NBA Playoffs: Ron Artest was too strong, too smart for Durant, Thunder

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artest_durant.jpgIn a year, maybe two, teams are not going to be able to do this to Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant. Then he will be stronger; the team will be more experienced. But right now they can, and Ron Artest and the Lakers did.

Los Angeles simply out-muscled, out-hustled and out-thought the best player Oklahoma City has got. With Ron Artest on him, Kevin Durant was just 4 of 18 shooting on the night (7-24 overall). Durant usually still makes some of those well-covered shots, he will as the series goes on, but Scott Brooks and his team need to come up with other actions to get Durant open, or things will not get a lot better.

After rewatching the game and focusing on the Artest/Durant battle, it was clear the Lakers did several things to shut him down.

The first was keeping the game in the half-court. In an uptempo game, the young and athletic Thunder would steamroll the Lakers, and Durant would get easy points filling a lane on the break. His confidence would grow. The Lakers held the game to 87 possessions, six fewer than the Thunder averaged this season  — and about six less than the Lakers, it’s just that LA is better able to adjust their game.

Part two of the plan was what everybody is talking about — Ron Artest.

Artest is a pit bull of a defender. First off, he is relentless, he never quits, never gives up. Second, he is physical and strong, and knows how to use it. The Oklahoma City team — not just Durant but also the team — were not prepared for this.

Artest tried to deny Durant the ball in any spot on the floor he likes. That’s always his modus operandi. And he is too strong for Durant to hold his position on his own. Artest tries to do the same things to players like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony but has less success because they are strong enough to hold him off and get some angles they want. Durant needs more muscle on the frame to do that.

To help Durant out, the Thunder ran some simple plays right out of every NBA playbook — some cross screens, some pindowns — trying to free Durant up on the strong side. Artest just blew those up and was in Durant’s grill the whole time. Two reasons for that. First, Artest has been seeing those since he entered the league. Artest is a smart player, a savvy one. If he knows it’s coming, you’re not going to succeed with it very often. You have to do better than the basics to catch him off guard.

Second, there isn’t a player strong enough on the Thunder to set a pick Artest can’t run through, especially on the screen-and-roll. Much like Durant himself, this is a young and lanky team. That serves them well in transition, not as well in a game of physical half-court sets.

The Lakers bigs also defended the picks well, they showed out on Durant enough until Artest arrived, which was not long. The Lakers were well prepared for this part of the Thunder playbook.

Brooks and his staff have to figure out ways to get Durant free. That may be better putting Durant on the weakside then using quick ball rotation to get him the ball in isolation. They can’t keep running basic sets and keep Durant on the strong side.

They have to do something different. The Thunder need Durant to win in this series, and Artest and his somewhat creepy blond hair are not going away.

PBT Podcast: Thunder/Spurs, Hawks/Cavs, and Game 6s talk with Dan Feldman

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - OCTOBER 28:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder tries to block Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs during the third quarter of a NBA game at the Chesapeake Energy Center on October 28, 2015 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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Friday night sees some big Game 6s across the NBA playoffs — Indiana has the best chance of forcing a Game 7 — but everyone is looking ahead to Oklahoma vs. San Antonio in the next round.

That includes Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBCSports.com, who in this latest podcast discuss that series and the Atlanta and Cleveland series that tips off next week. Also they talk about the Friday night Game 6 matchups, and if Portland could beat Golden State if the Warriors do not get Stephen Curry back.

As always, you can listen to the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunesdownload it directly here, or you can check out our new PBT Podcast homepage, which has the most recent episodes available. If you have the Stitcher app, you can listen there as well.

Report: Celtics believe they’ll get meeting with Kevin Durant

Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant (35) looks to move on Boston Celtics' Marcus Smart (36) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. The Thunder won 130-109. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
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The Celtics will chase Kevin Durant this summer.

Will it work?

Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports:

Ainge will be aggressive in free agency, team sources told The Vertical, and yes, that means a run at Kevin Durant. The Celtics believe Durant will meet with them this summer, but they know that meeting won’t accomplish much unless there are significant moves leading into it.

The Celtics are optimistic about meeting with Durant. The Warriors are optimistic about signing Durant.

That might just speak to different mindsets within the organizations – why shouldn’t Golden State be confident about everything? – but it also might handicap the odds of Durant’s next team. The Warriors definitely appear more likely than the Celtics.

Boston has plenty going for it: Brad Stevens, a solid young roster, extra draft picks (including the Nets’ first-rounder this year) and cap flexibility. But Durant wants to win now, so those more youthful assets mean only so much. It’s on Danny Ainge to prove he can turn that cap space into another helpful player, deal a Brooklyn pick or two for a veteran. That would become much easier if the Celtics win the lottery.

There’s a lot happening at once. If Durant isn’t coming, Boston might prefer to keep its draft picks and build slowly. Other free agents might not come. But if Durant is on board, that makes trades preferable and other free agents landable.

Of course, Durant should be the top option.

It appears the Celtics at least have their foot in the door.

Playoff preview: Four key questions about San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant, center, scores against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Between 2011 and 2014, the Spurs and Thunder combined for six Western Conferences Finals appearances with at least one reaching it each year. Last season featured Warriors vs. Rockets. This year, one – but only one – of San Antonio and Oklahoma City will return.

1. Are these Kevin Durant‘s final games with the Thunder?

Let’s get this out of the way. Durant, as you well know, will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. At this point, the best thing Oklahoma City can do to keep him is win. He knows the city. He knows the franchise. He knows the roster (which would likely return in similar form if he re-signs). Whether the Thunder send him into free agency with a good taste in his mouth is the biggest variable.

Will Durant leave just because Oklahoma City loses to the Spurs? Of course not. Will Durant stay just because Oklahoma City beats the Spurs? Of course not.

But this is a big opportunity for the Thunder to accentuate their positives – and the Spurs, another team in the Durant hunt, to do the same.

2. Who wins the Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard matchup?

More directly on the court… Durant is involved in what might be the best individual matchup of the 2016 playoffs

Durant and Leonard should both finish top five in MVP voting. If they do, it’d be the first time two players top five in MVP voting who play the same position met in the playoffs since 2012, when LeBron James and Durant faced off in the Finals.

The matchup should be fun on both ends of the court, but it’ll be particularly intriguing when Oklahoma City has the ball. Durant is one of the NBA’s best offensive players, Leonard the best defender. I can’t wait to watch them go at it.

3. How do the Spurs handle Oklahoma City’s athleticism?

In his last 20 games against San Antonio, Serge Ibaka is 15-5. Ibaka embodies the athletic advantage the Thunder hold over the Spurs. At his best, Ibaka attacks with hops and speed the Spurs’ bigs can’t match. Ibaka looked old throughout much of the regular season, but he appeared rejuvenated in the first round against the Mavericks. If he was just saving his energy for the playoffs, following the Dwight Howard model in previous years, Ibaka could play a major role.

Ditto Russell Westbrook, who will challenge Tony Parker to keep up. San Antonio could cross match with Danny Green, but that presents complications in transition.

The Spurs are collectively more skilled, but the Thunder have done a better job than most at neutralizing that advantage.

4. Has Billy Donovan found a rotation that narrows the gap?

Billy Donovan passed his first playoff test against Rick Carlisle. Now the challenge grows even greater against Gregg Popovich.

One thing Donovan did right: Putting Nick Collison, not Kyle Singler, in the playoff rotation. Collison’s minutes could be key against a Spurs team that often plays two slower bigs. I guesses Singler rather than Collison would play regularly, which lowered Oklahoma City’s adjusted net rating by a few points per 100 possessions when projecting using only players in the playoff rotation.

I’ll again use nba wowy! to rank playoff teams by regular-season net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only lineups that include five players projected to be in the team’s postseason rotation, once the first round ends. But for now, here are San Antonio’s and Oklahoma City’s ratings, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the playoff rotation:

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 110.5 to 110.0
  • Defensive rating: 99.4 to 96.1
  • Net rating: +11.1 to +13.9

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 113.6 to 117.3
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.6
  • Net rating: +7.6 to +12.7

Both teams — already strong by this measure — benefited from beating up on their first-round competition, and the Thunder got a bump for using Collison over Singler. Oklahoma City still trails the Spurs, but the gap is much closer than overall regular-season results would suggest.

Prediction: Spurs in 7

Report: Deron Williams opting out of Mavericks contract

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 03:  Deron Williams #8 of the Dallas Mavericks dribbles the ball agains Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors at American Airlines Center on November 3, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using 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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Deron Williams sacrificed $16 million to leave the Nets in a buyout last summer. He recouped $5,378,974 with the Mavericks this season.

Now – instead of exercising his $5,621,026 player option – he’s looking to get more.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Deron Williams intends to opt out of the second season of his contract with the Mavericks, sources told ESPN.com.

Williams could return to the Mavericks. They’re one of the few teams that need a starting point guard, and two others that do – the Nets and Knicks – are probably off the table given Williams’ antipathy for a large market. Expect Dallas to at least try for an upgrade like Mike Conley first.

But even if Williams signs as a backup, he can still probably command more than $6 million next season. With the salary cap skyrocketing to about $92 million and so many teams flush with cap space, the salary picture is changing.

This also increases the Mavericks’ potential cap space.

They project to fall about $24 million under the cap, counting cap holds for Williams, Chandler Parsons (who has a player option that could go either way) and Dwight Powell. In other words, Dallas could spend that $24 million then exceed the cap to re-sign Williams, Parsons and/or Powell.

Renouncing Williams ($6,454,769 cap hold), Parsons ($19,969,950 cap hold only if he opts out) and/or Powell ($1,180,431) could clear additional cap room. Parsons opting in would restrict the Mavericks’ ability to clear space .

Williams would have been a bargain if he opted in. Instead, Dallas gains flexibility.