Was this an NBA Finals preview?

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Was this an NBA Finals preview?

From Comcast SportsNet
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- With his All-Star point guard on the bench with three early fouls, two-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant took it upon himself to keep the Oklahoma City Thunder rolling. After he did, even the mighty Miami Heat never could recover. Durant had 28 points, nine rebounds and tied his season-high with eight assists, Kendrick Perkins added a season-best 16 points and the Thunder opened a difficult stretch in their schedule by beating Miami 103-87 on Sunday night. The two title contenders opened the day tied for the second-best record in the NBA, three games behind the Chicago Bulls in the race for the top overall seed in the playoffs. West-leading Oklahoma City edged ahead into second, with the rematch 10 days away in Miami. "I think it was a good test for us," said Perkins, who has set new season scoring highs in two straight games. "We came out and did what we needed to do and protected home court. ... Now, we've got to move on. I don't think we should ride a rollercoaster over this one win." Oklahoma City had a season-high 13 steals and forced Miami into 21 turnovers that led to 28 Thunder points. Miami's big three -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- combined for 15 of the giveaways. "We will own this one," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They jumped us. Everybody saw it. They had us on our heels and they were the aggressors." Wade led Miami with 22 points but also committed a season-worst six turnovers. Bosh had 18 points and five turnovers, and James ended up with 17 points, seven assists and four turnovers. "Some of it was attack turnovers and some of it was careless turnovers," James said. "We started the game with a turnover. From there on, we turned the ball over." Oklahoma City took the lead for good in the first 4 minutes of the second quarter, then built on it after All-Star Russell Westbrook picked up his third foul with 7 minutes left before halftime. Durant played a bigger role in orchestrating the offense, hitting a layup in transition and a foul line jumper but also setting up Perkins' two-handed slam and James Harden's fast-break layup during a 12-2 burst for the Thunder. Harden's layup bumped the lead up to 55-42 with 2:01 to go before halftime. "KD was just phenomenal. I think he took the matchup well with LeBron, he did his job and he almost had a triple-double tonight," Perkins said. "That's what we need out of him every night." The Heat made a brief 8-0 comeback spurt, fueled by back-to-back turnovers by Harden, and pulled to 91-83 after Shane Battier's second straight 3-pointer with 7:14 remaining. Perkins put an end to that rally by getting open for two-handed slams on consecutive possessions, and Durant nailed a 3 with 3:20 remaining to push Oklahoma City's lead back out to 100-85. Spoelstra then pulled James, Wade and Bosh with 96 seconds left facing a 16-point deficit. "They beat us in all facets of the game -- from the beginning to the end," James said. Serge Ibaka and Harden each scored 19 for Oklahoma City and Westbrook finished with 13 points, one game after going for a career-high 45 in a double-overtime win against Minnesota on Friday night. The Thunder will travel to face the Los Angeles Lakers and host Chicago next Sunday in their tough 11-day stretch. Oklahoma City shot 67 percent in the first half and never let Miami -- the league's second-best defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 38 percent -- piece together enough stops to mount a rally. Ibaka had a two-handed slam, Durant followed with a right-handed jam off of Westbrook's alley-oop and the lead stretched to 68-53 following Ibaka's putback with 7:04 left in the third quarter. Wade hit a pair of 3-pointers but couldn't spark a Heat comeback. Even when he finished the third quarter by hitting a buzzer-beater from four steps beyond midcourt, it didn't give Miami any momentum. Wade sat out the first three minutes of the final period, then didn't attempt a shot after checking back in. "I'd rather not comment on that," he said. When asked whether he wanted the ball in his hands, he said, "I don't want to talk about the offense." Before the game, Spoelstra called Miami's stretch of three straight road games -- and five of six -- an opportunity to take a step forward. "We've been disappointed in our play on the road in general since the All-Star break," Spoelstra said. Instead, the Heat continued a rough patch with five losses in their last seven road games. During a 14-game home winning streak spanning the past two months, Miami is only 10-7 on the road. "Our most important thing right now is to find a next level of basketball. We don't necessarily even know if we have another level or two but we want to keep on pushing to get to that point and find a better consistency than we've had the last three weeks," Spoelstra said beforehand. "When we're playing on the top of our game, we feel we can win anywhere. But we're not quite there yet." NOTES: The Heat are tied for the franchise's best start after 47 games at 35-12. ... The game included four of the NBA's top six scorers -- Durant, James, Westbrook and Wade. ... Miami's season-worst turnover total is 22. ... Harden had a career-worst seven turnovers, two more than he'd ever had before.

No need for Cubs to overreact when best years should be in front of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell

No need for Cubs to overreact when best years should be in front of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell

There’s no need to overreact when the injuries pile up and the Cubs lose 6-of-7 games in June, because Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are still possibly years away from their best seasons in an organization loaded with young talent.
 
Bryant and Russell have been such integral parts since debuting in April 2015 that it's hard to remember they're still around three-to-five years away from their prime. They're also in a perfect situation to keep developing, not having to worry about carrying the weight of the franchise on their shoulders, the way Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro used to feel those responsibilities.
 
The pressure is spread out among a young core, a battle-tested group of veterans and a manager that loves the spotlight. All of that can help explain why each player has avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump" that sometimes plagues second-year players in the big leagues.
 
"Last year, I thought both of them fought through some really different moments their first year up," Joe Maddon said. "And that's what it's really all about. The sophomore slump, for me, is where the league adjusts to you, and then you adjust back to the league. That's the definition."
 
Bryant currently has an OPS that’s 19 points higher than his 2015 numbers, while Russell's OPS is 23 points higher entering play Monday, and both second-year players have seen major improvement in important areas.
 
Bryant led the league with 199 strikeouts last season, but has seen his strikeout percentage drop from 30.6 percent to 23 percent this season. He's on track for about 162 strikeouts in 2016.
 
Russell, meanwhile, has experienced just an incremental decrease in strikeout percentage (from 28.5 to 27.2 percent), but he has seen a nice jump in walk rate (from 8 percent in 2015 to 11.2 percent this season). Despite drawing only one free pass in his last eight games, Russell is on track for 68 walks, which would've ranked 12th in the National League overall last season and first among shortstops. 
 
"The guys that don't adjust back quickly enough really have an extended period of negative moments," Maddon said. "I think they learned a lot last year. They made a lot of adjustments. Both of them made swing adjustments last year. And that, I think, is permitting their success this year.
 
"Addison's propensity to get big hits is unbelievable, and now he's using the whole field. He's not chasing balls out of the strike zone. Those are the adjustments he had to learn how to do last year when he was going badly, and now he's doing them.
 
"They're both going to hit a bad stretch, there's no question. But I think they're better able to handle that based on their experience from last year."
 
Bryant has settled in as one of the premier offensive threats in the game by following up his 2015 campaign (26 homers, 99 RBI) with a pace for 39 homers and 112 RBI.
 
In spring training, he said he considered 2016 an extension of his rookie season, just with a three-month break off in between. But as the regular season hit, he took that sort of thinking to another gear.
 
"I feel a lot more focused this whole year," Bryant said. "I don't know why. I don't know if it's a whole other level or just extra determination or the fact that I know we have a good team and we really want to win.
 
"I just feel really good up there. I feel like I'm having some quality at-bats. I'm doing all I can to help. I'm in a good spot."
 
Russell, meanwhile, has developed a reputation as a clutch hitter, posting a .429 average, 1.237 OPS and 23 RBI in 54 plate appearances in high-leverage situations. 
 
He's taken his game to another level at the biggest moments, not something often said about a 22-year-old with only 210 big-league games under his belt.
 
"Just a slow heart beat," Maddon said. "If you talk to the kid any time, he's always 'suavecito.' There's nothing really hurried about him. He's just got a great way about him.
 
"Again, he's going to keep getting better. Everybody's liking it when he's doing good. I'm here to tell you: He's going to get better."
 
However, Russell also just went through one of those bad stretches at the end of May/beginning of June where he hit .161 with a .569 OPS through 18 games, striking out 23 times. He felt he had gotten too passive during that span.
 
When the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Cubs at Wrigley Field last week, Russell stared at strike three right down the middle during his first trip to the plate. He instantly made a mental adjustment to be more aggressive and responded with three straight hits to close out that first game.
 
"I've been feeling good," he said. "I've been seeing the ball well. Just taking an opportunity of swinging the bat at the right moment. I felt like early on in that game, watching two balls go by that I would normally do some damage with, I kind of took it hard and realized maybe I'm letting these pitches go too frequently. 
 
"I still feel more comfortable [overall this season]. It's just a daily grind, man. You're going to go through these funks. You're going to hit balls day-to-day that don't tend to fall. You normally don't want to change anything, so my approach is just to stay the same, and I want to take my walks as well."
 
The Cubs understand this is a long season filled with adversity, injuries and losing streaks. But if Bryant and Russell cannot be considered sophomores anymore, would their maturity and advanced approaches put them at a junior level?
 
"I think so. Favorite year in high school, by far," Maddon said. "You're totally free your junior year. SATs don't matter. PSATs are OK. I got my license, among other things. It was a really good time."

Cubs ace Jake Arrieta nominated for two ESPY Awards

Cubs ace Jake Arrieta nominated for two ESPY Awards

Jake Arrieta had a 2015 season for the ages, and was rewarded for it by winning the National League Cy Young Award, becoming the fifth player in Cubs history to accomplish that feat.

He's also been nominated for a pair of ESPY awards because of it: best breakthrough athlete and best MLB player.

After struggling to find his groove in four seasons with the Baltimore Orioles (20-25, 5.46 ERA), Arrieta turned it around in Chicago, particularly in 2015 when he erupted for a 22-6 record with a 1.77 ERA. 

The Cubs ace followed that up in 2016 by jumping out to a 9-0 start, and went nearly a calendar year without a loss.

He's also one of 26 pitchers in MLB history to have thrown more than one no-hitter, and did so 11 starts apart from each other.

The voting ends at 7 p.m. CT on July 13, when the ESPY Awards will take place. Cast your vote here.

Report: Pau Gasol tells Bulls he has declined option, becoming a free agent

Report: Pau Gasol tells Bulls he has declined option, becoming a free agent

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but Pau Gasol is hitting the market.

Gasol told the Bulls that he has declined his option for the 2016-17 season and will become a free agent, according to ESPN's Marc Stein.

The 35-year-old signed a three-year, $22.3 million deal with the Bulls in the summer of 2014.

In two seasons with the Bulls, he averaged 17.6 points per game and 11.4 rebounds and made an All-Star appearance.