Western Conference Round 2 Playoff Preview: Thunder vs. Grizzlies

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SEASON RECORDS

Thunder: 55-27 (No. 4 seed)

Grizzlies: 46-36 (No. 8 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Memphis 3-1, however none of those games took place after Kendrick Perkins was part of the Thunder lineup.

PLAYOFF SERIES:
Oklahoma City defeated Denver 4-1
Memphis defeated San Antonio 4-2

SERIES SCHEDULE (times Eastern)
Game 1 – Sun May 1 at Oklahoma City1:00PM (ABC)
Game 2 – Tue May 3 at Oklahoma City 9:30PM (TNT)
Game 3 – Sat May 7 at Memphis 5:00PM (ESPN)
Game 4 – Mon May 9 at Memphis 9:30PM (TNT)
Game 5 * Wed May 11 at Oklahoma City TBD (TNT)
Game 6 * Fri May 13 at Memphis TBD (ESPN)
Game 7 * Sun May 15 at Oklahoma City TBD

KEY INJURIES
Thunder: none
Grizzlies: Rudy Gay, who has been out of the lineup for the second half of this season… but can you imagine how much more dangerous they would be with him?

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Thunder: Offense 108.6 (4th in NBA); Defense 104 (13th in NBA)
Grizzlies: Offense 104.4 (16th in NBA); Defense 102.5 (8th in NBA)

THREE KEY THUNDER

Kevin Durant. Expect him to have a big series, which should be obvious as he is one of the best scorers in the NBA right now. But Shane Battier does a solid job on him, making him less efficient. He can’t get sucked into that, he can’t settle for contested long two pointers. He was a -5.3 per 48 minutes against the Grizzlies this season because they forced him into shooting those twos — he didn’t just get to the rim and shoot open threes. He needs to do those two things this series.

Russell Westbrook. Against the Grizzlies this past season he not only got to the rim a lot against Memphis but he shot 71.4 percent when he did — which seems inconsistent with what you expect against a long front line, but those are the facts. If he can get inside and break down the Grizzlies, the Thunder will have a huge advantage.

Kendrick Perkins. This is why the Thunder made the trade for him — in the regular season Zach Randolph destroyed the Thunder and Marc Gasol was a problem. Perkins will be expected to change that, to make like difficult for Randolph (or free up Serge Ibaka to do that) and clean up the glass. Time for him to earn that extension.

THREE KEY GRIZZLIES

Zach Randolph: He was the key against the Spurs and he is the key against the Thunder — this season he averaged 26.5 points and 13 rebounds per game. He was +7.3 per 48 minutes. Like the Spurs, the Thunder had no answer. Now they have Kendrick Perkins, but Randolph still has to dominate for the Grizzlies to have any chance.

Shane Battier: He will draw the Kevin Durant duty and, while nobody stops the two-time defending scoring champion somebody needs to slow him. If Durant gets loose and does his thing, Memphis will not be able to keep up. They need to slow it down and ugly the game up, and Battier is at the heart of it.

Tony Allen: It’s all about defense, and he will get time on both Durant and Westbrook. Those are two athletes, to scorers Memphis just cannot match. They must be slowed, and Allen will be a big part of that. If he can knock down some threes, that would help, too.

OUTLOOK

Look for these games to be close — over the course of four games this season the two matched up very, very well,

The thing is, this is a different Thunder team than the one that Memphis beat three out of four this season. Kendrick Perkins changes the equation. Or could — one key is for the Thunder not to foul. In their four meetings this season the Grizzlies averaged 30.5 free-throws pergame against the Thunder. Oklahoma City has to stop fouling.

The battle of the bigs will be key — can Serge Ibaka and Perkins slow down Randolhp and Marc Gasol? They have to if the Thunder want to avoid the fate of the Spurs. The winner of the battle of the bigs will be crucial

The Thunder have the better athletes — Durant posted 40 in OKC’s one win in the series this season — but Memphis has been able to contain them. For now. Nobody has been able to keep them bottled up for long. But that will be key to this series.

PREDICTION

In the end this is sort of like the Denver series — Memphis has the talent to push Oklahoma City but at the end of the day Durant and Westbrook will prove to be too much to handle. After what the Grizzlies did to the Spurs you cannot doubt them, completely, but in the end the better athletes of the Thunder will win out.

Thunder in 7.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.