NBA Finals Game 6: Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics

Last Weekend of Hope: Eastern Conference

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On Tuesday the 2010-2011 NBA season begins. From that point on, the reality will be set for 30 teams in the NBA. One team will wind up in possession of the trophy which defines careers, while 29 others will find themselves deeply disappointed in themselves, their teammates, their organization, or all three. The fans, likewise, will go through a similar process of understanding exactly how good their respective teams are, and are not. For most, it is a bitter, sobering process, tinged with those moments of fleeting success wherein they take comfort in the overtime, come-from-behind win, or the outright smackdown of a top team. You’ll hear a lot of “They are what they are.” But right now? This weekend? These precious, painful few days? These teams could be anything. They could far surpass expectations, and bring outright exuberance to their fans, players, and the people that work behind the scenes to make them great. They could shock the world, even if that means a second round playoff exit in a sweep. This is the last weekend of hope before the journey begins. And while that journey is fun, and it’s why we watch, this moment should be documented, particularly because this may be the last hopeful weekend we have in a while, as the specter of imminent lockout looms over us like a raven, just waiting for the season to die.

In that uplifting, comforting spirit, here then, is the hope of the Eastern Conference.

(Note: Do not confuse the hope enlisted with the opinions of the author. We’re just conveying what appears to be the best-case outlook for the various squads.)

Atlanta Hawks: They were supposed to be a joke three years ago. Then they pushed the Celtics to seven games. They were supposed to be an after-though the following year, when they advanced to the second round. They were supposed to regress last year, when they nabbed the third seed and swept the Celtics in the regular season. Who’s to say they can’t stun the NBA again? All they’ve done is improve. And for as much as everyone, and I mean everyone, outside of the Johnson family clan and Rick Sund, think that Joe Johnson is overpaid, what if instead of taking a step back, he advances and becomes a more efficient, complete player? Josh Smith cut out the threes last year and made his game more complete. What if that only advances and somehow, mercifully, that mid-range J comes to light? And what if their chemistry, which was palpable last year, only comes together. If any franchise deserved a reward for slowly building upon a core, it’s not OKC or Portland, it’s Atlanta. Maybe injury and age could set them up for an improbable run.

Boston Celtics: 12 minutes. That’s how close they were. Sure, the age is another year gone. Sure, their starting center is on the shelf for a long time and their backups would be mega-stars in 2003. But 12 minutes, they got deeper, and they were so close. This concoction of stars has only had one championship to show for what could have been another dynasty. They’ve got another one in them. They have to. They’ve got too much pride, too much desire. They understand that this is 18, the chance to put the Lakers back where they feel the Lakers belong. Behind them. Rondo’s an even better player, a fourth star, really. Allen’s jumper isn’t going to change. Garnett’s intensity won’t change. Paul Pierce’s elbow-J won’t change. And for all the injury talk, there have been older teams who stayed healthy. For this team, this franchise, this legacy, it’s got to be possible.

Charlotte Bobcats: They don’t have a point guard. They don’t have a center (although Nazr Mohammed is criminally underrated). How are they going to compete? Perhaps the same way they’ve competed over the past three years with Larry Brown. By trades. Brown has gone into every November with a glaring weakness and each year has addressed it with trades. First it was versatility and overall talent. Then it was defensive acumen. Then it was a scoring threat. All three times, Brown managed to upgrade his team and their record. So a trade, then. A move to improve things without losing the soul of this team which is strong. They say defense wins championships, and this team has it in spades. Perhaps a championship is out of reach, but being the toughest bunch of SOB’s and getting a first round home playoff series is not. In Brown, they trust. In MJ, they hope.

Chicago Bulls: Take what’s good, seal up the holes, capitalize on opportunities. They’ve done what they needed. They needed a low-post scorer, they got a premier talent in Carlos Boozer. Sure, he’s out for two months, but this team has won half their games with far less talent. Meanwhile they have a coach they can believe in, the star who seems poised to take his place among the elite, and the franchise center for the long-haul. The Heat have no depth. The Celtics have almost no youth. The Magic… well, the Magic play in Orlando. That’s not a championship town. Chicago’s a championship town. Right? So with a complete team and two superstars, there’s no reason this team can’t put together a season to shut down the hype in Miami and Boston. All it takes is Rose-colored-glasses. Okay, that and the ability to hit a freaking jump shot.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Screw ’em. Screw the media, screw the experts, screw the Heat, and especially, screw LeBron. This team won 60 games the past two seasons. One guy can not, did not, will not make that big of a difference. This locker room still likes one another, and still has talent. J.J. Hickson is just waiting for his chance. Mo Williams was an All-Star. Ramon Sessions has never been given a shot like he has in Cleveland. And if any team, any city, anywhere, deserved a chance at redemption in the face of adversity, it is this team, in this town, in this season. A championship? Nearly impossible. But beating the Heat in the playoffs? Now that’s something worth witnessing.

Detroit Pistons: This is not an old team. It’s a young team, built with players in their prime and with a lot of depth. Young talent, mixed with veteran skill. So… there is simply no way that the injuries of last year repeat. There is no way the disconnect happens. And there’s no way Joe Dumars, after constructing such a brilliant five-year run, could have fallen this far. Villanueva could start to get it, and Ben Gordon didn’t just suddenly lose his jumper. He didn’t leave it in his other warm-up pants. Hamilton can be moved for a better set of assets. Prince, the same. The rookies look solid-to-good. We’re not talking about the must-win-50 Western Conference here. We’re talking the swiss cheese East. Is there a position outside of power forward that the Knicks are certifiably better at? Just don’t let everything go wrong, and there’s a good chance this team bounces back.

Indiana Pacers: In Collison we trust. The team has a point guard, a star to build around besides Granger. Granger won’t have to do it all this season. Huge big-bodied center: check. Versatile forward with scoring ability: check. Distributing lightning fast young point guard: check. The rest is just pieces, and they’ve stockpiled enough talent to do so. Plus, look at all those expiring contracts they can move at the deadline. There’s no way this team fails to get it together this year. Improvement is simply winning as many games as they lose. That’s decent, that’s playoffs, that’s a reachable goal. That is not too much to hope for.

Miami Heat: Everything clicks. The chemistry works. The team stays healthy. Talent prevails. A. Ring.

Milwaukee Bucks: We’re not talking some repeated leg injury. He doesn’t have bad knees. A bad back, kind of. But even that’s been okay. The fall Andrew Bogut took was a freak accident. Greg Oden’s shattered patella was way more predictable and they call that a freak injury. So there’s no reason to think Bogut won’t stay healthy this year, once he gets healthy. And this team would have beaten the Hawks last year if he was healthy. They have the fans, the point guard, the versatility, the coach, the defense, and they added shooters and rebounders out the wazoo. This team has been constructed for the long haul and has stars. Homecourt advantage in the first round nearly guarantees a second round appearance. And once there, there isn’t a single team that wants to get the antlers. Ride the wave, fear the deer.

New Jersey Nets: Things cannot go as badly as they did last year. It’s simply not possible. Too many things went wrong, in succession. They have more depth now. They got rid of the contracts they were holding for last summer. Sure, they didn’t get the superstar. But that doesn’t mean they can’t add one. And Favors could be great. They have a passionate, proven coach who says Favors could be like Tim Duncan. Maybe that’s a stretch, especially this year, but they’ve got time. And somewhere, Masai Ujiri knows that he’s got to make a deal. All Jersey has to do is stay patient and maybe win a few games. They have to win a few. Things can’t be as bad as last year.

New York Knicks: Finally. There is a team worth the Garden taking the floor. A true superstar in Amar’e Stoudemire, in culture, name, and power. No Steve Nash? Was Nash getting those mid-range Js, the post hooks, the putback dunks? I don’t think so. Randolph is the kind of star the fans can get excited about, even as he’s never shown a ray of light. Turiaf’s a hard working son of a gun, and Mozgov looks tremendous, the kind of hidden star only D’Antoni and Walsh can find. Look, this team has been unwatchable year after year after year after year. Those days are over. They are not brilliant. They are not contenders. But they will be fun. And this is New York. Players want to play here. Specifically, your players on those other teams want to play here. It’s just a matter of time. The Knicks are back, even if that’s just in the conversation. They can’t miss.

Orlando Magic: Does your team have the most dominant center in basketball? No. Your team does not have a team-centric defensive system that feeds off rebounds, coverage, spacing, and discipline. Your team does not have what is probably the third best coach in the NBA. Your team does not have shooters that can shoot, ball-handlers who can pick and roll, and a guy who’s simply bigger than everyone else. So your doubts are unfounded. This team isn’t just a contender. It should be a favorite. It’s okay, don’t believe us. Just also don’t be surprised if we win the East, then the whole freaking thing in a few months. Boston can’t stave off Father Time forever.

Philadelphia 76ers: Sure there are questions. But if things go right, this is a playoff team. After all, most of the same core made the playoffs in consecutive years two years ago. Iguodala looks like a different player after the summer overseas. Jrue Holiday is the truth, forget the preseason (and regular season last year, and most evidence). Turner looks rusty, but he’s got worlds of time and Iguodala to take the pressure off. Elton Brand lost all that weight. It’s not outside the realm of possibility for him to put together a good season. A championship is not what they’re looking for. But they also now have Rod Thorn, who will want a superstar and has the pieces to acquire one. Just watch.

Toronto Raptors: Amir Johnson will save us all. As he has so many other teams before. As long as BC benches Bargnani, because he is the worst. Amir and Reggie Evans can score the 17.7 points per 36 Bargnani scores, in their sleep.

Other than that, there’s a trade exception that BC can get us, if he doesn’t acquire some stupid Euro player with talent, whatever that is. We need defense. But maybe Amir, Reggie, Jack, and Kleiza and do enough. If the team can just defend even a little bit, they could get better. Although most of the fan base agrees, the best case scenario is for them to tank so Bryan Colangelo is fired and Bargnani is traded for a hard-nose defender. But it’s not Jay Triano’s fault. He can stay. Hopefully something, anything changes.

Washington Wizards: John Wall. The End.

 

Report: Stephen Curry still at 70 percent due to knee injury

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have overwhelmed the Golden State Warriors with their athleticism, their improved defense, and the shot making of stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are doing a lot of things right and have lifted themselves up to an elite status.

But the Warriors have not pushed back against this. Not like we expected the defending champions and a 73-win team would. Draymond Green is a shell of himself, a -72 the last couple games the Thunder have gotten in his head and have him second guessing his every decision.

Then there is Stephen Curry, who is 13-of-37 shooting the past two games, 5-of-21 from three, and a -58. He hasn’t carried the Warriors as he did for stretches this season, and it is lingering issues from his knee injury that are partially holding him back, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Curry has been a shell of himself – missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble, and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something – no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Twenty points on 19 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

Curry missed a couple of weeks of play with a sprained MCL, but returned last round.

There have been flashes of that old Curry since his return — the monster fourth quarter and overtime against Portland in Game 4, or the third quarter of Game 2 against the Thunder — but what made Curry a back-to-back MVP was a sustained level of excellence, and that has gone away. He just can’t flip the switch and change a game right now the way he could for most of the past couple seasons.

You can tell the Thunder sense it — they are going right at him, attacking Curry’s defense knowing he can’t move well enough to handle their athletes. There is no mercy in the NBA and if teams sense a weakness they will exploit it — the Thunder sense that with Curry.

The way the Thunder are playing, a healthy Curry may not have made a difference, but you can bet the last couple games would not have been the same blowouts.

 

Report: David Fizdale to get second interview in Memphis, meet with owner

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David Fizdale has sat next to Erik Spoelstra in Miami for the past few seasons knowing he’s one of those top assistant coaches who was eventually going to get a shot in the big chair. The only question was where and when.

The answer may be Memphis right now.

Fizdale has a second interview coming with the Grizzlies, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

This would be a good hire for Memphis (although whether he is better than Dave Joerger — the coach the Grizzlies fired when he asked if he could talk to Sacramento about their job — is certainly up for debate).

In Miami, Fizdale had won the trust and respect of a team full of players that had won rings. He was a guy they leaned on and went to. As an example, Fizdale worked hard with LeBron James on developing a post game; he was the guy LeBron trusted.

Fizdale deserves a shot, it sounds like Memphis may be that place.

Five things Thunder did to go from good to brink of reaching NBA Finals

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives Serge Ibaka #9 and Kevin Durant #35 during game one of the NBA Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Oklahoma City won 55 games this season — most years that win total would have it entering the playoffs considered a contender. Plus, the Thunder have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, two top five players in the league. However, with the 73-win Warriors and 67-win Spurs ahead of them, the Thunder felt more like a good but flawed team doomed to an early exit and a summer of speculation.

Now the Thunder are one win away from knocking off both the Spurs and Warriors back-to-back.

What changed? What did we miss? Here are five things the Thunder are doing better now than they did all season, the things that have propelled them within one game of the NBA Finals.

1) Defense. The Thunder were an okay defensive team this season, allowing 103 points per 100 possessions they ranked 12th in the league. That got worse after the All-Star break when the Thunder allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, ranked 16th. Over the final month, they would show flashes of how they could play lock down defense, but they could not sustain it.

Now, this is a team that has held the feared Warriors’ offense to 88.9 points per 100 possessions Tuesday, and 98.1 in Game 3. It’s a change thanks to a focused energy and attitude, but also some technical steps as well. For one, they have become fluid at switching on picks — both on and off the ball — and they are communicating when they do. More importantly, they are smart in doing it, knowing when to go under or when to ignore the pick whatsoever. That combined with their athleticism lets them make up ground if they get a step behind, and their length allows them to get into passing lanes to create turnovers, and to challenge shots — the blocks and deflections have gotten in the heads of the Warriors, who have become tentative, second guessing themselves. Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen ever. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen from them before. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

“I think you have to build up stamina for that,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the improved defensive energy and attention. “I think you have to have stamina to concentrate and focus and do what these guys do.”

2) Dion Waiters. Throughout his four NBA seasons, Waiters has never come close to playing as well, as consistently  as he has the past couple weeks. He’s like a different player. Waiters had a PER of 9.4 this season, the kind of number associated with being sent to the D-League. Credit to Donovan and the Thunder coaching staff, something has clicked with Waiters. Too often before he wanted to shoot like he was Russell Westbrook, now he has accepted the third (or fourth) man role on this team. His shot selection has improved, and with that he is knocking down his jumpers. Like the entire team (as noted above), his usually unfocused defense has suddenly become good almost every time down. He has become the third perimeter player the Thunder have needed for years.  With Waiters making plays, and more importantly accepting his role, the Thunder become that much harder to stop. The Warriors have not been able to.

3) Solving the Andre Roberson problem. The Golden State Warriors decided to treat Andre Roberson like they did Tony Allen from Memphis last playoffs — put a big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green), then have said big ignore him to stay near the basket to protect the rim. If Roberson wanted to shoot from the outside, the Warriors would let the notoriously poor shooter (31.1 percent from three this past season) have all the wide open shots he wanted. Memphis could never figure out how to deal with that and lost three straight to Golden State once this strategy was employed.

Billy Donovan made a great adjustment — he turned Roberson into a power forward/center, then surrounded him with shooters. This allows the active Roberson to set the pick for Westbrook (or whomever), then roll right down the lane to the basket for a dunk.  That and some backdoor cuts had Roberson scoring a career-high 17 points and giving the Thunder the support they need around their big stars in Game 4.

“It’s funny because after Game 2 people were saying to me ‘is this guy even going to play anymore?’” Donovan said. “Andre’s a good basketball player, and I think one of the things that go missing with him is he makes winning plays and he’s a winning player. There are a lot of things he can do, offensive rebounds and slashing to the basket, I have confidence in him shooting the basketball.”

4) They are one team that could play small and run with Golden State. The Warriors small-ball lineup was so feared around the league it earned the nickname The Death Lineup. It killed teams. Nobody could keep up the scoring machine that was the Warriors going small.

Until the Thunder went small in Game 3 and ran right past the death lineup (which was -22 for the game). The Thunder are the one team with the depth of athleticism to go small with the Warriors and hang, but this lineup had been destroyed by the Spurs so it was a risk to roll it out again. It worked this time around — the Thunder become so much faster and guys like Westbrook and Durant are impossible to stop in transition. The real key is despite going small the Thunder defense didn’t suffer —  Serge Ibaka (or Steven Adams), plus guys like Durant have done a fantastic job protecting the rim.

“It’s not about what is or is not going to work, sometimes you just got to put stuff out there based on teams. You’ve got to be willing to take some risks and do that…” Donovan said postgame

“Sometimes you’ve got to evaluate things within the series you’re playing against. So, why were the numbers bad? And was there any way with adjustments could we make those numbers better.”

Turns out, yes there was.

5) Billy Donovan has been fantastic. Donovan went toe-to-toe with Gregg Popovich, and now Steve Kerr, and it is the NBA rookie who is making the right adjustments. Like the small ball lineup, or using Roberson like a center.

More than that, Donovan has gotten buy-in from his players. They trust and are playing the system. The Thunder were never this focused and willing to sacrifice — Durant and Westbrook both fought staggering their minutes in the past, the defense was unfocused, and Waiters did whatever it is Waiters wanted to do. Donovan has solved all those problems, and it all starts with the players buying what Donovan is selling. After a season where he had to learn on the job the hard way — because Monte Williams (the tragic death of this wife) and Maurice Cheeks (injury) were taken off his bench for long stretches — Donovan has figured things out. He’s getting the kind of buy in Scott Brooks never seemed to have.

And with that, Donovan and the Thunder are within a game of the NBA Finals.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.