast Rockets by 18 without Russell Westbrook, grab seventh straight win

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Paul George scored 20 points and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Houston Rockets 98-80 on Thursday night without point guard Russell Westbrook for their seventh straight victory.

Westbrook missed his second consecutive game with a sprained left ankle. George also had 11 rebounds, six assists and six steals. The Thunder were 0-4 before the streak.

Steven Adams had 19 points and 10 rebounds, and Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder each added 14 points for Oklahoma City. All five Thunder starters scored in double figures before the end of the third quarter.

James Harden scored 19 points, but made just 7 of 19 shots for the Rockets. Clint Capela added 17 points for Houston, which had won three in a row.

Houston’s Carmelo Anthony, who played for the Thunder last season and was traded this summer, scored two points on 1-for-11 shooting. Chris Paul added 10 points.

The Thunder led 59-45 at halftime behind 53.8 percent shooting. In the second quarter, George made all five of his shots and scored 14 points. Oklahoma City held Paul and Anthony scoreless before the break.

Grant dunked on a lob from Schroder and made the free throw on the foul to put the Thunder up 80-60, a score that held up until the end of the third quarter.

TIP-INS

Rockets: G Eric Gordon missed his third straight game with a strained muscle in his right thigh. … Anthony was mostly cheered when he checked into the game for the first time in the first quarter. … Reserves made 1 of 11 shots in the first half. … Paul was called for a technical foul in the fourth quarter.

Thunder: Ferguson, a 6-foot-7 guard, came out of nowhere to stuff 7-footer Isaiah Hartenstein in the first quarter. … Made 27 of 44 shots inside the 3-point line but 9 of 37 beyond the arc.

UP NEXT

Rockets: At San Antonio on Saturday night.

Thunder: At Dallas on Saturday night.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors still on top

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The NBA season is back, and with it, so are the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, which are put together each week throughout the season.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (Last season 58-24). If a team is the two-time defending champs and made four straight Finals appearances, they start on top. The only question is how motivated the Warriors are during the regular season — which may be less of an issue this time around, listening to the buzz around the team. Keeping Golden State healthy and not letting it build a bunch of bad habits while waiting for the games to really matter again has to be Steve Kerr’s focus. Don’t expect to see DeMarcus Cousins until after you’ve opened your Christmas presents.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (55-27). Don’t read too much into the preseason struggles — that was exactly what coach Brad Stevens needed to get this team’s attention and get them focused on the process. It turns out bringing two superstar players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — back into the fold is not simply a matter of plug-and-play, it’s going to take some work. Plus, Hayward is not all the way back yet. Still, with all this depth, the Celtics should own the East.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (65-17). Carmelo Anthony has blended fairly smoothly in the preseason, accepting his role coming off the bench and as more as a shooter working off the ball, now we will see if that continues when opposing defenses start to care. A lot of lineup shuffling in the preseason, which leads to a question: Who will close games for Houston? Chris Paul and James Harden for sure, but after that which two of Anthony, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, James Ennis, and Clint Capela will sit?

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (59-23). Understandably a lot of the preseason focus has been on Kawhi Leonard, but there is another big question for this team (both early and for the full season): What kind of difference does new coach Nick Nurse make? He’s a rookie coach and he’s doing things like talking about changing the starting five based on opponent, but the hope was he would bring a less predictable offense (especially for the postseason). Nurse said he is going to be “fluid” with rotations — read: experimenting — for the start of the season, but this is a deep team that had the best bench in the NBA last season, and it could be better this year.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (52-30). Replacing J.J. Redick with Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup to start the season is an interesting tactic by Brett Brown (the Sixers starting lineup with Redick was +21 points per 100 possessions last season), but it should do one thing for sure: The Sixers’ defense should be better. And it was top five last season. The question becomes floor spacing on the other end: Ben Simmons is not a jump shooter, Joel Embiid can hit threes but needs to be around the basket, and Fultz doesn’t have the jumper of an NBA two-guard yet (he attempted just five shots from three in the preseason). Defenses will pack the paint on Philly. Also, teams that make the China trip in preseason tend to start slowly the next season.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-34). There are a lot of people on the Jazz bandwagon, some even suggesting they are better than the Rockets. What Utah has going for it is an elite defense (if Rudy Gobert can stay healthy) and continuity from the team that was so good the second half of last season. But after Donovan Mitchell, who is the other shot creator? Ricky Rubio can set guys up, but is he a secondary go-to guy? The Jazz bet big on Dante Exum this summer, he is a guy to watch.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (48-34).. Russell Westbrook is banged up to start the season (he had his knee scoped a month ago and will miss at least the opener), and Andre Roberson is out until December — that second part is a bigger blow than some fans realize. The injuries could lead to a slow start for the Thunder, which is dangerous in the very deep West. Can Terrance Ferguson step up on the wing and give them something?

Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (46-36).. Everyone is high on the Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray/Gary Harris starting lineup, and with good reason, especially with Will Barton added to it. The Nuggets will have an elite offense. Two big questions loom for this team: Can their defense (bottom five last season) improve, even up to league average? And, with Isaiah Thomas out who will lead the bench unit? Can Trey Lyles step into that role and thrive?

Lakers small icon 9. Lakers (35-47). The Lakers are going to run this season (they likely will have one of the fastest paces in the league) and that combined with LeBron James distributing from the elbow should lead to an impressive offense, although the lack of true shooters could hold them back a little. The question is at the other end of the court, will the Lakers get enough stops to win? They were sloppy defensively in the preseason. Portland and Houston this week start off a brutal schedule to start the season.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (44-38 LW 18). This may be too low a ranking for a team I am high on. While we should take the preseason with a grain of salt, the Bucks looked like a modern offense under Mike Budenholzer, leaning on three pointers and getting to the rim, avoiding midrange jumpers — and they had an impressive offense because of it. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a flat out beast, showing more confidence in his jumper but also finding a lot more room to drive on a team with genuine floor spacing. We’ll see if it carries over, but the Bucks looked more like a threat to the 76ers/Raptors in the preseason.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Preseason wasn’t kind to the new players who are expected to push this team forward, Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, nor did the man with the new contract Myles Turner impress. We’re going to overlook all that for now, this is a team on the tier behind the big three in the East (some think they can push Philly/Toronto) and they should be a tough out every night. Interesting first week game Friday night in Milwaukee.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (48-34). I am high on this team coming into the season — I predicted Anthony Davis to win MVP — but the preseason defensive performance gave me pause. It’s just preseason, but Elfrid Payton is a turnstile (that’s not new) and they were getting torched in the paint to the tune of 65 points a game. We’ll see if that continues when the games matter, but a tough opener against Houston doesn’t help.

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (49-33). The entire NBA, and particularly the Blazers community, is mourning the passing of one of the best and classiest owners in the league in Paul Allen. Making the playoffs 23 times in 30 seasons, doing things the right way, he’s a model owner. The road forward will be interesting (the league would not allow this team to be moved, and the lease runs through 2025 anyway). The Trail Blazers open the season on national television Thursday night against LeBron James and the Lakers and can make a statement then.

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (47-35). Injuries have decimated the guard rotation: Dejounte Murray out for the season with a torn ACL, his backup Derrick White tore his plantar fascia, and Lonnie Walker IV tore the meniscus in his right knee (the latter two are 6-8 weeks, maybe a little more. In a West with little margin for error, is that enough to keep the Spurs out of the playoffs for the first time since 1997? DeMar DeRozan is going to have to be the primary playmaker for this team now.

Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (43-39). Dwight Howard missed all of preseason (with an injured butt, insert your own joke here), but is now practicing with the team and could play in the opener, just in a more limited role. Once again we enter the season saying we like the Wizards players individually — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter — but as a team how do they really take a step forward from good to great?

Heat small icon 16. Heat (44-38). The Jimmy Butler trade saga hangs over this team a little (nobody likes hearing their name in trade talks), but this is a solid team and it’s Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance” so its worth tuning in to watch him put on a show. Get wins against Orlando and Charlotte the first week of the season and it will be easier to tune out all the trade chatter (which has died down a little of late anyway).

Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (42-40). Their starting five has potential — Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, and Marcin Gortat — if they can stay healthy. Off the bench is the Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, plus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who impressed at Summer League and through the preseason. Healthy, this could be a playoff team, but the Clippers are littered with players prone to injury and not living up to their potential. Brutal first few weeks of the schedule for Los Angeles, including the Nuggets, Thunder, and Rockets this week.

Grizzlies small icon 18. Grizzlies (22-60). One of a few teams in the West (along with the Clippers and Mavericks) where I can envision a scenario where they make the playoffs, but everything has to go right for them. That means Marc Gasol and Mike Conley stay healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. plays like a rookie of the year, and Chandler Parsons gives them something (he’s looked passable in the preseason). That’s a lot of “ifs” in a conference with no margin for error.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (39-43). They have been penciled in to the final playoff spot in the East by a lot of pundits (myself included) based on the potential of Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, and Andre Drummond together (especially with Dwane Casey as coach). It’s also a work in progress that didn’t look very smooth in the preseason. Depth questions also are out there for the Pistons. Still, if they can be solid defensively, they should make the postseason.

20. Timberwolves (47-35, LW 13). Is this too low a ranking, much of it based on the Jimmy Butler trade drama? Maybe. With Butler in the lineup last season the Timberwolves looked like a 3/4 seed kind of squad. On the flip side, chemistry matters in the NBA and good luck finding a team with a worse locker room right now. Also, Butler is going to get booed and it’s going to get ugly Friday night in Minnesota’s first home game (vs. Cleveland). Without Butler in the preseason the Timberwolves defense was a disaster, it’s just preseason but that’s not a good sign.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (36-46). What will new coach James Borego bring to the table? If was can read much into the preseason it’s more three point attempts (and less long twos) and better ball movement and tempo. Rookie Miles Bridges showed some preseason promise and could play his way into the starting lineup eventually. Relatively soft schedule the first month of the season, get off to a fast start and it will keep the “will they trade Kemba Walker?” questions at bay.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (24-58). Fun start to the season Wednesday: Rookie of the Year favorites Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton face off (although the matchup to watch in that game is how Ayton handles the strength and athleticism of DeAndre Jordan). Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. started to show some chemistry in the preseason, but lets see what happens when the games matter and the defenses start to care.

Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (50-32). Kevin Love says he is ready to return to the role of a No. 1 option — and the Cavaliers are certainly paying him like one — but the game has evolved and Love has gotten older since he last time that burden fell on his shoulders. There is still potential on this roster in terms of good shooting, at least until Cavs management starts trading them for young players and picks. After opening in Toronto, pretty soft schedule to start the season.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (27-55).. No Lauri Markkanen to start the season (elbow, out at least a few weeks) but there is promise on this roster: Zach LaVine showed some athleticism and looked healthy and efficient in the preseason, and Wendell Carter Jr. continues to impress and is now the starting center for this team (although rough “welcome to the NBA” start in Game 1 against Joel Embiid). How will Jabari Parker look in a Sixth Man role?

Suns small icon 25. Suns (21-61). Firing GM Ryan McDonough nine days before the season started — after letting him make all the off-season moves for the team, including hiring the new coach — is a “the emperor has no clothes” moment for owner Robert Sarver. Deandre Ayton has put up numbers and impressed in the preseason, and Devin Booker will return from hand surgery and be ready for the opener. Jamal Crawford is not a point guard but may end up playing one anyway.

Nets small icon 26. Nets (28-54). Coach Kenny Atkinson has done in Brooklyn what the new coach across the bridge in Manhattan needs to do this season — develop a culture where the players go hard for him within the system. Now the question in Brooklyn is about the talent. How good is D’Angelo Russell really, is he worth a big new contract next summer (he’s a restricted free agent)? Where does Spencer Dinwiddie fit in that mix? Jarrett Allen is expected to make a leap at center, but will he. Where do Caris LeVert and Ronde Hollis-Jefferson fit in? Some potential there, but a lot of questions, too.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (29-53, LW 22). For new coach David Fizdale, this is a season about building the culture and getting players who will play his way and play hard. Rookie Kevin Knox needs to be part of that and will be thrown into the deep end to sink or swim for the Knicks. Frank Ntilikina has yet to impress me, but then again Emmanuel Mudiay does not look like the answer at the point guard spot either. Just my guess, we see Kristaps Porzingis return this season for the last dozen games or so, not to make a playoff push (the Knicks won’t be that good) but to hit the ground running for his summer work, and to show free agents he will be ready to go next season.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (25-57). As discussed on the PBT Podcast on teams to watch, I think Orlando will be an interesting team this season — not good, but worth watching. Specifically, when the big and athletic front line of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and rookie Mo Bamba are paired. Can those three play together and make it work (it pushes Gordon to the three when he is better as a four)? The Orlando defense should be pretty good this season, the question is where the points are going to come from?

Kings small icon 29. Kings (27-55). Harry Giles impressed in both Summer League and preseason and could be a sneaky candidate to make All-Rookie teams at the end of the season. Marvin Bagley III showed the potential to go get buckets during the preseason, and I like using Buddy Hield more as a floor-spacing three (at least on offense, nothing worked for the Kings on defense). Rough way to start the season: Jazz, Pelicans, Thunder.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (24-58). It’s going to be all Trae Young all the time in Atlanta as they let him be the man and take all the shots — and that worked for a game winner against the Spurs in the preseason. It’s also going to mean some growing pains when the real games begin. Rough to have John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out to start the season with injuries.

Thunder’s Andre Roberson suffers setback in rehab, will be re-evaluated in two months

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Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s defense was 11.2 points per 100 possessions better when Andre Roberson was on the court — he was the fifth man who gave them a killer lineup (with Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams, and back then Carmelo Anthony). That starting five was +14.2 per 100 possessions, and it was rumored that what Roberson brings to the table for this team was a key reason George thought Oklahoma City could win and re-signed with them.

Which is why this is terrible news for OKC — it’s going to be a while before we see Roberson on the court as he has had a setback in his recovery from a torn patellar-tendon injury that had him out the end of last season and into the playoffs.

That would have him being re-evaluated in early December. Roberson had said he had hoped to be back on the court and his old self by Christmas, now that timeline will be pushed back.

The real problem here for OKC is their lack of depth on the wing — they don’t have a quality replacement for him.  Terrance Ferguson, Alex Abrines, and Timothe Luwawu are going to get most of Roberson’s minutes, but that is a serious talent drop off. It’s also a real concern in the West, where after Golden State and Houston the margins are incredibly slim. This could impact the Thunder’s playoff seeding.

Report: Celtics trade Abdel Nader to Thunder

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Abdel Nader was one of those second-round gambles by the Celtics — the No. 58 pick in the 2016 NBA draft — that paid off better than expected. Nader was the D-League Rookie of the Year, then last season the wing got into 48 games for the big club in Boston, showing some potential as a three-point shooter (but also struggling with his efficiency in other areas).

Boston wanted to trim some salary now, so Nader is on his way to Oklahoma City (once the Carmelo Anthony trade goes through and they have cap space).

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports broke the story.

That cash will undoubtedly cover Nader’s $1.4 million salary, plus some more to help offset the crazy tax bill the Thunder still have coming. The Celtics will waive Purvis, who does not have a guaranteed deal.

All of this will save the Celtics about $450,000, getting them closer to going under the luxury tax line, they are about $2.5 million over it currently. (With this roster the Celtics are eventually going to pay a huge tax bill, but if they can avoid paying the tax this season that delays the painful repeater tax by a year, helping down the line. Expect to see more cash saving moves, don’t be shocked if Marcus Morris is the one on the trade block.)

While Andre Roberson and Paul George will start on the wing for OKC, Nader may be able to find minutes behind them. The Thunder have a mix of guys — Terrance Ferguson, Alex Abrines, Timothe Luwawu, Kyle Singler — who have yet to fully establish themselves in the league. Nader will have a chance to crack that group and get some run, if he can take several steps forward with this game.

Trend starter? High-level recruit Darius Bazley decommits from Syracuse to play in G-League

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Darius Bazley had given a verbal commitment to play his college ball at Syracuse. If he was going to rethink that there were a host of other programs — Florida, Ohio State, Louisville, and on and on — ready to step in.

Instead, Bazley decommited and instead is going to polish his skills for a season in the G-League, then turn pro.

Top recruits have shunned college ball to get paid to play overseas before —Terrance Ferguson in Australia, Emmanuel Mudiay, Brandon Jennings before either of them — but the G-League and its $25,000 max salary has not been an option up until now. Bazley talked about his decision with Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“This is a life-changing decision,” Bazley, one of the top players in the Class of 2018, told Yahoo Sports. “I put a lot of thinking into this with my mom and close circle, especially sitting down with her. It’s just like making the decision to which college you want to go to. Me and her did some talking, and I prayed on it. I talked to my high school coach, Steve, who played overseas, and then I talked to a couple of guys in the G League who have experience. Ultimately, playing professional basketball has always been my dream. It’s always going to be the dream goal, always going to be the goal until I achieve it. This is going to put me one step closer to doing so.

“The G League will have the most to offer, considering that is the development league for the NBA,” he continued. “I will get more out of that than going overseas. The G League is the closest thing to the NBA.”

Bazley statement is right out of the NBA’s recruitment pitch for growing the G-League — to turn it into a genuine minor league that can grow and develop players. The league would love to turn it into an alternative for players who do not want to go the college route (whatever is ultimately decided about the one-and-done rule). In another story, Charnia had NBA executives drooling that this could open the floodgates.

When asked about a top prospect decommitting from college to play in the G League, NBA executives said it could become a portal for change. “This has the ability to alter rules moving forward and show prospects the G League is a true option,” a team official told Yahoo Sports.

“As the G League grows, the way teams develop players under NBA styles and under NBA eyes, it makes sense,” another team executive said of the move. “There’s no new culture in the G League, nothing out of the NBA norm, and you’re growing in an NBA environment. It could open the floodgates for players who want to focus on basketball and development, first and foremost.”

Maybe, but I’m skeptical. The main reason is what drives every decision in the NBA — money. Right now the top salary in the G-League is $25,000 (except for players on two-way contracts with NBA teams, which players straight out of high school cannot qualify for). We know from the FBI reports that likely No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton had about four times that much come to him to play in college. For other elite recruits, $25K might be a paycut, too.

If in the coming years the NBA does change the one-and-done rule and again allows teams to draft guys right out of high school, we likely will see 19-year-olds getting development time in the G-League. That is a great use of the league, to develop those players games (and them physically) while under an NBA eye and contract. However, players going straight to the G-League? We’ll see.

As for Bazley, he is an elite recruit. He’s a McDonald’s All-American and in that game recently had 11 points, seven rebounds, two assists, and one block in just 17 minutes. He has good size, can run the floor, shoot threes, and has real potential as an NBA wing. Where he lands a year from now (in what is considered as of now a down 2019 class) remains to be seen, but if he goes the G-League route and gets picked high others will consider it.