Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

Thunder 117, Clippers 111: A Chris Paul survival guide

8 Comments

Chris Paul is terrifying, and he knows it. Paul doesn’t score just to score — he does it to establish the threat. When you’re 6-foot-nothing in a league filled with giants, you manipulate instead of overwhelm. Paul can have 6 points and it will feel like he’s dominating, just because he made his shadow look a little bigger.

Stopping Paul isn’t easy, but the Thunder did it better than any team has in a long, long time. In the Clippers 117-111 overtime loss in Oklahoma City, Paul was denied everything. Passing lanes closed up. Avenues to the hole were non-existent. Paul was regularly caught in the air, just hoping for something to materialize — a shocking sight for any long time viewer of his brilliance. It was jarring. Paul is the NBA’s greatest dictator, a player who is in control of himself and everything around him at all times. He makes roster decisions. He distributes the touches. He tells guys where to go and what to do. But tonight, it was the Thunder defense that took control, forcing Paul into a dreadful 2-for-14 effort from the field.

How’d they do it? Let’s take a look at Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul survival guide:

Keep your distance

Because Paul doesn’t attack in a straight line, you can’t just slap a speedster on him and call it a day. You need gobs and gobs of length to disrupt his patented side-step jumper and other horizontal attacks. If you were to construct a Chris Paul stopper from scratch, it would probably be Thabo Sefolosha. Paul is able to trick more physical defenders like Tony Allen, but Sefolosha does a wonderful job of playing off of Paul and giving him space, knowing that he can use his long arms to at least partially contest any pull-up jumpers. As a general rule, the farther Paul stays away from the rim, the less damage he can do. Sefolosha did a wonderful job of deterring Paul’s penetration in the isolation setting, forcing CP3 into an 0-for-9 shooting night from outside of the paint.

Don’t Switch

Paul loves toying with big men ill-equipped to stay in front of him, so the Thunder wisely went “blue” on pick-and-roll coverage and turned down the screens by showing CP3 mobile bigs like Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison instead of switching. It’s the same strategy Gregg Popovich used for much of the Los Angeles-San Antonio playoff series, and the Thunder were able to implement it well here with good foot speed all across the floor. One of the best examples of the Spurs refusing to switch was Russell Westbrook staying at the top of the key in the Clippers last possession in regulation and not letting Kevin Martin have to deal with CP3. Westbrook is a pretty good defender when he’s both motivated and directly attacked, and he took over the defensive stopper role just fine once Martin came in for Sefolosha for offensive purposes.

Make him defend

Covering Westbrook (23 points) is a full-time job, simply because you can’t predict his actions. He takes pull-up threes off his own dribble, he drives when there is no lane to drive, and he does it all at a speed you can’t possibly hope to keep up with. Paul was off and the defense on him was great, but give Westbrook credit for applying constant pressure on the other end as well. With Westbrook flying around and Kevin Durant getting to the line a whopping 21 times, Oklahoma City’s offense felt a little more unrelenting than the Clippers did. Those pindowns for Durant (35 points) just kept coming, and Durant just kept attacking off it. Paul knew it wasn’t his night, but unless it was Jamal Crawford doing something similar in a clear isolation, the Clippers got nothing designed down the stretch and simply survived off improvisational plays from the like of Matt Barnes (19 points).

While Westbrook and Durant functioned like an occasionally bumbling but ultimately effective two-party democracy that took turns wielding power, the Clippers dictatorship failed them late in the game. Blake Griffin played a nice offensive game and had 23 points, but he only shot the ball 3 times in the fourth quarter and overtime combined. Paul is one of the best point guards the game has ever seen and nearly every night his decision-making will be as good as it’s going to get for the Clippers, but like the oh-so-wise Kanye West says, no one man (especially on a night like this) should have all that power.

LeBron James leads Cavaliers back to Finals doing it his way

Leave a comment

LeBron James is the first NBA star of the social media age, and with that has come a volume of criticism that the greats before him — Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan — never had to deal with.

Even these playoffs, there have been chattering voices knocking LeBron for how he worked more to set up teammates — particularly Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — more than seeking out his own shot. Some people have always wanted him to be more Jordan, when he was always more Magic. Or Oscar Robertson.

And this playoff he knew that he could carry his Cavaliers to the NBA Finals through a diluted East, but if he wanted a ring he was going to need those other players to be confident, ready, and believing in the team.

You could see that all come together for LeBron James in Game 6. He attacked early and set a tone, then got everyone involved on his way to 33 points and 11 assists in what became a 113-87 win sending Cleveland back to the NBA Finals.

“I just had to bring my game,” James said in his on-court postgame interview on ESPN. “I had to bring my game, I had to be in attack mode from the beginning, trust my shot, and once my shot start going I can get my teammates involved and they was able to carry me down the stretch.”

LeBron James was getting to the rim with those attacks, check out his shot chart:

LeBron shot chart

LeBron also keyed the fourth-quarter 22-7 run that put away the game.

“There is only one LeBron James, and he makes a difference on any team he plays on, and he’s proven that,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said postgame. “It’s six Finals (in a row for LeBron), to compare him to our team — and I love our players, I wouldn’t trade any of our players — but you put him on any team and he’s a difference maker.”

LeBron’s critics will not be silenced. The man has made six straight finals, a feat not accomplished by anyone since a few legendary Celtics of the 1950s-60s (Bill Russell’s teams). It speaks to LeBron’s focus, skill, durability, and ability to lead teams.

Critics will point to LeBron being 2-4 in the Finals. That misses the point — making it to six straight is an amazing accomplishment, and LeBron did it his way. Not trying to be MJ or Magic or Oscar, just being LeBron James.

We should savor watching this guy play while we still can.

James scores 33, Cavaliers reach second straight NBA Finals

lebron
Getty Images
9 Comments

TORONTO — LeBron James scored 33 points, Kevin Love had 20 points and 12 rebounds and the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to their second straight NBA Finals by beating the Toronto Raptors 113-87 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night.

It’s the third finals appearance in team history for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lost to Golden State in six games last year and got swept by San Antonio in 2007.

For James, it’s his sixth straight trip to the finals, including four with Miami. He broke the 30-point barrier for the first time this postseason and finished with 11 rebounds and six assists.

“I had to bring my game,” he said. “I had to be in attack mode from the beginning.”

Kyrie Irving had 30 points and J.R. Smith had 15 for the Cavaliers, who will face the winner of the Golden State-Oklahoma City series on Thursday.

Cleveland would open at home against the Thunder but would be on the road against the 73-win Warriors, who trail 3-2 against Oklahoma City heading into Saturday’s Game 6.

The Cavs will be seeking to end Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought, the longest by any city with at least three professional teams. No Cleveland team has won it all since the Browns blanked Baltimore 27-0 to win the NFL championship in 1964.

Kyle Lowry scored 35 points and DeMar DeRozan had 20 as the deepest playoff run in Raptors team history ended, much to the disappointment of a sellout crowd of 20,605 dressed in red and white T-shirts that formed a maple leaf pattern on either side of the court. Fans stood and cheered “Let’s go, Raptors! Let’s go, Raptors!” throughout most of the final three minutes.

Toronto prolonged the series with back-to-back home wins in Games 3 and 4 but never mounted much of a challenge to the conference champions in Game 6, falling behind by 21 in the third quarter.

The Cavaliers came in 0-4 at Air Canada Centre counting the regular season and playoffs, but looked much more like the team that handed the Raptors a trio of lopsided losses in Cleveland this series.

The Raptors trailed 88-78 on a jumper by DeRozan with 10:23 remaining but James scored six points in a 14-3 run that gave the Cavs a 102-81 lead with about 6 minutes left.

James scored 14 in the first and five of Cleveland’s nine field goals were from long range as the Cavaliers led 31-25 after one.

After video review, the officials waved off a basket by Biyombo with 3:18 left in the period and gave him a flagrant foul for knocking down Love.

Tempers flared again early in the second when Richard Jefferson reacted angrily to catching an elbow from Jonas Valanciunas as the two battled for a rebound. Patrick Patterson came over and shoved Jefferson out of the way. Both Patterson and Jefferson were given technical fouls.

Cleveland made five more 3-pointers in the second and outscored Toronto 9-3 over the final 71 seconds to lead 55-41 at halftime. The Cavaliers made 10 of 15 3-point attempts in the first half, while Toronto was 2 of 12.

The Cavs led 78-57 after a 3 by Love at 3:53 of the third but Lowry scored 15 points as Toronto closed the quarter with a 17-8 run, cutting it to 86-74.

TIP INS

Cavaliers: Shot 17 for 31 from 3-point range. … Outscored Toronto 17-5 in fast break points.

Raptors: Finished their playoff run by playing every other day from April 29 onward, a 15-game run that started with Game 6 of the first round against Indiana.

Reports: P.J. Carlesimo to join Sixers staff as Brett Brown’s lead assistant

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 02:  Head coach P.J. Carlesimo of the Brooklyn Nets watches as his team take on the Chicago Bulls in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on May 2, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Nets defeated the Bulls 95-92. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
2 Comments

Last season, when new president Jerry Colangelo started shaking things up in Philadelphia, he brought in Mike D’Antoni to be a lead assistant next to Brett Brown. This led to all kinds of speculation around the league that the Colangelos were trying to bring back the old Suns brain trust (especially when Jerry hired his son Bryan to be GM).

However, D’Antoni jumped ship to be the head coach of the Houston Rockets.

Enter, P.J. Carlesimo.

Carlesimo is a good fit, but that’s not going to quell the rumors that the Colangelos are not comfortable with Brown (despite giving him a contract extension). The Sixers need to give Brown a legitimate shot — he’s been like a contestant on Chopped the past few seasons, given a ridiculous basket of ingredients and told to turn Mango, octopus and graham crackers into a four-star meal. He’s gotten them to play defense (at times) and started to build a culture. He has earned the chance to show what he can do with a better lineup.

Which is what the Sixers will have next season.

Nuggets’ Jusuf Nurkic likes idea of two-bigs lineup with Nikola Jokic

DENVER, CO - APRIL 5:  Jusuf Nurkic #23 of the Denver Nuggets controls the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Pepsi Center on April 5, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Thunder defeated the Nuggets 124-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Late last season, Nuggets coach Mike Malone tried something out of the box the way the NBA is trending — playing two young bigs together. Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic, the latter of whom finished in third in the Rookie of the Year voting. Small ball may be in vogue, but going big has worked pretty well these playoffs for Oklahoma City with Steven Adams and Enes Kanter (and Serge Ibaka).

It didn’t work all that well for Denver — in just 92 minutes together the Nuggets were outscored by 7.1 points per 100 possessions, mostly because the offense was terrible.

But Nurkic wants to try it again next season, he told the Nuggets’ official Web site.

“I’m happy about the big lineup [with Nikola]. “Basketball has kind of changed. The NBA has gone smaller because of [the] Golden State [Warriors]. In the [Western Conference] semi-finals, look at [Oklahoma City’s Steven] Adams, [Enes] Kanter, and [Serge] Ibaka. They played all those guys and they see the difference. Me and Nikola have great communication because we played in the same league, we played against each other.”

He’s referring to their time in the Serbian league where the two played before going to the NBA.

While it could only be used situationally, expect Malone to experiment with this lineup more. There are some serious defensive questions (neither is exactly fleet of foot), and there could be spacing issues. But if the league moves one way, the smart teams and coaches think about counters.