San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Six

Five keys for Oklahoma City to become NBA champions


It’s been building to this for years now — from way back when Kevin Durant was drafted (back in Seattle), followed by Russell Westbrook the next year and James Harden the year after that. Thunder GM Sam Presti was building something.

Now the Oklahoma City Thunder are on the doorstep of the teams’ first championship in its new city. What is it going to take to walk through that door?

Here are five keys for the Thunder.

1) Don’t be overwhelmed by the moment. Teams often have to learn how to deal with the next level of winning in the NBA — Michael Jordan and the Bulls lost three consecutive years to the Pistons in the playoffs before they had learned their lessons, improved enough and broke through to become legends. Oklahoma City has earned its way to this point, but the pressure and scope of the finals is different. And the Heat have been there, both as a team and multiple times as individuals. If the Thunder play up to their potential they can be NBA champions, but they can’t become overwhelmed.

2) Move the ball. Miami’s defense, with its active hands and long arms clogging passing lanes, can push teams into playing isolation basketball. Which is a habit the Thunder can happily fall into because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can be devastating isolation players. But in March meeting between these teams when Oklahoma City won handily they moved the ball and the result was Serge Ibaka with 19 points and Kendrick Perkins with 16. Move the ball like they did against the Spurs in their four wins, get open looks because of it and the Thunder will win this series.

3) James Harden has to have a monster series. James Harden is key for the Thunder in this series. Sure, Kevin Durant will score the most points because, well, he’s Kevin Durant. That’s what he does. And Russell Westbrook will put up numbers and make some athletic plays. But Harden is the X factor. First off, he is the guy who helps the Thunder live up to number two on this list — he is the playmaker who gets the ball movement the Thunder need. Go to Durant and Westbrook late in the game and it’s an isolation, go to Harden and you get a play. The other key is that the Heat are going to get next to nothing from their bench, but Harden comes off the bench and is a game changer for the Thunder. He can be in this series.

4) Defense. Oklahoma City was a pretty good defensive team this season (10th in the NBA in points allowed per possession), which is good enough when you have an explosive offense. But in this series they are going to have to step up their team defense. That starts with Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka, who the Thunder will throw at Dwyane Wade and LeBron James for stretches. But it’s more than that, it’s the length and athleticism of the Thunder disrupting the passing lanes, their long arms contesting every jumper. They need to play their best defense of the season to get the Larry O’Brien trophy in their hands.

5) Kevin Durant has to be the finals MVP. There are people trying some revisionist history, suggesting Durant should have been the regular season MVP. No. LeBron was more efficient on offense and had far more defensive responsibilities than Durant. The right guy won.

But both of them would trade a regular season MVP for a finals MVP. Without blinking. Durant needs to be that here — he needs to score, do it efficiently and do it when his team needs it during games. He needs to make some defensive plays. He has been this team’s MVP for years and now he needs to be that on the biggest stage in basketball. If he wants to take the next step, this is it.

Sixers CEO: Ben Simmons will play for Sixers this season

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Ben Simmons is out with a broken foot — a Jones fracture — and that has led to rampant speculation about when the Sixers’ No. 1 pick might return to the court. Coach Brett Brown said January (the short end of the timeline) then walked those comments back, while there are rumors people in Simmons camp may want him to sit out the season.

Sixers CEO Scott O’Neill was on TCN’s Breakfast on Broad and made it clear Simmons will be back this season. He blew off the idea that Rich Paul (Simmons’ agent) wants him to take the season off.

“No, it’s not true,” O’Neil said. “Yeah, he’ll be back.”

There is no timeline for Simmons’ return, which isn’t just the team managing expectations (well, it’s partially the team trying to manage expectations). Jones fractures involve the bone that runs from the base of your little toe up to near the ankle, and the problem is that area of the foot does not have great natural blood flow, which means healing can be slow and harder to predict. We know that Simmons had surgery to repair the break, but recovery times will be flexible.

Brett Brown told me in a ProBasketballTalk Podcast how much he just wants to get Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, and Nerlens Noel all healthy at the same time so he can start to see what lineups work, which guys play well off each other and which don’t (we learned last season Noel and Okafor are not a great fit). Maybe Simmons can be part of that process in the second half of the season.

Mavericks’ Devin Harris sprains big toe, out at least three weeks

DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 26:  Devin Harris #34 of the Dallas Mavericks poses for a portrait during the Dallas Mavericks Media Day held at American Airlines Center on September 26, 2016 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Devin Harris is the kind of veteran, versatile player Dallas coach Rick Carlisle likes in his backcourt — he can run the point or be a small two-guard off the ball. Carlise wants multiple ball handlers on the court and Harris allows him to do that with a number of different combinations.

Or rather, Harris will allow Carlisle to do that once he gets healthy. From Earl K. Sneed of

Harris had surgery on the big toe on his other foot, this injury is to the “good” one. Harris can be a bit injury prone and the Mavs likely will bring him along slowly.

This likely means more J.J. Barea and Seth Curry in the short term in Dallas.

Should Knicks let Derrick Rose run more pick-and-roll?

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  Derrick Rose #25 of the New York Knicks drives to the net in the first quarter past Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on October 25, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Late in the blowout loss to the Cavaliers Tuesday, it was clear the Knicks were making a point of trying to run more triangle sets — it’s an offense a lot of their players are still just starting to learn and the game turned into a glorified practice.

On the night as a whole, Derrick Rose was his old self on his way to 17 points on 17 shots: 41.2 percent of his attempts came after seven or more dribbles and after he held the ball for at least six seconds. He took six shots as the pick-and-roll ball handler and hit two of them. (Carmelo Anthony shot 2-of-7 as the pick-and-roll ball handler.)

Should the Knicks put him in more pick-and-roll situations where he’s comfortable? Here are some postgame quotes, via Ian Begley of ESPN.

“Towards the end, when you saw us running it, it was just us trying to get used to it so it’s not that foreign,” Rose said. “We got a lot of room to make up on that side of the ball too.”

“He had that good explosion,” Hornacek said of Rose, who scored 17 points (7-for-17 shooting) in 29 minutes. “He’s just got to figure out all of the stuff that we’re doing, and he’ll be a big part of our team and really help us.”

“We want guys to feel comfortable with kind of who they are,” Anthony said. “We don’t want to try to change anybody’s game. If Derrick feels comfortable being up there in high pick-and-roll, that’s his game. You can’t take him away from that. You want to utilize guys’ strengths. That’s who he is, that’s who he’s always been. We want to rely on that. We don’t want to take that away from him.”

The triangle offense takes time to learn, and Rose has been honest that it’s going to take time. Which is the norm. When Phil Jackson took over the Shaq/Kobe Lakers in 2000 and led them to a championship the triangle got credit, but that Lakers’ offense had an almost identical points per possession as the season before (what won them the title was a vastly improved defense). It was in future years that the offense started to click with the players, after they had run it for a season or two.

The Knicks want to make the playoffs now, which may mean some triangle sacrifices. New York certainly played faster for much of the game against the Cavaliers, which should get them some easy buckets. They should let Rose run some pick-and-rolls where he’s comfortable, particularly drag screens early in the clock. Mostly, the Knicks need to keep the ball moving and the players moving, not let it stagnate into defendable isolation basketball (even if Anthony and Rose can make some plays that way). And in the halfcourt, run the triangle — but keep the ball moving.

One game against the defending champs is not going to define the Knicks season, but they also see where the bar is set. They have some work to do this season.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade make fashionable World Series bet

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat shake hands during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on October 30, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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LeBron James is an Akron guy born and raised, who is caught up in Indians fever like the rest of Northeast Ohio.

Dwyane Wade is Chicago born and raised, a Cubs fan who wants to see the team end its 108-year drought.

So the two have made a World Series bet — loser has to show up at the winner’s arena in the World Series champ’s gear.

After Game 1 — on the night he was collecting his latest ring — LeBron has to feel pretty good.

Either way, the payoff should be good.