In a weekend full of high intensity, close games full of excitement, it was only fitting that the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets provided one last fireworks show. The game was the equivalent of some sort of bizarre video game. You have expected a mythical creature to burst through the floor and battle the players.
The Nuggets lead for the majority of the game, thanks to everything that got them to the fifth seed in the first place: ball movement, crack shooting, even scoring distribution with an attitude of “ruin all before you.” But the consistency from the Thunder was too much. If by consistency you mean Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Durant had the playoff game he was unable to muster against the Lakers last year, scoring 41 points on just 22 shots, while Westbrook had 31 points on 23 shots.
It would be easy to look at the Nuggets and consider their problem down the stretch to have been that lack of a star player. Then you look across the way and see what Carmelo Anthony managed against the Knicks especially on his final possession and maybe that wasn’t the answer. The Nuggets lost, but A. they pushed the Thunder on the road in the opener and B. did so without Aaron Afflalo. The Nuggets have a lot to feel good about going forward, except the biggest question entering the series: who’s going to guard Kevin Durant?
One thing that will be apparent going forward is that Nene is an unstoppable machine-man sent from the future to destroy us all. Nene banged knees with Kendrick Perkins in the third quarter, then came back in and helped spark the run which gave the Nuggets back momentum before the final Thunder push. He finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds, but the impact was greater considering how many people he posterized in the course of the night. That the Nuggets went away from him was mind boggling.
The Thunder have to be concerned with their defense. They eventually out-ran the Nuggets, but Denver shot 51% from the field despite shooting just 25% from 3-point land after starting 3-3. They surrendered a 110 efficiency and only slightly won the four factors battle. They had enough weapons to finish off the Nuggets Sunday but Game 1 proved this is likely to be a long, brutal series, and one that is likely to wind up with a few scuffles along the way. Put simply, these teams don’t like one another.
- Eric Maynor was huge off the bench for the Thunder, particularly from the perimeter, hitting two spot-up threes. With Raymond Felton struggling across the board, that’s a big swing vote for OKC. Felton did have 8 assists, but he and J.R. Smith combined for 7-19 shooting off the bench. Denver’s strength is its depth. It can’t afford to lose points off the pine.
- Kenyon Martin took 12 shots for Denver. Yeah, we don’t know either.
- The Nuggets went away from Gallinari late for reasons which seem to confuse beyond all reason. He was just as unguardable for the Thunder, working both off the cut and from the perimeter. Balanced offense is great, but maybe give the players playing well more opportunities?
- Durant had 16 at the half and finished with 41. He had 22 of 25 points the Thunder scored between the third and fourth quarter. In a round of Game 1s full of insane performances from stars, Durant may have topped them all.
This would be ignored – still odd, but ignored – if it weren’t for their history.
But Rajon Rondo running behind Rick Carlisle during the Mavericks’ win over the Bulls raised a couple eyebrows in curiosity and drew a few chuckles. What was Rondo doing?
At least Carlisle explained why he didn’t call timeout before Wesley Matthews‘ game-winning 3-pointer. The Dallas coach had Rondo in mind.
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
It’s not exactly Seven Seconds or Less Part 2 in Houston, but it may be closer to Mike D’Antoni’s ultimate vision.
The Rockets are 32-12 with the third-best offense in the NBA (Toronto and Golden State), and it’s an analytics wet dream of threes and shots at the rim. It’s all come together because James Harden bought in. Steve Nash ran the offense brilliantly but differently — Harden is as good or better with his style (which gets him to the line more often).
The brilliant Howard Beck at Bleacher Report got everyone to talk about the Rockets rapid rise and how it all came together. It’s must read. Plus there are some brilliant quotes, starting with Harden about D’Antoni pitching the move to point guard:
“I thought he was crazy,” says Harden, who earned his stardom at shooting guard….
Or as D’Antoni put it, “James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach.”
“People always ask, ‘You traded for him; did you know he was this good?'” (Rockets GM Daryl) Morey says. “I’m like, ‘F–k no!’ I mean, we thought he was extremely good and better than other teams probably did.”
But not top-five good or, say, top-three, which Morey would make the case for today.
Harden is MVP-level good. What’s more, the Rockets are knocking on the door of contender good. The pedestrian defense isn’t there yet (18th in the NBA for the season, 15th for the month of January), questions about depth and if young key cogs like Clint Capela can grow into the roles the Rockets need them to, and there are the health concerns considering the histories of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.
But the Rockets are dangerous right now and could reach the Western Conference Finals this season if healthy and things break right (their style and athleticism would be a tough test for the Spurs). And the story of how it all came together is fascinating.
It wasn’t long. It wasn’t outwardly contentious. But you can bet it was colder than the weather outside Madison Square Garden in January.
Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony sat down and talked about Anthony’s future with the Knicks Tuesday, with Anthony reiterating again he doesn’t want to be traded. And since he has a no-trade clause and two years on his deal after this one, he has the power.
Anthony seems done with the entire topic and is ready to move on. From Marc Berman of the New York Post.
“The conversation was not that long. We didn’t break bread,’’ Anthony said. “We didn’t have hours of conversation. It was a short conversation.”
This entire topic came up when Phil Rosen — a Phil Jackson confidant who swears he’s not a surrogate — penned an article saying Anthony was willing to accept a move to the Cavaliers or Clippers (or maybe the Lakers). The move felt like a classic Jackson mind game move where Anthony was forced to respond to it — and Anthony seems done with the drama.
“I’m done asking why,’’ Anthony said. “My focus is playing ball at this point. My focus is these guys. That’s all I care about at this point. Making sure these guys stay strong and positive and have their head on right and not be a distraction to them.
“I’m committed [to the Knicks]. I don’t have to prove that to anybody. I don’t have to keep saying that and keep talking about it. I know for a fact people know that and people see that.”
Anthony is ready to move on, is Jackson? Or do we see another mind game move coming?
Anthony isn’t going anywhere, not in the short term. Even if Anthony would entertain a trade to those mentioned, markets, you think the Cavaliers would like to give Kevin Love‘s minutes and some of LeBron James‘ touches to 33-year-old Anthony? You think Doc Rivers would swap 27-year-old Blake Griffin for ‘Melo? Anthony is expensive and while he can still score the other limitations in his game make it very hard to trade him.
Jackson is the master of convincing guys to do what he wants and think it’s their own idea, but I have a hard time seeing that happening with Anthony.
If MVP voting took place today, James Harden and Russell Westbrook would be in a photo finish for the win — they are the clear first and second choices in that race. Third could well be Kevin Durant, who is having a strong and efficient season in Golden State (it’s who Dan Feldman and I said we would pick third during the PBT Podcast, although certainly guys like LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas, Kawhi Leonard and others are in the mix).
Remember when Durant, Westbrook, and Harden were all on the same team? The NBA’s ultimate “what if?”
Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News got Durant to reminisce about those days (the Warriors play the Thunder and Rockets this week).
“It’s easy to say we were supposed to be together for the rest of our careers, but it didn’t play out like that,” Durant said. “I think all three of us will have memorable careers. And it’ll be a journey we’ll always remember, something that’s different and unique, playing with two different guys who are doing incredible things in the league right now. But when you look back, think about the fun times instead of what could’ve been.”
Could they have ruled the NBA for a decade?
“No. We never looked at it that way, like we could be best of all-time,” Durant said. “It was really AAU basketball, man. We were just having fun. We weren’t listening to anyone on the outside, media, none of that. It was just pure fun. When we did hear something about the group, it was like, what is this? That was so foreign to us because we never paid attention to it.”
It was Harden that was traded — he wanted and deserved the max, the Thunder has spent on Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. They weren’t willing to pay the costs — the luxury tax bill would have come calling — to keep all three. The other side of that debate: Could Harden have continued happily in his sixth man role? This guy dominates the ball now (he leads the league in time of possession this season), would he have stayed coming off the bench to win?
“I think he’d have stayed in that role. I think so,” Durant said. “He’d have still been a really great player. You look at it, a lot of people wouldn’t have looked at him as a Sixth Man. He’d have been better. I think he’d have been better. Obviously I’m sure he loves what he’s doing now, but if we would’ve won a championship, I think the perception of him would’ve just been as a great player. ‘He’s the heart, he’s what makes us go.’ That’s what his label would’ve been, instead of just Sixth Man. He would’ve probably been the best Sixth Man that ever was.”
Maybe, and maybe that would have been enough. It’s all moot now.
But what if?