NBA Playoffs: Four guys who could make the West wild

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russell westbrook.jpgWith ABC and TNT covering the playoffs you can count on a couple things. One is more Closer/V promos than you can stomach. Second is more star hype — Kobe, LeBron, Howard, Wade — than you can stomach. Basically, you might want to keep the Pepcid AC on hand.

You and I both know that it’s usually the unheralded guy who wins the series. It’s Robert Horry with the big shots. We’re taking a look at a few guys in the West who can change the course of their first round series (and maybe beyond).

Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder): If you are going to knock off the defending NBA champions you are going to have to attack where they are most vulnerable, and that means at point guard. The Lakers Derek Fisher cannot defend quick point guards any better than an orange traffic cone, and his help off the bench in Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are not really that much help. Westbrook can be that point guard. Look at it this way: In the three Laker wins this season over the Thunder Westbrook shot 38.8 percent (9-21, 5-16, 5-12) but in the Thunder’s blowout win he was   10-13. That’s not a coincidence.

For the Thunder to win this series Westbrook is going to not only have to get into the paint but also finish at the rim. Andrew Bynum is going to be there, protecting the rim with his albatross wing span, Plus Pau Gasol (and even Lamar Odom) will be there and probably making better rotations defensively than they did at the end of the regular season. Westbrook has the reputation of being able to get by anybody but taking terrible shots in the lane if he can’t get all the way to the rim — he needs to be smarter about that, hit open spot up shooters with a pass and not miss the opportunities he creates.

Kevin Durant is going to get his because he is Kevin Durant. But Westbrook is the one who could change this series.

Marcus Camby (Portland Trail Blazers): At some point during this series, Marcus Camby is going to end up in an Amare Stoudemire poster. If you try to defend the rim against Phoenix that is going to happen now and again. Hazard of the job.

But Camby is going to be the guy matched up on STAT, and if the Blazers (without Brandon Roy) are to have any chance Camby is going to have to win that battle. He is going to have to be the man on the pick and roll that slows Nash and Amare. Camby is one of the few players in the Association with the skills to pull this off — he can show out on Nash and still recover well, he is long and plays smart. Nobody stops the Suns, but Camby could make them less efficient. That’s a start, then all the Blazers need to do is find some scoring.

J.R. Smith (Denver Nuggets): When J.R. Smith comes in off the bench, he will change the game. Sometimes it’s with electrifying dunks and plays that ignite the crowd and his team. Sometimes it is with a series of missed threes that suck the life out of the Nuggets offense. But he does change the game.

When he is on, he is as unstoppable as anyone in the league. He can hit the three (or from a few feet back of the arc) with a hand in his face, but if you run out on him he will put it on the floor and drive well past you. When he is playing like this, he makes no bad decisions because there are no bad options. The problem is, even on his off days, he plays with that same mindset.

Utah and Denver are going to have a tight series. Smith can swing games with his play and may well decide this series. But which way he swings it remains to be seen.

Rodrigue Beaubois (Dallas Mavericks): Some guys are just fun to watch play. They are smooth and make the impossible seem effortless. They wow the crowd and have even opposing fans buzzing. That is Beaubois, and that is what he did the other night in a start against the Los Angeles Clippers. For a while, he stole the show (really saved the show, there wasn’t much of one without him).

The question is, will he get the minutes to do that in the playoffs? With a veteran team heading into the playoffs, will Rick Carlisle give Beaubois the burn?

As our own Rob Mahoney pointed out to me, last year the Mavericks knocked the Spurs out of the playoffs in part because JJ Barea was seemingly unstoppable. Beaubois is a better version of Barea — faster, better shooter, more athletic. Beaubois can score. He will be very hard for the Spurs to stop and can be a real spark for Dallas.

If he gets on the court.

Craig Sager to skip Rio Olympics to fight leukemia

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Legendary TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager talks with Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Sager is on a one game assignment for ESPN. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Craig Sager’s fight with leukemia will prevent the basketball sideline reporter form covering the Rio Olympics for NBC.

NBC said Thursday in a statement that the 65-year-old Sager is preparing for a third bone marrow transplant at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Sager was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2014 and announced in March that he was no longer in remission.

The Rio Games would have been Sager’s fifth Olympics.

Sager has worked for Turner Sports for 34 years. At the ESPY Awards this month, Vice President Joe Biden presented Sager with the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks at Democratic National Convention (VIDEO)

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 06: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks at the South Los Angeles Get Out The Vote Rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Leimert Park Village Plaza on June 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. The presidential hopeful is attending a series of campaign stops on the eve of the California presidential primary election, where polls indicate a close divide between Clinton supporters and those of Democratic rival Senator Bernie Sanders.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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With so much focus in recent weeks being on NBA players speaking out on social issues, it’s worth remembering that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been one of the most vocal athletes in America on these things for decades. The Hall of Fame and all-time leading scorer in NBA history addressed the Democratic National Convention on Thursday evening, urging voters to vote for Hillary Clinton in November, and opened his remarks by introducing himself as Michael Jordan, because “Donald Trump couldn’t tell the difference.”

You can watch the video of his speech below:

Kevin Durant denies report he told Russell Westbrook he was returning to Oklahoma City

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant #35 discuss play during the first half against the Los Angeles ClipperLos Angeles Kingsat Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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In the weeks since Kevin Durant announced he was signing with the Golden State Warriors, we have yet to hear Russell Westbrook speak on his former teammate’s decision. This week, ESPN.com’s Royce Young indicated in a podcast interview that Durant was telling Westbrook and others in the days leading up to his decision that he was coming back to Oklahoma City. He later walked back his report, saying he misspoke. On Thursday, Durant himself told The Vertical‘s Shams Charania that he never said any such thing, or misled Westbrook or anyone else about his intentions.

“It’s false,” Durant told The Vertical on Thursday. “I didn’t say that – words about me telling Russell or Nick that I would stay or leave never came out of my mouth. We met as teammates, but no promises came out of it. In this day and age, I can’t control anything people claim out there. Someone can go out and say something random right now, and people will believe it.

“I never told Russell or Nick [Collison], ‘All right, guys, I’m coming back to the Thunder’ – and then a week later, I decide not to. Never happened. I don’t operate like that. I heard people say that story, but it’s not the truth.”

So that settles that.

Report: Spurs agree to two-year deal with free agent forward David Lee

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 01:  David Lee #42 of the Dallas Mavericks during the first half at American Airlines Center on March 1, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Lee will have a player option in the second year of his deal, which will be worth the veteran’s minimum.

Lee, 33, considered more lucrative deals elsewhere, but committed to the Spurs’ opportunity to win a championship and play a backup role to LaMarcus Aldridge andPau Gasol.

General manager “R.C [Buford] and coach [Gregg] Popovich put a lot of time and energy to give David a visual of how much they wanted him and would use him,” Bartelstein told The Vertical. “A lot of people talk about taking less money, and not many people do it, so the Spurs get a lot of credit for selling David on joining their organization.”

After winning a championship with the Warriors in 2015, Lee was dealt to Boston last offseason, where he fell out of the rotation quickly. He was bought out midseason and signed with the Mavericks. He was solid in Dallas, but at his age and with almost no defensive ability, he didn’t draw much interest on the market. In San Antonio, he likely won’t have a big role, but he’s a solid veteran scorer in the frontcourt off the bench in limited minutes.