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he thought the risk of the injury recurring to Chandler’s already troublesome big toe was too great, so the trade was rescinded.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.

Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis: “My prediction is John Wall will sign his extension”

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John Wall is one of the handful of NBA players who qualifies for the new designated veteran “super max” contract extension — and the Wizards want to give it to him. A four-year, $170 million extension of his current deal is on the table (it would kick in after the two years, $37 million on his current contract).

Wall has yet to sign it. He said at the time it was offered he wanted to talk about it with his family and see what the Wizards did this offseason. He’s not unhappy, he just wants to be sure before he locks himself in with Washington through his prime.

Washington owner Ted Leonsis told Candace Buckner of the Washington Post he thinks Wall will sign.

Maybe, but there’s not a lot of motivation for Wall to sign right now. Wall can bet on himself that he will make the All-NBA team again next year — there’s a deep class of guards but if he stays healthy he stands a good chance — at which time he’s still eligible for a designated veteran “super max” contract extension that would be five-years, roughly $200 million (and would kick in after the one year on his current deal).

That delay would also keep pressure on the Wizards to find ways to improve the roster. Washington is largely capped out and didn’t make any major moves this summer other than re-signing Otto Porter to a max extension (they matched a Brooklyn offer sheet). Washington is good, likely the third or fourth best team in the East, but a notch below Cleveland and Boston right now. Wall wants to push them to get another star and help Washington move up into contender status — he pushed for the Wizards to chase Paul George and have him replace Porter (a deal that was never going to happen, but you can see what Wall is thinking about being one star player short).

Ultimately, I think Leonsis is right, Wall will sign. It’s just a matter of when. Does he take this deal now, or wait until next summer and do it?

Chicago billboard calls for Bulls to fire Gar Forman, John Paxson

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Gar Forman split Executive of the Year with Pat Riley the same year Riley lured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to the Heat.

Forman’s stock has fallen quite a bit since.

The Bulls general manager – who works with executive vice President of basketball operations John Paxson in a duo (once affectionately) called GarPax – is facing increased scrutiny. The latest: A Chicago billboard organized by Bulls fans and paid for by GoFundMe donators.

GarPax’s recent missteps have been troubling. The breakup with Tom Thibodeau was messy and felt personal, especially with Fred Hoiberg succeeding him. First-round picks – Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott and Marquis Teague – have yielded little dividend. The Jimmy Butler trade was almost unbelievably lousy, even after the Three Alphas plan with Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo fell flat.

But it’s also worth taking a step back. The Bulls have won 59% of their games, made the playoffs seven of eight years and never had a losing season under Forman. This somewhat feels like Chicago fans having unrealistic expectations.

The most important question owners should ask when weighing whether to retain management: Who will best guide the team forward? Prior results should matter only to inform that question.

Based on overall body of work GarPax has a case for staying on the job. The tandem built a 62-win conference finalist around Derrick Rose then saw his injuries sabotage the run. But GarPax has also trended the wrong direction, failing too often (and too often predictably) since Rose declined.

Would the Bulls hire someone who will do better than Forman and Paxson if they fired those two? Maybe, and it’s a discussion worth having. But the answer isn’t as simple as I suspect the people behind this billboard would believe.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks on Otto Porter: ‘He’s a max person in my mind’

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Otto Porter is a quiet, complementary piece to the Wizards’ talented young core. He is also now Washington’s highest-paid player.

At least temporarily.

Guards John Wall and Bradley Beal garner most of the attention as Washington has made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs three of the last four seasons. But for now, Porter makes the most money after the Wizards matched a four-year, $106.5 million max-contract offer sheet the forward signed with the Brooklyn Nets.

There might be questions if the 24-year-old Porter is worth that money. But the Wizards believe he is a good fit alongside Wall, 26, a four-time All-Star, and Beal, 24, one of the league’s top shooting guards.

“You just use that as motivation just like John and Brad did,” Porter said at a news conference Wednesday. “They set the bar high. I’m going to set my bar, high, too.”

Porter entered this offseason as a restricted free agent, and when agent David Falk couldn’t agree to terms with Washington on July 1, he chose to shop his client’s services. The Sacramento Kings showed interest, but the Nets were the most serious and made a run at Porter.

“They felt like they wanted to test the market to see if there was something more out there, and they did,” Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. “But it wasn’t a big decision because all along we said we wanted to keep our young core together.”

It probably won’t be long before Wall surpasses Porter as the Wizards highest-paid player. Wall was named third-team All-NBA this past season, and the point guard is eligible to sign a $160 million, four-year super max contract any time before the 2017-18 season begins. Wall will not become an unrestricted free agent until 2019.

Re-signing Porter was a top priority for Washington this summer. The No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft out of Georgetown, Porter had a breakthrough season. He ranked fourth in field goal percentage among small forwards (51.6 percent) and fifth among all NBA players in 3-point percentage (43.4 percent).

Porter’s ability to fit seamlessly with Wall and Beal without needing the ball in his hands is a huge plus, too, according to Grunfeld. At 6-foot-8, Porter’s length also plays a significant role in the Wizards’ defensive concepts. His skillset was so valuable to Washington the Wizards surpassed the NBA’s luxury-tax threshold by matching the offer sheet.

“I never look at Otto and judge him by the stat sheet,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “He does so many little things that the stats don’t show. He dives on the floor for a loose ball, he sets screens. He makes the extra pass to the corner, offensive rebounds.

“You can never have enough high-character guys that are committed to each and that’s what he is,” Brooks said. “He’s a max person in my mind.”

Utah Jazz sign forward Royce O’Neale, first season reportedly guaranteed

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The Utah Jazz signed forward Royce O’Neale on Wednesday.

Sportando:

Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune:

O’Neale gives Utah 16 players on non-two-way contracts, one more than the regular-season limit. Raul Neto is on unguaranteed contract, but he’s a potential rotation player.

A 6-foot-6, 215-pound wing, O’Neale played for Gran Canaria in Spain last season and averaged 8.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists. O’Neale was a member of the New Orleans Pelicans’ Las Vegas Summer League team last week and averaged 4.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists.

The 24-year-old was undrafted out of Baylor in 2015. He adds wing depth to a Jazz team adjusting to life without Gordon Hayward after he signed with the Boston Celtics in free agency.

The Jazz won 51 games last season and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012. They were swept by the Golden State Warriors after beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.