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.

“Tired” Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest. Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game, at his own request.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

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“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.

LeBron James hits go-ahead shot in All-Star win (video)

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LOS ANGELES – LeBron James‘ team trailed by 13 midway through the fourth quarter of the All-Star game, but he led a competitive comeback.

This shot put his team up 146-145 over Stephen Curry‘s team, and Team LeBron held on for a 148-145 win:

Great penetration by Russell Westbrook, and he and Kyrie Irving moved the ball well. LeBron made it count.