NBA Finals Heat-Thunder Game 2: Welcome back, Thunder defense

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I had serious questions about the Thunder defense heading into Game 1. After all, this was a top ten, but not top five defense throughout the year, and it still gave up a ton of points to San Antonio (which granted has the best offense in the league). I had major concerns about how they would react to a tougher, more physical team. In Game 1, they responded beautifully. The rotations were great, their man-attack was spectacular, they did everything right. It was a major response.

“Maybe I was wrong,” I said to a friend. “Maybe they’re just better defensively than I thought they were.”

/clown nose honks

/kazoo

Welcome back, Thunder defense.

A 111 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) for OKC, and that was the difference in the game. You can talk the no-call on an obvious fouls, or the goaltending call, or Shane Battier’s “what in the hell” three. But the reality is that the Heat allowed a Miami offense that everyone left for dead after Game 1 to put up a 111 defensive efficiency. That killed them. That’s the game.

And some of it wasn’t their fault. Thabo Sefolosha’s work has been brilliant. He’s contesting jumpers, and running under layups to disrupt without drawing fouls. James Harden has played better than usual, and Russell Westbrook, surprisingly, has been quite good. He’s been active in passing lanes and creating steals.

But the rest? It was not good. When the Heat offense didn’t fall to pieces as it did in Game 1, it created enough to get the win. Surprisingly, the biggest culprit Thursday night was Kevin Durant, who has been magnificent this year defensively. From the first tip, Durant was just a second off with his timing, just a bit slow on his rotations. And versus Game 1, when he bodied and held his ground against LeBron James in the post, James worked him over in all sorts of nasty ways in Game 2. He was overmatched. That foul trouble he got into? Four of his five fouls were absolutely legitimate. He gave up an and-one to Chris Bosh on a fast break, for crying out loud. It’s a sign of Durant’s development that he’s reached a level where his defense is expected to be better. But it is. And it wasn’t.

But Durant wasn’t the only one. Oh, the Ibaka blocks! What wonders of wonders! Too bad Ibaka also got torched by Chris Bosh and LeBron James because of his tendency to overreact to pumpfakes, and that several times late the Heat found Chris Bosh for dunks because he was too eager in his rotations. Sick blocks, tho, bro. (It should be noted Ibaka genuinely was fantastic in the first half defensively, a big reason the Thunder hung.)

Even Nick Collison, wondrous Nick Collison, was a problem. Chris Bosh abused him by being quicker and more aggressive, and drawing fouls. The Thunder as a defense was just not in a position it needed to be in on Thursday.

Everyone said that it wasn’t a problem after Game 1, that the Thunder could just outscore them. This is a very good Heat defense. That’s a flawed approach. If the Thunder want to regain homecourt and get the lead back in this series, they have to get back to playing defense as they did in the second half of Game 1. Quit worrying about Westbrook’s shots, or fouls, or goaltends. You’ve got to stop the Heat if you’re going to win the title.

Salah Mejri threatened to come to Blazers locker room after Jusuf Nurkic tussle

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The Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks had a game of many emotions on Saturday night at Moda Center. Of course, the game wasn’t that close — Portland led by 17 at the half and finished the game by beating Dallas, 117-108.

But as we’ve seen in the NBA recently, the propensity for NBA players to get into physical spats is high. So it was no surprise that we saw yet another scrum between NBA players on the east side of the Willamette on Saturday as Dallas’ Salah Mejri got tangled up with Jusuf Nurkic and Evan Turner.

The play began with Nurkic getting a clean block on Mejri. Because of the position of the two players, Nurkic’s arm was angled as such that after the block it came clean through to rest on Mejri’s shoulder. Mejri turned, and the whole thing became a tangle of arms and elbows.

Neither Mejri or Nurkic took kindly to that, so the two squared off. Nurkic gave Mejri an ineffectual little push, while Portland’s Evan Turner jumped in to hold Mejri back. The Mavericks center promptly flopped all the way to the ground, inexplicably grabbing his face. It was Premier League-level flopping from Mejri, just top notch stuff.

Via NBC Sports Northwest:

After the game, Turner told media that Mejri threatened to come get the Blazers.

“He’s like ‘I’ll come to the locker room!'” said Turner. “Out of a 225 lb. dude [Turner] a 275 lb. dude [Nurkic] and a 7-footer [Mejri] who hit the ground?”

Portland’s CJ McCollum didn’t seem too impressed with the threat.

“If they really want to fight, they know where to find people,” said McCollum.

Much like any arena, the visiting locker room is just down the hall from the home squad at Moda Center, so it would have been easy for Mejri to get to. Nothing happened, so it turned out as an empty threat.

Meanwhile, Turner was assessed a technical foul for the tussle — presumably for “pushing” Mejri. There was notable tension the rest of the game between Mejri, Nurkic, and the crowd at Moda Center, but nothing else of consequence happened.

LeBron James: “We could easily get bounced early in the playoffs”

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Cleveland’s defense was pathetic Saturday and the Thunder routed them because of it. The Cavaliers gave up 148 points, allowed the Thunder to shoot 58 percent, and basically were little more than traffic cones for Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the rest of the Thunder to dribble and pass around. The Cavaliers have lost 8-of-11 and coach Tyronn Lue’s seat is getting warm.

Can the Cavaliers even get out of the East? LeBron James wasn’t even asking that question after the Saturday loss, he wants his team to get to the conference finals first. Via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“Playoffs? We can’t even start thinking about that, not the way we’re playing right now,” James said. “We could easily get bounced early in the playoffs if they started next weekend. Haven’t even began thinking about the postseason.”

It’s January, it’s far too early to write LeBron and the Cavaliers off — his teams have won the East for seven straight seasons in a row for a reason. Cleveland’s mid-season malaise is a thing and they snap out of it, Isaiah Thomas will find his legs and play better, but this season has shown some troubling structural flaws in the Cavaliers. Ones that could bite them in the playoffs. Ones they are active in the trade market trying to address, or at least shore up a little.

Nobody around the league is comfortable picking against a LeBron team in the East — he has been to seven straight Finals for a reason (and how impressive an achievement that is gets overlooked). But this seems to be the weakest LeBron team since he bolted Cleveland (the first time?), and a second-round matchup vs. Toronto is no gimme anymore. LeBron is right to be concerned.

Former LSU star, Trail Blazer Tim Quarterman arrested after leading police on high-speed chase

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If you missed Tim Quarterman’s cup of coffee in the NBA nobody can blame you. The 6’6″ point guard was a star at LSU who went undrafted but got a chance to earn a roster spot in Portland. He bounced between the NBA and D-League last season playing in 16 games for the Trail Blazers, but then this summer was traded to Houston for cash, and the Rockets quickly waived him. He had signed to play in China but never got there due to visa issues, he did not play a game there.

Now he has some big trouble stateside. From Tupelo, Miss., television station WTVA (hat tip to the Times-Picayune):

Master Sgt. Ray Hall with the Mississippi Highway Patrol says the incident began sometime near 10:50 p.m. when troopers attempted to stop a 2018 Dodge Ram pickup truck for traveling eastbound on Highway 278 at a high rate of speed.

Quarterman failed to stop and led officers on the pursuit… The Mississippi Highway Patrol says the pursuit ended near (a family’s) home when Quarterman intentionally rammed a Pontotoc police officer causing both vehicles to crash.

Both Quarterman and the police officer were taken to a local hospital with minor injuries.

This led to charges of aggravated assault and felony fleeing, according to the report.

 

Rockets’ Clint Capela on Warriors: “We are better than them”

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Houston’s home win Saturday night against Golden State was much more important for the Rockets than the Warriors. Not in terms of the standings (Golden State is still 3.5 games up there), but about confidence — the Rockets needed to know they can beat the defending NBA champions. This game fueled their belief that they have a shot against the Warriors.

Houston big man Clint Capela was trying to say that… then took it a step too far.

Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them,” Rockets center Clint Capela told ESPN. “We’ve got to keep playing. We know that they’re going to come back if we have the lead, and we’ve just got to keep that mindset. Sometimes I feel like, in the past, we were all dragging down after mistakes. But today, we were ready. I think that if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on defense — all the switches, the weak side — and keep playing our offense by keeping that mentality all game long, we have the weapons to beat them.

“We are better than them.”

It goes without saying that January games are poor predictors of May playoff series. That said, I have two quick thoughts here:

• The Rockets are the team best built to have a legitimate shot at beating the Warriors. (They can score with Golden State, and they have good switchable defenders on the wing, the two things needed to have a chance.)

• I want guys to say this. I want teams going up against the Warriors to believe — that is the first step to actually doing it. You think the Cavaliers feel confident like this right now? The Rockets have the swagger and are over the intimidation factor, that’s step one.