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he thought the risk of the injury recurring to Chandler’s already troublesome big toe was too great, so the trade was rescinded.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 locked in for Cavaliers-Celtics Game 4 after being locked out in Game 3

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James had that look – faraway, yet focused.

The Boston Celtics have his undivided attention.

Following one of the worst postseason games of his career, James provided a candid review of his performance after breaking down film of Game 3 in the Eastern Conference finals.

“It wasn’t tough to watch,” he said as the Cavaliers prepared for Tuesday night’s Game 4. “We had opportunities. It is what it is. They played a hell of a game and they took it to us and we weren’t able to stop the runs that they made.

“Some of the plays that we made, some of the plays that I made, I was like, `What are we doing?’ or `What could I have done better?’ But you figure out the next game and go forward.”

James scored just 11 points and committed six turnovers in Game 2 on Sunday night, when the Celtics overcame a 21-point deficit in the third quarter to pull off an upset the odds makers in Las Vegas said was the biggest in the NBA playoffs over the past 20 years.

It was the fourth-lowest point total for James in 210 career playoff games. The point total was stunning considering it broke James’ streak of scoring at least 30 points in eight straight playoff games. It was the first time in 11 games in this postseason in which he scored fewer than 25.

Typically, James bounces back following poor games.

“It’s fun to watch knowing that when he has bad nights, a lot of times some very, very, very good nights follow,” said Cavs forward James Jones, who has been James’ teammate the past seven years. “It’s what he does.”

James went just 4 of 13 from the field in Game 3. More unusual was that he didn’t attack the basket with his customary tenacity.

And while James was criticized in some circles for not doing more, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was understandably cautious in his analysis.

His team is back in the series after being blown out in Games 1 and 2 at home, and Stevens probably didn’t want to rankle James.

“I thought LeBron made a lot of the right plays,” he said. “When you’ve got guys that are all on fire the way they are, the right basketball play is to find them. He just made it over and over. The guy is a tremendous basketball player. He makes the right play over and over, and he thinks the game, he sees the game. He’s a really good defender. He can read situations. So I thought he was pretty darned good. I’m not going to be critical of the best player in the world.”

James, who didn’t speak to the media Monday, didn’t provide many detailed answers during a brief interview session at the team’s practice facility.

Asked for the keys to Game 4, he simply said “win” and walked away.

Report: Magic hiring Bucks GM John Hammond to serve under Jeff Weltman

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Bucks general manager John Hammond interviewed to run the Magic’s front office – a job that ultimately went to Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman.

But there’s still room for Hammond in Orlando.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Why would Hammond leave Milwaukee, where he held the highest title in the front office for the No. 2 job in Orlando? The Bucks seemed ready to part ways for a while. Coach Jason Kidd assumed plenty of player-personnel control, and Milwaukee hired Justin Zanik to work under and eventually succeed Hammond.

Hammond’s move elevates Zanik now with the Bucks. We’ll see whether he or Kidd actually steers the ship.

Hammond had Kidd thrust upon him in Milwaukee due to the coach’s closeness with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. Considering he worked with Weltman in Detroit and Milwaukee, Hammond should have better working relationships in Orlando.

Under Hammond, the Bucks have built a nice young core featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe, Tony Snell, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. Hammond probably deserves more credit for that, but Milwaukee’s loss is the Magic’s gain. At least Zanik is qualified to step up.

Now, Orlando must hope Hammond can help turn around its underwhelming roster.

Kawhi Leonard injury an all-time "what if?"

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Eight days ago, we didn’t know whether Kawhi Leonard – who injured his ankle when Zaza Pachulia slid under his jumper – would play again this postseason.

But as a frustrated Gregg Popovich ranted about Pachulia’s dirtiness, I suspect the Spurs coach knew. I think Popovich knew, after years of anticipating a playoff matchup with the high-octane Warriors, Leonard’s injury had robbed San Antonio of a competitive conference finals – and maybe a championship.

The Spurs led Game 1 by 23 when Leonard got hurt. He never returned, and San Antonio blew its opening-game lead then lost Games 2-4 by 36, 12 and 14. None of the final three games were competitive down the stretch.

In all, the Spurs outscored Golden State by 21 in Leonard’s 23 minutes and got outscored by 85 otherwise.

The Warriors advance to their third straight NBA Finals. San Antonio is left wondering, what if?

Popovich’s Spurs have beaten nearly every highly touted team to come along during his reign as coach – the Chris Webber/Vlade Divac/Mike Bibby/Peja Stojakovic Kings, Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Goin’ To Work Pistons, Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni Suns, LeBron James Cavaliers, Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook Thunder, LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Heat.

But these Warriors escaped San Antonio. The Spurs beat Golden State in the 2013 second round, but that wasn’t the same team. Those Warriors hadn’t started Draymond Green, signed Andre Iguodala or hired Steve Kerr – three people integral to Golden State’s identity. And of course, the Warriors hadn’t signed Kevin Durant, who turned this year’s squad into possible the greatest super team of all time.

At the same time, San Antonio was loading up. The Spurs were the second-best regular-season team over the last three years behind Golden State, but the teams didn’t meet in the playoffs.

Despite having the NBA’s third-best net rating, San Antonio had to face the Clippers (NBA’s second-best net rating) in the 2015 first round thanks to conference imbalance and a since-changed seeding system for division winners. The Clippers won a hard-fought seven-game series.

In 2016, the Spurs had an even higher net rating than Golden State, which went 73-9. But they ran into the Thunder, whose athleticism buzz-sawed them and nearly toppled the Warriors.

This year was San Antonio’s chance.

The Spurs showed an ability to adjust to spread attacks while topping the Rockets in the second round. In its next-level challenge, San Antonio – behind Leonard’s 26 points on 13 shots, eight rebounds and three assists – dominated early.

But as soon as Leonard went down, the entire series turned.

The Spurs outscored Golden State by 42 points per 48 minutes with Leonard and got outscored by 24 points per 48 minutes without him – one of the greatest disparities in a playoff series this era.

Here are all the series where a team performed at least 60 points better per 48 minutes with a certain player on the court rather than off since 2001, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference records go (requiring more than 10 minutes played, as to eliminate extreme garbage-time examples):

  • Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player off
  • Right: Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player on
  • Center: Difference

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Raw totals:

Player On Off
Chauncey Billups (2002 MIN 0, DAL 3) 0 in 134 min. -32 in 10 min.
Draymond Green (2015 GSW 4, NOP 0) +77 in 166 min. -45 in 31 min.
Gilbert Arenas (2005 WAS 4, CHI 2) +31 in 276 min. -20 in 12 min.
Pascal Siakam (2017 TOR 0, CLE 4) +14 in 10 min. -75 in 182 min.
Kobe Bryant (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +66 in 119 min. -22 in 26 min.
Kevin Garnett (2004 MIN 4, DEN 1) +58 in 206 min. -38 in 34 min.
Luke Jackson (2007 TOR 2, BRK 4) +14 in 11 min. -46 in 277 min.
LeBron James (2007 CLE 4, WAS 0) +47 in 182 min. -12 in 11 min.
Allen Iverson (2001 PHI 1, LAL 4) -25 in 239 min. -9 in 6 min.
Kawhi Leonard (2017 SAS 0, GSW 4) +21 in 24 min. -85 in 168 min.
Shawn Marion (2003 PHO 2, SAS 4) -17 in 283 min. -15 in 10 min.
Tariq Abdul-Wahad (2003 DAL 2, SAS 4) +19 in 16 min. -49 in 272 min.
Russell Westbrook (2017 OKC 1, HOU 4) +15 in 195 min. -58 in 46 min.
Shaquille O’Neal (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +55 in 131 min. -11 in 13 min.
Chris Webber (2001 SAC 3, PHO 1) +59 in 169 min. -21 in 23 min.
Tim Duncan (2001 SAS 4, DAL 1) +89 in 202 min. -31 in 38 min.
Kirk Hinrich (2016 ATL 0, CLE 4) +11 in 12 min. -61 in 180 min.
Thomas Gardner (2009 ATL 0, CLE 4) +12 in 16 min. -84 in 177 min.

This list is essentially divided into three groups:

  • Bench-warmers who played a few good minutes while their team got torched throughout the series. Pascal Siakam, Luke Jackson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Kirk Hinrich and Thomas Gardner fit this category.
  • Stars who dominated while on the court and saw their teams torched when they sat. For example, in the massive leader in this stat, the Timberwolves played the Mavericks even in the 2002 first round with Chauncey Billups on the court. But Minnesota got outscored by 32 in the 10 minutes Billups sat the entire series and got swept. (Billups was starting for an injured Terrell Brandon, so Robert Pack got pressed into duty behind Billups.)
  • Kawhi Leonard. Every other star played a high majority of his teams’ minutes, essentially as much as he could handle. Then, his team just hoped to hang on in the star’s brief breathers. Leonard was stuck on the bench nearly the entire series, watching the the Spurs look helpless after he led them to a commanding advantage.

To be fair, San Antonio wouldn’t have necessarily won with Leonard.

Golden State was better than the Spurs throughout the season, and the lopsided start was a small sample. Simple regression to the mean could have tilted the series.

Also, the Warriors are at their best with Draymond Green at center, and they used that lineup just 11 seconds before Leonard’s injury. In 59 minutes with Green at center in the series, Golden State posted offensive/defensive/net ratings of 123.9/90.3/+33.5. If they needed to lean on those lineups more to beat a Leonard-led Spurs, they could have.

Yet, I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if Leonard stayed healthy.

The question towers over the last great playoff-injury fascination – whether the Cavaliers would have won the 2015 Finals if Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy.

I contend no. The Warriors were better than Cleveland overall each of the last two years, and they were a stylistic problem for the Cavs – especially Love and especially in 2015. The Cavaliers winning in 2016 adds doubt, but Stephen Curry was hobbled and Draymond Green got suspended for a game. A hungrier and more available 2015 Golden State team was more primed to win than the 2016 edition that lost to Cleveland.

Perhaps, a 2017 Finals rubber match will inform my opinion how Love’s and Irving’s injuries affected the 2015 NBA championship. For now, I’m sticking with the Warriors winning anyway.

But with Leonard’s injury in this year’s conference finals, I just don’t have a feel for whether the Spurs would have prevailed.

And that’s the most frustrating part.

Kevin Durant apologizes for telling fans ‘If you don’t like it, don’t watch it,’ reiterates stance

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Kevin Durant told fans, dismayed by the lack of competitive games and series this postseason, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”

Daring customers to choose another form of entertainment might not be good business for the NBA, but it’s not as if many fans needed an invitation. I doubt anyone was on the fence about watching then made up their minds after hearing Durant’s comments.

Yet, the Warriors star offered an apology.

Durant, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“I mean, life can be simple, man, Durant told ESPN. “If you don’t like the way the game is going, just turn it off. If you’re enjoying it, just keep it on. Life is simple. I didn’t mean it to disrespect anybody, but if you felt disrespected, I’m sorry. But if you don’t enjoy the game, turn it off [and] turn something else on. If you do, enjoy the rest of it, man.”

This is just a softer touch on the same sentiment – and just as reasonable.

People who love the NBA will watch. People who hate the NBA won’t. And people in the middle will fluctuate depending on the quality of the product.

Anyone mad at Durant the first time was just looking for a reason to get upset. That group will probably find a source of irritation in the follow-up quote, too.

The rest of us didn’t need this (half-hearted) apology, anyway.