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NBA Playoffs: Slow start dooms Thunder as Mavericks roll in Game 3

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After stealing home-court advantage from the Mavericks with a win in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, one would think the Thunder would have come out firing once the series shifted to Oklahoma City, ensuring that the victory they worked so hard to get on the road wouldn’t be immediately wasted. But it was Dallas who was the aggressor in Game 3, jumping out to a huge early lead that they would never relinquish.

The Mavericks led by as many as 17 in the first quarter, and 23 in the second, before hanging on for a 93-87 win that put them back ahead in the series.

“Tonight, we played championship-level defense for the first time in the series,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said afterward, in a news conference streamed live on NBA.com. “And now, the challenge is to sustain.”

Dallas jumped on the Thunder from the start, and made shots at a 51.2 percent clip in the first half while taking a 16-point lead into the break. Dirk Nowitzki had little to do with it, however, scoring just four points as Shawn Marion did the early damage offensively.

Nowitzki finished with 18, but he was hounded all night by the aggressive defensive play of Nick Collison, who was allowed to be overly-physical with little restrictions from the officials.

Carlisle was complimentary of Collison’s defense afterward, but did point out that it may have, at times, been more physical than the rules would normally allow.

“In terms of legal limits, I believe the line may be crossed at times,” Carlisle said. “But if so, then the league will see that.”

While Nowitzki was held in check, Dallas got productive performances from seven of its players. It was far too much for the Thunder to overcome, on a night when Kevin Durant was cold (missing 15 of 22 from the field), and no one on the team outside of he and Russell Westbrook were able to crack double figures.

Westbrook bounced back as expected in this one, after being benched for the entire fourth quarter of Game 2. Depending on who you believe, the relegation to the bench was either because of the reserves rolling at the time, or a blown play that pushed his coach over the edge.

In Game 3, there were no such issues. Westbrook was attacking hard all night, going to the basket again and again on his way to a game-high 30-point performance.

Oklahoma City made its run late, but the 23-point first-half deficit was too much to overcome. The Thunder pulled to within six with 3:20 to play, but missed two wide-open looks from 3-point range (one from Westbrook, one from Daequan Cook) that could of made things interesting. But on a night when the team finished 1-for-17 from beyond the arc, perhaps OKC should have tried a different approach.

It has to be disappointing for the Thunder that they missed so many shots early and dug themselves such a huge hole in such an important game. As we look ahead to Game 4, getting off to a strong start is just one of the things they’ll need to concern themselves with.

Containing Nowitzki again will be a tall task, especially if Carlisle’s (relatively tame) comments about the way Collison is being allowed to play him end up affecting the officiating. Durant will need to regain his scoring touch, and OKC will need a large helping of the “good” Westbrook if the team is to counter the depth of Dallas and the way the Mavs execute beautifully on the offensive end of the floor.

In short, the Thunder will need to be the aggressor from the very start Monday. Otherwise, this series could be over in five.

Bull for Bull: Pau Gasol to replace Jimmy Butler in All-Star Game

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 6:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Chicago Bulls prepares to shoot a free throw against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 6, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Jimmy Butler is out of the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto this weekend due to a strained knee. Which suck, because he earned that spot, and while the fans didn’t vote him in the coach’s did.

Butler’s teammate Pau Gasol will replace him.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver gets to make the call on a replacement, and he stayed in Chicago, but he added a front court player to replace a guard. Keeping a Bulls representative might have been part of the thinking. The coaches’ votes on replacement players has been weighed in the past (Gasol may have been high on that list, coaches love him). Also, the East roster has a lot of wings and was light on bigs (Andre Drummond, Paul Millsap and Chris Bosh are the only real bigs), so this gives coach Tyronn Lue some flexibility up front.

The East leading Cleveland Cavaliers remain with just one representative, LeBron James (voted in by the fans).

Gasol is averaging 17 points, 10.9 rebounds, and a couple blocks a game, and is the only thing close to a consistent performer the Bulls have. Besides the injured Butler.

Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler out 3-4 weeks with strained knee

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It was concerning when it happened — Jimmy Butler injured his knee and had to be taken off the court on a stretcher.

But then the reports came back saying the X-rays were negative, this was just a strain. Butler was going to miss some time, but the question was how much?

Turns out, 3-4 weeks — including the All-Star Game, the team announced Tuesday. From the official team press release:

Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler was re-examined by Bulls Head Team Physician Brian Cole.  Butler is expected to miss the next three to four weeks with a strained left knee. Butler has begun rehabbing his injury and he will be allowed to engage in all activities as tolerated with the primary goal of maintaining his conditioning over the ensuing weeks.

Butler is the Bulls best player, averaging 22.4 points a game and handling a lot of the shot creation for the team (along with Derrick Rose, who was out Monday injured). The Bulls offense is 1.6 points per 100 possessions better when Butler plays, plus he usually draws the other team’s best wing player as his defensive assignment.

Following an ugly loss to the Hornets Monday night, the Bulls are now 5-12 in their last 17 games. Since Joakim Noah went out for the season with an injured shoulder in particular, their defense has struggled. They still have no offensive identity.  Chicago has fallen to the seven seed in the West, just 1.5 games ahead of Charlotte and falling out of the playoffs completely. This injury is simply going to add to that slide.

The Bulls thought they were the team that could challenge Cleveland for supremacy in the East at the start of the season. Now they may need a late push just to make the playoffs.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will pick his All-Star Game replacement. In the past, he has picked the player highest in the fan voting not selected as a reserve, in this case that would be Kyrie Irving. But Silver can go any direction he chooses.

Report: George Karl to remain Kings coach following face-to-face meeting with GM

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George Karl isn’t going anywhere as coach of the Sacramento Kings after all.

At least for now.

Marc Stein of ESPN, who had the report that the Kings decided to fire Karl during the All-Star Break — now says the two sides have sat down and hashed things out. For now.

Those first reports went too far down the line, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

First things first, the Kings are a leaky organization right now. Which is never a good sign.

This has become a power struggle in the organization — DeMarcus Cousins has said the Kings’ problems go beyond the players, and he is known not to be a fan of Karl (Rajon Rondo is the coach’s biggest supporter because Karl gives him a green light). Owner Vivek Ranadive remains too impatient, stability is needed.

But there are still big picture questions to be answered.

Ranadive, with Vlade Divac, needs to sit down and set the long-term course for this team, including style of play they want to have, then decide if Karl can be part of that future. Also, if Cousins can be part of that future. If those two can be part of the future together (I’m not sure they can).

There needs to be more meetings with the Kings, and then this summer some significant decisions must be made. But doing it now at the All-Star break isn’t going to change anything. So Karl stays.

Adam Silver remains optimistic there will be no 2017 lockout

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By this coming December 15, both the NBA owners and the NBA players can opt-out of the current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. At least one side (likely the players) is expected to do so, setting up a potential lockout in the summer of 2017. The last one in 2011 lasted 161 days and forced the NBA to start its season on Christmas Day.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is optimistic it will not come to that.

The two sides are already talking about an extension of the deal, and Adam Silver talked about that on the USA Today A to Z Podcast with Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt, something they detailed in a story.

Encouraging signs exist – even if there is a lockout – that regular-season games won’t be lost, as was the case in 2011. The two sides are meeting regularly, building relationships and trust. The league is dealing with new leadership on the union’s side: Michele Roberts, the NBPA executive director, has been on the job about 17 months and NBPA general counsel Gary Kohlman was hired at the start of the 2014-15 season.

“My cause for optimism is based on to me the spirit of the discussions and the directness in which we’ve been dealing with each other,” Silver said.

The two sides have done a good job keeping the negotiations private and not negotiating through the media. So far. And the number of optimists that a CBA extension can be worked out is growing around the league daily. The new faces at the negotiating table help with that, some of the old animosities are gone.

But the main reason for optimism: There is too much money on the table now for both sides to screw it up. The new television deal brings $2.6 billion to the table annually in addition to gate and other revenues. It’s putting money in the pockets of owners plus dramatically driving up their franchise values. For players, it means larger paydays — in the new system the average NBA player salary will be around $8 million annually, and the average starter will make $12 million a season (ballpark numbers, of course). Players are not going to want to miss paychecks for esoteric, or even good, reasons.

Never underestimate the corrupting power of human greed. These talks can go sideways. But there is reason to be hopeful that no lockout is coming. And that starts with the fact both sides are already talking to each other (and not the media).