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he thought the risk of the injury recurring to Chandler’s already troublesome big toe was too great, so the trade was rescinded.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

LeBron James on Kyrie Irving: “Nothing but respect”

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Kyrie Irving is now a member of the Boston Celtics. Tuesday’s trade sent Isaiah Thomas to Ohio to join forces with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, while Irving gets to head east to Boston.

On paper, many believe Cleveland appears to have received the better side of the deal. I’m not absolutely certain that’s the case, as the Celtics were able to get a point guard on an extra few years while simultaneously giving themselves some flexibility in the years to come.

The Cavaliers should be in good shape, especially if Thomas’ hip is A-OK. They beefed up their wing depth with Jae Crowder, and added a 2018 first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets that will help them either draft in LeBron’s absence next summer or trade for another star this year.

Meanwhile, LeBron himself took to Twitter — as did many other NBA players — to respond to the trade.

In a tweet sent out on Tuesday night, Lebron said he had nothing but respect for Irving.

Via Twitter:

Well there you have it. We still don’t know whether James is going to stay in Cleveland past this summer, but we have to assume they are again favorites to make the Finals this year.

We will have to wait until the season starts until we find out whether Irving can make an impact on that arc with his new team in Boston.

Andrew Wiggins fires agent shortly after negotiating $148 million max deal

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Is Andrew Wiggins still going to sign a $148 million max contract extension? Probably!

The big question now will be whether in his previous agent, Bill Duffy, will receive a commission for negotiating that contract.

According to a report from ESPN, Wiggins filed paperwork with the NBA to separate his association with Duffy and representing firm BDA Sports.

The move comes as a shock to many in the NBA sphere, as it certainly is an oddity to release one’s agent directly after negotiating such a large new contract offer.

Meanwhile, it appears that Duffy has already contacted the players association to discuss his rights in a potential tampering case.

How juicy.

Via ESPN:

Duffy, the chairman of BDA Sports and one of the league’s most prominent player agents, told ESPN on Tuesday that he had recently been made aware of rival agencies and potential start-up enterprises who were recruiting Wiggins with inducements that included no commission fees on contracts.

“We are disappointed that Andrew made this decision, especially after a three-year partnership where we worked closely with Andrew and his entire family,” Duffy told ESPN. “Unfortunately, tampering is a common problem in our industry, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve already been in contact with the NBPA to discuss my rights in this matter. Obviously, whenever Andrew signs the max extension that we negotiated with Minnesota, we will work with the NBPA to make sure that our interests are protected.”

Wiggins and the team still have yet to formally agree to the extension, so it’s not really clear what will happen for any of the parties involved.

But if the recent Paul George tampering case and the Kyrie Irving/Isaiah Thomas trade isn’t enough to make you think the NBA offseason is completely wild, this one ought to do.

How NBA players reacted to the Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas trade

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The NBA is easily the best professional sports league in the United States. Was that ever up for debate?

After this offseason, it certainly is not. That also appears to be the opinion of several NBA players after Tuesday’s trade between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers saw Kyrie Irving head east and Isaiah Thomas pair up with LeBron James.

It is crazy to think that the two best teams in the Eastern Conference decided to swap star point guards with each other, and that is just the latest in a series of wild events here in the summer of 2017.

We’ve had players sign big new contracts with new teams, tampering charges being filed, and players dunking on local streetballers from speedboats.

What more could you ask for?

Here’s how the NBA responded to the news of the trade between the Celtics and the Cavaliers on social media.

NBA trade market proves stranger than fiction yet again as Thomas, Irving swap teams

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The two best teams in the Eastern Conference have swapped point guards. With Isaiah Thomas now member of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics, the fight for supremacy in the East now much more interesting and more complicated, not only for next season but in the years to come.

Here’s how the trade looks on paper: The Cavaliers received Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s 2018 first round draft pick. The Celtics received Irving.

At first glance, it appears that the Cavaliers came out on top. Yes, there is a question about whether Thomas’ hip will have healed in time next season, but the ability to grab not only Crowder but future first round pick compensation is huge.

If Thomas returns to his Top 5 MVP voting form, you have a deadly combination with the roster already in place for the Cavaliers. Set aside LeBron James for a minute — the ability of the team to mix Thomas with J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson puts them in a prime position to continue do what they have done for years: dominate.

Meanwhile, adding Crowder to the wing not only gives the Cavaliers a bump in experience when it comes to their depth, but perhaps flexibility this season as well. Rumors have swirled around the team making a move and readjusting their front court, specifically around Love, and Crowder could be the key to that in the future.

From a long-term perspective, that depth gives Cleveland both wing experience and star power to cushion the blow if Lebron does decide to leave in the summer of 2018. The first round pick comes in heavy here, as it would help the Cavaliers rebuild if James is no longer in Ohio.

Did the Celtics give up too much? Perhaps. But not all has tipped in the scales for Cleveland.

Boston was already going to be less reliant on Thomas next season when it came to the offense. Signing Utah Jazz free agent Gordon Hayward was always going to make sure of that. Irving represents a superstar talent that many in the NBA regard as Thomas’ equal, if not his superior. There is no doubt a bit of heightism attached to that, but we will leave that as it is. Neither are particularly reliable on defense, so I have a hard time taking size into account.

There has been some rumors of trepidation on the part of the Celtics organization to pay Thomas’ next big contract due next summer. That seems like it could have played a role here, especially as Irving is signed through 2019, with a player option in the year after that.

Reports have been that Cleveland was previously insistent on getting rookie Jayson Tatum in this deal as well, which the Celtics smartly managed to avoid. With both Avery Bradley and Crowder no longer in Boston, Tatum will now be the backup plan along side Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown.

That is perhaps the biggest sticking point here. Yes, Bradley was also due a big contract next year, so shipping him off to Detroit did make some sense, even if the return was underwhelming. However, that trade was made at a time in which it was clear that Boston was going to keep Crowder. The Celtics didn’t get back a defender in this trade, so they will be relying on their young players to try to bolster that wing defense in his absence. That will proved to be tricky.

Still, this means the Celtics are both younger than they were a year ago while still having some of their star players signed to long-term deals. That could give them the edge over the Cavaliers in the coming seasons, even if LeBron decides to stay in Cleveland. At some point, Danny Ainge needed to bet on his developing players, and he’s all in now.

In a short lens it appears the Cavaliers have been able to move from place of no leverage with Irving’s public trade request to a position of strength. Grabbing wing depth and in All-NBA caliber player is great news, especially if you are taking him from one of your main conference rivals.

But Boston will certainly be a good team for years to come, especially now as they don’t have to consider the ramifications of giving Thomas a big new contract. Adding Hayward to the mix was crucial, but the development of their young players — Smart, Brown, and Tatum — will be a key storyline next season, especially when we reach the playoffs.

The Celtics aren’t complete losers here. They did gain a great player in Irving, and they do have some flexibility. Both Horford and Irving can opt out of their contracts at the end of 2019. If the core is not working as planned, the Celtics will be free to go in a different direction with something like $51.6 million coming off their cap. They still have the Lakers pick for 2018, so giving up the Nets pick to Cleveland doesn’t damage the team in context quite as much.

Above all else, it seems odd that a trade of this magnitude happened between the two best teams in East. This NBA offseason has been a weird one, and if this exact trade was proposed on your Twitter timeline you might have scoffed it off as unrealistic. Yet here we are, with Irving as a Boston Celtic and Thomas potentially set to get a big payday either from the Cavaliers or from another team in a year’s time.