Thunder-Spurs Game 6: Oklahoma City proves it’s ready, advances to finals

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Since the 1999 season, only three teams have represented the Western Conference in the NBA finals — the Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs.

In the first round of the 2012 playoffs, the Thunder crushed Dallas. In the second round they showed they were well ahead of the Lakers.

And on Wednesday night they proved they are ready to be champions. They showed they are the worthy continuation of that legacy.

The Thunder came back from 18 down, 15 at the half against a veteran and feisty Spurs team to win 107-99 and take the series 4-2. After the Spurs won 20 games in a row the Thunder picked up their play at both ends — their defense cut off dribble penetration and their offensive ball movement improved — and OKC swept the Spurs out of the playoffs in four straight. There was nothing Gregg Popovich or the Spurs could do about it — the Thunder were the better team.

The NBA finals will begin Tuesday in Oklahoma City (they had a better record than either team left in the Eastern Conference).

San Antonio did not go easily or quietly — they made adjustments to free up Tony Parker and get him penetrating again and the Spurs raced out to an early lead. Parker initiated his offense earlier and when he did wait for the high pick the player (Tim Duncan, usually) came from farther away off the baseline to make the Thunder bigs cover more ground. It worked. Parker had 17 points in the first quarter alone (he finished with 29) and the Spurs led by 18 at one point in the first quarter and 15 at the half.

We tend to think of these Spurs as young — Kevin Durant is just 23 and their core is all under 25 — but they have been through the playoff wars. And they used that youth and veteran skill to change the second half. Once again the long arms and fast legs of the Thunder seemed to be in the way of every Spurs player.

“We can’t have their legs, we can’t have their energy,” the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili said after the game in a televised press conference. “I can’t jump as high.”

The Thunder have grown up — they grew up in this series as their ball movement improved game to game. They withstood the Spurs storm in Game 5 and in this game you knew a second half run was coming.

Oklahoma City did it with defense — they are long and athletic and disrupt shots and passing lanes. They close out fast. They took away the Spurs easy looks. The Spurs shot 32 percent in the third and were outscored 14, they shot 33 percent in the third and were outscored by nine.

Durant led the charge with 14 of his 34 in the third quarter when the Spurs lead disappeared. But it was every Thunder player — Westbrook slashing through the lane, James Harden with a key wing three, Derek Fisher doing what he does in big games with a three from the corner. It was a team win.

Right now, the Thunder are playing better than either team out of the East. They have the athleticism to match the Heat, and Boston’s offense has not had to deal with this kind of length and athleticism. OKC has an amazing offense, a good defense, great young talent…

And they are not wide-eyed kids. They have paid their dues the past three years, learning how win, how to get here.

Right now the Thunder are poised to win the NBA title. It’s not that simple, but it’s theirs for the taking.

Thunder’s offseason moves start here: Offer Russell Westbrook $220 million contract

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The narrative of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff loss to Houston — and frankly its entire season — was about how little help Russell Westbrook was given. Game 5 was the perfect example: The Thunder were +12 when Westbrook was on the court, but he rested for 6:07 and OKC was -18 in those minutes. The Thunder’s role players are young and many — for example, Enes Kanter — are very one dimensional, but that’s because their role was supposed to be much more narrow and defined. Then Kevin Durant left and players were asked to do things outside their comfort zones, or grow up fast, and it didn’t go that well.

Thunder GM Sam Presti has some work to do this summer to tweak that roster, make it more versatile, and design it to fit better around Westbrook (not to mention take some of the load off him).

But the first thing Presti has to do is keep Westbrook — and that means offering him a five-year, roughly $220 million extension. Royce Young if ESPN has the details on how that works.

After signing an extension last summer in the wake of Durant’s departure, Westbrook can sign another in the ballpark of $220 million over five years this summer. Westbrook is signed through the 2017-18 season, with a player option on the following year, but the Thunder would obviously like to have a longer commitment from their franchise player.

The expectation is that they will make the offer, but should Westbrook decline, all that talk of stabilizing the franchise would get a little more wobbly, and with only a year guaranteed, talk of trading him could spark again. It will certainly be alarming for the front office, especially after what it went through with Durant.

It’s hard to imagine Westbrook walking away from that money — it’s about $75 million more guaranteed and one more year than any other team can offer. That’s a lot of cash to leave on the table, I don’t care how much you make in endorsements. (If Westbrook left, signed a max deal elsewhere for four years, then signed a max deal for that fifth year later, he still would get roughly $35 million less than signing with the Thunder now.) Once Westbrook is locked into place, Presti can start looking to reshape the Thunder roster.

But if Westbrook pauses and doesn’t sign, the NBA rumor mill will be moving at the speed of Westbrook in transition. The Thunder wouldn’t want to lose Durant and Westbrook for nothing, it would set their rebuilding process way back, so Presti would have to consider trades. However, because Westbrook is a free agent in 2018, he would almost have a no-trade clause — no team is going to give up much to get him without an under-the-table understanding he would re-sign in that city.

Expect Westbrook to agree to the extension in OKC. Because he likes the team — remember, he signed that extension last summer (which got him a healthy pay raise) — and because it would make him the highest-paid player in the NBA, and that would feed his ego (and pocketbook).

Once he does, Presti’s real work begins.

After tough loss, Chris Paul wasn’t having any of reporter’s inane question

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LOS ANGELES — The Clippers are feeling a lot of pressure these playoffs, and they have suffered a couple tough losses at home now. That can lead to some interesting postgame press conferences, something we’ve already seen this series from Doc Rivers.

Tuesday it was Chris Paul‘s turn.

The Clippers had just dropped Game 5 at home and are staring a 3-2 deficit series deficit in the face, and they have to win those two games without the injured Blake Griffin. That’s when this exchange happened.

I was in the room with this happened. Yes, there were a lot of eye rolls when the question was asked.

This was not a rookie reporter, it was a guy who gets sound for local radio stations and has been a regular at Staples Center games for years. He knew what he wanted, a fairly standard quote about how the Clippers just need to take it one game at a time but they are confident they will be back, that they can still win the series. We have all heard it before, the kind of generic crap that is all over columns about the game and talk radio. The reporter served up the softball and, frankly, most nights savvy players just give the reporter the quote they want and move on.

Tuesday Paul was having none of it. Which led to a pretty amusing exchange, especially with the follow up that was not going anywhere.

That said, I do not know one reporter worth his or her salt who has not asked a question they regret, and been called out for it. Sometimes we get called out for good questions we do not regret. It is part of the gig.

Rajon Rondo says he will not play in Game 5, doesn’t sound optimistic about quick return

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He tried. Rajon Rondo has seen the Chicago Bulls struggle the last two games without him as a strong defender and stabilizing influence at point guard — something nobody thought Rondo would be mid-season — and he wanted to get back on the court for Game 5 against the Celtics. He took some steps toward getting ready to play.

But it’s not happening, Rondo said at shootaround Wednesday. From Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com and K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

And it’s not just the fractured thumb.

If the Bulls are going to win this series, they are going to have to do it without Rondo.

Isaiah Canaan will get the start in Game 5, and he will set a lot of screens in a 1/3 pick-and-roll to try and get Isaiah Thomas switched on to Jimmy Butler. Canaan can do that. He had fallen way out of the rotation and is really a two-guard not a point, but with the terrible play of Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams, coach Fred Hoiberg took a gamble. It worked, at least for one game. Canaan with the other four Bulls starters — Butler, Dwyane Wade, Nikola Mirotic, and Robin Lopez — were +12 in 11 minutes together in Game 4, and played well on both ends of the court. But Canaan was buried on the bench for a reason, he shot 36.4 percent on the season, 26.6 percent from three, and he’s not a great defender. The Celtics will be prepared for him in Game 5.

Hoiberg’s best option is to lean on a no point guard lineup when it matters most, with three wings who can handle the ball in Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and probably Denzel Valentine. That could be a challenging defensive lineup and Boston will try to get the lightning quick Isaiah Thomas switched onto Wade or Valentine (neither of which can guard him). Also, this lineup would be draining and put a big load on Butler, but he could handle it for critical stretches of the game.

Cleveland OKs last chunk of financing to upgrade Cavs’ arena

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Cleveland officials have committed the final chunk of financing for $140 million in upgrades planned at the Cavaliers’ home arena.

The makeover of Quicken Loans Arena would include more space for dining and gathering.

The cost of renovations to the concert and sports venue is being split by the city, the team, Cuyahoga County, and a convention and visitors bureau. The final total is expected to be roughly double the initial $140 million price tag, mostly because of interest over the next two decades.

Cleveland’s share is an estimated $88 million over 11 years, starting in 2024. Mayor Frank Jackson signed off on that Tuesday.

The county already approved the deal and agreed to sell bonds for the project.

The team committed to extend its lease at the arena to 2034. It is expected the team will make a bid to host the NBA All-Star game once renovations are complete.