Orlando Magic v Charlotte Bobcats, Game 3

Dwight Howard is saying all the right things, which is not good for Orlando

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Free agency and the years prior to it will never be the same after “The Decision.”  We heard LeBron James say all the right things. “I love Cleveland.” “I love our fans.” “I would love to win a championship here.” But what was missing was James ever giving the words that would bind him to Cleveland. He said almost everything. But he never said the words which would lock him publicly to Cleveland. And that’s the formula. You heard it from Dwyane Wade, you’ve heard it from Carmelo Anthony, and you’re hearing it now from Dwight Howard, with his free agency a full year and a half away.

From an interview with ESPN’s Marc Stein this weekend:

Stein: When you walk around town, do people ever ask you if you’re going to leave town someday like Shaq did? How often do people ask those kinds of questions? Can you feel that people in Orlando are worried about history repeating itself?

Howard: I want to win a championship. And I’m going to do whatever I can to win the championship here in Orlando. This is where I started my career and I would love to finish my career here.

via Weekend Dime: Howard Q&A – ESPN.

So Howard gave the positive words you want to hear as a Magic fan without telling you “Yes, I will re-sign here” or even “I intend to re-sign here but if we don’t win a championship I’m gone.” Just saying what he’s supposed to say via his agent, and not saying what he would need to say to end the questions. He has the ability to end the questions that apparently he doesn’t like. But he won’t. Because this is the new reality.

And here is where we depart from the linear narrative.

There is a question here of responsibility.

The constant refrain is “I want to win a championship.” Every player is heeding the words of Kevin Garnett, who feels he wasted his time in Minnesota on losing teams. Never mind the legions of fans in Minnesota who supported him and desperately need him to win a championship there versus the Boston Celtics who needed to throw another trophy in the gigantic trophy room they swim in like Scrooge McDuck.  Garnett felt that he wasted his best years not contending, and now all players are trying to accomplish multiple titles in their prime, not when they’re aging veterans. And so this new crop pursues it, without ever considering the responsibility for championships rests not only on the teams who employ them, but on everyone else.

It’s ego. Ego that drives players to believe that no matter what, no matter how many free throws they miss, the blame for failing to win a championship should fall on all other members of the organization and not themselves. Ego that causes them to overlook and shrug off the responsibility that comes with being a franchise player, being the player teams build around, being the player teams depend on. Instead they listen to agents and handlers tell them that a shrinking field goal percentage and a modified jumper is enough, that it’s the failure of the team to construct a good enough supporting cast. This, despite the enormous amount of luck it takes to win a championship, never mind the complexity of obtaining truly great talent by a contending team. Instead, they simply look at what Paul Pierce has had handed to him (after nearly a decade of struggle as the only real star), what Kobe Bryant was granted (despite the ridiculous circumstances that landed Pau Gasol in Los Angeles), and decide that’s what they want.

It’s fine to want help. Fine to feel that your supporting cast is not worthy of you. LeBron James’ next best player was Mo Williams, for crying out loud. Danny Ferry was mercifully released before the circus popped its tent up, and so was spared the agony of public exhumation of his moves, which included trades for Ben Wallace, Wally Sczerbiak, Williams, and Antawn Jamison among the list of attempts toward truly great team composition. But Howard? Howard has no such excuse. Gilbert Arenas is not what he once was, but is still a good player, especially on the Magic, and is their sixth man. Jason Richardson was acquired. Brandon Bass brought in. Hedo Turkoglu. Marcin Gortat was re-signed to provide help so Howard wasn’t the only real center on the roster (as he is now). The Magic have made good faith efforts to win a championship, and those efforts brought them as close as you can get without winning as the Eastern Conference Finals.  But there are more factors in play here. Health, like that of Jameer Nelson or Kevin Garnett in 2009. Matchups, team chemistry, when teams get hot or get cold, over-confidence, the list goes on and on.  Should the Magic fail to win a championship in the next two seasons (provided there is a second season), the responsibility will ultimately be Otis Smith’s and Stan Van Gundy’s. But it will also be Howard’s. He is the one they have built around, the one who they consider the talents of with every personnel move we make.

It’s up to Dwight Howard to win a championship. Not solely him. The burden is not all his. But to shrug off the responsibility and make the excuse that a title is why you would skip town for a bigger market, burning Orlando for the second time in recent history at the same position in the same manner, possibly to the same city, that’s not what a team leader does. Some guys get it. Kevin Durant seems to. Derrick Rose seems to. Many players seem to. But Howard? He’s learned from those in the class above him. Watched them make their play to have their cake and eat it, too.

And given the history of the league, it’s fair to suggest the best way to win a title is to play in Los Angeles or Boston. But at the end of the day, these players still have a responsibility to the team that’s drafted them, has put these players on the pedestal, paid those players and trusted them to win the franchise a title. All the other parts are in place to help that player win a title. That’s the burden. Maybe Howard will realize that and sign an extension. But the modern approach is not to take responsibility for the franchise of which you are the franchise player. It’s to smile, say the right things, and demand championships on your way out of town.

Otis Smith isn’t just fighting 29 other teams. He’s fighting 29 teams and one team of agents and handlers.

The modern NBA management battlefield, and after such battles? Sometimes the battlefield is left barren, bleak, and depressing.

Just ask Minnesota.

Just ask Cleveland.

 

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.