Thunder/Spurs Game 2: The rise of Westbrook, Harden

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I said going into this series Russell Westbrook was the key to Oklahoma City’s chances against the Spurs — he needs to attack off the pick-and-roll, get into the lane and finish. Or kick it out. But he needs to disrupt the Spurs defense and put a lot of points on the board in the half court.

James Harden has the same burden on him — he should be the guy setting up plays for the Thunder in the half court late in games. Yet Harden only had one possession where he controlled the ball in the last 10 minutes of Game 1 and that is just bad execution by the Thunder. Harden is their best playmaker.

Westbrook and Harden — more than Kevin Durant — are the keys to the Thunder getting the Game 2 win Tuesday and evening the Western Conference finals at a game a piece.

What Thunder fans learned the hard way in Game 1 is that the Spurs are a relentless offense — they keep attacking, keep pressuring, keep looking for lineups that work then they exploit it. In Game 1 the Spurs had success by going small in the fourth quarter, which allowed them to get their points in the paint thanks to a matchup that favored them. They had Manu Ginobili with 26 points, Tony Parker with 18 and they had balance.

There was a logical adjustment to the small ball for Scott Brooks — Serge Ibaka. But he didn’t go there. And he regrets it, as reported by the Expres-News.

“Every decision you make, if it doesn’t work out, you always say, ‘Why did you do that?’” Brooks said. “I’m with you on that. I wish I would have played Serge last night.”

The problem is if Ibaka does play the disciplined spurs will just move on to the next option that works. It is what they do.

Which is why the Thunder can’t have their offense go stagnant as it did in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Which brings us back to Westbrook and Harden.

Late in the game, Harden needs to be the playmaker for the Thunder. The ball needs to be in his hands because when it is Durant still gets his but so does everyone else. In Game 1 Durant was the guy with the ball, and the combination of good defense from Stephen Jackson and little off-ball movement stalled out the Thunder attack. It opened the door and Ginobili pulled the Spurs through it.

On the pick-and-roll, Westbrook simply cannot settle — he has to attack and get into the teeth of the defense. The same is true of Durant. In Game 1 the Thunder ball handler on the pick-and-roll hit just 10-of-28 shots, and that’s not good enough in this series. They are not playing the Lakers with Andrew Bynum’s long arms back there anymore, the Spurs don’t have that kind of back line. OKC has to get its points inside.

All this does not mean OKC should just try and run on the Spurs — San Antonio is more efficient in transition than the Thunder. Over the course of the season it’s true, and if this just because an up-and-down battle it doesn’t really favor the Thunder. There were 97 possessions last game, the Spurs won. As was pointed out in one Spurs preview, San Antonio has won 21 games in a row when the pace is above 94.

It’s not about just being fast, it’s about being smart.

And it’s about Westbrook and Harden.

Back home, Thunder try to avoid elimination against Jazz

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma City was built this offseason around three All-Stars with the hopes of contending for the Western Conference crown.

The Utah Jazz started the year 18-26 without center Rudy Gobert. However, Gobert returned and the Jazz rolled off 11 straight wins into Valentine’s Day with the help of a surprise rookie of the year contender.

One more win and the Jazz will reach the second round for the second straight year. They’ll send the Thunder home with a second straight first-round exit — despite Oklahoma City’s overhauled, star-studded roster.

After losing the first game on the road, Utah won decisively in each of the past three games, including a 17-point victory in Game 4 — a game the Thunder called a must-win in Salt Lake City.

“It’s the playoffs, it’s gonna be war,” Utah point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a triple-double in Game 3, told the Salt Lake Tribune after Utah’s 113-96 victory in Game 4. “We know that it’s gonna be another war next game. We just have to be tough but at the same time, mentally ready for that.”

Game 5 is set for 9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20 points per game during the regular season, has averaged 27.6 points during the past three games — taking his play to another level to lead a balanced Jazz attack that has five players averaging in double figures. Mitchell, who was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft, has scored 110 points through the first four games, the most by a rookie in his first four games since Michael Jordan’s 117 in 1985, according to nba.com.

“To be honest, a lot of this is surreal. I’m just taking it game-by-game and not really getting caught up in the big picture,” Mitchell told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Just focusing on game-by-game. My teammates have helped me out a lot as far as that goes. But we’re playing together.”

Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook picked up four fouls before halftime in Game 4 and was fined $10,000 for an altercation with Gobert late in the game. Luckily for the Thunder, he was not suspended following his altercation with the Utah center.

Westbrook’s foul trouble has hardly been the Thunder’s biggest issue.

Oklahoma City was inconsistent much of the year, but it has had to contend with shooting woes from offseason acquisition Carmelo Anthony, who has hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers in the first four games of the playoffs.

“We gotta win, nothing to it,” Anthony said after the Game 4 loss. “We’ve just gotta win. We can sit here and say what we gotta do, or what we didn’t do or what we did do, but it comes down to having the will to win that game Wednesday and forcing a Game 6 back in Utah.”

Winning in Utah won’t to be easy, where the Jazz have won six straight. Oklahoma City has to get back to Salt Lake City first and stave off elimination. But Utah hasn’t lost three straight games since Gobert’s return to the lineup in mid-January.

“Every game’s been physical,” Gobert said to reporters. “We just got to watch the tape, see how much better we can get and get ready to play basketball.”

Any end to one-and-done rule remains a couple of years away

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Condoleezza Rice and the Commission on College Basketball released their much-anticipated report and…

Yawn.

We’ll see how much the NCAA wishes to police itself and ban coaches caught cheating from the sport, or to do anything that would stem the flow of money from shoe companies and boosters into college hoops. Will the NCAA make an organizational shift to focus less on enforcement and more on involvement with players before they get to college?

One thing the report wants is an end to the one-and-done rule with the NBA, and it issues some veiled threats about getting back together and coming up with new recommendations if the NBA and its players’ union does not act within a year. Yawn. The NBA will continue to work toward this at its own pace, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN notes.

Allowing guys to go back to college if not drafted — even if they had an agent — is a good step.

The NBA will move at its own pace with reforms to its draft rules, and we are still years away from that (if the owners can be herded into a consensus in the first place). This commission’s report changes none of that, and without the NBA and players’ union’s cooperation the commission can’t accomplish some of its goals anyway.

The NBA is moving toward ending one-and-done, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had said they were waiting on this report to take the next steps down that road. With the assistance of the NCAA, the league could move to something more akin to the baseball model (players can be drafted out of high school to the NBA, but if they go to college they have to stay two or three seasons). However, this remains years away. For now, players such as Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III will continue to be one-and-dones. Nobody likes it, but it is the rule for now.

Hassan Whiteside knows Heat’s problem: Not enough Hassan Whiteside

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In 10 minutes on the court in Game 5, Hassan Whiteside was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. He couldn’t handle Joel Embiid physically on either end, and Miami had better success against the Sixers big man with Kelly Olynyk or other shooters at the five, pulling Embiid away from the basket some.

In the three games since Embiid returned to the Sixers, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. For the entire five-game series Whiteside shot just 45 percent (50.5 true shooting percentage, well below the league average). Outside of grabbing some rebounds, Whiteside was not a positive for the Heat against the Sixers.

Whiteside said after the Heat were eliminated the problem was he didn’t get enough of a chance.

That’s not how the playoffs work. When something doesn’t work — and Hassan being able to hang with Embiid clearly did not work, they are not on the same level — coaches don’t have time to let a guy play through it. Time and possessions are too precious in the postseason, if something doesn’t work the coach needs to look for something that does.

Not that if he’d been given “a chance to fight” it would have made a difference. Whiteside likes to think of himself as an elite NBA center near the class of Whiteside. He’s not.

The question is will he be back with Miami next season? On the court, coach Erik Spoelstra appears ready to go another direction. However, trading Whiteside — who is owed $25.4 million next season and has a player option for $27 million the season after that — will not be easy. Teams are not going to want to take on that much salary for Whiteside’s level of production (and style that doesn’t completely mesh with where the game is going for big men). The Heat would have to attach a pick or another player that teams would want, a sweetener in the deal. That may be too rich for Miami to play that hand.

It’s something to watch over the summer. Whiteside and Spoelstra are not on the same page right now and so something needs to change, the question is what?

Off-season priority for Spurs: Meet with Kawhi Leonard, resolve that issue

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There are other questions the San Antonio Spurs have to answer this summer: If Danny Green opts out of his $10 million deal (as many around the league expect him to) how hard do they chase him? Same with Rudy Gay and his $8.8 million option (he is a little more likely to pick it up). Tony Parker is a free agent, do they bring him back, and if so at what price? How do the Spurs add athleticism to this roster, something they clearly needed against the Warriors?

But all of that pales in comparison to the big question:

Can the Spurs mend their relationship with Kawhi Leonard and get back on the same page?

While the Spurs struggled through the first round against the Warriors, Leonard was sealed off from the team, spending time with his inner circle (led by his agent and uncle), seeing his doctors in New York (who did not clear him to play due to a quadriceps tendon issue) and working out at the NBPA facilities there. There is a disconnect right now, one that has other teams around the league planning trade packages in case one of the league’s elite players becomes available. Right now, those teams are being told he is not.

The Spurs want to fix this and keep him in the fold. He is eligible for a “designated veteran” max contract extension of roughly $219 million over six years (the last year of his current deal plus five more at 35 percent of the salary cap, the deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden just got). But before the Spurs put that on the table they want to see where Leonard is at. The goal is a meeting between Popovich and Leonard, as reported by Michael C. Wright of ESPN.

With head coach Gregg Popovich expected to take the lead, the Spurs plan to meet with Leonard over the summer to gauge whether the sides can work out their differences and continue what has been largely a positive and productive partnership, sources said…

While the decision regarding whether to offer Leonard a $219 million super-max extension rests with management — and even the current players, according to a source — ownership ultimately makes the final call. Convincing the team’s former chairman and CEO, Peter Holt, and his wife, Julianna Hawn Holt, could prove to be a difficult sell for general manager R.C. Buford. The couple is currently embroiled in divorce proceedings.

Last summer, Popovich had LaMarcus Aldridge walk into his office and ask to be traded. Popovich smoothed over that relationship, put Aldridge in spots he was more comfortable on the court this year, and the Spurs big man had an All-NBA level season.

The key was Popovich was able to sit down with Aldridge over dinner and talk it out, with both sides having an open mind. Will he get that chance with Leonard?

The players and team management want Leonard back in the fold, and they have the ultimate hammer with that extension — put $219 million on the table and Leonard isn’t walking away from it. The question is will the Spurs even put that offer on the table, and that right now is not clear at all.

All the other decisions around this team hinge on what happens with Leonard — with him they are potential contenders. Without him, a trade package back likely would be loaded with young players and picks that would have the Spurs thinking about a few years down the road more than the immediate future.