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: Bucks interested in Cavaliers GM David Griffin

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The Magic hired Jeff Weltman, and the Hawks are reportedly close to hiring Travis Schlenk.

In other words, Cavaliers general manager David Griffin – who’s still without a contract for next season – lost his leverage with other teams.

But to the rescue are the Bucks, who will not necessarily promote assistant general manager Justin Zanik to replace Orland-bound general manager John Hammond.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Multiple sources told cleveland.com that the Bucks, who lost general manager John Hammond to the Orlando Magic this week, have interest in Griffin, 47.

Griffin and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert have spoken about continuing their partnership in recent days, sources said, though no agreement was reached.

I still think Griffin stays in Cleveland. He helped assemble a championship contender, and he has LeBron Jamesendorsement. Plus, the Cavaliers can afford him.

But whomever gets the Milwaukee job will inherit a roster stocked with promising young talent like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. The Bucks wouldn’t be a bad fallback option for Griffin – if he can’t use them to get a deal with the Cavs.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue: Celtics’ sets harder to defend than Warriors’

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With the Cavaliers up 3-1 on the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, most basketball observers are focused on Cavs-Warriors III in the NBA Finals.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue is more concerned with Boston, which scored surprisingly well in Games 3 and 4 after losing Isaiah Thomas to injury.

Lue, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

“I don’t even think about them,” Lue said of the Warriors to a small group of traveling Cleveland beat writers following the Cavs’ Game 4 win on Tuesday. “We’re just focused on Boston. The stuff they’re running, it’s harder to defend than Golden State’s [offense] for me, as far as the actions and all the running around and all the guys who are making all the plays, so it’s a totally different thing.”

Wait, the Isaiah Thomas-less 53-win Celtics are harder to defend than the Kevin Durant-supercharged 67-win Warriors? Come again, Coach?

“Like, they hit the post, Golden State runs splits and all that stuff, but these guys are running all kinds of s—,” Lue said of Boston coach Brad Stevens’ schemes. “I’ll be like, ‘F—.’ They’re running all kinds of s—, man. And Brad’s got them moving and cutting and playing with pace, and everybody is a threat. It’s tough, you know, it’s tough.”

I think Lue means in a very specific way – getting his players into proper position. And in that regard he might be right.

I also think the Warriors will take this in the broadest, most offensive way possible. That’s just the nature of this rivalry.

Without Thomas, Stevens has been forced to diversify Boston’s offense. The Cavaliers, who prepared for a very different scheme, were caught off guard and are adjusting on the fly.

That’s a real challenge. But framing it as the central issue sells Golden State short.

Even if it’s harder for Lue to get his players into proper position against the Celtics, the Warriors’ surplus talent – including Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green – more than makes up for it. And it’s not as if Golden State runs a basic scheme.

So why did Lue say this?

He didn’t think the travelling Cleveland beat writers would publish his candid remarks? He didn’t convey his thoughts clearly? He naively didn’t consider how this would motivate the Warriors? All are plausible.

Another theory: Lue is trying to plant a seed that acting Golden State coach Mike Brown, whose known (fairly or not) for his simplistic offensive schemes, is holding back the Warriors. If Steve Kerr doesn’t return, resentment of Brown is one of the few things that could tear apart a dominant Golden State team.

Richard Jefferson: LeBron James was sick during Cavaliers-Celtics Game 3

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LeBron James was inexplicably bad in the Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to the Celtics on Sunday.

Except maybe it was explicable.

Cleveland forward Richard Jefferson, via Fox Sports Ohio

I know he won’t talk about it, so I’ll give my big guy a shout. Deron Williams missed shootaround this morning, because he had like a little bug, just really lethargic, had no energy. And I think that’s what Bron had. And sometimes these little bugs can go around.

When Deron didn’t show up to shootaround, it kind of started clicking in his head. Because for him it was more of like, “I don’t know why I was so lethargic, why I had no energy, I had nothing.” And so, these little things happen. There was no panic.

Look, he was lethargic. They hit a bunch of tough shots. If Marcus Smart doesn’t go 7-for-10 from 3, then we’re not even talking about it.

I don’t know whether LeBron was truly sick or Jefferson is just trying to help a teammate’s reputation. It can be both.

LeBron was better in Game 4, but not quite right.

If he’s dealing with a minor illness, that could clear up by Game 5 tomorrow. It should especially clear up by the Finals, which begin June 1. That’d be great news for the Cavs, who have no chance against the Warriors if LeBron isn’t at full strength.

The uncertainty of why LeBron hit a slump now of all times loomed over Cleveland’s playoff future. But Jefferson provided reason for the Cavaliers to breathe easy.

Michigan’s D.J. Wilson staying in NBA draft

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Michigan bigs D.J. Wilson and Moe Wagner declared for the NBA draft in similar situations – coming off breakout seasons, particularly excelling down the stretch, and sitting on the first-round bubble for the NBA draft. Neither hired an agent, leaving their options open.

But this is where their paths diverge.

Michigan releases:

University of Michigan junior forward D.J. Wilson announced today (Wednesday, May 24) he will forgo his final two seasons of eligibility and submit the necessary paperwork to remain as an early entrant into the 2017 NBA Draft.

University of Michigan sophomore forward Moritz Wagner announced today (Wednesday, May 24) he will return to the Wolverine basketball program after removing his name from consideration for the 2017 NBA Draft.

Wilson and Wagner both said they’d stay in the draft only if they’d be first-round picks. I wonder whether Wilson got a first-round promise or is just confident enough he’ll get picked there. The latter wouldn’t be a bad bet. Even if the 22-year-old Wilson slips into the second round, this might be the peak of his draft value.

At times, it’s easy to forget Wilson is a 6-foot-11 big man. He shoots 3-pointers, dribbles and moves like a wing. He also too often shies from contact, which particularly hurts his rebounding.

But he’s a big. Those perimeter skills wouldn’t shine quite as brightly if he were matched up with opposing wings. Wilson has a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and he also protect the rim. However, his shot-blocking relies on a bounciness that’s not as effective when pressed into more physical matchups. He needs some space to launch – but when he has it, it also pays off in quality finishing at the rim.

Wilson has the tools to be a good NBA power forward, but he’s still a work in progress. In other words, he still looks like a borderline first-round pick.