Westbrook's heroics can't save Oklahoma City

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Westbrook's heroics can't save Oklahoma City

From Comcast SportsNet
MIAMI (AP) -- Oklahoma City was more than OK at the start. At the end, not so much. The Thunder got an epic performance from Russell Westbrook. They ran out to a huge early lead. They watched LeBron James get carried off the court in the fourth quarter, and took the lead shortly after he departed. Somehow, it still wasn't enough in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Even after getting 43 points from Westbrook, 28 more from Kevin Durant and staking itself to a 17-point lead by the time the first quarter was over, Oklahoma City is now officially on the brink. James finished with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers each scored 25 points and the Miami Heat beat the Thunder 104-98 in Game 4 to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven title series. "I can guarantee this," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "We have fight in us." Game 5 is in Miami on Thursday night, where James and the Heat can capture the NBA title that they were assembled to get two years ago. History says the Thunder are now in deep, deep trouble. No team in NBA history has rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the finals. No team has even forced a Game 7 in the title series when faced with that scenario. Westbrook took 32 shots, as many as James and Chris Bosh tried combined. He made 20 -- half of Oklahoma City's field goals on the night -- and finished with seven rebounds and five assists as well. For a guard who struggled many times against Miami, it was a breakout night that the Thunder desperately needed. "I thought Russell was terrific tonight," Brooks said. "The guy played relentless. He was aggressive. He kept us in this game and he gave us a chance to win." Said Heat forward Shane Battier: "The kid brought it. He's taken a lot of heat in this series, but he's not the reason why the game turned out the way it did tonight." There was one huge blip in Westbrook's night, and it was a play that helped the Heat seal the outcome. After a jump ball with 17.3 seconds remaining, Westbrook fouled Chalmers even though the Thunder would have gotten the ball back because there were less than 5 seconds on the shot clock. Chalmers made both free throws, the lead was five, and Heat fans in the sold-out building knew their team was moments from a 3-1 series lead. After hearing the whistle, Westbrook took a look at the scoreboard and held out his hand, a look of disbelief across his face. "Just a miscommunication on my part," Westbrook said. "Nothing I can do about it now." Durant's mother grabbed her son by both arms as he walked off the floor, hugging him and then using her right hand to turn his face back toward her, trying her best to console the scoring champion. It was a night when the Thunder ran out to a 33-16 lead to buck a trend of slow starts, where Durant and Westbrook were scoring at will, and where Durant threw the Heat an early curve ball by opening the game guarding Chalmers, the Heat point guard. Perhaps he should have stayed on Chalmers, given how good he was in the second half. For the final 16-plus minutes, the Thunder were reduced to playing 2-on-5 basketball. Serge Ibaka made a jumper with 4:46 left in the third quarter, cutting Miami's lead to 68-66. After that, it was either all Westbrook or all Durant, all the time. "We just have to stay together," center Kendrick Perkins said. "It's not over." Sure, the stars were superb, again, just not superb enough to take down Miami. After that Ibaka jumper, no other Thunder player besides the team's two superstars scored a point. "It's not disappointing. It's just, it happens that way," Brooks said. "Russell had a great game. We were going. We were going with him. He was making terrific plays at the basket. He was attacking, he was getting into the teeth of their defense and made basketball plays." Sixth Man of the Year James Harden struggled yet again, shooting 2 for 10 for the second straight game, though he did finish with 10 rebounds. Nick Collison scored six points, but the other three Oklahoma City starters -- Ibaka, Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha -- combined for a mere 13 on 6-for-16 shooting. "We're going to stay aggressive, keep trying to find guys," Westbrook said. "Guys are going to stay confident." Westbrook was amazing. Durant was great. Everyone else was nearly nonexistent, at least offensively. And if the Thunder don't figure out a way to do something no NBA team has ever done throughout the rest of this series, James will finally get that ring he's spent nine seasons chasing. "We're going to keep fighting," Durant said. "Frustrating to lose like that. But we're going to keep fighting, man. That's how we've been since I got here."

Gallardo will get at least two rehab starts

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Gallardo will get at least two rehab starts

BALTIMORE—Yovani Gallardo will have at least two rehab starts, manager Buck Showalter said.

The first one will be on Thursday in either Frederick or Norfolk. Originally, Gallardo was set to start for the Keys, but in case the weather forecast is unfavorable in Maryland, the start can be moved.  

If Gallardo pitches on Thursday and again on June 7, he could be available to return to the Orioles as soon as June 12 in Toronto, Showalter said. 

Gallardo pitched in the bullpen on Monday morning, and Showalter said it went well. 

NOTES: T.J. McFarland will be activated at Norfolk. He’s been on the minor league disabled list with a left knee injury. He’ll be held off until near the end of the Tides’ game at Lehigh Valley in case Tyler Wilson, the Orioles starter on Monday, doesn’t get knocked out early. … Edgar Olmos was sent from Norfolk to Bowie to make room for McFarland. … A CT scan on J.J. Hardy’s fractured left foot has been set for Friday. … Bowie left-handed starter Christopher Lee’s next start is being skipped at the suggestion of Baysox pitching coach Alan Mills.

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Want Kevin Durant on the Wizards? Root for Thunder over Warriors, Cavs

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Want Kevin Durant on the Wizards? Root for Thunder over Warriors, Cavs

That headline isn't clickbait. Anyone who hopes Kevin Durant one day plays for the Wizards -- and that seems like everybody in these parts -- should root for a Thunder win Monday night in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. Then hope Oklahoma City defeats the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals and for reasons other than #NeverLeBron.

If the idea of playing for his hometown team appeals to the kid from Seat Pleasant even a little, then the scoring savant getting a ring is the best hope.

Anytime the idea of KD2DC comes up for discussion on Twitter, talk radio or wherever such talks take place, skeptics state unequivocally Durant won't come to the Wizards because you can't win a title with this organization.

Some note Washington last reached the finals in 1979, the same season it last won at least 50 games. Others mention that even though John Wall and Bradley Beal form a dynamic backcourt, that wasn't enough to make the playoffs this season. Another faction simply views LeBron James as the ultimate roadblock.

RELATED: KEVIN DURANT TAKING HEAT FROM THUNDER FANS AFTER GAME 6 LOSS TO WARRIORS

It's quite possible none of that matters in the summer of 2017 -- yes, 2017 -- especially if Durant already does what Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing never could: Win a ring.

The odds of Durant joining the Wizards or any team whose nickname isn't typically paired with lightning are perhaps only somewhat better than getting hit by actual lightning. We're discussing the best path to raise those odds.

Let's say Durant gets it done with the Thunder now, meaning an epic Game 7 road win over the defending NBA champs coming off a 73-win regular season and then defeats the LeBron's. His drive for greatness won't change, but he can breathe easier on the legacy front.

He can then think about different legacy: Leading his hometown team to its first title since 1978 and perhaps helm the first championship among Washington's four major pro sports franchises since 1992.

If Durant banked a title, if he doesn't loathe the idea of dealing with any hassle that comes with a return home, if the West remains the more top-heavy of the conferences, tell me why he would rule out playing for the Wizards.

Realize that adding Durant to Washington or any of the nine teams that finished directly behind Cleveland in the Eastern Conference standings right now would mean instant contender. Yet only of those nine cities has Durant ever called home.

Let's back up and talk timeline. The recent spike in Durant 2016 free agency talk is premature based on current facts.

MORE BASKETBALL: A CAUTIONARY TALE ABOUT ANDREW BYNUM (AND POSSIBLY HASSAN WHITESIDE)

Though Durant's contract ends this summer, many NBA observers have believed he will actually re-up with Oklahoma City with a player option after the 2016-17 season. That means taking advantage of significant salary cap rises over the next two years and perhaps netting an additional $40 million.

That 2017 scenario also matches up with the contract for his fellow Thunder headliner, Russell Westbrook.

If the Thunder win Monday's Game of the Century and subsequently the 2016 NBA Finals, we can safely assume Durant is staying in OKC for at least another year for a chance to repeat plus the financial reasons plus Westbrook.

If money is everything, Durant likely stays in Oklahoma throughout his prime years. Based on the NBA's salary structure, nobody can pay him as much as the Thunder.

If Westbrook signs a long-term extension, good chance Durant does as well barring some falling out between the friends. It would be hard finding a more talented tag-team partner.

If the miser gene doesn't dominate Durant's thinking or Westbrook says he wants out after the 2016-17 season for say a return to his native Los Angeles, the door opens.

If that door opens, Washington, you want an NBA title on Durant's résumé.

Fair or not, all-time players are judged on whether they've won a title. Winning six like Michael Jordan sounds like heaven. For the likes of Barkley, Malone and Ewing, just one would scratch that status itch.

If no championship this year or next, Durant enters 2017 free agency a soon-to-be 30-year-old wondering if he'll ever taste the ultimate on-court triumph. He then might look for a super friend's scenario similar to when James famously decided to take his talents to South Beach.

Who knows what the NBA world will look like by then. Maybe Wall and Beal are ready for real. Maybe Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are still splashing past the competition. Maybe James reaches his seventh straight finals -- or maybe Father Time starts giving him a true fight.

Should Durant join the Wizards in 2017, the year James turns 33, he might be the East's best player. If he's already won a title for Oklahoma City, why not consider trying to turn his hometown's sporting frowns upside-down with the Wizards as a sincere title-contending conduit. Talk about a legacy.

Such talk becomes easier if Durant already won a precious ring.

MORE BASKETBALL: BEST DRESSED: SAGER, KD'S MOM, WESTBROOK OR KD?

2015-16 Season in Review: Nicklas Backstrom

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2015-16 Season in Review: Nicklas Backstrom

With the Capitals’ 2015-16 season now in the rearview mirror, we continue with our numerical player-by-player roster analysis.

No. 19 Nicklas Backstrom

Age: 28 (turns 29 on Nov. 23)

Games: 75

Goals: 20

Assists: 50

Points: 70

Plus-minus: Plus-17

Penalty minutes: 36

Time on ice: 19:10

Playoff stats: 12 games, 2 goals, 9 assists, plus-3, 8 PIM, 20:02

Contract status: Four years remaining on 10-year, $67 million contract ($6.7 million cap hit, $7 million salary)

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Following the Capitals’ fifth second-round playoff exit in nine years, Capitals alternate captain Nicklas Backstrom did something very few professional athletes are brave enough to do.

At the very end of his post-season interview with reporters, Backstrom was asked if there is anything he would like to say to Capitals fans who have waited 42 years for their team to win its first Stanley Cup.

“I love them,” Backstrom said. “I love Washington fans. They’re absolutely the best fans in the world. Even if we disappoint them, hopefully they have faith in us. I know we’re gonna do it. We’re gonna do it one day. I promise them.”

Once described as “the heartbeat of our team” by goaltender Braden Holtby, Backstrom was quietly one of the most consistently productive players for the Capitals this season, noteworthy because he underwent reconstructive hip surgery last summer.

During his nine-year NHL career in Washington, Backstrom has averaged .98 points per game in the regular season and .75 points per game in the playoffs.

This season he averaged .93 points and .92 points, respectively. He also hit the 20-goal mark for just the third time in his career and for the first time since 2010 when he set career highs with 33 goals and 101 points. Backstrom credited his decision to undergo offseason hip surgery and the dedication of the Capitals’ training staff to allow him to play in all but seven games this season (he missed the first three games of the season and four of the final five).

“I was feeling good all year,” he said. “Obviously, when you do a big surgery like that, you’re going to feel it a little bit. But it’s all about treatment and how you handle it. I feel like all the trainers have been doing a good job with that, helping me.”

Because of his consistency, and perhaps the campaigning of head coach Barry Trotz, Backstrom was voted into his first NHL All-Star Game. But that wasn’t enough to soothe the open wounds of another premature playoff exit.

“Really disappointing, to be honest with you,” Backstrom said when asked to evaluate his own play. “Honestly, I don’t care about anything else than going further in the playoffs. It’s disappointing. It doesn’t matter I went to Nashville. Yeah, it was fun, but I don’t really care about that right now.”

In the playoffs, Backstrom was quietly dominant, recording two goals and five assists in six games against the Flyers and no goals and four assists in six games against the Penguins – all while holding Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux to one assist (minus-2) in six games, and Sidney Crosby to two assists (minus-3) in six games.

“Every time you go against a player like (Crosby), I feel like you have to be good,” Backstrom said. “He’s a talented guy. I think if you look at it now, what did he have, two assists? If you look at it afterwards, you think when he has two assists, you feel like, ‘Yeah, we should’ve won that.’ But there was a lot of other guys on their team that really stepped up and had a big series.”

Guys like Nick Bonino (2 goals, 3 assists), Carl Hagelin (3 goals, 4 assists) and Phil Kessel (2 goals, 4 assists).

Backstrom has been through four head coaches and five No. 1 goalies in his nine seasons with the Caps but has failed to see the Capitals play in a conference final.

“Obviously, it’s getting old,” Backstrom said. “The same meetings every year.”

With four years remaining on a contract that continues to escalate in value – he’ll earn $7 million next season, $7.5 million in each of the following two seasons, and $8 million in 2019-20, Backstrom was asked if he’s ever wondered how long the Caps will remain patient with him and Alex Ovechkin in their quest to win a championship.

“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “It’s out of our hands, I think. Even if we have long contracts, it’s up to the GM and the owners to evaluate everybody and how they want to go forward here, which players they want to have here and stuff like that. But, yeah, it absolutely crosses your mind. But at the same time, you’re hockey players. We want to move forward, and we want to succeed and we want to compete and that’s what drives us.”

On the ice, it will be interesting to see which direction the Capitals will go with Backstrom next season. Evgeny Kuznetsov (77 points) became the first player not named Ovechkin or Backstrom to lead the Caps in scoring during the Ovechkin era and he could begin next season as the Caps’ top-line center.

How that potential switch could affect Backstrom’s ice time and offensive totals next season remains to be seen, but Backstrom seems convinced that with 17 players under contract for next season, the Capitals have the personnel to make another run at a championship.

“If you compare this to my first couple years, I feel like even if we lost, it’s a special group,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got something special, and we just need to execute. We need to win games when we need to. At the end of the day it’s all about winning. We need to get over the hump that we can’t get over. That’s what I feel like. Every time when it ends, it’s so quick and so frustrating.

“I feel like we need to be better as a group when it counts, everybody. It’s just not one or two players, it’s everybody. We need to be better.”

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