Al Harrington, J.R. Smith, Nene

NBA Playoffs: OKC takes Game 2 as Denver’s depth disappears

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Game 1 of the series between the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder stood out as a highly entertaining contest in an opening weekend full of highly entertaining contests, but the reprise in Game 2 couldn’t quite measure up as a competitive spectacle. Blame the Thunder; OKC used a dominant first quarter as a catalyst for spectacular game-long performance, and endured Denver’s runs along the way to win 106-89.

However, the most interesting dynamic in Game 2 may have been the complete inversion of both teams’ offensive identities. Structurally, the Oklahoma City Thunder are as traditional as contenders come. They have two dynamic stars at their core, surrounded by a defensive specialist on the wing, an enforcer in the middle and an x-factor. They have some depth, but generally run about eight deep.

The Nuggets are a bit of a different beast. They rely on having a stable of versatile and capable contributors to overwhelm and outrun their opponents. Denver relies on a collective offensive effectiveness and an aggressive defensive philosophy, neither of which is exactly possible without contributions from one to eight (or sometimes nine or 10).

Yet in Game 2, it was the Thunder who benefited from a balanced attack while the Nuggets struggled to find competence among their regulars. Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and James Harden scored a combined 40 points for OKC, providing a huge boost to the typically star-centric outfit. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were still productive, but they were able to rely on the efficient production of their supporting cast and pick their spots to be aggressive.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets were forced to lean heavily on Al Harrington, as only Ty Lawson, Nene, and Raymond Felton were otherwise able to contribute reliably. To be fair, Harrington played relatively well, but his sudden opportunity was more a testament to the failures of his teammates than any particularly outstanding element of his performance. Kenyon Martin didn’t make much of an impact on either end of the court. Danilo Gallinari couldn’t consistently create scoring opportunities. Wilson Chandler forced shots (and didn’t make a single one), all while putting in subpar defensive effort. J.R. Smith was effectively banished from the rotation after seven early minutes of play. Between widespread struggles and the absence of Arron Afflalo, Denver was surprisingly short-handed against an opponent playing excellent team basketball. Things went about as poorly as one would expect.

OKC looked like the best in the West on Wednesday and Denver something decidedly less than. The problem with the Nuggets doesn’t lie in their formula, but in their execution. Denver isn’t incapable of winning against quality opponents, but the odds are certainly stacked against them when they struggle this mightily on both ends of the court. The Nuggets just needed something more: scoring from the wings, stronger rebounding, better team defense overall, or even a superlative individual performance from one of many candidates. None of the above came, and the Thunder looked dominant as a result.

Denver’s defense and depth can typically throw opponents off-guard enough to allow some wiggle room, but Oklahoma City was simply clicking on another level on Wednesday, one on which a struggling Thunder team had no way of competing. Give OKC’s defense (and offense, for that matter) the appropriate credit, just don’t invoke the name of Carmelo Anthony; the Nuggets didn’t experience problems because they didn’t have a star player, but merely due to the fact that the typically effective players on their roster didn’t perform as they’re capable of performing.

Carmelo airballs wide-open 5-foot jumper, sets Knicks scoring record (VIDEO)

New York Knicks' forward Carmelo Anthony (7) questions referee Dan Crawford (43) before he was ejected for two technical fouls in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Madison Square Garden in New York, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017. The Pelicans defeated the Knicks 110-96. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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Carmelo Anthony is a gifted scorer, but the New York Knicks forward probably wants this one back.

After a slick pass from a teammate on Thursday night against the Washington Wizards, Anthony turned to drop a floater down on the net and missed by a solid foot.

Via Twitter:

The joke was on the Wizards a few minutes later as Anthony went on a tear after the missed bucket. He set a Knicks record with 25 points in the second quarter, ending the first half with 27 points.

New York would go on to lose to the Wizards, 113-110.

Russell Westbrook isn’t an All-Star starter and the Internet is mad about it

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Russell Westbrook, the man averaging a triple-double for the Oklahoma City Thunder this season and a solid pick for NBA MVP, is not starting in the 2017 All-Star Game. Instead, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and James Harden of the Houston Rockets will be on the floor at tip as Westbrook watches from the bench.

That’s clearly wrong … right?

Westbrook lost the starting spot thanks to — brace yourselves — the fan vote. While players and media had Westbrook atop their voting sheets, fan votes put Westbrook No.3. That tied him with both Curry and Harden, who were Nos. 1 and 2 in the fan vote.

Of course, the fan vote is the tie breaker, which pushed the Thunder star to the reserves.

Meanwhile, the Internet was not happy about it:

Yeah … Russell Westbrook should be starting.

Miami churns up plenty of memories for Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat - Game Six
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MIAMI (AP) Dirk Nowitzki tries to avoid feelings of nostalgia.

That’s impossible when he’s in Miami.

For all the cities around the world where he’s played, whether with the German national team or the Dallas Mavericks, the only place where Nowitzki celebrated the ultimate prize is Miami – where he led the Mavs to the 2011 NBA championship , avenging a loss to the Heat five years earlier. So on Thursday, before playing in Miami for the 25th time, Nowitzki was understandably reflective.

“You definitely never forget,” Nowitzki said, as he relaxed for a few minutes in a courtside seat across from the Heat bench. “You don’t always want to live in the past. You kind of want to make it work now in the present, so I don’t always think about that year, but coming here, walking in the hotel, walking in this building, it’s tough to forget.”

Nowitzki is under contract for next season, though no one seems sure if he’ll play past this season. He turns 39 in June. He’s probably just a few weeks away from reaching the 30,000-point mark. His place in the Basketball Hall of Fame was ensured long ago. And the Mavericks are in a rebuilding phase, making it fair to say that another title probably isn’t in the immediate offing.

So it’s possible that Thursday may be his Miami farewell.

Whenever he leaves the game, the Heat will tip their caps.

“At the highest level, in the biggest moments, he proved that he can be the best player in the world – period,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “What else do you need to say? His game is timeless, too.”

It’s timeless, yet evolving. Nowitzki was probably more of a small forward when he broke into the NBA, became a power forward who changed the game with his combination of 7-foot height and guard-like shooting, and now plays a hybrid center role. The one-legged step-back jumper – his signature move – has been emulated by many, including Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.

Nowitzki went to The Finals twice, both times against Miami, and the Heat still offer him what they call ultimate respect.

“You could say that Dirk Nowitzki, in his prime, forced longer and more coaching meetings around the league, or at least as much as any player in the league,” Spoelstra said. “He was so unique. You had to have specific Nowitzki rules. The absolute best of the best require their own rulebook, and you had to design ways of defending that may not be consistent with your system but specific for him.

“Otherwise,” Spoelstra continued, “you would run around in circles looking like idiots.”

Much has changed since Nowitzki first played in Miami on April 7, 1999.

The Mavericks and the Heat both had different logos than they do now. Don Nelson was coaching Dallas, Pat Riley was still in his first of two stints coaching Miami. Vancouver and Seattle still had NBA teams. The Heat weren’t even playing in AmericanAirlines Arena at that point – they were at Miami Arena, which was demolished in 2008.

Nowitzki went scoreless in three minutes that night, and scoreless again three nights later against Golden State. He’s failed to score only twice in 1,454 games since, the last of those coming in 2003.

“I used to be a tough matchup,” Nowitzki said.

He won’t say it, but he still is.

Age has slowed him, for sure. The skills and the know-how, that doesn’t change.

“Hall of Famer,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “One of the best big men to play the game. He definitely changed the game. Hell of a competitor, a champion, somebody who I have a lot of respect for.”

Haslem had the task of guarding Nowitzki in those Finals meetings.

“I really found out what I was made of as a competitor,” Haslem said.

The Mavericks don’t always stay in the same hotel when they visit Miami, but the one they got for this trip helped spark Nowitzki’s trip down memory lane. They stayed there in 2006 during the Finals when they lost three games in Miami, and stayed there again in 2011 when they left Miami with the Larry O’Brien Trophy in tow.

All the memories, good and bad, started flooding back as Nowitzki walked through the lobby.

“You know, `06 will obviously never be out of my memory,” Nowitzki said, “but `11 definitely made it sweeter.”

Kings make it official: Rudy Gay out for season with torn Achilles

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We all knew this was coming, but the MRI made it official:

Kings’ wing Rudy Gay is out for the season with a torn left Achilles, the team confirmed Thursday. He will have surgery to repair the Achilles soon, but a date has not yet been set. Recovery from this injury lasts at least nine months, often closer to a year.

This was expected after the initial diagnoses Wednesday. Still, it’s a blow to Sacramento and its playoff dreams.

Gay was the Kings’ second-leading scorer at 18.7 points per game, plus pulling down 6.4 rebounds a night, and this season the team gets outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions when he is off the court. Matt Barnes and, once he returns from his calf injury in a couple of weeks, Omri Casspi will be asked to pick up the slack. Those two are a drop off from what Gay brought to the Kings in terms of scoring.

The big picture for Gay also gets cloudy. Gay made it very clear he was not happy in Sacramento and planned to opt out of the $14.3 million final year of his contract to be a free agent next summer. That led to him being a potential trade deadline target. Those trades are off the table. At age 30 and trying to come back from a traumatic injury, it’s fair to question if Gay will even opt out.