Thunder pick up 2011-2012 option on Scott Brooks

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Coach of the Year winner Scott Brooks was already slated to be the coach of the Thunder for the foreseeable future, but Sam Presti made it official by picking up Brook’s contract through the 2011-2012 season.

Not exactly shocking news. The Thunder were incredibly successful this season, particularly relative to their dismal 23-59 in ’08-’09. Brooks may not be as pivotal to that success as, say, Kevin Durant, but it’s his system that turned a team of mostly young players into a defensive force. Oklahoma City was had a top-10 defense this season and the 2nd best defense in the Western Conference. That’s worth noting for any team, much less one boasting so many players in their first few years in the league.

However, I do find it a bit odd that the Sacramento Kings were criticized by many when they picked up coach Paul Westphal’s third-year option (guaranteeing his salary for 2011-2012 as well) almost a month ago, and yet there seems to be no such criticism when it comes to the Thunder’s treatment of Brooks. Brooks is more deserving of the guaranteed money and did a better job this year in OKC than Westphal did in Sacramento, but considering that the crux of that argument — as I understood it — concerned the timing of the “extension” more than anything else, isn’t Brooks more or less in the same boat?

The Kings lack the stability of the Thunder, but given how fast a good situation can go south in this league and especially how quickly a Coach of the Year winner can bite the dust (most of the winners of the award in this decade have only lasted some two seasons with their respective teams after winning, with the notable exceptions being San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Cleveland’s Mike Brown), I don’t see Brooks as decidedly different. Maybe a slightly better coach but not without his own faults.

Brooks was terrific this season, but premature timing is premature timing, right?. If it was wrong with Westphal, then it’s still wrong with Brooks. When the Kings exercised Westphal’s option, the timing did seem a bit curious, yet when the circumstances are just a bit different, a move like this one seems to be a natural part of establishing a winning culture.

In reality, Westphal and Brooks are likely much closer in terms of coaching aptitude than the Kings and Thunder were in terms of performance. It’s hard to determine the precise impact of each given their respective rosters, but there’s no question that the Thunder’s season to remember will color opinions of this move favorably by the public and the media. That’s fine given OKC’s success this year, but at on a theoretical basis, this move is no different than the Kings picking up Westphal’s third-year option. They had time and could’ve waited but didn’t, and have guaranteed Brooks’ third year salary when they didn’t need to just yet.

A month ago, I said that the Kings acted strangely with regard to guaranteeing Westphal’s 2011-2012 salary. I was wrong. Stability really is important, and if the Kings want to even sniff the success of the Thunder while their core is still young, they could learn a lot from Presti’s model. It’s more than a “Well, if the Thunder did it, it must be alright” argument, though. This is a case where the possible negatives (a pretty modest 2010-2011 coaching salary) don’t even come close to matching the potential positives (removing doubt, giving a coach the freedom to operate, team stability), and both teams made the right call.

Paul Westphal’s Kings may not have taken the Lakers to six games, but if Sacramento wants to establish something real, this is the way to do it. The NBA will always be more about the players than the coaches, which makes sense. That said, coaches still hold great symbolic value in this league, and in the case of the Thunder and the Kings, it’s more about each franchise committing to a system and an idea than it is about committing to a head coach.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

PBT Extra: How big a threat are Pelicans to Warriors?

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Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the New Orleans Pelicans were the surprise of the first round of the NBA playoffs. We knew they were good, but they looked dominant on both ends sweeping the three-seed Portland Trail Blazers right out of the postseason (and into a somber period of reflection).

New Orleans looked like the best team in the West in the first round and now they take all that momentum to Golden State where… let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In this PBT Extra I discuss how the Pelicans have found an identity, but the matchups against Warriors are dramatically more challenging than what they saw in Portland. And that’s before Stephen Curry returns to the fold.

The Pelicans are a great story, but the pecking order in the West is real for good reason.

Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee undergoes surgery to fix core-muscle injury

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DENVER — Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee underwent surgery to fix a core-muscle injury.

The team said Plumlee had the procedure performed Thursday morning by Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia.

Plumlee is expected to return to basketball activities this summer and be ready for training camp in the fall. He averaged 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a Nuggets team that narrowly missed out on the postseason.

The 28-year-old Plumlee was acquired by Denver as part of a deal in February 2017 that sent center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Nuggets last September.