How do the Thunder deal with Tony Parker?

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We can sometimes overanalyze what happened in a regular season game when trying to look at a playoff matchp. It’s like comparing Suzanne Collins and José Saramago novels, technically they are the same art form but one of these things is not like the other.

However, the Feb. 4 meeting of the Spurs and Thunder provides some interesting insights into what we might see starting Sunday in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals — specifically how the Thunder try to deal with Tony Parker.

In that game, on orders from coach Gregg Popovich to attack Russell Westbrook, Parker had 42 points on 29 shots, had 9 assists, got to the line a dozen times and carved up the Thunder defense like your dad on a Thanksgiving turkey. The Spurs won. Then this week Parker added this:

“We’re definitely going to go at (Westbrook). It’s not going to be like Dallas or the Lakers,” Parker said. “Their point guards are not as aggressive. It’s going to be a little bit different. We’re going to go at him.”


Westbrook told the Oklahoman he remembered that February game.

“It was a bad game,” Westbrook said when asked what he remembers about that night. “It was a bad game for our team. We got out sluggish, kind of let them do what they wanted to do, especially Tony Parker.”

That’s a tad short on details for my taste. Fortunately, Zach Lowe at Sports Illustrated has more details and information than you’ll know what to do with in his breakdown of the Thunder and Parker.

Westbrook, however, can be jumpy against the pick-and-roll, and the Spurs know this… In pick-and-r0lls involving Westbrook, Parker often waits an extra beat as the screen is set to see if the Thunder point guard will try to get a jump on the play by lunging in the direction he thinks Parker will go — usually in the direction of the pick. Parker had great success waiting for that lunge and then going against the pick, leaving Westbrook hopelessly behind. Or, if Westbrook’s aggressive sliding took him far above the pick, Parker would dribble at him, cross over and split defenders on his way into the paint.
The Thunder’s standard defense against Parker offered a second way for him to attack: by going full speed at the big man helping against the pick-and-roll. The cliché about Parker is that he is a shaky long-range shooter, and that opponents should go under picks, daring him to shoot jumpers. But the Thunder did not defend Parker this way. They mostly had Westbrook chase Parker over the pick, while the man defending the screener slid over to contain Parker’s dribble penetration….

The strategy concedes the pick-and-pop jumper, and Duncan get several wide-open looks at jump shots against the Thunder. But having Duncan shoot 20-footers — some of which the Thunder could contest by crashing from the wing — is a better outcome for Oklahoma City than having Parker get into the paint, break down the defense and find a layup or wide-open shooter.

Go read Lowe’s entire post.I’ll wait.

This starts to explain why I think San Antonio will win this series — the Thunder can’t really stop them, the Spurs are too efficent. Right now the Spurs’ ball movement in situations like that is incredible. Duncan may hit that 20 footer, or he may make a pass to the next guy to hit a corner three or drain another shot of choice. The Spurs are getting and incredible 1.18 points per possession on spot up jumpers in the playoffs because they are getting the jumpers they want. If they do that against Oklahoma City, the Thunder will struggle to keep up with the scoring.

Which comes back to why I think Westbrook is the key to the series — he has to dent Parkers’ efficiency on one end and create a lot of offense on the other end.

It’s a big task. Spurs are relentless on offense. As athletic and talented as the Spurs are, I’m not sure they can keep up. I just keep flashing back to the original Terminaor movie and seeing the Spurs offense.

Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.