NBA Playoffs: Thunder have fight in them, is that enough?

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Do not question the toughness of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Don’t question their heart.

No doubt the collapse at the end of Game 4 Monday was ugly, but it was not about toughness. You don’t reach the Western Conference Finals with all your key players 22 or younger without being tough. Without heart.

You can reach that stage without learning how to execute under real pressure. You can reach that stage without having the right balance of scorers and defenders around your young stars.

So as we head into what could be a decisive Game 5 Wednesday night, with Dallas up 3-1 over Oklahoma City and looking to close out the series, you should expect the Thunder to come out and play with real passion. To show some toughness. If Dallas thinks it can coast to a win, they will find themselves in trouble.

But that’s not Dallas’ style. They are the better team and they are executing what they want to do at the highest of levels. They have the best player in the playoffs in Dirk Nowitzki. This should be their game.

Dallas certainly will want to jump on the Thunder early and kill their spirit. The Thunder were understandably crushed after giving up a 15-point lead in the final five minutes of Game 4 Monday, the Mavs want to get into their heads. If Dallas does get up early this could be a runaway. But look for the Thunder to make the Mavericks work for it.

The Thunder’s problem is execution — Dallas is doing it better than anyone right now while the Thunder get sloppy under pressure. Kevin Durant has to find a way to get enough space from Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion to get the ball where he wants it. Early in Game 4 he was getting the ball in the post and doing damage, but when the game was on the line he was pushed out by half court. Russell Westbrook has to create better for others and create at all under pressure. James Harden has to stay in the game, they need him as a third scoring option.

Dallas? Look for a lot of Dirk hitting shots nobody can defend. Look for Jason Terry to have a big game. Look for their role players to step up, feeling comfortable at home. Basically, Dallas is going to do what they have done all playoffs — Dirk is going to get his and somebody else is going to step up. They are going to defend and make it hard. They will play like veterans.

Expect the Thunder to put up a fight, but the Thunder are still learning hard lessons. Still growing. Still evolving. Dallas has done all that work already. Dallas will almost certainly win and close this series out. But don’t think the Thunder are not tough.

Three Things to Know: If playoffs started today Lakers would be the eight seed

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) After beating Bulls, if playoffs started today Lakers would be the eight seed. The Lakers have been better than advertised this young season… but a playoff team?

Yes. If the playoffs started today, the Lakers would be the eighth seed.

While everyone seems to focus on Lonzo Ball’s lack of a jumper (he was 3-of-13 Tuesday, 2-of-8 from three), the Lakers have produced the fourth-best defense in the NBA, allowing just 100.3 points per 100 possessions. It’s a shocking improvement from the team with the worst defense in the NBA last season, they are allowing 10.3 points fewer per 100 possessions than a season ago. Los Angeles runs out a long, athletic lineup with a well-positioned backstop big in Brook Lopez in the paint. Maybe fourth in the NBA is not sustainable (teams are shooting just 31.9 percent from three against L.A., and that’s not so much defense as luck), but the Lakers are improved defensively.

That defense keeps the Lakers in games, then thanks to flurries from an inconsistent offense the Lakers 8-10 to start the season after knocking off the Chicago Bulls 103-94. Chicago led by 19 in the second and early third, but the Lakers rallied behind Julius Randle and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

The Western Conference that was expected to be so deep going into the season is watching good teams stumble (Oklahoma City) and other teams struggle with injuries (Memphis, Utah, L.A. Clippers). It has opened the door for now, and the Lakers have stepped in. Or, at least not fallen out.

I still don’t expect the Lakers in the postseason when we get to April, and their young core is still a work in progress, but this start is a big boost to the confidence of the team. It’s a step in the direction they want to go.

2) Denver loses Paul Millsap for three months due to wrist surgery. Last season, Denver had one of the worst defenses in the NBA. This season they are middle of the pack — a substantial improvement. Paul Millsap is a big part of that, the Nuggets have been 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when Millsap has been on the court this season.

Which is why it’s going to hurt so much that he is out to have wrist surgery, he is out three months or so (think return after the All-Star Game).

Millsap inked a team-friendly three-year, $90 million contract with Denver over the summer (the third season is not guaranteed). He is averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, numbers are down a little from previous years (as were his shots as he adjusted), but things have looked up lately. Millsap seemed to be finding a groove during the recent streak when Denver won 4-of-5. He and the Nuggets were figuring out how to play together. Now that is on hold, and Denver goes from a team that looked like a playoff lock in the West to one to watch. Injuries are shaping the West playoff race right now in a massive way.

3) Worst. Free throw. Ever. This was on Shaqtin’ last week, but it is too good not to post, in case you haven’t seen it.

"This is the worst free throw of all-time!" 😂 Shaq goes overseas for Week 5's #Shaqtin winner 🏆

A post shared by NBA on TNT (@nbaontnt) on

Report: Manute Bol’s birthday was made up, may have played in NBA at age 50

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Former NBA center Manute Bol was a sight to behold when he came to the United States for college. At 7-foot-7 and just 200 pounds, his slight frame was always shocking to the eye.

Bol passed away in 2010, but stories about the Sudanese big man have been top of mind lately as his son, Bol Bol, recently committed to play basketball at the University of Oregon.

A recent story has surfaced about the elder Bol and the purported age at which he entered the NBA and played.

According to former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey, he was the one who decided Bol’s birthday was October 16, 1962. This was apparently because it wasn’t clear just how old Bol was at the time.

Via Zagsblog:

“I gave him his birthday because they didn’t know how old he was,” Mackey, now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, told ZAGSBLOG.

But Mackey says Bol was probably much older and could have been in his 40s or even 50s when he played in the NBA. According to Wikipedia, Manute played in the NBA from his early 20s until his early 30s for various teams, including the Washington Bullets, Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers.

“The immigration people were in the office [at Cleveland State] and they thought it was great. They loved it. And they were big fans of Cleveland State, they used to come to all our games. They wanted to cover themselves because Manute was starting to get so much publicity. His picture was in the paper. He was on the 6 o’clock news because he was a such a different looking guy than everyone else. At that time, no one had ever seen anything like it.”
So at that point, Mackey worked with the local immigration office to come up with a birthday for Bol, Oct. 16, 1962
“It was in October, I wanted to make it after Sept. 1,” Mackey said. “I wanted to make sure he was young enough because he didn’t have an age. I think he was [in his 40s], I really do. But there’s no way of ever really knowing.”

Bol didn’t end up playing at Cleveland State, reportedly because his English was not good enough. He wound up playing at the University of Bridgeport before getting drafted by the Washington Bullets with the 31st pick in the 1985 NBA Draft.

Mackey is now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, and he is so far the only person telling this story. If it is true, it would have been an incredible feat for Bol to play in the NBA into his 40s.

Patrick Beverley after Clippers’ 9th-straight loss: “This ain’t how I roll”

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The Los Angeles Clippers are bad. The team has lost nine straight games since beating the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 1.

LA has looked discombobulated, and even their stars have struggled. Over the past 10 games, for example, Blake Griffin is shooting an unthinkable 38.2 percent from the field. Griffin’s shooting percentage now sits 10 points below his career average.

So too have guys like DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers struggled, either in scoring the basketball or in effecting resistance on the defensive end. The Clippers are ranked just 21st on defense according to Basketball Reference, a dip from 12th the year before.

Oh, and Danilo Gallinari is hurt, but you probably already saw that coming.

Meanwhile, Chris Paul‘s replacement at PG is Patrick Beverley, an equally tenacious defender and motivator of playoff squads. After Monday’s loss to the New York Knicks, Beverley spoke to reporters about the team needing to play harder and mature faster.

Via the LA Times:

“This … feels like 100 losses,” Beverley said. “Straight up. This … is weak. This ain’t how I roll. That ain’t OK and I won’t allow it to be OK as long as I’m here. That’s a fact.”

“We just got to play harder. That’s it. We just got to play harder. You get rid of the mistakes by playing hard. We’re not playing hard; the first unit, not the whole team. I challenged the first unit to play harder.”

“We too cool. We too cool. We come in this game, we come on the court like people are supposed to back down because of the name on the back of our jerseys and that’s not the case. The only thing people are looking at is the name on the front of our jersey, and that’s nine losses in a row.”

Beverley is an intense dude, but the Clippers issues are systemic and aren’t likely to right themselves. Remember, this is a Western Conference where the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Memphis Grizzlies have all had injuries. Portland has floundered out of the gate. If there was a time to strike, it would be now for LA.

Instead, the Clippers are one of the teams that are struggling along with the rest of the aforementioned teams. I’m not sure what Beverley will be able to do about that.

Steven Adams says Thunder late-game struggles on him, not Westbrook/George/Anthony

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In the first half of games this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have the best defense in the NBA, allowing just 91.7 points per 100 possessions. In those first 24 minutes, the Thunder are outscoring teams by 12.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA (Houston is first).

However, in the fourth quarter, the Thunder defense is 18.1 points per 100 possessions worse. Their offense stagnates late in games with a lot of “you take a turn and then it’s my turn” isolation between Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony.

The Thunder have nine losses this season, and OKC lost double-digit leads in six of those. Monday night it was a 19-point lead against New Orleans where the Pelicans — without DeMarcus Cousins — came back to win 114-107.

There’s a lot of blame and finger-pointing going on in Oklahoma City, but Steven Adams said less of that should be at the three stars and more of it should be at him. Via Royce Young at ESPN:

“Mainly me, to be honest (should be blamed). Because the play itself you have to execute it properly and it has to be legit down to the t. I screwed up my feet on a couple of them in terms of spacing. … Everyone plays a part in the plight so you can say yeah the shot doesn’t go in which sucks. But to get them that shot I didn’t help them.”

Adams can take on a little of the blame, but this is a team thing right now — everyone has earned some blame. Billy Donovan as coach, role players like Andre Roberson or Patrick Patterson who have not lived up to expectations this season, and yes Westbrook/George/Anthony have earned some blame, too. It’s a little bit of everything.

There’s also time for the Thunder to figure it out, but they are on the clock as this is a one-year experiment in Oklahoma City (no way they pay the whopping tax coming next season to keep all three stars and Adams, no matter what ownership says publicly).