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.

LeBron James says he has scratched cornea, could sit Saturday vs. Wizards

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With time running down in the third quarter, LeBron James went hard to the basket for a layup, and the shot was contested by Jeremy Lamb, who ended up poking LeBron in the eye on the play.

It isn’t intentional, but it looks painful.

 

 

That blow could have LeBron sitting out Saturday night when the Cavaliers take on the Washington Wizards in Cleveland. From Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

LeBron James said he suffered a scratched cornea in his right eye in Friday’s 112-105 win over Charlotte after being examined by a Hornets team physician.

James, who scored 32 points in 40 minutes, could not keep his right eye open during his postgame interview session and said his vision was blurry… Summing it all up, James said “if coach decides to give me a game off (Saturday), it’s not because I’m resting. It’s because I’m banged up.”

He was treated by the Hornets’ team doctor who administered eye drops, but the Cavaliers will make the call closer to game time depending on how LeBron is feeling.

The Cavaliers are 0-6 without LeBron this season. They also have just a one-game lead over the Celtics for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. (Boston beat Phoenix on Friday, despite Devin Booker dropping 70, and they have a key game with the Heat on Sunday.) That said, the Cavaliers are two games up in the loss column on the Celtics, which is a decent lead, but the Cavs need to start winning consistently.

And beating a hot Washington team will not be easy even with LeBron.

NBA reacts to Suns’ Devin Booker dropping 70 on Celtics

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Devin Booker was the story of the NBA Friday night.

The 20-year-old Suns’ guard — who never scored more than 19 points in a game at Kentucky in college — dropped 70 on the Boston Celtics in a losing effort. He becomes only the sixth player in NBA history to score at least 70 in a game. At the end the Suns were fouling and calling time outs to stop the clock and get the ball back to Booker, but as Phoenix coach Earl Watson said to those who complained, “You got a problem with that? Do something. Simple as that.”

NBA Twitter exploded at what Booker did.

Booker himself responded this way.

Lonzo Ball makes expected official, declares for NBA Draft

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There was no hesitation. None was expected.

After UCLA was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 by Kentucky, the Bruin’s Lonzo Ball — who is expected to be a top-three pick — declared for the NBA draft this June.

Ball is expected to go second or third in the upcoming NBA draft. Speaking with people around the league Washington’s Markelle Fultz is a clear No. 1, but after that if the Lakers — the team with the second-worst record in the league — have the No. 2 pick they are expected to snap up Ball. Depending on how the lottery shakes out the top of the draft, Ball could fall a little — there are teams that like Josh Jackson — but not much.

Ball is a 6’6″ point guard who averaged 14.7 points, 7.6 assists and 6.1 rebounds a game for UCLA last season. He has fantastic passing vision, impressive shooting range (although he can take some questionable shots), and a great sense of floor spacing and how to run an offense, particularly in transition. However, his weaknesses were exposed in his final game some as De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky completely outplayed Ball. Defensive pressure took Ball (and the Bruins) out of rhythm, forced them to play in the half court (where Ball is not as strong), and it’s one of the things Ball is going to have to adapt to at the next level where everyone is more athletic. Also, he’s going to need to get more consistent defensively.

The potential for Ball to be special is there, which is why he will go high in the draft.

And no, the rantings of his father will not change that. Teams see the father as a distraction that can be handled, they aren’t going to let him get in the way of drafting talent.

Watch highlights of Shaquille O’Neal’s statue unveiling outside Staples Center

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Kobe Bryant said “Thank you. I learned so much from you as a player.”

Jerry West said he loved him like a son.

Jeanie Buss said “No one celebrates a championship like you, but please no more asking Mark Madsen to dance.”

The Lakers unveiled a new statue for Shaquille O’Neal Friday night, one flying high over a Staples Center entrance, and the stars were on hand for the event. Phil Jackson was there making Snoop Dogg jokes. Shaq and Kobe were sharing laughs. It was a big night for a big man with a big personality. And a big heart.

Check out the highlights above.