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.

Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas offers advice to Ball brothers on Lithuania

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Lithuania is a hoops-mad country.

The Baltic nation has fewer people in it than the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, yet it has three players in the NBA right now — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total (such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis). The country has won three bronze medals in the Olympics ( 1992, 1996, and 2000). It’s Lithuanian league also has been the launching pad for Celtics’ Aron Baynes to make the NBA.

Now the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo are headed there on professional contracts.

One of those players — the Raptors’ Valanciunas, had advice for the Ball brothers, speaking to ESPN.

“They’re getting themselves into a great opportunity. Lithuania is beautiful country… We have great basketball history. We’re such a small country, but we have many, many great players. Our basketball school is good., so they chose a really good school. They just gotta work hard — it’s all about working. You can be as good as you can be by working. Talent is one thing, but work you put in, that’s gonna show up.

“If they have any problems, let me know. I can help them out.”

Good luck finding anyone around the NBA who thinks this ends well, especially those who know the Ball family. They are sending a college freshman and a high school junior to a small city in a former Soviet bloc country with a very different culture, that will be a major adjustment. The coach doesn’t speak English and his former American players have not spoken highly of him. The Lithuanian league itself has men — far more physically developed than the Ball brothers — and is known for a physical style of play. It’s also known as a league where the players have a reasonably high hoops IQ and don’t like undisciplined players.

But if LiAngelo and LaMelo have any problems, they can call Valanciunas.

Paul George on return to Indiana Wednesday: “For whatever reason, I’ll be booed”

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This week is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s “you can’t go home again” week of the schedule. On Saturday night, Carmelo Anthony will return to New York where Knicks fans should welcome him with cheers and open arms — he meant a lot to that franchise in recent years — but may very well not.

First up, however, Paul George returns to Indiana in a Thunder uniform Wednesday night.

There’s little doubt how he will be greeted by Indiana fans, who felt betrayed by a man they stuck by through recovery from a severe injury. George knows what is coming,

Here are the key lines from PG13:

“Boos. I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way. The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to. For whatever reason, I’ll be booed, but I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna thrive on that.”

For whatever reason? You asked to be traded and fans take that personally. There is no loyalty in sports — I have no problem with players asking out because teams show no hesitancy in dumping players they no longer have a use for (and fans are almost always good with that) — but he had to know how this would be taken in Indiana.

What George might want to worry about is stopping the red-hot Victor Oladipo (he averaged 35.7 points per game last week), because he and the Pacers are playing better than the Thunder right now.

Kawhi Leonard returns Tuesday on minutes restriction

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The Spurs have been the Spurs this season, going 19-8 with an elite defense and offense that’s good enough to get them wins, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level.

Starting Tuesday, they add Kawhi Leonard back to the mix.

He will return to the lineup against Dallas, but will be on a minutes restriction, coach Gregg Popovich said on Tuesday. He would not say how many minutes, although around 20 seems a logical starting spot.

Leonard is one of the five best players in the NBA (and that may be selling him short). He averaged a career-high 25.5 points a game last season, he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and he finished third in the MVP voting last season.

However, there are going to be adjustments. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the focal point of the offense, but he could see fewer touches, particularly in crunch time. Kyle Anderson could see fewer minutes, and Rudy Gay may as well because Popovich liked some small-ball lineups last season with Leonard at the four. A lot of players will see their rotations change.

That said, it’s the Spurs. Do we really expect them to be anything but an incredibly good regular season team? One that is about to get better?

 

 

 

Pelicans’ Tony Allen out 3-4 weeks with fibula fracture

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The injuries just keep hitting the Pelicans. Guys like Solomon Hill and Alexis Ajinca are out for extended periods of time. Anthony Davis has missed four of the team’s last six games and is questionable for Wednesday night due to a left adductor injury.

Now comes the news that reserve guard Tony Allen will be out three to four weeks due to a nondisplaced left proximal fibula fracture, the team announced Tuesday. This is the part of the bone near the ankle.

Allen has played a limited role for New Orleans off the bench this season, averaging 12.4 minutes a game, and averaging 4.7 points. His reputation is that of a defensive stopper, and when he is on the court this season the Pelicans’ defense has been 5.6 points per 100 possessions better. However, father time has started to catch up with him and he is not the defender he once was.

Expect the minutes to bump up for Jrue Holiday and E'Twaun Moore with this injury, which is not a bad thing as they have played well (they were knocking down threes against the Rockets Monday like they were named Curry), plus Ian Clark could get a little more run.