It starts with the big questions — if the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder can’t answer those questions, the little ones will not matter.
That leads us to the big things to watch in Game 1 between the Thunder and Mavericks Tuesday night — can Dallas slow Kevin Durant, and can Oklahoma City slow Dirk Nowitzki.
The Thunder need to answer their question fast — Dallas is coming off a nine-day layoff following their sweep of the Lakers and they are bound to be rusty. They beat the Lakers with superior execution and that my take a while to come back. If the Thunder want to win one of the first two on the road, Game 1 sill be the best chance.
Serge Ibaka is going to get the first shot at Dirk, but he may be ill suited to stopping Nowitzki. We told you want to look for in more detail, but if we had to reduce it to two words, it would be Nick Collison.
On the other side, Shawn Marion is going to get Kevin Durant duty. The book on Durant has been to be physical with him and run him off his spots on the floor, to play heavy ball-denial and to limit his touches. We’ll see if Marion is up to that task.
One other matchup to watch closely is DeShawn Stevenson on Russell Westbrook. Game 7 against Memphis was Westbrook’s best game of the playoffs and if he displays that kind of balance again Dallas could struggle to stop him.
With those two guys to stop, expect to see Dallas use a fair amount of zone defense this series. The Mavs run maybe the best matchup zone in the league and that may be the best way to keep Tyson Chandler on the glass and in the paint to help on defense.
The two other keys for Dallas — don’t foul and don’t turn the ball over. Not fouling was something the Mavs did well, the Thunder got to the line 29 times a game during the regular season but that happened just 24 times against the Mavericks. That has to continue, the Thunder need free throws. They also want to get out and run, Oklahoma City is far more athletic. Dallas cannot fuel that with turnovers.
Lots of things to watch. But it all starts with the two best players on the court.
LeBron James is already there. So is Kevin Durant. Same with a lot of other old-school GMs and coaches around the league.
Their response to the rapid rise in hack-a-player (shouldn’t it always be hack-a-Shaq?) instances is “tell the guy to hit the free throws.”
Add Kobe Bryant to their ranks, reports Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is starting to feel differently. He realizes he runs an entertainment business and a parade of guys to the free throw line without because of a non-basketball play — you can’t begin to tell me fouling a guy 50 feet from the ball is a basketball play in the spirit of the rules — is bad for that business. It is unwatchable. And while every coach in the NBA “I hate to do it” they all do it with more and more frequency, there will be more than twice as many instances this season as there were a year ago, with more and more players involved. Because it works, and because they are paid to win, not play beautiful basketball.
Change is coming. Old-school types always bemoan change, and that’s not just a basketball thing. But the rest of the world has rules in place to stop this because they realize it’s not basketball, it’s gaming the system. And it needs to change.
On this play the Sacramento Kings played defense like only they can — and you wonder why George Karl’s job is in danger — and gave Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgov a wide-open lane right down the middle for an easy dunk.
LeBron James had a triple-double (the 40th of his career) and the Cavaliers got a needed easy win, but this is the play you’ll remember.
Karl-Anthony Towns is a beast.
While the Timberwolves have plenty of question marks around him, but Towns has been exceptional. Coming into Monday night, he was averaging 21.6 points (on 59.9 percent shooting) and 12.7 rebounds a night in his last 10 games.
Then Monday he did that to Dante Cunningham.
The Pelicans went on to win the game 116-102, but Towns continues to play well.
The summer of 2016 is all about Kevin Durant — and we don’t know what Durant is going to do as a free agent because Durant doesn’t yet know what Durant is going to do as a free agent. Stay in Oklahoma City, bolt to the Bay Area or maybe Washington D.C.? These playoffs, meetings with teams and his advisors, plus personal factors all will play a role in Durant’s decision. Which he will get around to announcing in early July sometime.
But the sense around the league is that while Durant may very well stay in Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook was drawn to the bright lights of big markets. If an elite player were to bolt OKC, this was the more likely guy. Westbrook is a free agent in 2017.
In an article about Phil Jackson and the Knicks in the wake of Derek Fisher’s firing, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said the Knicks have a real shot at Westbrook in a couple of summers.
The Knicks have a real chance to sell Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in 2017 – New York and Porzingis have his attention, yes – and Jackson ought to start constructing an elite coaching staff to begin that process with Westbrook and with free agents beyond him.
Come 2017, expect Westbrook to meet with a number of big market teams on both coasts, and then make a decision. The summer of 2017 is a couple of NBA lifetimes away, it’s impossible to say what Westbrook will do (he may well decide to stay in OKC if they win enough), but the big market teams looking for a star will get their turn in the batter’s box.
Which is why I still think Durant signs a 1+1 deal this summer to stay in Oklahoma City for another season — he’s going to give everything another chance to come together for the Thunder, then when the salary cap is at its peak in 2017 (an estimated $108 million) he makes his peak seasons decision. He and Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will all be free agents at the same time, and they can make their calls.
And the Knicks could be involved in all of it.