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Mavericks-Thunder Preview

Mavericks-Thunder Preview

Kevin Durant said his back is fine after he appeared to injure it in the Oklahoma City Thunder's last game.

Dirk Nowitzki looks set to return after missing the last two contests for the Dallas Mavericks.

Durant has been simply brilliant in two overtime victories over the Mavericks this season, and both superstars should be eager to meet in Monday night's matchup in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City (35-12) fell 115-110 at Cleveland on Saturday. Durant appeared to injure his lower back in the third quarter while hustling back on defense and left briefly, saying afterward he was fine.

Nowitzki, meanwhile, has endured an injury-plagued season in missing 27 games at the start after knee surgery. He returned to practice Sunday after missing the last two contests with a right adductor strain.

The German superstar has shown his rust in averaging 13.5 points on 26.7 percent shooting in two losses to Oklahoma City this season.

That hasn't been the case at all for Durant, who has averaged 46.0 points in the two wins, including a career-best 52 the last time these teams met in a 117-114 victory at Dallas (20-27) on Jan. 18.

Durant presents a tough matchup for a Dallas team allowing opponents to average 26.1 free throws for the Western Conference's worst mark. Durant is 31 for 31 at the line against the Mavs this season.

Russell Westbrook is averaging 23.5 points and 8.0 assists in the two victories for the Thunder, who have won eight straight in this series including last year's first-round sweep in the playoffs.

The Mavs will also have to worry about Serge Ibaka, who is averaging 15.5 rebounds against them to help the Thunder to a edge of 17 boards over the two games.

New Dallas point guard Darren Collison, a former UCLA teammate of Westbrook, is averaging a team-high 23.5 points in the season series.

Collison says it has been a learning experience in his first season playing for coach Rick Carlisle.

"Just because he's being hard on us or easy on us in a difficult way you can't take it too seriously," Collison said. "He's trying to make us better and help us become the players we need to be in this league and it's been good for me. I think we've had steady improvement."

The season series has been proof of how these teams differing fortunes in the clutch. The Thunder are 4-1 in overtime while the Mavs are 1-8.

Dallas will seek to salvage a split of a four-game trip after winning 109-99 over Phoenix on Friday. The backcourt of Collison and O.J. Mayo combined for 39 points as the Mavs used a 35-point fourth quarter to pull away.

The Thunder are happy to start a three-game homestand after playing 12 of their last 15 on the road. They have a bitter taste of the contest that ended that stretch as they blew a double-digit lead against the Cavaliers.

"We were up 12," Durant said. "We can't just come in and play nonchalant basketball. (When) we are up 12, we have to put them away."

Oklahoma City has won 13 straight at home against West foes.

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5 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning in Game 6

5 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning in Game 6

After losing three straight, the Capitals battled back in Game 6 on Monday. With their 3-0 win, Washington forced the Eastern Conference Final into a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday.

Here is how the Caps did it.

1. Braden Holtby matched Andrei Vasilevskiy save for save

Andrei Vasilevskiy was just as great in this game as he was in the three previous, but one of the major differences in this one was that Holtby was just as good. He may not have been tested as much (Vasilevskiy made 32 saves, Holtby 24), but he was big when the team needed.

In the second period with the scored tied at 0, Holtby made one of the most critical saves perhaps of the entire season when he denied Anthony Cirelli with the toe on a 2-on-1. When the Caps took the lead, Holtby really shut the door in the third period with 10 saves to cap off what was his fifth career playoff shutout and first shutout of the entire season.

2. T.J. Oshie’s timely goal

Over halfway into the game, it looked like it was just going to be one of those nights. Caps fans know it well by now. Washington outplays their opponent, they get chance after chance and develop a whopping advantage in shots, but they run into a hot goalie and a random play suddenly turns into a goal for the other team, game and season over.

Vasilevskiy was on his way to having perhaps his best performance of the series. Considering how he played in the three games prior to Game 6, that’s saying something. The Caps were doing everything right, but he continued to make save after save. Then on the power play in the second period, John Carlson struck the inside of the post, the horn went off and the roar of the crowd gave way to dismay as the referee waved his arms to indicate there was no goal and play continued. Just seconds later, T.J. Oshie gave the Caps the 1-0 lead.

You have to wonder if doubt was starting to creep into the back of the minds of the players when that puck struck the post as they wondered what else they had to do to beat Vasilevskiy. Luckily, that feeling didn’t last long.

3. Special teams

Braydon Coburn’s tripping penalty in the second period gave Washington its only power play of the night and its first since the second period of Game 4. They had to make it count given how well Vasilveskiy was playing and they did.

Washington now has a power play goal in each of their three wins against the Lightning and no power play goals in their three losses. So yeah, it’s significant.

Tampa Bay had two opportunities of their own, but Washington managed to kill off both power plays in the penalty kill’s best performance of the series.

4. Washington’s physical game plan

On paper, the Lightning are better than the Caps in most categories. One area in which Washington has the edge, however, is physical play and it was clear very early that they intended to use that to their advantage in Game 6. Tampa Bay was pushed around and they seemed to struggle to recover.

Ovechkin was a one-man wrecking ball out there hitting everything that moved. The energy he brought with every hit was palpable and both the team and the crowd fed on it.

Washington was credited with 39 hits on the night compared to Tampa Bay’s 19. Ovechkin had four of those as did Nicklas Backstrom while Devante Smith-Pelly contributed five and Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik each led the team with six.

5. Fourth line dagger

Tampa Bay’s fourth line was the story of Game 5, but Washington’s fourth line sealed the deal on Monday with its third period goal.

Chandler Stephenson beat out an icing call, forcing Braydon Coburn to play the puck along the wall. Jay Beagle picked it up, fed back to Stephenson who backhanded a pass for the perfect setup for Devante Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly scored seven goals in the regular season. He now has four in the playoffs.

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

WASHINGTON -- Juan Soto, the youngest player in the majors at 19, hit a three-run homer in his first career start as the Washington Nationals defeated the San Diego Padres 10-2 on Monday.

Mark Reynolds had two solo home runs for the Nationals, who snapped a three-game losing streak. Bryce Harper had a homer and an RBI double.

Soto's drive highlighted a five-run second inning for Washington. The promising outfielder, who played for three minor league teams this season, hit the first pitch from Robbie Erlin (1-3) over the Nationals bullpen in left-center field. Soto also singled.

Soto's homer traveled an estimated 442 feet at Nationals Park. He earned a standing ovation from the crowd and the teenager responded by taking a curtain call. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Soto became the first teenager to hit a home run in a major league game since Harper on Sept. 30, 2012.

Called up to Washington on Sunday, Soto became the first 19-year-old to make his major league debut since Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias in 2016. He entered that game in the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter and struck out.

Washington's starting left fielder began the season at Class A Hagerstown. He hit a combined .362 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in his three minor league stops.

Gio Gonzalez (5-2) allowed two runs and two hits in seven innings.

San Diego's Franmil Reyes, playing in his seventh career game, also hit his first career home run.

Trea Turner hit a pair of RBI doubles for Washington. Reynolds had three hits.

Erlin surrendered six runs and seven hits over four innings in his third start of the season. San Diego had won three in a row.

Reyes connected for a two-run homer in the fourth inning, but the Padres' lineup generated little else against Gonzalez, who allowed one run over six innings in a no-decision at San Diego on May 9.

2018 MLB POWER RANKINGS AND OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.