San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Six

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.

PBT Podcast: Derek Fisher fired, plus your trade questions from Twitter

Derek Fisher
Associated Press
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Derek Fisher is out as coach of the New York Knicks.

In this latest podcast, NBC Sports’ Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman discuss the odd timing of that move — we expect another shoe to drop as to why. It’s not that Fisher was a great coach, but replacing him with Kurt Rambis mid-season is not an upgrade. And Luke Walton isn’t available until this summer.

After struggling to figure out what the Knicks are thinking, Helin and Feldman answer questions off Twitter from readers/listeners on the coming trade deadline including discussions of Blake Griffin, Jeff Teague, the Pistons, the Jazz, the Knicks, and more.

As always, you can listen to the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunesdownload it directly here, or you can check out our new PBT Podcast homepage, which has the most recent episodes available. If you have the Stitcher app, you can listen there as well.

Warriors’ center Festus Ezeli to have knee surgery, out indefinitely

Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli, left, of Nigeria, looks to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets forward Darrell Arthur defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in Denver. Golden State won 118-105. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Associated Press
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Festus Ezeli has been a rock-solid backup for the Warriors this season, playing almost 18 minutes a night behind Andrew Bogut giving the team 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds a contest. Golden State’s defense is 3.6 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court, and he’s part of the team’s long-term plans.

But he’s going to be out for a while now following knee surgery, the team announced and as reported by Monte Poole at CSNBayArea.com.

http://www.csnbayarea.com/warriors/festus-ezeli-undergo-knee-surgery

The surgery is exploratory, which is why the Warriors say there is no timeline for recovery yet.

The surgery is on his left knee; it was his right one that had reconstructive surgery and forced him to miss all of two seasons ago.

This is a blow to the Warriors’ depth, but little has slowed their march this season. More Mo Speights is not ideal, but the Warriors can just go small more often and run teams out of the building that way.

Ezeli is a restricted free agent this summer and the Warriors would like to keep him on the roster and expand his role, particularly if they do not retain Andrew Bogut. The severity of this knee injury could impact Ezeli’s ability to earn a big contract this summer, but hopefully for him, it’s not that serious.

Russell Westbrook stands behind Kevin Durant, mimics him during interview (video)

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, right, gestures after scoring as forward Kevin Durant stands by during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Thunder won 117-113. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Choose your spin.

This is why Kevin Durant is leaving the Thunder. Russell Westbrook doesn’t respect him.

or

This is why Kevin Durant is re-signing with the Thunder. He and Russell Westbrook have so much fun together.

Report: Magic open to talking Tobias Harris trade, looking to add experience

Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen (9) grabs the uniform of Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris (12) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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Tobias Harris signed a four-year, $64 million contract with the Magic just last summer.

Now, just 50 games later…

Marc Stein of ESPN:

I’m skeptical this is significant. Teams discuss trades for many players for a variety of reasons. That doesn’t mean the player is likely to be dealt.

Orlando in particular has a roster of players who cause significant debate about their value. It’s helpful to know what other teams think of Harris, and soliciting trade offers is a good method to learn his worth.

It’s more intriguing the Magic are looking to add experience. They should probably go the opposite route, but they’ve tried (and failed) for years to accelerate their rebuild. At 22-28 – four games and three teams from playoff position – now is not the time to seek shortcuts. Spend the rest of the season developing young players – and probably securing a higher draft pick in the process.

One of Harris’ best traits is his youth. He’s just 23. See what other teams would offer for him, sure. But, in all likelihood, it’s better to let him grow into the veteran Orlando needs rather than trading him for one when the rest of the team isn’t ready to win, anyway.

My guess is that’s what Orlando will do. Remember, always consider who has incentive to leak this information anonymously and what they’d be positioned to know.