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: Players on two-way contracts will have $50,000-$75,000 salary while in D-League under new CBA

Fort Wayne Mad Ants v Santa Cruz Warriors - 2015 D-League Finals Game Two
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The new Collective Bargaining Agreement will reportedly allow for two-way contracts – deals that pay one salary while a player is in the NBA and another while he’s in the D-League.

But what will that compensation look like?

Currently, players are on either D-League or NBA contracts. Players on D-League contracts will earn $26,000 or $19,000 this season. Players on NBA contracts have a minimum salary of $543,471. Even when assigned to the D-League, players on NBA contracts continue to receive their D-League salary.

Marc Stein of ESPN provides a couple details on the new CBA:

  • Players on D-League contracts will continue to receive similar salaries.
  • Players on two-way NBA contracts will earn a salary of about $50,000 to $75,000 while assigned to the D-League. Presumably, that amount will be prorated.

That’s a less than I expected for the D-League salary in two-way contracts. The big thing keeping down salaries for players on D-League contracts is that they’re NBA free agents. Why pay much for a player whose NBA rights you don’t hold, even if he’s on your affiliate? But players with two-way contracts will be beholden to a certain NBA team. I figured that’d earn them more than this.

At least they’ll likely receive a higher minimum while in the NBA.

Cameraman runs onto court during play of Spurs-Mavericks (video)

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The Spurs’ 94-87 win over the Mavericks on Wednesday didn’t produce the Gregg Popovich fireworks that followed San Antonio’s last win over Dallas.

But Wednesday’s game still featured a very strange moment, when a cameraman ran onto the floor during play.

I’m not so bothered by the cameraman. He clearly thought a timeout had been called, potentially getting confused by the shot-clock buzzer sounding. It’s not ideal, but mistakes happen.

But why did the officials allow play to continue? That was absurd (though, thankfully, irrelevant).

(hat tip: reddit user Pontus_Pilates)

Nerlens Noel on prior criticism of 76ers: ‘I don’t think the roster’s changed’

CAMDEN, NJ - SEPTEMBER 26: Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during media day on September 26, 2016 in Camden, New Jersey. 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 Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Before the season, Nerlens Noel called the 76ers’ center situation – with himself, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor – “silly.”

Philadelphia general manager Bryan Colangelo advised Noel to stay in his place. 76ers coach Brett Brown told Noel focusing on his strengths would yield a big payday. Noel has mostly been away from the team while rehabbing from surgery.

Has any of that changed Noel’s perspective?

Noel, via Jessica Camerato of CSN Philly:

“I don’t think the roster’s changed,” Noel said Thursday. “So, I don’t think the roster’s changed.”

Noel didn’t seem concerned that he wouldn’t fit back in with the team after being away for the start of the season. He envisions his role as simply “being Nerlens Noel.” What exactly that will entail will unfold this season.

“I put myself in a different place with all these things,” Noel said. “Do what you can control. That’s what I give power to, is what I can really control. I think right now I’m in a good place mentally, I think my body feels great and I just want to get back to playing basketball and let things take care of themselves.”

This sounds like someone who still wants out.

In fact, the 76ers have only gotten bigger, trading combo forward Jerami Grant to the Thunder for power forward Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova will limit Philadelphia’s opportunities to play two-center lineups – not that those appear fruitful. Plus, Embiid will get more minutes.

A defense-first interior player, Noel faces a tough fit. The 76ers just don’t have a roster that complements his skills after years of asset accumulation and tanking – which also likely grinds on him.

Noel said he’ll focus on what he can control, and I believe he’ll try. But it’s hard when the situation around him is so counter to his best interests.

Report: Age minimum still on table in Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  The full draft board of the first 30 pics of the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft is seen at the Barclays Center on June 23, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. 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 Stobe/Getty Images)
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A new Collective Bargaining Agreement is expected to be finished soon, but with months until the current deal expires, both the owners and players can afford to take their time and get the details right.

Both sides reportedly agreed to keep the age minimum – which requires players to be 19 and one year removed from their high school class’ graduation – in place.

Or not?

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Other issues, like the age limit for players entering the league, are still on the table. The league has long sought to increase the age limit from its current 19, and at least one year removed from one’s high school class, to at least 20 years of age. The union has talked about a “zero and two” setup, similar to that used by baseball — players can enter the Draft out of high school, but if they choose to go to college, they have to stay in college at least two years (in baseball, it’s three years) before declaring for the Draft.

The union wants to lower the age minimum. Adam Silver wants to raise it.

Most likely, the current one-and-done rule remains in place.

But a zero-or-two setup could be an interesting compromise. That would allow players certain they’re ready for the pros out of high school to declare for the NBA draft. In all other cases, Silver would get his wish.

Again, the status quo likely remains in tact. But it’s good both sides are discussing the issue to see whether there’s a better solution.