Oklahoma City Thunder Center Kendrick Perkins (5) And Denver Nuggets Center Nene (31) From Brazil Go Toe To Toe

NBA Playoff Preview: Oklahoma City vs. Denver

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SEASON RECORDS
Thunder: 55-27 (No. 4 seed)
Nuggets 50-32 (No. 5 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Oklahoma City 3-1, including sweeping two games in April when the Nuggets were playing well and were everyone’s new second favorite team.

KEY INJURIES
Thunder: No significant injuries.
Nuggets: Ty Lawson sprained his ankle in the season finale Wednesday and it has been described as “throbbing” but he is expected to go and maybe start Game 1; Arron Afflalo has a lingering hamstring injury and while he is expected back for the series when remains unknown; both Nene and Danilo Gallinari are expected to play through minor injuries in this series.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Thunder: Off. 108.6 (4th in NBA); 104 (13th in NBA)
Nuggets: Off. 109.5 (1st in NBA); 104.8 (16th in NBA)

THREE KEY THUNDER

Kevin Durant: He is the leading scorer in the league and he will be the focus of the Thunder offense — and Denver doesn’t have a real good way to stop him. He dropped 32 and 21 on them in the two April meetings (Durant was very efficient in the first game, not efficient in the second but it didn’t matter). In a series where the Oklahoma City Thunder defense may make it hard on the Nuggets to score, the points that Durant does put up may be the difference.

Russell Westbrook: We know just how good he is, but he has to start taking the next step because he is the key to how far the Thunder go this playoffs. If he plays within the system, the Thunder will win this series and likely more. If he starts trying to do too much himself, taking on the defense and not setting up teammates, playing selfishly and then turning the ball over, Denver will be right there. Westbrook can be a force of nature, but as the point guard he still has to share the wealth.

James Harden: Since the trade that sent Jeff Green out — for Kendrick Perkins in a very good move for the Thunder — Harden has picked up the scoring slack. He is averaging 15.8 per game since the All-Star break, and he does it with this cool old-man-at-the-Y game. He hits his shots, defends, always seems to be in the right spot making the right play. Not flashy, just damn good.

THREE KEY NUGGETS

Ty Lawson: The Nuggets need him healthy — he played well against the Thunder this season, nearly 16 points per game on 57 percent shooting. He’s quick, can penetrate and break things down. Easy points are hard to come by against the Kendrick Perkins Thunder, they need all the shooters they can get.

Danilo Gallinari: He is matched up on Kevin Durant. He has got to get a hand in his face when he shoots and make Durant do a lot of work on defense. Contest and just try to wear him down. The Nuggets are going to need points from the Italian star to hang with the Thunder.

George Karl: During the regular season, he got his team to play defense, share the ball and play with a real chip on their shoulder. That kind of team ball won them a lot of games and made them a fun team to watch. They became the plucky underdogs everyone wants to root for. But now he’s got to find a way to slow down a young, energetic team with much more firepower than he has at his disposal.

OUTLOOK

The real key to this series in the Thunder defense — they shut the Nuggets down in two recent meetings. In those games Denver shot 42 percent and in both games had an offensive rating of under 100 (points per 100 possessions). If Denver does not find a way to get some points — ideally some easy buckets — this series could be a lot shorter than people think.

Ty Lawson has to come up big, Nene needs to get Kendrick Perkins into foul trouble and keep Russell Westbrook from doing whatever he wants in the lane. Kevin Durant has to be forced to work for his shots and find them contested. Denver has to play as well as it can.

Problem is what we saw in the two recent games between these teams — OKC plays well as a team too, and they have Durant and Westbrook. Better players, more firepower.

PREDICTION

There will be no easy games for the Thunder, Denver will make them work for it. But in the end, Oklahoma City is just the better team.

Thunder in 6.

Lil’ hype man helps Russell Westbrook introduce Air Jordan XXX

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Russell Westbrook has been wearing the new Air Jordan XXX on the court for nearly a month now. Considering he’s averaging a triple-double in his last 10 games — 22 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds — I’d say he’s pretty comfortable in them.

Continuing a trend of using the respected Jordan brand name with modern players to sell the shoes, this latest ad for the Air Jordan XXX shoes features a young hypeman who describes Westbrook as “the new Big Bang,” and asks people to “make room – as the man is about to take off.”

The Air Jordan XXX hit retail stores on Feb. 12. Westbrook will be wearing them next weekend in Toronto for the All-Star Game.

Reports: Kings consider firing Karl. DeMarcus Cousins: “We’ve got a bigger issue” than players

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The Sacramento Kings have lost six of seven. A couple of weeks back they climbed to the eight seed in the West, but since then have gone into a tailspin. In those games, Sacramento is getting beat by 6.1 points per 100 possessions, mostly because their defense is giving up 110.4 points per 100 possessions (fifth worst in the NBA in that time).

In Sacramento, most of the blame for the losing streak seems to have fallen upon the players. Or, at least, the players feel that way. DeMarcus Cousins apparently has had enough of it. After Friday’s ugly 128-119 loss to Brooklyn on the road, Cousins said the Kings have bigger problems than the players, as reported by James Ham of CSNBayArea.com.

“I’m not going to keep blaming the guys in the locker room,” Cousins said following the game. “Energy and effort is a huge part of the game, but we’re not going to keep blaming it on that. We’ve got a bigger issue and we need to figure it out as a team….

“I’d rather keep it in-house, but we’ve got bigger issues than just energy and effort,” Cousins added. “That can’t be the excuse every night.”

Not sure that’s a very good job of keeping it in house.

The logical conclusion to jump to is Cousins is referring to coach George Karl, who has never been on the same page with Cousins. Karl was hired at the All-Star break last season, replacing Mike Malone (who Cousins loved) and has pushed the pace with a roster not built for that style of play (at 102.1 possessions per game the Kings play at the fastest pace in the NBA). With the team struggling and falling out of playoff contention (3.5 games back of eight seed Utah) Karl’s job is in immediate jeopardy — he may not make it to the All-Star break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac were so livid about a blowout defeat to the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night – the franchise’s sixth loss in seven games – they were strongly weighing the firing of coach George Karl, league sources told The Vertical…

As hours passed following the 128-119 loss to the Nets, there were indications that Karl could be spared long enough to coach the Kings on Sunday in Boston. Nevertheless, Karl has rapidly lost support in management and some parts of the locker room, league sources told The Vertical.

That part would include Cousins. Apparently.

The Kings have a brutal Boston then Cleveland back-to-back Sunday and Monday on the road, and then face the Sixers on Wednesday before the All-Star break starts. Any coach hired before that back-to-back walks into a couple of losses.

A big part of Cousins’ frustration with the Kings has been the franchise’s instability — they seem to pick a new style of play or make some other radical change every year. There is no continuity. Karl is Cousins’ fifth head coach in Sacramento in six seasons. Most recently, gone was Mike Malone’s slower play (which had worked fairly well when Cousins was healthy) and a couple of months later in came Karl’s uptempo system. Now he may be gone. There is no effort to build slowly and to a system that fits the roster. That issue goes straight to owner Vivek Ranadive.

This would be another one of those changes, but Cousins would apparently welcome it this time. Money does play a factor in this — Karl was signed to a deal with $11.5 million in guaranteed money, fire him and they have to cut a huge check. (Minority owners in Sacramento are already frustrated with Ranadive.)

There is no word on who might be in the wings to replace Karl, although it likely would be an interim coach through the end of the season.

No, this does not mean the Kings are going to trade Cousins. At least not immediately, at the deadline, and not likely next summer either. He’s the Kings’ best player, and they would not get equal value back for him. Ranadive is Cousins’ biggest supporter in the organization. Finally, remember the Kings move into a new building in downtown Sacramento next season — you don’t trade your most popular player and face of the team’s marketing program while trying to sell luxury boxes/sponsorships/season tickets in a new building.

Hassan Whiteside gets triple-double as Heat hold off Hornets

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) reacts to his team scoring a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Dallas. The Heat won 93-90. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Associated Press
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside did his part to prevent the Charlotte Hornets from scoring inside.

Mix in a couple of key steals in the final seconds, and the Heat had a nice win on the road.

Whiteside had 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocked shots, and Miami beat Charlotte 98-95 on Friday night.

Dwyane Wade scored 22 points and Chris Bosh added 20 points for the Heat, who have won six of seven. Goran Dragic had 12 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.

Whiteside, a native of nearby Gastonia, North Carolina, posted his third triple-double of the season and No. 4 for his career.

“I was at the YMCA around the corner two years ago; now I’m here,” Whiteside said. “When a ball is around my elbow area, I’m going to try and catch it.

“The last three minutes, they were so worried about pump-faking, pump-faking. I told the guys to just stay with the 3-point shooters.”

Marvin Williams scored 27 points for the Hornets, and Nicolas Batum added 21. Kemba Walker had 20 points.

“Whiteside just dominated every aspect of that game,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “Right now, he’s the premiere rim protector in the league. It changed the game when he came in; they were a totally different team when he was out there.”

The Heat were coming off a close 93-90 win at Dallas on Wednesday. The last time Miami played at Time Warner Cable Arena on Dec. 9, Charlotte won 99-81.

“It’s hard not to notice what they’ve done on this home court,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It seems that every top team in the East that comes in here walks out of here with a double-digit loss.

“It was something that we wanted to collectively do – get a win to put us at .500 on the road, and in a building that we haven’t played well.”

The Hornets led 93-90 with 1:10 remaining, but Wade made a layup and Bosh added a three-point play to make it 95-93 with 23.5 seconds left.

Charlotte had a chance to tie it, but Justise Winslow‘s steal set up a free throw by Luol Deng for a 96-93 advantage with 13.2 seconds left.

Wade then stole the ball from Walker and passed to Deng for a fast-break dunk with 4.3 seconds remaining and the Heat’s biggest lead of the game.

Before Miami’s flurry at the very end, neither team was able to grab much of an advantage. There were 26 lead changes and 12 ties, including 47-47 at halftime.

“We know we have to get stops,” Wade said. “We know we have enough offensive firepower down the stretch to get great looks. Tonight, Hassan was incredible down the stretch with protecting the basket.”

TIP-INS

Heat: Winslow had eight points and 10 rebounds. … Miami finished with 12 blocked shots. … The Heat outscored the Hornets 64-32 in the paint, and also enjoyed an 18-6 edge in second-chance points thanks to eight offensive rebounds.

Hornets: Shot 44.4 percent from the field (36 of 81), and made 10 of 26 3-pointers. … Also shot 13 of 15 from the free-throw line. … Charlotte’s reserves scored just 12 points, while Miami got 29 points from its backups.

 

HONORING `ZO’

Former Hornets star and 15-year NBA veteran Alonzo Mourning, now the vice president of player programs and development for the Heat, was honored by the home team during halftime of Friday’s game.

While he spent only three seasons in Charlotte (1992-1995), Mourning still holds franchise records for career blocks (684) and blocks per game (3.2), and is second in career scoring (21.3 points) and rebounds (10.1 per game).

 

Paul Millsap, Al Horford pace Hawks past Pacers 102-96

Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford dunks against the Indiana Pacers during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday Feb. 5, 2016, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 102-96. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) — Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wasn’t terribly concerned that his team gave up 19 offensive rebounds.

Not when Atlanta held on for a third straight win.

“Obviously we’d like to be better, but I think just because you give up a rebound doesn’t mean automatically they’re going to score two points,” he said. “Overall, our defense is a lot of times what’s giving us a chance.”

Paul Millsap scored 24 points, Al Horford added 21 points and the Hawks beat the Indiana Pacers 102-96 on Friday night.

Paul George finished with 31 points for Indiana, which has lost 17 of its last 19 regular-season matchups in Atlanta. Lavoy Allen added 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.

The Pacers missed their first six shots of the fourth quarter before C.J. Miles‘ runner cut the lead to 78-74 with 8 minutes remaining.

George’s 3 with 4:49 left gave Indiana its last lead at 86-84. He hit another 3 with 1:02 left, falling back and heaving the ball over his right shoulder for a 35-footer that brought the Pacers within two.

But Jeff Teague‘s jumper and Kent Bazemore‘s two free throws pushed the lead to six with 22 seconds left. Teague had 16 points. Bazemore had 15 points and tied for a game-high eight assists.

Neither team led by more than six until the closing seconds. The lead changed hands 12 times.

It was a particularly frustrating night for Indiana, which out-rebounded the Hawks 53-32 and outscored them on second-chance points.

“Our bigs did a great job of rebounding,” George said. “It’s hard to make plays when they’re getting whacked all day at the rebounding, but it’s another game that we should have had – one that we didn’t do so late in the game and put it away.”

Horford had two consecutive dunks to push Atlanta back in front 73-72 in the last minute of the third. Dennis Schroder hit a 3 to make it a four-point lead early in the fourth.

“I think guys were pretty excited about the dunk(s),” Horford said. “I felt like that defensively fueled us going into the fourth.”

Millsap, at 6-foot-8, and the 6-10 Horford caused problems for Indiana’s big men all night on the perimeter with their passing skills and athleticism. They helped the Hawks outscore Indiana by four points in the paint.

“We did some good things but we didn’t handle their pressure well enough offensively,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They got some very, very difficult coverages with Horford and Millsap out there spacing the floor we didn’t handle well enough either.”

The Hawks stayed in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 30-22 record. Indiana, at 26-24, fell to eighth place.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Indiana has dropped six of its last eight on the road. … George has scored at least 30 points in 15 of his 50 games. … G Monta Ellis, who averaged 20.5 points in the previous four games, scored 11.

Hawks: Atlanta has won nine of its last 11 at home. … The Hawks improved to 25-3 when scoring at least 100 points. … Led by Schroder’s nine points, the bench scored 20 – 60 less than the reserves combined for in Wednesday’s win at Philadelphia, the team’s highest total since 1987-88.