Western Conference Finals Preview: Mavericks vs. Thunder

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SEASON RECORDS
Mavericks: 57-25 (No. 3 seed in Western Conference)
Thunder: 55-27 (No. 4 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Dallas won the regular season series 2-1, but the most recent of the games was Jan. 6 — back before the Kendrick Perkins trade, and when Caron Butler was healthy. Nowitzki didn’t play in the Thunder win. So take these results with a grain or 12 of salt.

PLAYOFF SERIES
Mavericks: defeated the Portland 4-2, Los Angeles Lakers, 4-0
Oklahoma City: defeated Denver 4-1, Memphis 4-3

SERIES SCHEDULE (times Eastern)

Game 1 — Tue. May 17, at Dallas 9:00 PM
Game 2 – Thu. May 19 at Dallas 9:00PM
Game 3 – Sat. May 21 at Oklahoma City 9:00PM
Game 4 – Mon. May 23, at Oklahoma City 9:00PM
Game 5 * Wed. May 25 at Dallas 9:00PM
Game 6 * Fri. May 27 at Oklahoma City 9:00PM
Game 7 * Sun. May 29 at Dallas 9:00PM

All games on ESPN.

KEY INJURIES
Mavericks: Caron Butler likely will not play this series, even though they could really use him off the bench to check James Harden. He has been out with knee surgery since the middle of the season. Rodrigue Beaubois is technically healthy but don’t expect to see him.
Thunder: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Mavericks: Offense 107.6 (8th in NBA); Defense 102.3 (7th in NBA)
Thunder: Offense 108.6 (4th in NBA); Defense 104 (13th in NBA)

THREE KEY MAVERICKS

Dirk Nowitzki. Arguably, the single best player in the playoffs so far — 26.5 points per game on 49.7 percent shooting and 60 percent from three. Now he’s going to see another team with long, and this time more athletic defenders to send at him. Serge Ibaka will get the starts, but don’t be shocked to see the more physical Nick Collison to get time as well. Dirk has to continue to put up huge numbers for Dallas to win this.

Tyson Chandler. Back at the trading deadline in 2009, the New Orleans Hornets had agreed to trade Chandler to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Thunder doctor said he thought the risk of the injury recurring to Chandler’s already troublesome big toe was too great, so the trade was rescinded. Turned out, the toe is just fine and he is tearing it up for Dallas. The Mavericks big men were able to limit the Lakers big men’s points in the paint, but Oklahoma City gets theirs a different way — slashing to the rim with Westbrook and Durant. Chandler has to protect the rim and make them shoot more jumpers because it can’t become a Thunder layup drill.

Jason Terry. He represents the entire Mavs bench here — J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic, Brendan Haywood, Corey Brewer. All through the season they have made huge contributions, and last series was no different (who can forget Barea carving up the Lakers defense. The Mavs are going to need some big games from their bench if they are going to move on.

THREE KEY THUNDER

Russell Westbrook. He took a lot of shots and took a lot of flack for taking a lot of shots last series. Even though it wasn’t all his fault (Durant was not working hard off the ball to get open at times, so Westbrook just took it on). In this series he should dominate Jason Kidd, who is not nearly quick enough to stay with him. He has to get into the lane but he has to pass if and when Tyson Chandler slides over to cut off his path. He has to make the smart play (like he did in Game 7 against Memphis) but it will often start with him disrupting the defense because he has the mismatch.

Kevin Durant. Of course he is key to whatever the Thunder do on offense regardless of the opponent, but in this series he needs to be more consistent than he was against the Grizzlies. He has one advantage in that the Mavericks have no real good matchup for him, during the regular season meetings Caron Butler got most of the time. Now, expect Shawn Marion, but it’s doubtful he can play the kind of ball-denial and physical defense that slows Durant.

James Harden. He really represents the Thunder bench — the Thunder need to win the battles of the bench in this series to win. They need to keep Jason Terry in check and Harden needs to put up big points. This bench matchup includes what ay be my favorite matchup of this series — Eric Maynor vs. J.J. Barea off the bench. But Harden remains the key, he has got to put up big numbers, big enough to offset what Terry and the Mavs put up.

OUTLOOK

Last series against the Lakers, the Mavericks executed about as well as they possibly could. They found the Lakers soft spots and exploited them every chance they got. Oklahoma City’s execution was far less consistent, from game to game, quarter to quarter, possession to possession. But it seemed to improve.

That is where you have to start looking for an edge here — if the Thunder do not execute better, they are in trouble. For Dallas, they need to stay at that level of efficiency and not take a step back when faced with a more athletic squad.

That starts for Dallas with not turning the ball over and controlling the tempo. Oklahoma City has the better athletes and Dallas will not be able to stop Westbrook and Durant in transition. Other than not to let them get going.

For the Thunder, they need to find a way to defend Durant successfully in this series. So what Thunder player spent the most time hounding Dirk Nowitzki in the regular season? Jeff Green, it turns out. He and the rest of the Celtics are now golfing (he went East in the Kendrick Perkins trade). Look for Serge Ibaka to get the first crack, but Dirk’s bevy of fakes could have the shot-blocking Ibaka in the air a lot. And fouling a lot. One other guy to watch for is Nick Collison, who had a fantastic Game 7 for the Thunder and is long and strong enough to keep Dirk out of the positions he wants to be in on the floor.

Like was said above, not going to take too much away from the three regular season meetings these teams had, but there is one thing to watch — can Dallas keep Oklahoma City off the free throw line? In the regular season the Thunder lived at the line, getting an average of 28.8 free throws per game. But in the three games against Dallas, that fell to 24. If Dallas can continue to defend without fouling that will be a big plus.

One other thing Dallas did during the regular season was defend the paint — Oklahoma City was 9-34 on shots in the key. Dallas has to continue to do that, Westbrook in particular needs to shift that balance and get into the lane and finish.

Dallas is going to negate some of what Kendrick Perkins and Collison can do inside because they are a jump shooting team (35 percent of their points these playoffs have come in paint, the lowest of any team in the playoffs). The Thunder have to contest everything because once the Mavericks shooters get going they cannot be stopped.

PREDICTION

Honestly, this may be the hardest prediction of the playoffs. I can see it going either way. My guess is, however, that this will become a jump shooting contest as both teams are good at protecting the paint. And in that instance favors Dallas. But it will be close.

Mavericks in 7.

What does Boston do without Gordon Hayward? Five things to watch

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Gordon Hayward’s injury sucked the air out of Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday night. Cavaliers fans were buzzing, gave Hayward a standing ovation as he was carted off the court, and never got back to booing Kyrie Irving with the same venom, as it seemed petty after what had just happened.

Hayward is in Boston, will soon have surgery to fix things, and start a long road of recovery.

What do the Celtics do the rest of the season? (Or, until he gets back if you want to be an optimistic Celtics’ fan.) How much does this hurt Boston?

• Long-term, not too much changes. That comes with the caveat: So long as Hayward is able to recover and be himself again. With Danny Ainge at the helm, the Celtics have always taken the long view. They have not been in a rush to challenge LeBron James and the Cavaliers for East supremacy this season, thinking more about next season and beyond. That doesn’t change now. By next season Hayward should be back and healthy (*knocking on wood*) and the plan does not change.

• Welcome to the Kyrie Irving show. Boston’s offense could resemble last season’s “turn Isaiah Thomas loose” offense at times because the Celtics are back to having one primary shot creator. Hayward was going to be the glue guy who could be a secondary shot creator, a guy who would keep the ball moving, and the new guy used to playing in Brad Steven’s motion offense. Now, it’s the Kyrie show.

Stevens will try to get Irving and the team to buy into his motion offense (Irving did move well off the ball in the opener) but last season there was a lot of IT isolation plays, and we may see that at points with Irving (one of the games’ best iso shot creators). Irving had 22 points and 10 assists in the loss opening night, and he got them in the flow of the offense without stopping the ball to go isolation. He’s going to be asked to continue to do that and put up similar numbers or better, and to take the clutch shots for this team.

• Small Ball lineups. With or without Hayward, this was always part of the plan — have Al Horford at center, Irving at the point, and a bunch of 6’6” to 6’9” interchangable wings, play fast and shoot threes (count Marcus Morris in that group when he returns). The goal was to space the floor and create driving lanes for Irving and Hayward, but the plan still works for Irving.

It didn’t work ideally late in the opener, but LeBron James and the Cavaliers create unique challenges no other team in the East does. (Jaylen Brown played hard and had a great game, but he can’t stop LeBron down low late in games, only a couple of players in the entire league stand a chance at that.) The real question for the Celtics’ small ball lineup is they have to knock down their threes or defenses will sag off. Brown was 2-of-9, Marcus Smart 0-of-4, and as a team the Celtics shot 25 percent from three for the game. That has to improve for the small ball lineups to thrive.

• Can they get enough stops? This was the biggest question about the Celtics before one of their better wing defenders on the roster went down. They don’t have a classic rim protector (Aron Baynes did a little of that off the bench, but he’s mostly a big body) and their defenders tend to be either young and inexperienced or disinterested.

Boston’s defense wasn’t going to be that good before, but how big a step back they take in wins after the Hayward injury will be more about defense than offense. Boston will miss Hayward on this end of the court.

• Young players get a lot of run, team gets to evaluate roster. Just how good is Jayson Tatum, who can make tough, contested shots but needs to find a way to get easy buckets, too? How big a step can Jaylen Brown take? Has Marcus Smart developed to the point the Celtics will pay to keep him next summer? What kind of player can Semi Ojeleye develop into?

There’s going to be more data, more minutes, more eyeball tests to answer these questions now. Brown led the Celtics with 25 points in the opener, and Tatum scored all 14 of his points in the second half. Those were promising stars, but the tests for these young Celtics stars will be season long.

Smart is the biggest question in that list, and he’s going to get the biggest minutes bump with Hayward out. He’s a restricted free agent next summer and is playing for his paycheck now. He’s going to be one guy to watch on this team.

Fake Klay Thompson almost steals show in Golden State

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Klay Thompson was everywhere Tuesday night for the Warriors.

He had 16 points, knocked down four threes, and had six boards. He was also chillin’ in the stands enjoying the game.

Well, that was “fake” Klay Thompson in the seats — fully decked out in a Golden State uniform and sitting almost right behind the team bench at Oracle — but the cameras loved him.

Heck, “fake Klay” even had a take on real Klay’s first-half performance.

I wonder if I can get fake Klay to sign my toaster?

76ers’ Markelle Fultz to make NBA debut close to home in Washington

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Markelle Fultz gets to start the next chapter of his career in a familiar setting.

The No. 1 pick in the draft will make his NBA debut for the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at the Washington Wizards, about a half-hour from home. Fultz grew up in nearby Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in Prince George’s County and played at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and will have many friends, family members and former coaches in attendance.

“Being able to have his first game in his backyard, I’m so happy for him,” said Keith Williams, Fultz’s AAU coach, trainer and mentor. “It’s perfect. It couldn’t have worked out better.”

Not wanting to throw Fultz “into the fire,” Sixers coach Brett Brown is easing the 19-year-old in by bringing him off the bench after missing portions of the preseason with shoulder and knee injuries. Fultz will be just the third top pick since 2003 to be active and not start his season opener, joining Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani.

Fultz said he’s OK with the decision to come off the bench and considers opening in Washington “almost the best thing that could happen” to him. Expectations are high on the University of Washington product, so starting in his backyard is a substantial positive for Fultz, who was cut from his high school team as a sophomore and came back to become a blue chip prospect.

“The world’s going to spin pretty quickly here,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said. “Sometimes things are going to seem like they’re a blur to him. Him being able to get started on that journey here in front of a lot of people that supported him and looked up to him I think is a great thing.”

Fultz will face 2010 top pick John Wall, and Williams hopes Fultz doesn’t feel too many jitters in his first pro game. Because Brown said Fultz “didn’t play” enough in the preseason, perhaps getting to come off the bench eases some of the pressure.

“At the end of the day, I want to do whatever I got to do to help my team win, so if that’s coming off the bench, I’m fine with that,” Fultz said. “Just contribute in any ways I can.”

Fultz is joining a young Philadelphia team featuring Joel Embiid and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, who will also be making his NBA debut after missing all of last season with a foot injury. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Fultz is expected to share the ball-handling duties with Simmons, and there’s plenty of intrigue about how he’ll handle the jump.

“I know he’s a strong, athletic point guard that brings a lot of toughness to the game,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “I like what I’ve seen so far, regardless of limited playing time. But he has great size. He has great size, and you can’t teach that. He’s a strong point guard that’s going to have a bright future.”

Williams thinks Fultz, if given opportunities, could average 18 to 20 points a game as a rookie. After seeing Fultz think the game beyond his age, Jones has high expectations for him.

“He’s capable of being one of the best guards in the NBA,” Jones said. “Every year he’s going to get better and better and better. I know that’s his goal, and I’ve learned through the years to never bet against him. I know that he wants to be the best player he possibly can be, and with each passing month of this season, his rookie year, he’s going to push himself to that.”

 

LeBron James on boos Kyrie Irving faced: “It was nothing”

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LeBron James knows about being booed by Cleveland fans — there was more venom thrown his way upon his return to Cleveland after bolting for Miami than Jack Tatum at a Steelers’ or Patriots’ fans bar.

He heard the boos rained down upon Kyrie Irving, upon return to Cleveland after forcing his way off the Cavaliers, and LeBron shrugged. Here is a video of his comments.

“That was nothing. What do you want me to say? I’ve experienced big boos before. That was like a pat on the back. It could never… I love our fans to death. That was nothing.”

To be fair to Cavaliers fans, the gruesome Gordon Hayward injury sucked the air out of the building and made booing someone for changing teams seem petty. The energy in the building was understandably never the same after that.

But even before the injury, this wasn’t the same level of hatred that had been reserved for LeBron before in Cleveland. In part because LeBron handled his exit poorly (not that Irving was smooth, but there were no television shows to broadcast the decision) and LeBron was the native son seen as deserting his family. It was different.

Kyrie Irving had 22 points but, with LeBron guarding him, missed a three-pointer to tie the game, and the Cavaliers won 102-99.