NBA Playoffs: Tonight is OKC and Durant's time to shine

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Thumbnail image for Durant_game3.jpgThe Thunder are outmatched. Make no mistake about it. They’re in over their heads, a young team of athletic defenders facing arguably the most talented juggernaut in the league. They don’t have the depth inside to dominate the Lakers, though their block efforts in Game 2 helped. They don’t have the star power to draw calls like the whisper fouls Kobe Bryant got off his and-ones, nor the power to avoid such calls like the one whistled on their star player when a 7 foot Spaniard, known for his acting chops was felled as if he was struck by a hammer. They are out-manned, out-starred, and though they have the Coach of the Year, likely outwitted by the 10-ring-fingered man across the scorer’s table.

And none of that matters.

Because tonight, the Oklahoma City Thunder can announce to the world that they are a major league sports town, and that their star is as worthy as anyone’s.

Kevin Durant shook off the stab-him-if-you-have-to defense of Ron Artest in Game 1 to finish with an incomplete, but still impressive performance in Game 2. While Artest was still able to body, beleaguer, and bother Durant quite a bit, the young man they call Durantula still got his, seeming to get better and more confident as the game went along, and came within a hair of knocking down the shot to win it, under the bright lights and taco-chanting masses of Staples.

All year the Thunder have impressed with how even-handed they’ve been. They don’t get up or down; they seem to possess a wisdom far beyond their handful of years in the league. But in front of a crowd that’s welcomed them, a small town community that they’ve made their home in and which the team has been very honest about genuinely loving, you can expect the emotions to run high. Oklahoma City fans are new to the sport, still finding their way, still learning about the salary cap and superstar calls and the rest. But the one thing I can tell you as Midwest native is that these people will be there, and they will be loud. There will be no getting to the arena late because of traffic, no gawking at starlets who couldn’t tell a fast break from fast food, no excitement over the Jack-In-The-Box. They’ll be out for blood. And the roars for their star, Kevin Durant, will be deafening.

Durant has an opportunity to make a statement tonight, to everyone who thought he was an inefficient scorer, that his offensive prowess was a detriment to the club, who doesn’t think he’s on the level with Bryant, LeBron, Wade, and the rest, despite the fact that he led the National Basketball Association in scoring this season. He can put himself onto another level, rise up, fire, and let the world know that the Thunder are not a part of the future, they are a part of the present, and they are to be feared.

Which isn’t to say they’ll win, of course. It would take a nearly flawless combination of the emotion, execution, level-headed communication on defense, and probably a stroke of good fortune for the Thunder to pull out a win tonight. The Lakers simply have too much length. Too much power, too much Kobe, as inefficient as he may be right now. But the Thunder have exposed cracks in Camelot’s facade. Fisher can’t stay in front of Westbrook. Durant is figuring out Artest like a Rubix cube, and Artest’s due for an outburst. Serge I-BLOCK-A Ibaka has become a force inside, sending the Lakers back from whence they came. And Jeff Green won’t be quieted for four games.

The Lakers know a jugular stab tonight ends the series. There will be a game four in function but not in spirit if they should quiet the “commoner” crowd  in OKC. But this Laker team also has a rare penchant for failing when things are going their way, for lacking the focus to close teams out, and to routinely get shoved around if the opponent shows enough fire.

There may be Thunder in the sky  tonight, but there will be fire in the stands.

Key Matchup: Ron Artest v. Kevin Durant
The Thunder did a much better job in Game Two of freeing up Durant, sending him off screens for catch and shoot opportunities and Durant simply out-willed Artest, though Artest always had an arm up. Going to the high elbow post could be especially good for Durant, keeping the ball away from Artest’s swiping arms. For his part, Crazy Pills needs to maintain the same ball-denial-or-die-trying approach he’s worked in this series, side fronting Durant on the wing, where he usually receives his passes. He needs to avoid getting caught up in a confrontation, because I’d bet one of the Thunder are going to level him on a screen tonight.

Key Matchup 2: Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar v. Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor
Why isn’t Derek Fisher listed here? Because Derek Fisher has a better chance of chasing down a unicorn and riding it to “MyPullUpJumpersAreStillAGoodIdeaLand” than keeping Westbrook in front of him. But what the Lakers have done is let Westbrook get his while the team focuses on keeping Green and Durant semi-cool, then putting in the more athletic Farm and Brown for an up-tempo counter on Westbrook late. Eric Maynor could be a huge swing factor tonight, as his ability to get to the rim for floaters could mean more rest for Westbrook heading into crunch time and allow him to counter Phil Jackson’s point guard rope-a-dope.

51Q: Did the Hornets lose too much in free agency to continue on upward track?

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 25:  Teammates Courtney Lee #1 and Jeremy Lin #7 of the Charlotte Hornets react after a play against the Miami Heat during game four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 25, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

The Hornets improved from 33 wins in 2014-15 to 48 in 2015-16, a 15-win jump no other team topped. Their 48-34 record was their best since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. They won their first three playoff games in this era.

The key?

Buying low on players heading into unrestricted free agency and reaping the rewards before their contracts expired.

Charlotte traded for Nicolas Batum and Courtney Lee on ending deals and signed Jeremy Lin to a contract that allowed him to re-test the market again a year later. Those three joined Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson among Hornets with expiring contracts.

Management and fans can decide whether Charlotte’s fine, though unspectacular, season justified the risk. But the Hornets predictably paid a price this summer.

On the bright side, considering free agency was always going to treat them poorly, they took as small a beating as possible.

Charlotte somehow convinced Batum to re-sign for less than the max and Williams to re-sign through his early Bird Rights. So, though they lost Lin (Nets), Lee (Knicks) and Jefferson (Pacers), the Hornets still had money left to limit their net losses. They signed Ramon Sessions to replace Lin and Roy Hibbert to replace Jefferson. (In a far less inspiring move, they also replaced Lee by trading their first-round pick for Marco Belinelli.)

But the biggest “addition” will come from within: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury.

Kidd-Gilchrist is an ace defender whose motor keeps him helpful offensively. He’s a jumper and good health away from stardom, though both have escaped him throughout his career. At just 23, he could still tap into a higher level.

Otherwise, internal improvement could be limited. Frank Kaminsky (23), Cody Zeller (23) and Walker (26) aren’t finished products, but they’re all relatively polished, with their actual production closing on their ceilings fast.

With the new acquisitions, it’s less about improvement and more about limiting lost production. Sessions will attack the rim a little better than Lin, but Session’s lackluster outside shooting will hinder his ability to share the court with Walker – a role that served Lin, and Charlotte, well last season. Hibbert is a defensive upgrade over Jefferson, maybe even a big one depending on Hibbert’s mindset. But the Hornets go from strong to zero in the offensive post. Belinelli, on the wrong side of 30, is trying to rebound from an awful season with the Kings.

Beyond their individual production, it also can’t be understated how well Lin and Lee jelled with their Charlotte teammates. Jefferson, even though his fit devolved during his tenure, still set an example by trying to make it work.

The Hornets were a feel-good team last season, but they built their success on a shaky foundation. When the storms came, they kept their house in as much order as possible, but there was only so much they could do at that point.

They didn’t experience the disaster of losing Batum. They kept another top free agent in Williams. Yes, Lin, Lee and Jefferson got away, but it’s not the end of the world – especially if Kidd-Gilchrist fulfills his potential.

After relying on players with expiring contracts last year, Charlotte is dependent on a new questionable source of production this year: Kidd-Gilchrist. Will he perform as well as those pending free agents did? The Hornets’ opportunity is greater this time around. Locked up for three more years, Kidd-Gilchrist could be a path to sustained success rather than the fleeting version experienced last season.

But first, Kidd-Gilchrist must provide immediate production to keep the good vibes going after the Hornets downgraded elsewhere. They’re putting a lot on his shoulders.

Tyronn Lue hid Cavaliers’ cash in Warriors-arena ceiling after Game 5, returned some of it after Game 7 win – but LeBron says he didn’t get repaid

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Head coach Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts during the first half in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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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There’s always money in the banana stand ceiling of an NBA arena where Doc Rivers or one of his coaching disciples is trying to prove a point.

As Rivers did in Los Angeles with the 2010 Celtics, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue – a Rivers assistant in Boston and with the Clippers – collected cash from his team as a motivational tactic during the NBA Finals.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

After the Cavs’ 112-97 win at Golden State in Game 5, coach Tyronn Lue entered his jovial locker room and asked for $100 from everyone.

Not just from LeBron James, or Kyrie Irving, or Kevin Love — you know, the players who print money. But everyone in the room, from owner Dan Gilbert (also not poor) down to Cavs’ public relations staffers and equipment managers.

Lue took the wad of cash — senior vice president of communications Tad Carper says it was $4,500 — and hid it in the ceiling of the coaches’ dressing room in the corner of the Oracle Arena visitor’s locker room.

“They were like, ‘Where is the money going?'” Lue said Tuesday, following the Cavs’ first practice as defending champs. “I’m like, ‘It’s going to me and I’m going to wrap it up and put it in the ceiling in the coaches locker room and we’re going to come back, get our money and get our trophy for Game 7.'”

Of course, Cleveland overcame its 3-1 deficit and everyone got their money back. Right?

Vardon:

Lue was assessed a $25,000 fine after Game 4 for ripping the officials, and he said some of what he collected after Game 5 went to pay his fine.

“I’m still looking for my money. I didn’t get mine back,” James said.

This is why so many Cavaliers employees deserves a championship ring. Even modestly paid staffers had to front their own money so the coach could prove a point.

This is the perfect example of winning curing all ills. This will be seen as a fun story, but what if Cleveland lost Game 7 – or even Game 6 and never returned to California?

Player or other employee, I’d quickly grow tired of a coach whose motivational tactic is taking my money. He can’t think of anything better?

Even as is – whether Lue was joking or not, whether LeBron is legitimately upset or not – the players association shouldn’t take kindly to a coach taking money from a player to pay the coach’s fine,

Bryan Colangelo: Nerlens Noel’s center comments ‘understandable,’ but he’s too young to dictate terms

CAMDEN, NJ - SEPTEMBER 26: Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during media day on September 26, 2016 in Camden, New Jersey. 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 Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Nerlens Noel called the 76ers’ center situation – with himself, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid – “just silly” and said, “It doesn’t make any sense.” Then, he doubled down at media day.

How is management taking the public criticism?

76ers general manager Bryan Colangelo, via Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News:

“It’s not disappointing. I think it’s understandable. I think Nerlens did a pretty good job sizing up what we have. There is a lot of depth and a lot of talent at that position. I want to correct one aspect of it, though. He left out someone who has made great strides and improved significantly over the summer through hard work and his performance in the Summer League, but Richaun Holmes has really emerged as another player we’re excited about in terms of what, potentially, he is going to bring to this team.”

Colangelo, via Derek Bodner of Philadelphia magazine:

“These are all young players not in a position necessarily to dictate circumstances other than through hard work and effort,” Colangelo continued

In other words: Nerlens, you don’t have leverage.

Colangelo is mostly right. Noel is under contract this season, and if he doesn’t sign a contract extension by Oct. 31, he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer. Philadelphia has major control over his future, no matter how much he gripes.

As coach Brett Brown said, Noel’s best path to getting paid – by the 76ers or another team – is playing hard and playing to his strengths. He’ll have to earn minutes in a field that, as Colangelo noted, also includes Richaun Holmes. Colangelo is challenging Noel right back.

Colangelo is also correct that Noel’s complaints are understandable. Noel never asked to be put on a team that cared more about asset accumulation than winning, but he’s paying the price. Because the 76ers have so many centers, they’re unlikely to extend his contract now. That stinks for Noel.

Colangelo certainly has a higher tolerance for roster criticism, because his predecessor, Sam Hinkie, acquired all four centers. That’s Colangelo’s problem now, and he’s seeking a trade. But most understand the pros and cons of what he inherited.

Neither Noel nor Colangelo seems happy about Philadelphia’s center situation. They also seem unhappy with how the other is addressing it – though that could flip on a dime if Colangelo finds a trade and/or Noel provides inspired play.

Justise Winslow wants his own team one day, developing into role with Heat

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30: Justise Winslow #20 of the Miami Heat drives down court during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on October 30, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)  *** Local Caption *** Justise Winslow
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Justise Winslow‘s position with the Miami Heat has finally been clarified.

He’s their small forward.

That is, unless he’s playing power forward.

Or shooting guard. Or defending the opposition’s point guard. Or playing at center, as he did at times out of necessity in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against Toronto.

In Heat vernacular, the second-year player out of Duke is a Swiss Army knife, a jack-of-all-trades whose role is fast increasing. Not only will Winslow be called upon to play multiple positions, he’s also being asked to take more of a leadership role now for a team that – without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – is rebuilding on the fly this season.

“That’s what I want,” Winslow said Wednesday. “That’s what I’ve been working for my whole life, to make it to the NBA – not only that, but to be a star and have my own team one day. This is the next step in me progressing and getting there, expanding my role and growing as a leader. And I accept whatever the coaching staff throws at me.”

Winslow was one of the last players to leave the court after Wednesday’s morning practice, a full-contact session that had players diving on floors and crashing into one another throughout. And after it was over, Winslow spent a good half-hour working on his shot.

The oldest Heat player is taking notice of the extra work the youngest Heat player is doing.

“He’s going to play a little bit of everything,” said 36-year-old Heat forward Udonis Haslem. “Just be Justise Winslow. Be that Swiss Army knife we need. One night it might be 10 rebounds. Another night it might be seven assists. Another night it might be 15 to 20 points. Just be Justise Winslow. He has the ability to do all those things and he has a high-enough basketball IQ where he knows when he needs to be aggressive, make plays and do other things.”

Winslow, who would be going into his junior year at Duke if he wasn’t in the NBA right now, isn’t just Miami’s youngest player – he holds that distinction by a lot.

He’s 20; next on the Heat age lists are 23-year-olds Briante Weber, Stefan Jankovic and Josh Richardson.

“He was quiet,” Haslem said. “But he fit in right away.”

Winslow was the fifth-youngest player to get time in the NBA last season, older than only Tyus Jones, Stanley Johnson, Rashad Vaughn and Devin Booker. And more than half of the 60 players to get taken in this year’s draft are older than Winslow as well.

“He doesn’t have to listen to anybody else’s expectations,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “There’s so many things out there about who he needs to be or what position he needs to play, how many more points a game he has to score this year. He’s going to get more minutes, more responsibilities. I want him to embrace that in a healthy way and not try to live up to anything coming from the outside.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t things Winslow wants to emulate.

Wade’s departure over the summer hit Winslow hard. They bonded quickly, forged by Wade realizing that Winslow was willing to learn anything and everything he could from the three-time NBA champion wanted to teach. Winslow would spend time chatting up Bosh about nuances of the big-man game; their lockers were side-by-side last season.

And this summer, Winslow was part of the group invited by USA Basketball the U.S. Olympic team and help them prepare for what became a gold medal at the Rio Games.

“Seeing all those guys come together and not really care about stats before the gold medal, that’s the kind of mindset we have to have as a team,” Winslow said.