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.

DeMarcus Cousins thinks refs are giving him techs off reputation alone

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New Orleans Pelicans big man DeMarcus Cousins is a fiery personality on the court, often arguing foul calls at length despite no official in NBA history reversing a call directly after player complaint.

Crafty veterans — your LeBron Jameses and your Chris Pauls — slowly and pointedly chatter with officials as a means to influence their subconscious leaning on calls (and to protect them against earning techs when they do decide to straight up yell at refs).

Cousins hasn’t used that kind of angling to success in his career, instead going hard at referees with some consistency. Cousins has tried to change that approach this season, but instead has found that his prior actions have earned him a reputation the Pelicans forward believes doesn’t befit his actions in 2017-18.

Speaking to The Undefeated’s Marc Spears, Cousins said that despite letting more calls go and changing his candor, NBA refs are not responding proportionately.

Via The Undefeated:

I am going out of my way. I am going over and beyond,” Cousins said. “I am coming in saying, ‘We can’t do this, this and this …’ Even calls I know I should be arguing, I’m letting go. And they’re still like … it’s a one-sided thing. Everything is changing from one end. But with them, it’s like, ‘We are not letting go of the past. You are who you are. You’re getting a tech.’

“So, when it comes to me getting a tech for saying, ‘Good call, referee …,’ vets and coaches tell me to butter them up. Switch it up a little bit. Do a little reverse psychology. Tell them it’s a good call. And you still getting a tech for it? They’re not trying to make it work. They’re stuck in their ways, and it is so obvious.”

Cousins added that he believes foes are taking advantage of his troubles.

“Now it’s to the point where teams are saying, ‘Yeah, just go over there and beat the s— out of him.’ I don’t get calls, and I’m not protected like other players are,” he said.

It’s interesting to see that Cousins has at least tried to change things up, and indeed acknowledges that he should be trying to work with the officials rather than antagonize them.

Still, we’re not sure what the tone of his “good call” comments are toward the refs. Are they sarcastic? Or are they contrite? You can see how one might earn Cousins a tech from an official — who seem to be particularly sensitive this season — and the other might endear you to them.

James Harden is playing with a bruised right knee

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James Harden, Chris Paul, and the Houston Rockets are on a 13-game winning streak. They have a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. But it’s not all rosy in Space City.

Harden suffered a bruised right knee against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, and almost had to sit out the Rockets’ win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.

Speaking to reporters after the win over the Bucks, Harden said that he was in some pain but a doctor told him he would be able to play and that he would not make the condition worse.

Via ESPN:

“I wasn’t feeling well at all, but the doc came in and just told me that there’s going to be pain for a bit, but you can play through it,” Harden said. “It can’t get worse, but it’s going to be pretty painful until obviously you give it some time. Once he said that, I was like, ‘Let’s go.'”

“I wasn’t moving like I usually move, but we won,” said Harden.

If Harden wasn’t feeling well, it sure didn’t show. He had 31 points, although on 8-of-21 shooting against Milwaukee. Chris Paul chipped in with 25 points, six assists, and five rebounds.

It doesn’t sound like Harden will be missing a game any time soon, which is par for the course for him. He’s played in a minimum of 89 percent of his team’s regular season games since entering the league in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Rockets are blasting their way into 2018. They play the Warriors next on January 4.

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.