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.

Steve Kerr says Andrew Bogut needs to stay out of foul trouble

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Andrew Bogut #12 of the Golden State Warriors fights for possesion of the ball with Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during game one of the NBA Western Conference Final at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Steve Kerr needs a lot of things to go differently Thursday night if his defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors want to avoid elimination. That starts with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green needing to play much, much better.

But another is for Andrew Bogut to stay on the court — the Warriors defense is 15.9 points per 100 possessions better this series when he is on the court compared to off it. The Warriors are outscoring the Thunder when he plays.

So why not more minutes? Foul trouble, and Kerr wants that to change, as Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News reports.

“He’s fouling,” Kerr said. “He’s got 13 fouls in 56 minutes. He’s almost fouling out of every game in 10-15 minutes. He’s got to be smarter with his fouls. We need him out there — he was plus-7 (Tuesday) night in 11 minutes…

“When he’s out there, we rebound better,” he said. “We’ve got a good passer out of the post. We want to play Bogut more, but he’s got to stay on the floor.”

It’s not that simple for Bogut — the Thunder are aggressively attacking the rim and in the NBA the aggressors usually get the calls. Certainly Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and the rest of the Thunder front line is more athletic than Bogut.

Doesn’t matter, Bogut must figure out a way to impact shots in the paint, grab boards, and not foul. The Warriors are not winning this series going small, and if they are going to mount any comeback with a big on the court, it’s going to have to start with Bogut.

Jason Terry thinks Dwight Howard could remain with Rockets

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  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 Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Everyone else thinks Dwight Howard is getting out of Houston this summer.

Jason Terry isn’t convinced.

Dwight Howard has a player option this summer, which he is expected to exercise and become a free agent. For one thing, he’d do it for the pay raise — he wants a max contract, starting at about $30 million. The other reason is he and James Harden have not blended in Houston, and Howard wants a fresh start.

But Jason Terry isn’t convinced yet. Terry was on SiriusXM NBA Radio and told Justin Termine and Eddie Johnson Howard may stay put. Here is the quote, via Hoopshype.

“I wouldn’t rule (a return) out. He has yet to opt out. Again, it’s just going to depend on if you get the right coach in there. At this point in his career, he’s not going to be the focal point offensively. They’ve made that clear. He’s gonna have to, if he remains in Houston, buy into the role fully, commit himself to setting screens, rebounding, running the floor, blocking shots and working on his free throws, obviously.”

In theory, a coach could come in and convince Howard to stay. In theory, I could capture Bigfoot and prove his existence to the world. Those have about the same odds of happening.

Forgetting the whole “Howard wants another max contract” thing, what Terry said about Howard accepting a role is the issue. Howard said he went directly to Rockets GM Daryl Morey and asked for a bigger role — and he was shot down. Howard does not want to accept a lesser role where his primary job is rebounding and defense, just like he never wanted to accept running more pick-and-roll and working less from the post even though he was much better at the former than the latter. Howard wants what Howard wants.

And I’d be shocked if he doesn’t want out of Houston.

Watch LeBron James’ 23 points during Game 5 win over Toronto

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A good rule of thumb: If LeBron James is getting few breakaway dunks, the other team is in trouble.

Enter the Toronto Raptors, who got to watch a dunking clinic by LeBron as he had multiple breakaways during the Cavaliers’ 38-point win on Wednesday night. LeBron played well, and the Cavaliers got a balanced attack from their stars — 25 points from Kevin Love, 23 each from LeBron and Kyrie Irving.

Watch LeBron’s night above. Toronto needs to find a way to keep him from having another game like this Friday.

Kyle Lowry’s face when he sees Game 5 box score sums up Raptors’ night

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors looks on in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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After a beatdown at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 — a loss where he was just 5-of-12 shooting, a loss that has the Raptors on the brink of playoff elimination — Kyle Lowry did what he had to do and went in front of the media to answer questions and try to explain that loss.

But really, his face when he walked into the interview room and saw the box score summed up the Raptors night perfectly.

When you get your report card and you have to explain to your parents why you failed all of your classes.

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Lowry and the Raptors need to turn it around and win at home Friday night to keep their playoff dream alive another day.