NBA Playoffs: Westbrook, Thunder implode in the fourth quarter

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In Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal matchup between the Thunder and the Grizzlies, Oklahoma City was powerless against Memphis’ big men. In the early parts of Game 3, it was the Thunder’s speed that made the difference, particularly the speed of Russell Westbrook. However, the Thunder ended up falling on their own sword late in the game, and are now facing a 2-1 deficit after a heartbreaking overtime loss.

After a breakout regular season, Westbrook has had an up-and-down playoffs, mixing brilliant performances with games where he strangled the Oklahoma City offense by dribbling the air out of the ball and forcing outside jump shots. On Saturday, Westbrook had a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance that served as a microcosm of just how dangerous Westbrook can be to both is opponents and his own team.

For the first three quarters, Westbrook was masterful. He didn’t have a particularly efficient scoring performance, but he set the pace of the game. He attacked the rim constantly, pushed the pace to keep the Grizzlies from setting up their half-court defense, and did a fantastic job of setting up his teammates. Westbrook finished with 12 assists, and seven of Kevin Durant’s field goals were set up by a Westbrook assist.

When the Thunder played the Lakers in last year’s playoffs, Durant struggled to find space against Ron Artest in isolation situations, and only shot 35% for the series. With Westbrook commanding the defense’s attention and allowing Durant to either catch and shoot or roll to the rim for a dunk, Durant has been exponentially more effective. When Westbrook balances efficiency with aggression, the Thunder are a completely different kind of offensive animal than they were in last year’s playoffs.

In the fourth quarter, however, the bad Westbrook showed up, and the Thunder offense went completely stagnant. The team only scored two points between the 7:43 mark of the fourth quarter and the 0:52 mark of the game, and the Grizzlies were able to tie the game by outscoring the Thunder 15-4 during that stretch. Although the entire Thunder team deserves a share of the blame for Oklahoma City’s miserable offensive display, Westbrook was the primary culprit for the Thunder’s offensive struggles — he dribbled the ball aimlessly, didn’t look to make aggressive moves to the rim, was far too eager to settle for jump shots, and made little effort to get his teammates involved. When Durant did get the ball, he usually got the ball 25 feet away from the basket with the shot clock running down and a defender in his face, and not even Durant is able to turn those situations into high-percentage opportunities.

While the Thunder imploded offensively, the Grizzlies were slowly but surely able to claw their way into the game, and the game went into overtime with the score tied at 86.

In overtime, the Grizzlies continued to attack the basket aggressively; the Grizzlies scored 80 points from the paint and the free throw line on Saturday, and all of their overtime points came at the rim or the free throw line. Meanwhile, the Thunder continued to look confused — a beautiful James Harden feed to set up Nick Collison for a dunk only served as a reminder of just how broken the Thunder’s late-game offense was. When it was all over, the Thunder had been outscored by 20 points over the last 17 minutes of play, and they now find themselves in a 2-1 series deficit.

This was a horrible loss for the Thunder, and it could easily have been the difference between a conference finals berth and an early playoff exit. The Thunder did everything right. Westbrook and Durant were working well together, the offense was rolling, and Perkins and Co. were actually winning the battle in the trenches against Memphis’ twin towers, holding them to 12-36 shooting from the field . They were doing absolutely everything they needed to do to beat the Grizzlies and regain home-court advantage.

Then they imploded, and they now have to face the fact that they beat themselves in a game they needed to win. Winning four out of seven games against the Grizzlies is no easy task; in order to advance after this performance, the Thunder will essentially have to beat Memphis five times in seven games.

If the Thunder play the way they did in the first three quarters for a full 48 minutes, they can absolutely tie up the series before it comes back to Oklahoma City. But on Saturday, the Thunder’s inexperience was their undoing, and they may not be ready to contend for a championship until Westbrook and company can stop putting on these types of performances.

Report: Hawks’ Paul Millsap to opt out, explore free agency

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Before the season, Paul Millsap said he was undecided on opting out.

We’re one step closer to completely dismissing that shaky pretense.

Adam Schefter of ESPN:

There’s no question Millsap can earn more than his $21,472,407 option-year salary. He might even earn the max, which projects to be north of $36 million. The 32-year-old will also have a chance to lock into a long-term contract.

Opting out is an easy call.

The only question is whether anyone will offer a max starting salary and max years.

That’s a risky proposition for a player his age, but for a team ready to win now, the short-term gains might outweigh the long-term risk. (And it’s not really a “risk.” Millsap is extremely likely to be overpaid by the end of a full max deal.) Millsap is an elite defender with an efficient offensive game.

How much would the Hawks pay? They called re-signing Millsap their priority, but they’ve also sent mixed messages about their desire to win now (signing Dwight Howard, keeping Millsap past the trade deadline) vs. rebuilding (trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver).

And it’s not unilaterally up to Atlanta. Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent, and if he plans to explore the market, you never know what he’ll find.

Russell Westbrook posts 35th triple-double; Thunder roll past 76ers

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Add another first for Russell Westbrook – a triple-double without missing a shot.

Westbrook recorded his 35th triple-double of the season with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder cruised to a 122-97 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.

He did so while making all six of his field-goal attempts and all six of his free throws. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no NBA player previously has had a triple-double without missing a shot attempt or free throw.

“It’s amazing, especially for a point guard, because he’s shooting threes, twos, inside, outside,” said Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter of his teammate’s perfect shooting. “For a point guard, he’s doing an unbelievable job, playing his game, having fun.”

Westbrook’s perfect shooting night could partially be attributed to a conscious decision to not shoot a 3-pointer in a game for the first time since March 14, 2016. He said he wasn’t aware during the game that he hadn’t missed a shot.

“I was just trying to play, trying to take my time,” Westbrook said. “I’ve been watching some film, trying to pick my spots better. I found ways to continue to get my teammates involved throughout the game and it just happened that way.

The Thunder have won 16 straight games against Philadelphia, a run that stretches to the 2008-09 season, the franchise’s first in Oklahoma City. That dominance was perhaps most evident in the final rebounding numbers on Wednesday: Oklahoma City 54, Philadelphia 25.

“It’s a fantastic example for our young guys on the physicality of playoff-type teams,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “That side of it to me stood out more than it has in a long time. … You look at the discrepancy on the boards, the rebounding differential, and it felt that.

“It’s a reminder. If you want to play late in April, if you want to play in May, maybe June one day, that’s the physicality that the playoffs bring.”

Nik Stauskas led the 76ers with 20 points, reaching the 20-point mark in consecutive games for the first time in his career.

After 11 lead changes in the opening minutes, the Thunder seized control with a 14-3 run near the end of the first quarter that put them ahead 29-22. Oklahoma City pushed its lead to 14 at one point before settling for a 63-50 halftime lead.

Philadelphia scored to start the third quarter, then the Thunder scored the next 15 points to build a 26-point lead and the triple-double watch intensified. Westbrook’s 10th assist came when Taj Gibson rattled in a 15-foot jumper at the 9:10 mark and the 10th rebound came with 7:08 left in the quarter.

It was the 13th time this season, and the 27th time in his career, Westbrook clinched a triple-double in the third quarter. He left the game with 2:39 left in the quarter and didn’t return.

Westbrook has recorded five triple-doubles against Philadelphia, his highest total against any NBA team. He needs six triple-doubles in Oklahoma City’s final 11 games to tie Oscar Robertson’s single-season record, set during the 1961-62 season.

Kanter posted his 17th double-double of the season for the Thunder with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Victor Oladipo (18 points) and Doug McDermott (13 points) also reached double figures for the Thunder.

TIP-INS:

76ers: Jahlil Okafor, who missed Monday’s game at Orlando with right knee soreness, started against the Thunder and played 17 minutes, scoring six points. … Dario Saric scored 12 points, extending his double-figure scoring streak to 21 games, the longest by a rookie this season. … Stauskas matched his season high with five 3-pointers, going 5-of-5 from behind the arc in the first half.

Thunder: With its 41st win of the season, Oklahoma City is assured of a .500 or better record for the eighth straight season. Only two other teams, the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, have as long a streak. … Westbrook has 72 triple-doubles and needs six more to tie Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the NBA all-time list.

SURGERY FOR EMBIID

The 76ers said before the game that rookie center Joel Embiid will undergo surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee. Team spokesman Mike Preston said the 7-footer, who has been plagued with injuries during his professional career, will have the surgery “in the coming days.”

Brown said “there has been tremendous due diligence … and research” about the decision concerning surgery and that Embiid “took an active role” in making the decision. Brown wouldn’t say if he thought Embiid would return by the start of next season: “That’s stuff we will talk more about and learn more about.”

Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with a foot injury. He played in 31 games this season, averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game but hasn’t played since Jan. 27, when he scored 32 points in a loss to the Houston Rockets.

QUOTABLE:

Philadelphia guard T.J. McConnell on guarding Westbrook: “It’s not a one-person job. It’s an entire team.”

 

Wilson Chandler leads Nuggets past Cavaliers, 126-113

Associated Press
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DENVER (AP) — Wilson Chandler scored 18 points in his return from a four-game absence with a pulled groin and provided stellar defense on LeBron James in the Denver Nuggets’ 126-113 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night.

The Nuggets bounced back from consecutive heartbreaking last-second losses to Houston with a signature win that increased their lead to 1 1/2 games over idle Portland in the race for the final playoff spot in the West.

Will Barton scored 20 points, Kenneth Faried added 17 and Jamal Murray had 15 off the bench for Denver, which also got 21 points from Gary Harris and 16 from Nikola Jokic.

Kyrie Irving led the Cavs with 33 points but James had just 18 and the two stars sat out much of the fourth quarter with Cleveland trailing by double digits.

The Nuggets took a 101-90 lead into the fourth quarter after an entertaining third quarter that included a James-fueled 15-4 run by the Cavs and a 15-3 response by the Nuggets that included nine points from Faried.

But the arena-rocking basket in the Nuggets’ big run came not from Faried but from Jokic, who backed down James during a particularly physical possession. His basket gave Denver a 99-83 lead.

Denver grabbed momentum midway through the second quarter when Murray swished three 3-pointers that gave the Nuggets a 50-40 lead.

The Nuggets doubled that cushion thanks in part to Richard Jefferson‘s face slap of Juancho Hernangomez for a flagrant foul. Hernangomez sank both free throws and then Barton swished a 3-pointer on the inbounds, capping a 7-0 spurt that gave Denver a 61-47 lead. The Nuggets pushed their lead to 69-49.

Chandler showed fresh legs and little rust in his return to action.

“He hasn’t played in 10, 11 days,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before tip-off. “At least going into the game I feel that we have a body that can match up with LeBron’s physicality. He’s just such a versatile defender for us, so that’s going to be great to have him back.”

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: The Cavs, who fell to 18-17 on the road, had limited the Nuggets to an average of 99 points in their last three trips to the Pepsi Center, all wins. … The teams combined to miss just one free throw in the first half – by James. … Irving, who had 19 points in the first half, topped 20 points for the 19th consecutive game, extending the longest current streak in the NBA.

Nuggets: Danilo Gallinari missed his fourth straight game with a bone bruise on his left knee. … Denver already had 120 points by the time Deron Williams’ three-point play put the Cavs in triple digits at the 3:54 mark of the fourth quarter.

 

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Triangle offense will be in Knicks training camp next fall. Jeff Hornacek not sure core players will be.

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The Knicks are a train wreck this season. A lot of that falls on Phil Jackson and Knicks management: They said they wanted to be a triangle team, then hired a coach in Jeff Hornacek that wanted to coach a more open system, Jackson and company filled the roster with older, stop-gap players — Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah — who don’t really fit what Hornacek wants to do or the triangle, and all season long they bounced between the emphasizing the triangle and emphasizing a more modern offense. It’s hard to see a coherent vision, and that’s at the heart of the reasons the Knicks are going to miss the playoffs again this season. The lack of one cohesive offensive plan hurt the team, coach Jeff Hornacek has said.

Next year’s vision appears to revolve around more triangle offense.

Kristaps Porzingis says he likes the offense, and he’s on his rookie contract, so he certainly will be back. But what about Rose? Carmelo Anthony? Hornacek didn’t sound so sure when asked by Marc Berman at the New York Post.

“There’s a lot of guys who do good things,’’ Hornacek said on whether he knows whom he wants to return. “We got to make sure whoever is on the team next year, we get guys who play as hard as they can every play. The defensive intensity obviously has to be picked up for guys next year. Scoring the basketball – we have the guys who can do that – but do we have the right fit who are running the system?

“If we can think with a fresh start of training camp, going to it right off the bat, if that helps us and Phil and Steve [Mills, the GM] think the same guys on the team can have a different outlook on it, they stay the same. If not, they’ll look at other guys.”

Reports are the Knicks are going to talk to Anthony and his agent after the season about finding a trade to another team that works for everyone (you know, the way Jackson should have handled it at the deadline rather than play mind games). Anthony is no fan of the triangle, a deal likely can be worked out with the Clippers, Cavaliers, or some other spot Anthony likes.

Rose is a free agent, the Knicks can just let him walk, and if they’re running the triangle they should let him. Rose is a pick-and-roll point guard who does not fit the system.

If the Knicks can find the right free agents to come in and run the triangle remains to be seen. Some veteran players may be interested, but plenty are turned off by the offense.