Five keys for Oklahoma City to become NBA champions

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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.

Chris Paul too, he informs Clippers he will be a free agent this summer

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Just like with the Blake Griffin news earlier today, we expected this. Frankly, we kind of expected this back in 2013 when he signed his deal.

Chris Paul informed the Clippers on Friday he will be a free agent this summer, news broken by Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times.

Technically, Paul had an early termination option and he informed the Clippers he would be exercising that (not opting out as Griffin did). That said, we’re talking about legal semantics here, what matters is CP3 will hit the open market this summer.

And a lot of teams want to talk to him: San Antonio, Houston, Denver, Miami. CP3 is going to meet with a lot of teams. But let me give you the 57 million reasons the Clippers are still the front-runners:

The Clippers can offer a five-year contract at about $205 million, every other team can offer four years at $152 million. As president of the players’ union while a new CBA was negotiated, he helped get the over-36 rule changed to the over-38 rule in part so he could get one more five-year contract, and he’s not going to take it?

Paul is competitive and the Clippers may not be, especially if Griffin leaves (unless Paul thinks he can help land LeBron James next summer). He has to look around at his options and see if a move gets him closer to a ring. Maybe there is an offer he finds tempting. But the longer he takes could leave the Clippers stuck and create a bottleneck in free agency. CP3 and Griffin (and Gordon Hayward) and going to determine how a lot of other things shake out this summer.

Jimmy Butler says goodbye to Bulls fans, didn’t like way end went down with Chicago management

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Jimmy Butler is about to be back with a coach he respects, one he sees as a person who helped groom him for success, on a team that is the biggest up-and-coming threat in the West. He’s good with where he landed.

Bulls fans are not so thrilled. After a year of rumors, Chicago got Zach LaVine coming off an ACL injury, Kris Dunn, and just drafted No. 7 Lauri Markkanen. That’s it. Well, not exactly, the Bulls gave Minnesota the No. 16 pick as well.

Bulls fans loved Butler, and Butler loved them, as he said on his Instagram saying goodbye to the city and fans.

Chicago, What can I say?! I truly struggle with the words because you've been so much more than just my home for the last 6 years, you've been my life! You've embraced me like a son and pushed me to get better every day, every season. I can honestly say that I have always been incredibly motivated to succeed; it's just the way I'm built. But I know I owe so much to the person I am now, and to the player that I've become, to you. You always pushed me to never give anything less than my absolute best night in, night out. That's what you expected. That's what you deserved. And, I hope you know that's what I dedicated my life to every time I walked into the facility or stepped on the floor of the United Center. Thank you to the entire Bulls organization and Reinsdorf Family for taking a chance on me in 2011 and for giving me the opportunity to play the sport I love for such a great franchise. I'll never forget the feeling I had when I was drafted and when I played my first minutes. It's an experience that I wouldn't have wanted with any other team and I'm so thankful to you for giving me that opportunity. Chicago, I love you. Thanks for embracing a kid from Tomball like one of your own. On to a new home and a new organization. Thankfully, with some familiar faces! PS… AND PROBABLY MOST IMPORTANT! THANK YOU TO EVERYBODY BEHIND THE ORGANIZATION THAT DO NOT GET THE SHINE THAT THEY DESERVE!! YALL ARE THE REAL ALL-STARS!! – Jimmy G. Buckets (@staceyking21 )

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Butler had fewer kind words for Bulls management. Here is what he told Joe Crowly of the Chicago Sun-Times.

“I guess being called the face of an organization isn’t as good as I thought. We all see where being the so-called face of the Chicago Bulls got me. So let me be just a player for the Timberwolves, man. That’s all I want to do. I just want to be winning games. Do what I can for my respective organization and let them realize what I’m trying to do…

“It’s crazy because there was me talking with guys about Cleveland, then all the outside rumors with Boston, Minnesota, Phoenix, then the feeling that I’m not going anywhere,’’ Butler said. “I mean I had so many people telling me what could possibly happen, but I just got to the point where I stopped paying attention to it.

“It’s crazy because it reminds you of what a business this is. You can’t get mad at anybody. I’m not mad, I’m not. I just don’t like the way some things were handled, but it’s OK.”

The long-running complaint of players about Bulls management was in evidence here — there is not communication. Or, what there is comes off as rose-colored visions of things, where what players want is honesty. All of that seems to be in play here.

Will Minnesota treat Butler better? Maybe, but also winning smooths over a lot of friction — and the Timberwolves are going to start winning. They look on paper (and early) like a playoff team in the West next season, one that can climb from there up to being one of the NBA’s elite teams. Karl-Anthony Towns is a top 20 NBA player now, Andrew Wiggins is good, and the team has quality role players everywhere.

A summer ago everyone just wanted the Bulls to choose a direction: Derrick Rose or Jimmy Butler? Who is your franchise leader? Turns out the answer is neither. Which is frustrating to Butler, but he landed in a good spot. Bulls fans on the other hand…

As expected, Blake Griffin reportedly opted out of contract with Clippers

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Doc Rivers says he wants Blake Griffin back with the Clippers next season.

The bigger question: Does Blake Griffin want to be back with the Clippers next season?

The decision is in Griffin’s hands as he has done what was expected, opting out of his contract for the coming season, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

A number of teams — Boston, Miami, and others — are expected to take a run at Griffin. (In Boston’s case, he’s a backup plan to Gordon Hayward, but there will be conversations.)

What Chris Paul — also expected to opt out and become a free agent this summer — and Griffin choose to do will help set the market. They are two of the biggest free agent names out there where they could switch teams (Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are staying put). If they take their time making a decision, it leaves the Clippers in a bind — they have to wait to hear from these two before starting replacing or rebuilding, but by the time they know other players may have decided — and could bottleneck the free agent process.

The Clippers are going to be one interesting team to watch this summer.

Pistons’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope suspended two games for DUI

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This is the standard penalty for coaches and players hit with a DUI. I don’t think the penalty is stiff enough in general for a serious issue, but this is the precedent that has been set.

Detroit Pistons’ guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been suspended two games by the NBA for “pleading guilty to operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, in violation of the law of the State of Michigan,” the NBA announced. He will miss the first two games of next season.

This will not stop Caldwell-Pope from getting PAID this summer.

A quality wing defender who hit 35 percent from three last season, he plays a position of need for a lot of teams and he is a restricted free agent. Other teams with cap space — Brooklyn and Sacramento come to mind — could step in and give him a max or near max offer. Then Stan Van Gundy needs to decide if he is going to match. He may not have much of a choice, if he wants to keep Andre Drummond and build an inside-out team around him, he needs Caldwell-Pope, and the Pistons don’t have the cap space to replace him.

One way or another, Caldwell-Pope is in line for a massive pay raise. This suspension will not slow teams, it just takes a little money out of his pocket.