NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Thunder_crowd.jpgLast season: 50-32, which tied them three ways for the sixth seed, but due to tiebreakers they got the eighth spot — and the Lakers in the first round. The athleticism of the Thunder pushed it six games, but you have to learn to win in the NBA and the Thunder are still learning.

Head Coach: Scott Brooks, who has formed a real connection with his young team.

Key Departures: None (because as much as you consider Etan Thomas “key” I do not)

Key Additions:
They locked up Kevin Durant for five years at the max. Put the meaningless comparisons to LeBron’s summer aside and realize that this was one of the biggest moves of the entire summer. Maybe the biggest.

Also, brought in were Daequan Cook, Mo Peterson and draft pick Cole Aldrich. So basically not a lot in terms if key minutes. Maybe the best pickup was a swap to get a future Clipper first rounder (if it’s lottery protected they should see it around 2020).

Best case scenario: They take the next step forward, get home court in the first round (at least) and win a series or two in the playoffs. A Western Conference finals series against the Lakers is the ultimate dream.

For that to happen: Kevin Durant has to continue to be THE Kevin Durant, they have to play better team defense, they have to continue to see growth and improvement out of their young core, and they have to stay healthy.

Yes, you can say “they have to stay healthy” about all 30 teams, but what went largely unnoticed last year was the Thunder were one of the healthiest teams in the league. Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha all played 82 games. James Harden and Nenad Krstic missed just six games each. Nick Collison missed seven, Serge Ibaka nine. Basically, none of the Thunder core had a serious injury last season. That is rare in the NBA (just ask the other young power in the West up in Portland).

As for Durant, if you watched him in the FIBA World Championships this summer you have no doubt he will be THE Kevin Durant again. That may have less to do with scoring more or being a much better player — he is already getting mentioned in the Kobe/LeBron sentences — than it is about public perception. Durant is exploding on the scene, moving from the guy all the basketball fans rave about to a guy the average fan tunes in to watch.

I’ve written this story before but I’ll do it one more time for our many new readers: At a late-season Clippers/Thunder matchup last season I was seated next to a couple of advanced scouts, both whose teams had upcoming games against the Thunder. Three times during that game Durant did something that left these two guys — whose job it is to watch and break down games for a living — looking at each other and just shaking their head. At one point one said, “How the (expletive) are we supposed to stop that?” If you can do that to the most jaded, you are special.

What really matters for the Thunder is continued improvement and defense.

The Thunder were ninth in defensive efficiency in the league last season, not bad but something they can improve on. That starts with Ibaka — he has become the team’s go-to shot blocker and they need someone to protect the rim (every team needs that in today’s NBA). Cole Aldrich may also help in that role, but he is more of a project than a guy playing huge, key minutes this season. Ibaka comes off the bench and may not supplant Krstic as the starter, but look for him to close out more games when the Thunder need defensive stops.

Also, as the season wore on the Thunder’s defense seemed to improve, they seemed to better use their athleticism to disrupt, create turnovers then turn that into easy (sometimes spectacular) points going the other direction.

The other big question is: Can Westbrook and Green and Ibaka and James Harden and the rest of the core all continue to take steps forward. Last season all showed dramatic improvement in their games, fueling the Thunder. If you project them on that same arc, they become a force

Westbrook has become elite in dishing out assists, but can he cut his turnover rate (16.6) down this season. More importantly, can he become more of a scoring threat. Yes, that is an odd thing to say about a guy who put up 16.1 points per game, but he was not efficient where it matters — he shot just 22 percent on threes and finished just 52.7 percent of his shots at the rim (that’s layups, dunks and the like). Those are both very low numbers. Westbrook can get in the lane seemingly at will, but he has to finish better in there to take the next step forward. His quickness also affords him open threes, he has to hit more.

You can say the same kinds of things up and down the Thunder roster. Everyone has things they need to improve on if this team is to continue its assent.

More likely the Thunder will: Be close to last year’s Thunder. Understand that not taking a step back — not having a big sophomore slump — really would be s sign of improvement. But to expect everyone to stay healthy all season and for all the players to keep improving at an exponential rate may be asking too much. Some will improve, some will stay flat, and GM Sam Presti will have a better idea what tweaks need to be made.

What really matters more than anything is that the professionalism and intensity that characterized the young Thunder locker room remains. That is what ultimately will take them where they want to go.

Prediction: 50 wins, which if it gets them anyone but the Lakers in the first round will lead to a first round upset and a trip deeper into the playoffs. You have to learn how to win at the NBA level and the Thunder are learning that. It may be another year or two before those lessons really bear fruit, but they are being learned. Durant is taking them to heart, you can be sure.

Here’s all 192 players who declared early entry for the NBA draft

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On June 26, 60 people will be drafted into the NBA. It’s the culmination of a dream for them, one we’re not going to spoil by noting most will not stick in the league beyond a few years (many less than that). Well, maybe we did.

However, a lot more than 60 people threw their hat in the ring — 192 this season, to be specific. There are a lot of reasons guys step forward. Some legitimately know they will be drafted and want to take the leap to the NBA. Some of these people have not signed with an agent and are just testing the waters, then will pull out (they have until May 24 to do so and retain college eligibility, international players can wait until June 12). Others have decided college is not for them (or there were coaching changes at their school) and they feel ready to get paid to play hoops, and while they know that is overseas they put their name out there. There are other reasons as well.

Here is the complete list of guys who have declared early for this year’s draft:

From American colleges:

Shaqquan Aaron, USC, 6-7, Sophomore
Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure, 6-2, Junior
Edrice Adebayo, Kentucky, 6-10, Freshman
Deng Adel, Louisville, 6-7, Sophomore
Jashaun Agosto, LIU, 5-11, Freshman
Bashir Ahmed, St. John’s, 6-7, Junior
Rawle Alkins, Arizona, 6-5, Freshman
Jarrett Allen, Texas, 6-11, Freshman
Mark Alstork, Wright State, 6-5, Junior
Ike Anigbogu, UCLA, 6-10, Freshman
OG Anunoby, Indiana, 6-8, Sophomore
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State, 6-7, Sophomore
Lonzo Ball, UCLA, 6-6, Freshman
Jaylen Barford, Arkansas, 6-3, Junior
Jordan Bell, Oregon, 6-9, Junior
Trae Bell-Haynes, Vermont, 6-2, Junior
Joel Berry II, North Carolina, 6-0, Junior
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana, 6-4, Junior
Antonio Blakeney, LSU, 6-4, Sophomore
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier, 6-6, Junior
Bennie Boatwright, USC, 6-10, Sophomore
Jacobi Boykins, Louisiana Tech, 6-6, Junior
Tony Bradley, North Carolina, 6-10, Freshman
Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky, 6-2, Sophomore
Dillon Brooks, Oregon, 6-7, Junior
Thomas Bryant, Indiana, 6-10, Sophomore
Rodney Bullock, Providence, 6-8, Junior
Jevon Carter, West Virginia, 6-2, Junior
Clandell Cetoute, Thiel College (PA), 6-8, Junior
Joseph Chartouny, Fordham, 6-3, Sophomore
Donte’ Clark, Massachusetts, 6-4, Junior
Chris Clemons, Campbell, 5-9, Sophomore
David Collette, Utah, 6-10, Junior
John Collins, Wake Forest, 6-10, Sophomore
Zach Collins, Gonzaga, 7-1, Freshman
Chance Comanche, Arizona, 6-11, Sophomore
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall, 6-10, Junior
Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky, 6-6, Freshman
Tyler Dorsey, Oregon, 6-4, Sophomore
PJ Dozier, South Carolina, 6-6, Sophomore
Vince Edwards, Purdue, 6-8, Junior
John Egbunu, Florida, 6-11, Junior
Jon Elmore, Marshall, 6-3, Junior
Obi Enechionyia, Temple, 6-10, Junior
Drew Eubanks, Oregon State, 6-10, Sophomore
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State, 6-1, Sophomore
Tacko Fall, Central Florida, 7-6, Sophomore
Tony Farmer, Lee College (TX), 6-7, Sophomore
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky, 6-4, Freshman
Markelle Fultz, Washington, 6-4, Freshman
Harry Giles, Duke, 6-10, Freshman
Brandon Goodwin, FGCU, 6-2, Junior
Donte Grantham, Clemson, 6-8, Junior
Isaac Haas, Purdue, 7-2, Junior
Aaron Holiday, UCLA, 6-1, Sophomore
Isaac Humphries, Kentucky, 7-1, Sophomore
Chandler Hutchison, Boise State, 6-7, Junior
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State, 6-10, Freshman
Frank Jackson, Duke, 6-3, Freshman
Josh Jackson, Kansas, 6-8, Freshman
Justin Jackson, Maryland, 6-7, Freshman
Justin Jackson, North Carolina, 6-8, Junior
Alize Johnson, Missouri State, 6-9, Junior
B.J. Johnson, La Salle, 6-7, Junior
Darin Johnson, CSU-Northridge, 6-5, Junior
Jaylen Johnson, Louisville, 6-9, Junior
Robert Johnson, Indiana, 6-3, Junior
Andrew Jones, Texas, 6-4, Freshman
Kerem Kanter, Green Bay, 6-10, Junior
Ted Kapita, North Carolina State, 6-8, Freshman
Marcus Keene, Central Michigan, 5-9, Junior
Luke Kennard, Duke, 6-6, Sophomore
Braxton Key, Alabama, 6-8, Freshman
George King, Colorado, 6-6, Junior
Kyle Kuzma, Utah, 6-9, Junior
Khadeem Lattin, Oklahoma, 6-9, Junior
TJ Leaf, UCLA, 6-10, Freshman
William Lee, UAB, 6-9, Junior
Zach Lofton, Texas Southern, 6-3, Junior
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse, 6-9, Sophomore
Daryl Macon, Arkansas, 6-3, Junior
Marin Maric, Northern Illinois, 6-11, Junior
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona, 7-1, Freshman
Yante Maten, Georgia, 6-8, Junior
Markis McDuffie, Wichita State, 6-8, Sophomore
MiKyle McIntosh, Illinois State, 6-7, Junior
Eric Mika, BYU, 6-10, Sophomore
Donovan Mitchell, Louisville, 6-3, Sophomore
Malik Monk, Kentucky, 6-3, Freshman
Matthew Morgan, Cornell, 6-3, Sophomore
Shaquille Morris, Wichita State, 6-8, Junior
Johnathan Motley, Baylor, 6-10, Junior
Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas, 6-8, Junior
Divine Myles, Stetson, 5-11, Junior
Derick Newton, Stetson, 6-6, Sophomore
Austin Nichols, Virginia, 6-8, Junior
Semi Ojeleye, SMU, 6-7, Junior
Cameron Oliver, Nevada, 6-8, Sophomore
Randy Onwuasor, Southern Utah, 6-3, Junior
Justin Patton, Creighton, 7-1, Freshman
L.J. Peak, Georgetown, 6-5, Junior
Theo Pinson, North Carolina, 6-6, Junior
Ivan Rabb, California, 6-11, Sophomore
Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State, 6-4, Junior
Devin Robinson, Florida, 6-8, Junior
Josh Robinson, Austin Peay, 6-2, Junior
Martavius Robinson, Lewis & Clark CC (Illinois), 6-10, Sophomore
Maverick Rowan, North Carolina State, 6-7, Sophomore
Corey Sanders, Rutgers, 6-2, Sophomore
Victor Sanders, Idaho, 6-5, Junior
Jaaron Simmons, Ohio, 6-1, Junior
Kobi Simmons, Arizona, 6-5, Freshman
Fred Sims Jr., Chicago State, 6-4, Sophomore
Dennis Smith Jr., North Carolina State, 6-3, Freshman
Zach Smith, Texas Tech, 6-8, Junior
Kamau Stokes, Kansas State, 6-0, Sophomore
Edmond Sumner, Xavier, 6-6, Sophomore
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue, 6-9, Sophomore
Jayson Tatum, Duke, 6-8, Freshman
Matt Taylor, New Mexico State, 6-4, Junior
James Thompson IV, Eastern Michigan, 6-10, Sophomore
Stephen Thompson Jr., Oregon State, 6-4, Sophomore
Trevor Thompson, Ohio State, 7-1, Junior
Melo Trimble, Maryland, 6-3, Junior
Craig Victor II, LSU, 6-9, Junior
Moritz Wagner, Michigan, 6-11, Sophomore
Tevonn Walker, Valparaiso, 6-2, Junior
Antone Warren, Antelope Valley CC (CA), 6-10, Sophomore
Thomas Welsh, UCLA, 7-1, Junior
Thomas Wilder, Western Michigan, 6-3, Junior
Cecil Williams, Central Michigan, 6-6, Junior
Johnathan Williams, Gonzaga, 6-9, Junior
Kam Williams, Ohio State, 6-2, Junior
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga, 6-3, Junior
Christian Wilson, Texas-San Antonio, 6-2, Junior
D.J. Wilson, Michigan, 6-10, Junior
Omer Yurtseven, North Carolina State, 7-1, Freshman

International prospects:

Ege Arar, Galatasaray (Turkey), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Laurynas Beliauskas, Neptunas (Lithuania), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Terrence Bieshaar, Joventut (Spain), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Simon Birgander, Clavijo (Spain), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Laurynas Birutis, Vytautas (Lithuania), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Luka Bozic, Zagreb (Croatia), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Vlatko Cancar, Mega Leks (Serbia), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Leo Cizmic, Sevilla (Spain), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Wesley Alves da Silva, Paulistano (Brazil), 6-7, 1996 DOB
George de Paula, Paulistano (Brazil), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Berkan Durmaz, Tofas (Turkey), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Martynas Echodas, Siauliai (Lithuania), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Cyrille Eliezer-Vanerot, Levallois (France), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Aquiles Ferreira, Pinheiros (Brazil), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Diego Flaccadori, Trento (Italy), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Tolga Gecim, Banvit (Turkey), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Yoan Granvorka, Nancy (France), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Egemen Guven, Karsiyaka (Turkey), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Isaiah Hartenstein, Zalgiris (Lithuania), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Karlis Helmanis, RTU Riga (Latvia), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Aleksa Ilic, Buducnost (Montenegro), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Jonathan Jeanne, Nancy (France), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Alpha Kaba, Mega Leks (Serbia), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Verners Kohs, GBA Sparta (Czech Republic), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Antonios Koniaris, PAOK (Greece), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Arnoldas Kulboka, Baunach (Germany), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Rodions Kurucs, Barcelona (Spain), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Axel Louissaint, Lugano (Switzerland), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Michail Lountzis, Panathinaikos (Greece), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Gytis Masiulis, Zalgiris (Lithuania), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Lovro Mazalin, Zadar (Croatia), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Regimantas Miniotas, Vytautas (Lithuania), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Kostja Mushidi, Mega Leks (Serbia), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Margiris Normantas, Lietuvos Rytas (Lithuania), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Frank Ntilikina, Strasbourg (France), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Elie Okobo, Pau Orthez (France), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Viny Okouo, Unicaja (Spain), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Ayberk Olmaz, Istanbul BSB (Turkey), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Lucas Pereira, Pinheiros (Brazil), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Martynas Sajus, Starogard (Poland), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Borisa Simanic, Crvena Zvezda (Serbia), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Nik Slavica, Cibona (Croatia), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Berk Ugurlu, Fenerbahce (Turkey), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Kristupas Zemaitis, Vytautas (Lithuania), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Zou Yuchen, Bayi Fubang (China), 6-7, 1996 DOB

Celtics fluster Bulls with floor spacing and dirty play, take 3-2 series lead

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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The Bulls couldn’t break free. The Celtics look ready to break out.

Boston beat Chicago 108-97 in Game 5 Wednesday, winning its third straight to take a 3-2 lead in the first-round series. The Celtics pulled away with a 13-0 fourth-quarter run, which was boosted by two Bulls technical fouls – the second on Robin Lopez, who was rightfully aggrieved by an uncalled Jae Crowder leg-lock.

That’ll generate more talk about Boston being dirty, especially in the midst of a chippy series. But at least nobody will be discussing the Celtics being a historically weak No. 1 seed, which drowned everything after Chicago won the series’ first two games in Boston. The Warriors and Cavaliers are the only other teams to win three straight games this postseason, the type of elite company the Celtics would like to join.

Close the series in Game 6 on Friday, and Boston silences the most extreme criticism of its present.

“We’ve got to finish it,” said Isaiah Thomas, who scored 11 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter. “We know Game 6 is going to be a big game, and they’re going to fight for their lives. But we’ve got to go in there and finish it.”

The Celtics became just the third team in the last four years to win three straight after dropping the first two games of a series. The Trail Blazers (vs. Clippers) and Hornets (vs. Heat) did it in last year’s first round. Portland advanced. Charlotte didn’t.

Overall, here’s how teams up 3-2 and facing a road Game 6 in a 2-2-1-1-1 series have fared:

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The Celtics’ odds of advancing might be even higher than that. Their 11-point win tonight felt like it could have been much more lopsided.

Boston shot just 9-for-40 on 3-pointers (23%), but many of those were good looks and the high volume of attempts bodes well. They were a product of a high-functioning offense, and in the long run, more of those will fall. Only a few franchises – Warriors, Cavaliers, Hawks, Mavericks, Pacers – have ever attempted so many 3s in a playoff game, though nobody had ever shot so inefficiently on so many attempts.

The Celtics more than compensated for their cold outside shooting everywhere else. They shot 29-for-48 on 2-pointers (60%) and and 23-for-23 on free throws (100%), getting high-percentage looks and drawing fouls thanks to their floor spacing.

The Bulls, on the other hand, wasted a throwback game from Dwyane Wade (26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists). Avery Bradley (24 points on 11-of-19 shooting) tightly defended Jimmy Butler (14 points on 6-of-15 shooting), and that matchup won’t any easier for Butler.

Maybe Butler will answer the call, but Chicago is running out of advantages. Boston even had higher offensive- and defensive-rebounding percentages than Chicago. And Thomas didn’t carry anything, even the Celtics to victory.

Boston again looks like the complete team it had been for much of the season.

Bucks’ Khris Middleton, dealing with illness, misses practice

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — Bucks wing Khris Middleton missed practice with an illness that has been bothering the Bucks’ second-leading scorer (14.7 points) all week.

Middleton was 3 of 8 for eight points in 35 minutes in the 118-93 Game 5 loss in Toronto that gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said he didn’t think the illness was a factor, and that Middleton had good looks and played well defensively. He expected Middleton to start on Thursday and said he wasn’t pondering any lineup changes for Game 6.

The Bucks got a day off from practice then returned to practice Wednesday after a brief break from what has been an increasingly rugged series.

After getting blown out in Game 3 by the Bucks, the Raptors won the next two games in part by being more physical and slowing down Milwaukee.

Sometimes, a young team needs to learn from failure to get better.

Kidd hopes his players build on the lessons learned from a stinker of a Game 5 in their opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. They need to regroup quickly to avoid elimination when the Raptors and Bucks meet Thursday night at the Bradley Center.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Kidd said when asked about whether his players learned from the blowout loss. “Today, I thought guys were focused, understanding what we have to do. It’s not hard, but for us the process of being able to be consistent is the one thing that we struggle with.”

Workaholic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo might have been the only player who didn’t want a breather.

“I don’t know, for me, I didn’t need an off-day. But for sure some guys played a lot of minutes, their bodies are sore,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think for some guys it’s good to get some rest so we can bring more energy tomorrow.”

For all of his athleticism, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo lacks playoff experience when compared to the postseason-tested Raptors.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton are playing in their second career playoff series after the Bucks lost in six games to top-seeded Chicago in 2015. Antetokounmpo’s role has changed now that he’s the focal point of the offense, so he faces more defensive scrutiny.

The team surrounding Antetokounmpo and Middleton has been almost completely made over since then, with injured forward Jabari Parker and center John Henson the only other holdovers. Henson has only played three minutes against Toronto.

Two other starters, guard Malcolm Brogdon and center Thon Maker, are rookies. Even center Greg Monroe, a seven-year veteran who provides scoring punch off the bench, is making his playoff debut. Fourth-year players Tony Snell (Bulls) and Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers) joined the Bucks this season, brought to Milwaukee in part because of their postseason experience.

In contrast, the Raptors have been through about every conceivable playoff situation after losing to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Led by one of the best backcourts in the game in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Toronto is no stranger to adversity.

“You definitely see that experience come into play and we just understand the moment probably a little bit more than them. That’s not to take away (anything) from them,” DeRozan said. “They are a great team, a young team and this is definitely going to be an experience they will learn from and carry over but for now it’s something we have to keep in mind and understand the moment of going into every single game … to try and close this thing out.”

Milwaukee’s transition game is off track with 31 turnovers over the last two contests.

“That’s the physicality part, because it’s the playoffs, because it’s more intense. You get away with slaps, holds, grabs and that’s a trick of the trade,” said Jason Terry, a 17-year veteran who is averaging about 10 minutes a game off the bench for the Bucks this series.

“If you haven’t (been) through that, you don’t know it until you face it,” Terry said. “I think for us being a young team, now that we’ve seen it four or five games consecutively, hopefully now we can adjust.”

NOTES:

 

Jimmy Butler hits contested deep buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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Shooting buzzer-beaters is especially difficult because the defender knows your deadline to release the shot. The threat of a pump fake, drive to another location or pass disappears as the seconds tick down.

On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is very good.