NBA Playoffs: Thunder learning lessons. The hard way.

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These are hard, painful lessons for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

They are the hard, painful lessons virtually every championship team has had to learn. Michael Jordan and his Bulls were knocked out three straight years by the Detroit Pistons, teaching him hard lessons. It’s true of champions since. Even the two-time, soon-to-be-dethroned Lakers had to not just lose but get crushed by the Celtics in a closeout game to understand the final steps they had to take.

Championship teams learn from these lessons and come back better for it. The Thunder started that process last season, lessons learned from the energy the Lakers responded with when challenged last season helped propel the Thunder to the Western Conference finals

This season, the Thunder are taking tougher courses. The new lessons all focus around execution. Particularly execution under pressure. About finishing off games on the biggest stages.

These are painful lessons, especially when they come on the end of a loss where you were up 15 points with less than five minutes to go.

The lessons are that to win close games in the playoffs requires you create space for your stars by having other threats the defense has to respect, having good play designs and then executing those plays. The Thunder had none of those at the end of Game 4.

“We struggled at the end with execution, and we struggled throughout the game with turnovers,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said in his postgame interview, broadcast on NBA TV.

Some of the lessons the Thunder are being taught:

• With the game on the line, your best shooters have to get looks or set up other scorers. Meaning if Kevin Durant is going to see a hard double-team — and he will every time — then Thabo Sefolosha is not the guy who should be the outlet for the three. He shot 27.5 percent from three this season and is a career 30 percent shooter from deep. Yet he was the guy taking a key late three because he was open. He was open for a reason. Jordan learned the pass the ball with the game on the line but Steve Kerr was a knock down shooter (career 45 percent from three). It’s not just making the pass, it’s making the pass to the right guy.

Which brings us to another lesson…

• A team needs to have some good end of play sets. A chunk of this falls to Scott Brooks, who at one point late in the game had his team come out of a timeout to run a Westbrook isolation. There was no clever play drawn up to free him.

When things got tight late the Thunder reverted to a Durant/Westbrook pick and roll that was easy to defend, basically forcing an isolation play. Look what happened on that second-to-last play: Dallas did not respect as a threat anybody else on the court so they had three guys up and defending the pick and roll, which was really more of a handoff to Durant then Westbrook slid out of the way. So Durant tried a 30-foot shot that was still blocked by Shawn Marion. The play had no chance of working because there was no execution.

“I didn’t have anything else to do,” Durant said of the play. “I caught the ball I was at the half court line, there where three Mavericks in front of me and three seconds on the clock. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to run into their defense and had another shot.”

The play had no other good passing options, no guys moving off the ball, no getting the ball to Durant in the post or a spot he likes on the floor. It wasn’t even a good clear out play.

The way that went down brings us to another lesson…

• The front office needs to get more shooters and scorers. They rightfully love the way this team has come together in Oklahoma City. This is a good group. But once James Harden went out — once a third serious scoring option left the floor — the Thunder become predictable. They don’t pay the price for that much in the regular season because Durant and Westbrook are such serious talents, but in the playoffs against a good team it doesn’t work.

• The Thunder need to be able to defend better at the end of games. This is pretty self explanitory. It’s not just on offense, the best teams can get stops late, not make key fouls. This, however, is a little harder to pin on the Thunder at the end of Game 4 because Dirk Nowitzki is one of the great scorers the game has and sometimes you can’t stop him. Also, that foul on Nick Collison guarding Durant late could have gone either way (we’ve all seen that both called and ignored at the end of close games, it was borderline).

• Westbrook has to learn to better use his explosiveness to set guys up, Durant has to learn how to better play in traffic and get inside late in games.

The jumpshots Durant was settling for at the end of the game looked like Kobe Bryant’s pull up jumpers late. And that is not a good sign. You want to be more like Kobe circa 2001, the guy who would attack the rim late in games. Durant has to find a way to be a bigger threat in traffic and not just settle for pull-up jumpers.

Westbrook has taken a lot of heat this series, and certainly some of it is deserved. He has to find a way to strike a better balance with his teammates — like he did in Game 7 against Memphis. He is a young point guard — he didn’t play the point until the pros and he is only 22. He is learning, figuring out when he has to attack and when that attack should be to set others up. But under pressure he reverts to wanting to score because that is what he did for so long. He does not think pass first — he’s getting better, but he’s not there yet.

Which is sort of where all the Thunder are — close but not quite there yet. Another small couple of pieces used better, both by the coach in better sets and the stars as release valves. Just better execution under pressure.

The Thunder are learning hard lessons. But they are lessons champions have learned and grow from.

Report: Mavericks have “Animal House” predatory work environment; team investigating

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The overdue wave of pushback against sexual harassment and predatory practices against women in the workplace, and the #metoo movement, which has toppled many powerful men, has come crashing down on the Dallas Mavericks.

Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim and Jessica Luther have released a lengthy expose looking at the business and game operations side of the Dallas Mavericks organization, and the picture of a Mad Man-esque old boys club is damning. While some of the detailed instances date back seven years, part of the point of the article is that the culture continues.

“It was a real life Animal House,” says one former organization employee who left recently after spending roughly five years with the Mavs. “And I only say ‘was’ because I’m not there anymore. I’m sure it’s still going on.”

(Former team president and CEO, Terdema) Ussery, who left the Mavericks in 2015, was hardly alone. Interviews with more than a dozen former and current Mavericks employees in different departments, conducted during a months-long SPORTS ILLUSTRATED investigation, paint a picture of a corporate culture rife with misogyny and predatory sexual behavior: alleged public fondling by the team president; outright domestic assault by a high-profile member of the Mavs.com staff; unsupportive or even intimidating responses from superiors who heard complaints of inappropriate behavior from their employees; even an employee who openly watched pornography at his desk. Most sources did not want their names used for a variety of reasons including fear of retaliation and ostracization and limits imposed by agreements they signed with the team.

While sources referred to the Mavericks office as a “locker room culture,” the team’s actual locker room was a refuge. Says one female former senior staffer: “I dealt with players all the time. I had hundreds of interactions with players and never once had an issue…they always knew how to treat people. Then I’d go to the office and it was this zoo, this complete shitshow. My anxiety would go down dealing with players; it would go up when I got to my desk.”

The Mavericks hired an independent investigator to look into the issues, both specific allegations in the story — such as domestic abuse by former Mavs.com writerEarl K. Sneed which was allegedly ignored (he has been fired in the wake of these revelations) — and the business-side culture. The Mavericks also released a statement that said in part:

The Mavericks organization takes these allegations extremely seriously. Yesterday we notified the league office and immediately hired outside counsel to conduct a thorough and independent investigation. The investigation will focus on the specific allegations related to this former employee, and will look more broadly at our company’s workplace practices and policies. In addition, an employee whose job was to receive and investigate such complaints and report them accurately and fully, has been suspended pending the conclusion of our investigation.

In a separate matter, we have also learned that an employee misled the organization about a prior domestic violence incident. This employee was not candid about the situation and has been terminated….

We are committed — to our employees, our team and our fans — to meet the goals of dignity, security and fairness that define the Dallas Mavericks.

Mark Cuban, the very prominent Mavericks owner, told SI he knew nothing of this. He said while very hands-on and active on the basketball side of the operation, he let his CEO and other executives run the business side. The report said that the head of Human Resources was very aware of the problem but did nothing about it (he has just recently been fired over all of this). Cuban told SI he had no idea.

“…this is brand new to me. Brand new, relative to when you started looking into it. Brand new to somebody’s assertions and questions you’ve asked. Brand new to me. It’s wrong. It’s abhorrent. It’s not a situation we condone. I mean, I literally, I can’t tell you how many times particularly since all [#metoo] stuff has been coming out recently I asked our HR director ‘Do we have a problem? Do we have any issues I have to be aware of?’ And the answer was no. I asked him again today. Have we done exit interviews like you refer to? Has anybody said anything? Are there any indications that maybe there was something out there and we didn’t pay enough attention to it? No, no, no, no, no, every time.”

“I want to deal with this issue,” Cuban told SI. “I mean, this is, obviously there’s a problem in the Mavericks organization and we’ve got to fix it. That’s it. And we’re going to take every step. It’s not something we tolerate. I don’t want it. It’s not something that’s acceptable. I’m embarrassed, to be honest with you, that it happened under my ownership, and it needs to be fixed. Period. End of story.”

Did Cuban not know? He always portrayed himself as very involved, as a guy who was on top of the little things in the organization, but he missed this? Did he not want to know and looked the other way because the revenue numbers were good from the business side?

The NBA released this statement:

“The Dallas Mavericks have informed us of the allegations involving former team president Terdema Ussery and Mavs.com writer Earl Sneed. This alleged conduct runs counter to the steadfast commitment of the NBA and its teams to foster safe, respectful and welcoming workplaces for all employees. Such behavior is completely unacceptable and we will closely monitor the independent investigation into this matter.”

Ussery denied the allegations, saying there were no charges were filed against him.

This is a massive black eye for the league — the NBA has cultivated an image as the most progressive and inclusive of the professional sports leagues in America. This blows it up. Dallas is also not the only team rumored to be facing potential serious sexual harassment issues on the business side.

Expect Adam Silver to come down hard on the Mavericks as an example — he has to both send a message to other teams and to the world that this is not okay. What he might do really depends on what the future investigation finds, but this isn’t going to be some little tampering slap on the wrist fine. This is about the image for the league and Silver fiercely protects that.

Watch all the best dunks from the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend

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Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell edged out Larry Nance Jr. in the 2018 NBA Slam Dunk competition, but the back-and-forth between the two young players was not the only source of thunderous jams over the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend.

There was of course renewed interest in the All-Star Game itself as it was more competitive than it had been in years past. Was this because of the new roster format, or simply because players wanted to get some extra coin in their pocket? In either case, the game still gave us a few dunks to add to the highlight reel.

And of course, who could forget about Mitchell’s off-the-backboard dunk in the Rising Stars Challenge?

While many of us look to the All-Star break to be a bit of a respite in the middle of the season, this year’s festivities game us quite a bit to talk about and that’s outside of who got snubbed from each roster. Yes, this All-Star season gave us a grip of dunks to pore over, and added some needed levity mid-February.

You can watch the full video released by the NBA of the best slam dunks from the entire weekend above.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says doctors told him his knee needs more rest

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is the franchise cornerstone for the Milwaukee Bucks, but even as the Greek Freak has continued to grow his game on an NBA floor, that doesn’t mean he’s been immune to the injury bug.

Antetokounmpo has dealt with a few small knee issues in recent memory, causing him to miss EuroBasket in 2017. He’s also sat a few games this season to rest his knee.

It now appears that Antetokounmpo has a simple reason for his knee ailments: too much basketball.

Speaking to a reporter with Eurohoops TV, Antetokounmpo said that doctors told him he needed to rest his knee a little bit more and play less basketball. That includes not practicing so much in the offseason and taking a load off when he can during the season to get his rest and recuperation in.

Via YouTube, starting at the 1:30 mark in the video above:

Eurohoops TV: What do the doctors say?

Antetokounmpo: The problem is that I play too much.

Eurohoops TV: It’s not another issue, right?

Antetokounmpo: No, it’s just that I have to rest more. This summer I had no time to rest. After the playoffs I went straight to the gym. I went to see Kostas and practiced for about a week and a half with him. I didn’t have any rest, and that’s how, um … the situation deteriorated. After this season I will have time to rest.

Antetokounmpo is playing a career-high 37 minutes per game for the Bucks this season. Even with the benefit of youth and offseason PRP injections, guys like Antetokounmpo do need to be careful they don’t overuse joints which can never fully be prepaired to their previous state.

Good to hear he’s planning on getting some rest this offseason. What with the 2017-18 NBA season having been blasted by injuries, many of us just want to see the stars healthy.

Bucking trend, NBA television ratings up both nationally, locally

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Traditional television ratings are down across the board — in sports, but also in dramas and comedies and just about every other category across the board. More and more people are cutting the cord, and even for people who still pay for cable/satellite, there are countless more options and streaming choices like Netflix that divide the marketplace. That’s why the people trying to pin the NFL’s rating declines on political issues miss the point — America’s most powerful sports league is not immune to market trends.

The NBA, however, is bucking the trend.

From The Business Sports Journal.

Nationally, NBA games on ABC, ESPN, NBA TV and TNT are showing double-digit viewership increases. The combined 15 percent jump puts the league’s TV viewership at its best mark heading into All-Star weekend since the 2012-13 season.

Locally, regional sports networks are seeing a 7 percent increase in ratings so far this season. SportsBusiness Journal analyzed ratings data for 27 U.S.-based teams across the NBA. Seventeen RSNs showed increases; 10 posted decreases. Information for Memphis, Utah and Toronto was not available…

Overall, local NBA games on NBC Sports’ RSNs have seen a 16 percent jump this season. NBA games on Fox’s RSNs are up 5 percent.

The NBC regional sports networks are seeing a massive boost in part because of Boston, which has seen an 82 percent jump in ratings this season.

This is good news for the NBA, which recently signed a massive new television deal with its primary partners, ESPN/ABC and Turner Broadcasting.

Why the increase? Likely a number of factors. One, the NBA has a strong crop of young stars — and those stars are engaging fans on social media. The NBA also embraced technology and other media in a way other sports did not — you can see any NBA highlight you want on YouTube, try that with the NFL. The NBA was more willing to change with the times, but that still doesn’t fully explain why a sport with a younger demographic — more cord cutters — is seeing its ratings rise.