Five keys for Oklahoma City to become NBA champions

16 Comments

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.

Avery Bradley scores 23, Celtics eliminate Bulls 105-83

Leave a comment

CHICAGO (AP) — Avery Bradley scored 23 points, and the hot-shooting Boston Celtics pounded the Chicago Bulls 105-83 to win their first-round series 4-2 on Friday night.

The top-seeded Celtics simply torched Chicago to finish off a tougher-than-anticipated series and advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Boston regrouped after dropping the first two games at home and will meet Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Game 1 is Sunday.

Bradley finished one point shy of a playoff career high he set in Game 5. He nailed three 3-pointers and the Celtics hit 16 of 39 from long range.

Gerald Green scored 16 and Isaiah Thomas had 12 before heading home to Washington state for his sister Chyna’s funeral on Saturday. Her death in a car accident the day before the playoff opener dealt a blow to the Celtics. But Boston rallied around its star player and regrouped when it looked like the series might slip from reach.

Jimmy Butler led Chicago with 23 points. But the Bulls never really found their rhythm over the final four games with point guard Rajon Rondo sidelined by a broken right thumb.

Dwyane Wade shot just 1 of 10 in a two-point effort that could be his final appearance for the Bulls. He has a $23.8 million option on the two-year deal he signed last summer to leave Miami and come home to Chicago.

The Celtics led by 13 at the half and outscored the Bulls 34-18 in the third quarter to put this one away. Things got so bad that loud boos started ringing through the United Center.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Bradley said he was planning to attend Chyna Thomas’ funeral. That hinged on the flight options and whether the Celtics were playing on Sunday. “If I’m not able to be there I’m going to make sure I’m supporting him however I can to let him know I’m here for him during this time,” Bradley said.

Bulls: Hoiberg said there is no structural damage in Butler’s right knee. He also had this response when asked what soreness means: “Uh, that it hurts.” … New Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 pick in the draft, got a rude welcome from the Chicago crowd. He was booed when he was shown on the videoboard in the third quarter.

“Fire Hoiberg” chants break out as Bulls eliminated from playoffs

Getty Images
4 Comments

The problems with the Chicago Bulls — the ones that led to a mediocre season and a first-round exit from the playoffs after being up 2-0 on the Celtics — are certainly not all coach Fred Hoiberg’s fault. Blame starts with the roster that GarPax put together.

However, Hoiberg didn’t have the respect of his stars, his rotation management was bizarre at points, and there just seemed to be no consistent structure. What kind of team where the Bulls trying to be? What was Hoiberg doing to get them there?

As the Bulls were being eliminated by the Celtics Friday night, “Fire Hoiberg” chants broke out at the United Center.

Bulls fans are understandably frustrated, but they are not going to get this wish. Not this summer.

Hoiberg was the handpicked replacement for Tom Thibodeau, the guy Gar Forman and John Paxson — the Bulls front office brain trust — had their eye on and plucked out of the college coaching ranks. They bet big on him, and to admit that was a mistake after two years could endanger their jobs. So Hoiberg will stay.

What the Bulls roster will look like next season is another, more vexing question. Will Dwyane Wade be back? Jimmy Butler? With the seeming lack of a plan by GarPax, it’s all just speculation where they might go.

Whatever happens, Hoiberg will be coaching Chicago next season. Sorry Bulls fans.

John Wall takes over late, clinches Wizards 115-99 win over Hawks, Washington advances

Leave a comment

Closing teams out is hard.

Already up 3-2, Washington on the road was in complete control against Atlanta, up 22 in the third quarter, seeming destined to cruise to a win and a meeting with the Boston Celtics in the next round. Then it started to come apart. The Hawks moved the ball and made some shots, while the Wizards got tight. The lead shrunk down to three at 93-90 Washington, and Atlanta had all the momentum.

Then John Wall happened.

First, he made this play.

That changed the momentum as the Wizards closed the game on a 22-9 run where Wall scored the final 13 points on his way to 42 for the night on 25 shots. The result was a 115-99 Wizards win to close the Hawks out 4-2.

Washington starts the second round Sunday against Boston.

“I was just trying to close the game out, man,” Wall said of his block on Dennis Schroder and his run at the end of the game. “We had a big lead, but we knew those guys was not going to stop fighting. We had a couple careless turnovers, I had, but we just kept fighting and we came back and got this win.”

Heck, Wall was even taunting Julio Jones sitting courtside as he rattled off those late-game points.

Bradley Beal had 31 points in this one as well. Washington had 26 fourth quarter points, Wall and Beal combined for 24 of them. The Hawks went small in the end, benching Dwight Howard in the fourth again, and that was just fine with the Wizards, who have better athletes when small.

Wall and Beal learned over the course of this series to read and adjust to what Atlanta was doing. The Hawks chased and trailed over the top of picks all night, with their bigs staying back trying to protect the rim, and Wall and Beal both just took the shots given them and knocked them down. More than just those two, the packing of the paint by the Hawks in Game 6 allowed Bojan Bogdanovic, Otto Porter and others to step into clean midrange shots they missed earlier in the series. Washington made Atlanta pay for the Hawks’ defensive gameplan.

The feistiness of this game bubbled over in the second quarter when Bradley Beal had a breakaway layup and Kent Bazemore pushed him a little in the air. Beal got up and went right to Bazemore angry.

The referees reviewed that play and Beal and Bazemore got technical fouls with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jason Smith also getting them for jumping into the fray late.

For Atlanta, an interesting offseason begins where they will try to retain Paul Millsap, an unrestricted free agent, and if they can’t a rebuilding will start in earnest.

For the Wizards, it is on to Boston.

Bradley Beal, Kent Bazemore get technicals for scuffle in Hawks, Wizards

Leave a comment

It’s been a chippy kind of playoff series — one where Paul Millsap gets called a crybaby — and with the Hawks on the brink of elimination emotions were especially high on Friday night.

Kent Bazemore had been frustrated with a couple of calls (and no calls) and he took that out on the play above — he got picked by Kelly Oubre, who threw the ball ahead to Bradley Beal for a layup, and Bazemore gave him a little push in the air. It wasn’t much, but when a guy is airborne and defenseless that touch throwing off balance can lead to serious injury.

Beal bounced up and got in Bazemore’s face. Then an NBA version of a scuffle started.

The referees reviewed it and Beal and Bazemore got technical fouls with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jason Smith also getting them for their role later in the “festivities.”

The league should come in with a fine for Bazemore on this — you cannot let guys push other guys who are airborne, even slightly. That was a dangerous play, and I’m surprised the officials did not call a technical.