PBT Playoff Preview: Thunder vs. Mavericks

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Season Records:

Oklahoma City (47-19, 2 seed) vs. Dallas (38-28, 7 seed)

Season Series:

OKC 3-1

Offense/Defense Rankings (points per 100 possessions):

Offense: OKC 107.2 (2nd in NBA) vs. DAL 101.1 (20th in NBA)

Defense: OKC 100 (9th in NBA) vs. DAL 98.6 (8th in NBA)

Three Key Thunder:

Kevin Durant: Durant just locked up his 3rd consecutive scoring title, and he did it with a ludicrously high true shooting percentage of 61%. Durant can take the ball to the rim, he can catch and shoot, he can knock down contested jumpers, he can do it all. Basically, if it involves putting a basketball in a hoop, Kevin Durant is really good at it. Durant will likely finish 2nd to LeBron James in MVP voting, but he’s got a great chance to make up for it by winning a championship before LeBron does.

Russell Westbrook: For all the junk Westbrook takes about whether or not he’s a true point guard and how many shots he takes, the Thunder run their offense through the ultra-talented Westbrook, and it’s been working for them, to say the least. When Westbrook can get the Thunder out in the open floor, they become completely unstoppable, and he’s getting better and better at picking his spots and setting up his teammates in half-court situations. The Thunder offense will stagnate when Westbrook tries to take contested jumpers early in the shot clock that he shouldn’t be taking, but there’s no denying that the UCLA product is a true superstar and a main reason the Thunder have been so successful.

James Harden: Harden makes bad basketball plays about as often as he shaves his beard. Harden isn’t the most athletic star in the league, and he took a bit of time to develop, but he’s become a true star and a lock for the 6th Man of the Year Award. Harden has true 3-point range, can slither between defenders and get to the rim, and is a fantastic playmaker to boot. It’s almost unfair that the Thunder have the luxury of bringing him off the bench, because he can pick apart a defense as well as almost any player in the league, starter or non-starter.

Three Key Mavericks:

Dirk Nowitzki: The reigning Finals MVP. What more do I need to say? Dirk finally got the monkey off his back by winning it all last season, but he followed it up with a bit of a down year statistically, as his points per game went down and his FG% was as low as it’s been since his rookie season. Still, Nowitzki can take over a game at any time with his unblockable fadeaways, and the Thunder won’t sleep on him after what he did to them in last year’s Western Conference Finals.

Jason Terry: Terry is a player who can simply light up the scoreboard and take over a game whenever he feels like it. Terry has range out to the parking lot, doesn’t seem to care whether there’s a hand in his face or not, and lives for clutch situations — it takes some serious stones to get a tattoo of the NBA Finals trophy before the Finals begin, and Terry backed it up last season. The Mavericks are coming into this series as underdogs, but I get the feeling that’s how Terry likes it.

Shawn Marion: Marion isn’t the two-way force he was in Phoenix, but he’s still capable of doing a ton of things on offense and guarding almost any player on the court. Against the Thunder, he’ll have the unenviable task of trying to use his length to limit the damage Kevin Durant will do — if he can’t find a way to slow down the Thunder’s offensive attack, it could be a very short series for the defending champs.

Outlook:

Normally, it’s never wise to bet against the defending champs until they’re actually beaten, but Mark Cuban changed the game a little bit when he decided to let Tyson Chandler walk in free agency in the hope of landing Dwight Howard or Deron Williams this off-season. The Mavericks have a lot of experience, and were able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against the Thunder in last year’s Western Conference Finals last season, but a more experienced and confident Thunder team should be able to roll through this year’s Mavericks squad without too much trouble.

Prediction:

Thunder in 6.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.