Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four

NBA Playoffs: Nowitzki closes out Durant, Thunder in Game 4

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Shortly after Kevin Durant entered the NBA, he was given the label of the NBA’s Next Great Closer. Everything about him suggests that he should be able to close teams out. He has a quiet confidence about him, is never afraid to shoot the ball, and never seems to break a sweat as he coldly pours in basket after basket.

More importantly, his game looks the part. Like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, the current closer archetypes, Durant is a great athlete with a beautiful jump shot and a natural grace about his game — it’s so easy to picture Durant firing a jump shot over a helpless defender as time expires, which is the image we always associate with “closers” in basketball.

Nowitzki, meanwhile, has never really been seriously considered as a closer. He’s soft. He’s European. He’s a big man. He missed a crucial free throw in Game 3 of the 2006 Finals. He’s never won a ring. Et cetera.

The truth, however, is that Dirk has been perhaps the deadliest closer in the NBA for years, while Durant has had his ups and downs in late-game situations.

This season, the Mavericks were the league’s best team in clutch situations, and Dirk was obviously the biggest reason for that. Nowitzki averaged 42 points per 48 minutes on 62.5% True Shooting in “clutch” situations, and the Mavericks outscored teams by an average of 38 points per 48 minutes when Nowitzki was on the floor in close games.

It should be noted that the Thunder were very good in close games this season as well, as was Durant. Durant averaged 44 points per 48 minutes on 55% True Shooting in “clutch” situations this season, and the Thunder outscored their opponents by 19.6 points per 48 minutes when Durant was on the floor in close games.

However, while Nowitzki has been great in close games for years, the Thunder’s late-game success has been a relatively recent development. Last season, the Thunder were actually outscored in “clutch” situations, and Durant shot only 35.6% in those situations.

This season, with Russell Westbrook and James Harden having emerged as impact players for the Thunder, Oklahoma City was able to get some ball movement late and allow Durant what he does best late in games — make a jumper or drive to the rim off of a pass.

According to Synergy Sports, Durant averages an impressive 1.14 points per possession when he gets the ball in catch-and-shoot situations and .98 points per possession when he gets the ball coming off a screen, but he struggles when he’s forced to be a primary playmaker. Durant averaged .91 points per possession (37% shooting) in isolation, .87 PPP as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls, and .84 PPP on post-ups.

Throughout the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Thunder’s improved offensive movement and additional playmakers allowed Durant to be successful in the clutch. But on Monday night, Durant was forced to try and do everything himself, and the results weren’t pretty. In the last five minutes of the game, Durant only got three shots up, missed all of them, and committed one turnover and no assists. In overtime, Durant went 0-3 from the field again, and had another turnover without an assist.

Considering the lead the Thunder had with so little time remaining in the game, Durant probably should have been able to get away with a poor clutch performance. Unfortunately for him, Dirk Nowitzki was in the building and in the mood to show why he should be considered one of the best closers in basketball, if not the best.

Nowitzki scored 12 points in the final five minutes of the game, doing his damage with two mid-range jump shot, a shot from the paint, a three-pointer, and three made free throws, two of which tied the game with six seconds remaining. Nowitzki only scored two points in overtime, but he did assist on the Jason Kidd three with 40 seconds to go that ultimately put the Mavericks up for good.

Nowitzki may not be seen as having the “clutch gene” because of his late-game struggles in the finals a half a decade ago and his perceived “softness” (which is more rooted in xenophobia than it is in actual analysis of Nowtizki’s game), but he’s much better suited to succeed in late-game situations than Durant is.

Nowitzki shoots a ridiculous 53.2% in isolation situations, and 54.4% in post-up situations, which usually occur in the mid-to-high post area rather than the low post. Nowitzki’s mid-range jump shot, which he has become an absolute master at setting up, is the best go-to move in the NBA, bar none. Even if the defense knows it’s coming, they have little hope of stopping it, and Dirk has developed a few nifty counter-moves that allow him to score if the defense attempts to overplay the jumper too much. And if you try to play him physical and end up committing a foul, that’s two nearly-automatic points.

No matter how hard teams try to run their offense late in games, things generally devolve into one-on-one play with the paint walled off, and nobody is better in those situations than Dirk Nowitzki, especially not Kevin Durant. The Thunder learned that the hard way in Game 4.

The aesthetics of Durant’s game may mean he’ll still be considered by some to be a be a better “closer” than Nowitzki. However, if the Thunder fail to win the next three games in a row and end up going home early, Durant’s sterling clutch reputation would be a meager consolation prize. Durant is a decade younger than Nowitzki, and has time to improve on his late-game play, but on Monday Nowitzki put aside any doubt that he’s currently on another level than Durant is when it comes to late-game situations.

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff withdraws himself from consideration for Rockets’ coaching job

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 24: Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff of the Houston Rockets encourages his team in the seconf half against the Golden State Warriors at Toyota Center on April 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dowloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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The Houston Rockets are still searching for a head coach — with Jeff Van Gundy believed to be their top target — but it won’t be J.B. Bickerstaff, who has served as the team’s interim coach since they fired Kevin McHale in November. According to The Vertical‘s Adrian Wojnarowski, Bickerstaff has informed Rockets management that he’s no longer in consideration for the job:

After a meeting with ownership and the front office on Tuesday, Houston Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has informed team officials that he’s no longer a candidate for the head-coaching job, league sources told The Vertical.

Other NBA teams have started reaching out to Bickerstaff about lead assistant coaching positions, and that’s where he’s transitioned his focus, league sources said.

After the Rockets’ disappointing season and disastrous playoff performance — where they lost in five not-very-competitive games to a Stephen Curry-less Warriors —it makes sense that Bickerstaff would rather get a fresh start as an assistant somewhere else, where he could build up his credentials and be a more highly sought-after head coaching candidate in the future. He isn’t a big name, so he likely wouldn’t be able to command as much money as the Rockets’ head coach as a more established figure would be. Given the Rockets’ uncertain future with Dwight Howard almost certain to opt out and not a lot of long-term pieces around James Harden, it’s not the most stable job in the world.

Celtics’ president Ainge embracing expectation-filled summer

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 13:  Member of the Boston Celtics 1986 championship team Danny Ainge is honored at halftime of the game between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat at TD Garden on April 13, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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BOSTON (AP) — During his tenure as Celtics president, Danny Ainge has developed a reputation as deal maker that pounces on opportunities.

He will forever be tethered to the coup he pulled off in the summer of 2007 to assemble the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen just three years into the tenure of then-coach Doc Rivers.

No one is expecting Ainge to recreate that moment this summer, but with a myriad of draft picks and salary cap space at his disposal, he isn’t shying away from the expectation that this offseason could be one of the most important in recent memory.

“We look forward to every offseason. This offseason is bigger,” Ainge said. “My expectations are high this offseason and yet I also know that it takes good fortune.”

Helping those fortunes along will be Boston’s eight draft picks this summer, including three in the first round. The eight picks are Boston’s most since 1987 when the draft had seven rounds.

It not only will provide the Celtics with bargaining chips for potential trades, but the ability to “draft and stash” young players If they want, Ainge said.

A lot will depend on what happens May 17 at the draft lottery. Boston owns the unprotected first-round pick of the Nets, which it picked up in the deal that sent Garnett and Pierce to Brooklyn in 2013.

The Nets finished with the third-worst record in the NBA, so they will hand the Celtics about a 16 percent chance of securing the No. 1 pick with it.

“We need the ping pong balls to bounce our way to give us the best opportunity, whether we use that pick or whether we trade that pick,” Ainge said. “And in free agency we have opportunities. That’s all we have. We have no guarantees of great things happening. We just have a lot of hope.”

Depending on where they land, Ainge could package some of their later picks to move up or trade for future picks.

It’s all in play, and it’s why he is anticipating a much busier lead up to draft night June – both in the number of players they bring in to evaluate and the conversations they have with teams around the league.

What happens in June will then directly affect what trades and free agents the team pursues.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had cap space. So this is a unique opportunity,” Ainge said. “We have to be patient, too. There’s a lot of money around the league. A lot of teams have cap space with the new TV contracts kicking in.”

Ainge said even with the rash of injuries late in the season and into the playoffs, his team is mostly healthy.

The bruised bone in Jae Crowder‘s right foot isn’t serious, nor is the sore left shooting wrist of All-Star Isaiah Thomas.

Avery Bradley wasn’t able to return after his right hamstring injury on the opening night of the playoffs, but Ainge said it was a grade-1 strain and that team simply was being careful not to aggravate it.

The only player that could have surgery is Kelly Olynyk, who played with pain throughout the postseason after aggravating an injury to his right shoulder. Olynyk is expected to make a decision in about a week on how he will proceed.

It’s been a lot to process, but Ainge said he plans to stay as level-headed as possible.

“It doesn’t really do any good to put a noose around our neck and say that there’s all this urgency,” he said. “We have plenty of urgency. Brad wants to win, Isaiah wants to win, Avery wants to win. We all want to win. … But we also have to be patient in doing good deals and not doing bad deals.”

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

LeBron dodges “Space Jam 2” questions, says focus now only on playoffs

FILE - In this Wed., July 15, 2015 file photo, NBA player LeBron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, accepts the award for best championship performance at the ESPY Awards at the Microsoft Theater, in Los Angeles. The NBA star and his company, SpringHill Entertainment, have signed a content creation deal with Warner Bros. that includes potential projects in film, television and other digital properties. Warner Bros. Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara announced the partnership Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)
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It Hollywood, much like politics and sports, a non-denial is usually a “Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it.”

When LeBron James was asked about reports he’s attached to “Space Jam 2” as a star, he gave Fox Sports Ohio the non-denial answer (hat tip Eye on Basketball):

“I have a great team that handles my affairs off the floor. Since I signed with Warner Bros. we’ve been looking to do some things and figure out some things that best fit both sides. But my team’s handling that and I’m not going to take my focus off what my job is right now, which is handling the postseason right now.”

That’s not a no.

Since he now has his own production company, you can bet LeBron is moving forward with this because he would get a healthy slice of the pie.

I’m sure this is just like a Pixar animated film, where they hire top writers to come up with an emotionally relatable animated script, then worry about the marketing angles secondarily. This is about the art… I can’t even keep writing this line of sarcasm. I expect this to have all the plot subtlety of an Adam Sandler film. It’s a marketing vehicle with a movie attached. I fear it will be another “Thunderstruck.”

But there’s money to be made, so it will happen.

Report: NBA restricts teams ads on jerseys; no alcohol, tobacco, politics, more

adidas-NBA All-Star West Jersey Front H
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The Los Angeles Lakers are not going to have a silhouette of a Patron bottle on their jerseys.

Despite the potential tie in with GM Vlade Divac, the Sacramento Kings are not going to be sponsored by Marlboro.

While NBA teams have been cleared to sell a small patch ad on jerseys for next season — to go on the left shoulder, where the KIA logo was on the All-Star uniforms this season (if you even noticed it) — there are limitations, reports Darren Rovell of ESPN.

In most cases this was not going to be an issue, but the league did not want to risk a local casino or whatever jumping in with a big bid.

Teams are expected to get several million dollars for the ad deals (larger markets will get more, smaller markets less). This is part of a three-year trial program approved by the owners, although once the money starts coming in it’s hard to imagine to owners deciding to scrap the idea.