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Durant, Westbrook sharing load in Thunder offense

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Durant, Westbrook sharing load in Thunder offense

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) From the NBA Finals to the All-Star Game to the Olympics, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have proven themselves to be one of basketball's most dynamic duos.

To lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to the league's best record, they've found even more ways to make an impact - primarily by putting their teammates in better positions to contribute.

Both Durant and Westbrook are averaging career highs in assists this season while cutting down on their turnovers, helping the Thunder become the NBA's highest-scoring team with an impressive line of statistics. Oklahoma City leads the league in 3-point accuracy and free throw percentage and ranks second in overall field-goal shooting.

``We're passing the ball so much better this year,'' said coach Scott Brooks, who has long harped on the need to improve the team's assist numbers and cut down on turnovers. ``Our basketball knowledge has improved a lot the past few years just from all the experiences that we've had. Our passing and our spacing is really good. Our offense has been in a nice rhythm.''

Somehow, Oklahoma City finished third in the league in scoring last season despite the dubious combination of passing out the fewest assists (18.5 per game) while committing the most turnovers (16 per game). Loaded with individual talent, the Thunder struggled to turn it all into something even better.

``In the past, I think we were more of an isolation team. We relied on our talent, probably too much at times,'' forward Nick Collison said. ``So, we're trying to get away from that and get more to where we're executing, sharing the ball and getting easier shots.''

Although they were unable to sustain it in the NBA Finals against Miami, the catalyst for change may have been the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Down 2-0 in the series, Oklahoma City rallied for four straight wins with its best team basketball of the year.

Durant came back committed to improving his all-around game, proving it with his first career triple-double earlier this season. Westbrook, whose assist totals dropped off last season, is passing the ball better than ever. He's in the top 10 in scoring, assists and steals and is also among the top 10 guards in rebounding.

As a team, Oklahoma City is now in the top half of the league in assists.

``We're not having to rely on our guys to make incredible plays, difficult plays. We're getting a lot more easy shots. I think Kevin and Russell deserve a lot of credit for that,'' Collison said. ``They've embraced it and they're trusting everybody else. The decisions are easier when the spacing's better. I think that's part of it, too. But when we're not playing in a crowd, we get better shots.''

Some early-season growing pains after NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden was traded away - his role taken over by Kevin Martin - has faded away. Durant, who has won the scoring title the past three seasons, got some immediate criticism for being too passive and forcing the ball to others while Westbrook opened the season in an awful shooting slump.

Oklahoma City has dispelled any doubts with the franchise's longest winning streak since 1996 - the last time it was coming off of an appearance in the NBA Finals (then as the Seattle SuperSonics).

``We're happy with it but we're not satisfied,'' Brooks said. ``We're going to keep doing what we do, and that's play every game the best we can and live with the results. We know we're not going to win every game in this league.''

Westbrook, particularly, doesn't seem ready to accept that.

Even after Oklahoma City won its 10th straight game, Westbrook was displeased and started to duck around a group of reporters who had gathered at his locker and skip his postgame interview. When he was tracked down at the exit to the locker room, he had no interest in patting himself on the back for his seventh double-digit assist game of the season - more than he had in 86 games last season, including the playoffs.

``I can do better,'' he said.

His coach wasn't surprised.

``He never cheats the game,'' Brooks said. ``He's not a perfect player, like nobody in this league is. But his effort is always good. He plays with a lot of desire and a lot of heart and determination.''

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John Tortorella has no answers, walks out of postgame press conference

John Tortorella has no answers, walks out of postgame press conference

In each of the first three games of the series, the Columbus Blue Jackets always had an answer for the Washington Capitals.

The Caps built a two-goal lead in each game and Columbus was able to battle back and tie it each time.

In Game 4 on Thursday, however. the Blue Jackets had no answer in a 4-1 loss to Washington and that includes head coach John Tortorella.

"We weren't good," Tortorella said to the media after the game. "There's no sense asking me things about the game. I'm telling you, we laid an egg. I'm not going to break it down for you. We sucked. We sucked."

Tortorella is known for having some fiery interactions with the media. By his standard, Thursday's postgame presser was fairly tame.

The Capitals may have won Game 3, but Columbus certainly looked like the better team for most of the night. That was not the case in Game 4 as Washington dominated from start to finish. That led to the contentious postgame presser.

"We laid an egg," Tortorella said. "That's all I have to say, guys. I'm sorry, I'm not going to break it down for you. Nothing went well for us. It's on us, we have to figure it out and we will."

Reporters continued to press the head coach until he finally walked out.

Before you laugh too hard at this, it is important to consider that this may be a calculated move by Tortorella.

Sure, there have been times in which he has lost his temper in the past, but these outbursts may be more premeditated than we think.

Consider this. After their worst game of the series, a game in which the Blue Jackets only scored once and saw a 2-0 series lead evaporate in two games at home, we're talking about the head coach. We're not talking about the loss or the performance of the players. Instead, we are talking about Tortorella walking out on reporters.

Even if Tortorella was not willing to give any answers on Thursday, he will need to find some soon. The series now shifts back to Washington for Game 5 on Saturday with all the momentum on the Caps' side.

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4 reasons the Caps beat the Blue Jackets in Game 4

4 reasons the Caps beat the Blue Jackets in Game 4

The Caps put together their best performance of the series Thursday in a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 4 of their 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs first-round series.

The win pulled Washington even with Columbus in the series 2-2.

Here's how the Caps got the big win.

4 Reasons why the Capitals beat the Blue Jackets in Game 4

1. Tom Wilson factors in the offense

Wilson’s hands are good for more than just punching.

He proved that again on Thursday as he scored the first goal for the second consecutive game. Chandler Stephenson and John Carlson provided the pressure on Sergei Bobrovsky. With Bobrovsky scrambling in the crease, Evgeny Kuznetsov passed the puck back to Wilson who fired the one-timer past the Columbus netminder.

In the first two games of the series, Wilson had no points and no shots. In the last two games, he has two goals and 13 shots on goal.

2. A great keep-in by John Carlson

We saw how dangerous it was when penalty killers fail to clear the puck in Game 1 when the Caps failed to clear in the third period leading to the game-tying power play goal.

In Game 4, the roles were reversed. Trying to kill off an Artemi Panarin penalty, Cam Atkinson attempted to clear the puck with the backhand. Carlson skillfully corralled the puck out of the air at the blue line to keep it in the zone.

The power play was able to reset and T.J. Oshie scored the rebound goal soon after.

3. Braden Holtby closes the door to finish the second period

After the Caps took the 2-0 lead, the Blue Jackets made a late push to try to pull one back.

In the last 10 minutes of the second period, Columbus had 13 shot attempts, five of which were not net. Several of those shots were high-quality opportunities, but Holtby came up with the big saves that the team was not getting earlier in the series.

His play ensured the Caps took the 2-0 lead to the locker room.

4. Alex Ovechkin extends the lead to three

Washington entered the third period up 2-0. In each of the first three games, the Caps held a two-goal lead and allowed the Blue Jackets to battle back and tie the score. Even with a two-goal lead, it still felt at the start of the third that the next goal would decide the game. If Columbus pulled within one and got the crowd back on their side, we have seen what that momentum can do for them.

This time, however, Ovechkin struck first. After a board battle behind the net, the puck trickled out to the faceoff circle. Ovechkin grabbed it and quickly snapped the puck past Bobrovsky before anyone could react.

The goal gave Washington their first three-goal lead of the series and shut the Blue Jackets’ comeback down before it could begin.

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