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Russell Westbrook hits dagger at the buzzer

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Russell Westbrook hits dagger at the buzzer

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Russell Westbrook made a 3-pointer as time expired, lifting the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 110-107 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Thursday night.

The Thunder blew a 23-point lead and trailed 105-102 with 4 minutes remaining before closing the game on an 8-2 run.

Westbrook, who notched his 18th triple-double of the season, made three free throws sandwiched around a bucket in the paint by Steven Adams to put Oklahoma City up 107-105.

Justin Jackson's 6-foot jumper off an offensive rebound tied the game. After a timeout, the Thunder got the ball in front of Sacramento's bench and Carmelo Anthony found Westbrook atop the 3-point line for the winner.

Westbrook lifted the Thunder from what would have been a devastating loss after a fast start in their first game since the All-Star break. They set a season high with 44 points in the first quarter and made 12 3-pointers but still had to rally in the final minutes to win.

Anthony matched his season high of seven 3-pointers and Paul George had three from beyond the arc, ending his five-game streak with five or more 3s. It was the second-longest streak in NBA history behind George McCloud's six-game streak in 1996 (see full recap).

Curry scores 44 as Warriors hold off Clippers
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Stephen Curry swished a beautiful buzzer-beater from way back early and hit another timely 3-pointer late on the way to scoring 44, and the Golden State Warriors returned from the All-Star break and had to hold off the Los Angeles Clippers 134-127 on Thursday night.

Kevin Durant had 21 points and eight assists, Klay Thompson added 19 points, and Draymond Green contributed 13 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals.

Curry shot 14 for 19, including 8 of 11 from deep, in his third 40-point game of the season.

Coach Steve Kerr challenged the defending champions to begin games better on the defensive end, which they did. Then the Clippers nearly came back with a surge down the stretch in what became an entertaining back-and-forth in the closing minutes (see full recap).

Wizards spoil home debut for new-look Cavs
CLEVELAND -- Bradley Beal scored 18 points, Kelly Oubre Jr. added 17 and tried to untie the sneakers of one of Cleveland's new players, and the Washington Wizards withstood a late assault by LeBron James to beat the new-look Cavaliers 110-103 on Thursday night.

The Wizards nearly blew a late 11-point lead as James scored 14 straight points to pull the Cavs within 106-103. But Beal hit a driving layup and James missed a free throw and committed a lane violation while intentionally missing the second one and the Wizards held on.

Washington is 8-2 since star guard John Wall went down with a knee injury. Tomas Satoransky, who has been starting in Wall's spot, added 17 points and eight assists.

James, back from winning MVP honors at the All-Star Game, scored 32 -- 14 in the fourth -- for the Cavs, who dropped to 2-1 since acquiring four new players before the trade deadline. J.R. Smith added 15 for Cleveland.

The Wizards spoiled the home debuts for Larry Nance Jr., George Hill, Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson, four new faces the Cavs are hoping can get them back to the NBA Finals (see full recap).

Sixers weekly observations: Welcome to Philly, Jimmy Butler

Sixers weekly observations: Welcome to Philly, Jimmy Butler

Last week, we speculated about how the Sixers would integrate Jimmy Butler into the team. 

This week, it’s fair to say Butler looks like he belongs. 

The Sixers went 3-1 over the past seven days to move to 11-7 overall, winning in Miami, losing in Orlando, and beating Utah and Charlotte.

Butler was fantastic all night in his home debut Friday vs. the Jazz, and he was great when it mattered Saturday against the Hornets, making a huge block in overtime on Kemba Walker, then nailing the game-winning three-pointer with 0.3 seconds left.

• One of Butler’s best qualities is how simple he can make the game. His knowledge of the playbook and his teammates is obviously limited, but he’s not the kind of player who needs to know the nuances of every set to win his team games. At the end of Saturday night’s game, all Brett Brown had to do was get the ball in Butler’s hands and clear out the floor. It’s been a while since the Sixers had a player like that.

• It doesn’t spoil a very positive week, but the Sixers keep blowing big lead after big lead. In each of the last three games, they gave up leads of 16 or more points. Not good.

• Joel Embiid actually hasn’t shot the ball well since Butler arrived (34.9 percent), but he’s still averaging 25 points, 10.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.3 blocks in the past three games. Because of his ability to draw fouls, he doesn't need to have a great shooting night to be dominant offensively. 

• Saturday was Ben Simmons’ best performance of the season. While the stat line of 23 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists was impressive, his balance between patient point guard play and aggression in transition was most striking. He went 9 for 11 from the foul line, season highs for both attempts and makes.

• Markelle Fultz’s body language might not exude hustle, but he deserves credit for making winning plays through sheer effort. 

Friday night, he tracked down his missed free throw and found Butler for a pivotal and-one layup at the end of the third quarter. Saturday, he soared in to steal a rebound from Miles Bridges and dished it to Mike Muscala for a dunk.

Fultz’s unusual free throws have gotten a lot of attention, and rightfully so. His pump-fake free throw Monday in Miami, which Fultz claimed slipped out of hand, was alarming to watch. And his juggling free throw routine Friday night was also rather bizarre, though it did appear effective at removing most of the hitch from Fultz’s shot.

Through all the concern over his shot and conjecture about what the Butler trade means for his future with the Sixers, Fultz has continued to play hard.  

• Even after acquiring Butler, general manager Elton Brand said Tuesday at his new star’s introductory press conference that  “the championship talk is a little premature for me.” 

One way he plans to get the Sixers closer to title contention is through filling the open roster spot. He acknowledged the team “needs shooting.”

Over the past week, their lack of quality options at the backup power forward and center spots has been easy to see as well. Amir Johnson has not had a very good start to the season — his minus-9.0 net rating is second-worst on the team. His 19.3 turnover percentage is the highest of any Sixer. 

Brown seems to recognize that Johnson is usually a liability; he’s only playing him 10.2 minutes per game, which would be a career low for Johnson. The ripple effect of that has been 23.9 minutes per game for Mike Muscala, which would be a career high.

With Wilson Chandler in the starting lineup, leaning so heavily on Muscala and trying to steal 10 solid minutes from Johnson each night does not look like a viable plan. In the short term, it might make sense to give Jonah Bolden a chance.

• The Sixers have played 18 games, most in the NBA, and five back-to-backs. The schedule finally eases up a little starting this week, with a three-game homestand Monday vs. the 3-12 Suns, Wednesday vs. the 9-7 Pelicans and Friday vs. the 2-12 Cavaliers. With their 8-0 record at Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers are the last team in the NBA without a loss at home.

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Jimmy Butler's overtime heroics lift Sixers over Hornets

Jimmy Butler's overtime heroics lift Sixers over Hornets

Jimmy Butler might not be the perfect fit for the Sixers, as many noted when he was acquired.

But on Saturday night, in the afterglow of Butler’s game-winning three-pointer with 0.3 seconds left in overtime, he felt as close to perfect as you can get for this Sixers team.

On the final possession of regulation, head coach Brett Brown cleared the floor out for Butler. His new star missed an open mid-range jumper.

On the final possession of overtime, Brown called the identical play. 

Butler’s tightly contested jumper from the right wing gave the Sixers a 122-119 over the Hornets (see observations).

It doesn’t take much creativity to find a way to win,” Brown told reporters in Charlotte. “That’s what the great players can do and it’s what we spoke about with the inclusion of him, whether it’s the pick-and-roll, isolation, to create his own looks. That is a rare gift in the NBA, the players that can do that a high rate, and he’s one of them. And he’s ours. To see that happen, to see him be able to make amends for that shot he was disappointed he missed in regulation and to have the opportunity to back it up and deliver as he did, I think it’s a tremendous feel good story, and his teammates shared in that.

In Butler’s three games with the team, the Sixers are 2-1. Without Butler, there’s little doubt they’d be 0-3. 

He shut down Donovan Mitchell Friday night, dished out seven assists and scored 28 points, including eight in a tight fourth quarter. 

Saturday night felt like a different story for Butler, who shot just 4 for 11. He mostly looked out of sync with the Sixers’ offense, struggling to muster open looks and lingering in the background as Ben Simmons (23 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) and Joel Embiid (33 points, 11 rebounds) shined. 

Butler was the primary defender on the electric Kemba Walker, who scored a career-high 60 points.

“In my head, as much as I wanted the shot to go in to win the game, I also wanted it to go in because I didn’t want Kemba to give me 70,” Butler said. “I just wanted it to stop at 60.”

In overtime, though, Butler showed exactly why the Sixers traded for him. Before Butler, the Sixers had gaping holes when it came to shot creation, shutdown perimeter defense and late-game scoring. With Butler, it appears those deficiencies no longer exist. 

Butler didn’t resign himself to Walker having an unstoppable night, even after all the improbable shots Walker had made, including a three-pointer that kissed off the backboard and went in to give Charlotte a 108-107 lead with 44.5 seconds left in regulation.

On Charlotte’s final possession of overtime, Butler swatted Walker’s shot, then leaped up to grab the ball and toss it over his head to save it from going out of bounds.

“I stayed in the game,” Butler said. “Guys are going to score the ball and if they’re feeling it, they’re going to score it at a high rate. My job is to make everything tough for him. I think I did that on a lot of plays. Let up on a couple, don’t get me wrong. But in the end, got a piece of the ball. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw [Wilson Chandler] right there. Throw the ball back to him, take off the other way.”

The Sixers called timeout, and everyone knew who was getting the ball. After Butler’s miss at the end of the fourth, JJ Redick approached Butler before the final play of overtime.

“He was kind of in his own little world,” Redick said, “and I just said, ‘I bet you won’t call game.’ He said, ‘Huh?’ I said, ‘I bet you won’t call game.’ And he said, ‘Bet.’ So we had a fun little moment after he hit that shot.”

While Butler does erase many of the Sixers’ previous weaknesses, he doesn’t solve everything. The Sixers continue to blow sizable leads — Saturday night was the third straight game they’ve squandered a lead of at least 16 points. And the bench still looks like it could use another piece or two. 

Butler is the kind of player who can make those concerns feel irrelevant. At the end of overtime, all that mattered was the Sixers could give the ball to Butler and let him do what he does.

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