Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four

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.

Bulls sign guard Spencer Dinwiddie

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 13: Spencer Dinwiddie #8 of the Detroit Pistons in action against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on April 13, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Pistons defeated Cleveland 112-110 in overtime.  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 David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO (AP) The Chicago Bulls have signed guard Spencer Dinwiddie.

The Bulls acquired Dinwiddie in a trade with Detroit last month and waived him three weeks ago. He spent two years with the Pistons and appeared in 12 games last season, averaging 4.8 points and 13.3 minutes.

The Bulls announced the move Thursday.

D.C. on hook for additional $10 million for Wizards practice facility

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 01:  Senior Sports Writer at Time Inc. Sean Gregory and Founder, Majority Owner, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Monumental Sports & Entertainment Ted Leonsis speak onstage at the 2nd Annual 'NYVC Sports' Venture Series: The Future of Sports Digital Media panel during Advertising Week 2015 AWXII at the Liberty Theater on October 1, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for AWXII)
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The Wizards are getting a new practice facility.

For some reason, the Wizards have to pay just $4.46 million for it. Washington D.C. will cover the rest.

How much is the rest?

More.

Jonathan O’Connell of The Washington Post:

The District”s sports and convention arm, Events DC, is proposing a series of upgrades to a planned Washington Wizards practice facility and entertainment center in Southeast that would  likely reduce the total number of seats but add $10 million to the original $55 million price tag.

The new spending would be paid for by Events DC, which is funded by a percentage of hotel occupancy taxes. It does not require approval by the D.C. Council but will have to be voted on by the Events DC board Aug. 11.

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis pledged to move the team’s practices there as well as home games for the Washington Mystics and a future Wizards’ NBA D-League affiliate team. His company, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, agreed to pay $4.46 million — or 8 percent of the original $55 million cost.

But in a July 26 letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Gregory A. O’Dell, president and chief executive of Events DC, wrote that the original $55 million budget was “based on a preliminary estimate, as development and analysis of the program and concept design had not yet been performed.”

So, the District agreed to pay for a project without knowing how much it would cost and got the primary beneficiary — Leonsis — to kick in a share based on a low early estimate? It’s almost as if politicians are inept or have ulterior motives.

At least Wizards practices and WNBA games will bring plenty of new money into the community.

As Leonsis said, “There’s never been a better time to be an owner of an NBA franchise.”

Jimmy Butler says he no longer has chip on shoulder, still works hard but uses different approach

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 20:  Jimmy Butler attends Bonobos Michigan Avenue Launch Party at Bonobos Guideshop on April 20, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Bonobos)
Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Bonobos
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The Bulls reportedly believe Jimmy Butler has changed as he has emerged into stardom.

Where would they get that idea?

Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:

This is mostly semantic. If Butler — who began his college career at a junior college and was drafted No. 30 — feels he no longer has a chip on his shoulder, that’s how he feels. What is he supposed to do about that? As long as he continues to work hard and finds new sources of motivation, he’ll be fine.

It’s just an unconventional approach. Most players, even once they find success, talk about continuing to be motivated by earlier slights.

Having a chip on his shoulder got Butler far, so it’s a little unnerving to see him switch from a mindset that worked. But people change — sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Chicago has little option but to ride it out as Butler finds himself.

Doc Rivers: If Paul Pierce retires, Clippers would let him join Celtics first

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 3:  Head coach Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce #34 of the Boston Celtics share a laugh at the end of the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons during the game on April 3, 2013 at TD Garden 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 Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Clippers forward Paul Pierce is mulling retirement, which would mean another franchise icon could leave the NBA this summer — Lakers great Kobe Bryant, Spurs great Tim Duncan and Celtics great Pierce.

However, unlike Kobe and Duncan, Pierce left his original team.

Personally, I don’t think stints with the Nets, Wizards and Clippers do much to diminish Pierce’s Boston bona fides. Everyone will remember him as a Celtic. Fifteen years and a championship in Boston will do that.

But just in case you need more reason to tie Pierce to the Celtics, Clippers president/coach and Pierce’s former Boston coach Doc Rivers has a plan.

Rivers, as transcribed by Jay King of MassLive:

“If Paul decides to retire then we’re going to make sure that Boston picks him up for one day and he retires a Celtic because that’s what he should retire as,” Rivers said during an episode of The Vertical podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski, which was released early Thursday. “So we have all that in place. We just don’t know what he’s going to do.”

Apparently, Amar’e Stoudemire is a trendsetter. Stoudemire signed with the Knicks to retire, the first NBA player in memory to sign with a team for that ceremonial reason. Previously, it’d mostly been done in football and baseball.

If Pierce wants to follow that path, kudos to Rivers for allowing it to happen.

Rivers just has to make sure he executes the transaction wisely.

The Clippers would waive Pierce, and presumably, nobody would claim him to interfere. Pierce could then signed an unguaranteed contract with Boston. Pierce would retire, and the Celtics would waive him to clear his salary from their books.

But Pierce is due $3,527,920 on his current contract this season, and $1,096,080 of his 2017-18 salary is guaranteed. If the Clippers just waive him, they’ll be on the hook for that money. They can pay Pierce as a retirement gift, as the Spurs did with Duncan. But that seems foolish for a team facing the hard cap and without such deep ties to the player.

Before waiving Pierce, the Clippers should renegotiate the guaranteed portion of his salary (a buyout) — all the way down to $0. If Pierce is retiring, his team no longer has to pay him. Reducing his guaranteed salary would just hasten the process of getting him back to Boston.

This isn’t that complicated. It just requires Rivers to get the details of cap management correct. Actually…