PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

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SEASON RECORDS

Oklahoma City: 60-22, first seed in East

Houston: 45-37, eighth seed in East

SEASON SERIES

The Thunder won 2-1, though that doesn’t truly capture how much they dominated the series. Oklahoma City won by 22 and 30, and Houston won by just three.

KEY INJURIES

Oklahoma City: Kevin Martin and Kendrick Perkins haven’t played since April 11, but all signs point to both being fine for the playoffs.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Oklahoma City: offense 110.2 (2nd best in NBA), defense 99.2 (3rd in NBA)

Houston: offense 106.7 (6th in NBA), defense 103.5 (16th in NBA)

Differential: Thunder +11.0 (1st in NBA), Rockets +3.2 (9th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR OKLAHOMA CITY:

Avoid a Russell Westbrook meltdown: Westbrook had the best season of his career, taking a slight lead in the race to be the NBA’s best guard behind Chris Paul. He’s driven on the court by a burning passion, and that’s part of the reason he’s so successful. If he played calmer, he probably wouldn’t have the same impact. But that intensity can get the best of Westbrook at times. As long as he stays close enough to even-keeled, Oklahoma City should be fine. But if he melts down, that crack could give the Rockets an upset opportunity.

Make corner 3s: The Rockets’ perimeter defense is bad, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should have little trouble penetrating, but Oklahoma City doesn’t necessarily need to rely on that. The Rockets rank 29th in defensive corner 3-point percentage, making Houston the only team in the bottom seven of that category to make the playoffs. As a bonus, the Thunder have two of the league’s best corner 3-point shooters in Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin.

Don’t be afraid to turn the ball over: The Thunder have the NBA’s second-highest turnover percentage, but that’s due in large part to their offensive aggressiveness. They can handle a few more turnovers if it leads to extra high-efficiency scoring opportunities.

THREE KEYS FOR HOUSTON:

Limit Thunder other than Durant and Westbrook: Asking Durant and Westbrook beat you is probably asking to lose, but the Rockets probably aren’t going going to beat the Thunder without catching a major break. Despite outside pressure for Durant to get upset by Westbrook’s high usage, Durant has rejected the suggestion to show dissatisfaction. When the Thunder share the ball, that’s easy to do. But if Westbrook is taking all the shots that don’t go to Durant, maybe, just maybe Durant would see things differently.

Funnel Durant and Westbrook toward Omer Asik: In the spirit of the previous key, Asik is a physical player, and if he can protect the paint, great. If he can wear down Durant and Westbrook, maybe Houston gains an edge.

Don’t be afraid to turn the ball over: The Rockets have the NBA’s second-highest turnover percentage, but that’s due in large part to their offensive aggressiveness. They can handle a few more turnovers if it leads to extra high-efficiency scoring opportunities.

OUTLOOK

James Harden facing his former team is a fantastic storyline. Unfortunately the one-vs.-franchise matchup doesn’t necessarily make for a fantastic series.

Though the Rockets are extremely strong for a No. 8 seed – those who evaluate their rise from recent seasons only in terms of standings don’t fully appreciate how far this team has come – they’re not much of a match for the Thunder. Oklahoma City is better offensively and defensively, and it’s difficult to find a matchup that will turn this series in favor of the underdog.

Still, the individual storylines are great.

Did the Thunder err by trading James Harden? If they had to trade one, should they have dealt Serge Ibaka instead? Or did they completely miscalculate by keeping Westbrook rather than Harden?

Plenty of players will have something to prove this series.

PREDICTION:

Thunder in six

5 Up, 5 Down: Jahlil Okafor finally gets to play some basketball

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA as it stands on alternating Monday mornings.

It feels like we should be more upset about the fact that we keep getting updates on major stars and their injuries. Stephen Curry has his walking boot off. Kawhi Leonard is close to getting on an NBA floor. Gordon Hayward is on Twitch and is now wearing a teensy little ankle brace instead of a walking boot.

This somehow feels good because it’s progress, even though what it really means is stars aren’t on the floor. Maybe that doesn’t matter, especially if you’ve watched the two teams topping the conferences play.

The Boston Celtics have an MVP candidate (yet again) in Kyrie Irving, and the Houston Rockets seem unbeatable. Anyway, I’m excited for another Warriors-Cavaliers Finals.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

5 Up

Jahlil Okafor is finally a Brooklyn Net

We talked last time about how we needed to see Jahlil Okafor play a little basketball (or at least play on offense) by getting out of Philadelphia. My choice was for him to go to the Brooklyn Nets, which is exactly where he went 10 days later. Some are calling the Nets “interesting” although I think for that to be the case Jeremy Lin and his hair would still need to be bouncing down an NBA floor. I’m just hoping Brooklyn isn’t unwatchable from here on out. Let’s start with that and see where they end up.

The New York Knicks letting this dude warm up with them

Kevin Thompson is a New York Knicks superfan who got to warm up with the team and get introduced during lineups. The whole thing was part of the team’s Garden of Dreams night, which according to the Knicks is part of an experiential foundation that helps kids facing obstacles. Pretty sweet stuff.

10 minutes, six fouls

Michael Beasley once said that he basically felt he was Carmelo Anthony, that their games were similar, because they operate from the same side of the floor. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, but it was a great Beasley quote. This past weekend provided us with a Beasley moment, when the Knicks forward fouled out in just 10 minutes of play. The final blow was a sequence in the fourth quarter in which Beasley racked up three fouls in just 1:45 of game clock. When he had to leave due to disqualification, the crowd at Madison Square Garden gave him a standing ovation. I love the Knicks.

LeBron James is going to play for the Lakers … and the Rockets?

It’s not even 2018 and we’re already starting to talk about where LeBron James will land. It doesn’t feel likely he’ll stay in Cleveland, unless he buys the team of course. That’s probably not slated for the next year, so perhaps he will team up with Nerlens Noel and go to the Los Angeles Lakers? Or perhaps James is interested in the Houston Rockets, the team currently dismantling every other team in the West? This past summer was so crazy in the NBA, it just had to seep into the regular season. I’m all for it.

This Thunder team is a train wreck in slow motion

Real life is not NBA 2k18. That’s why you can’t just sim to the end of every Chicago Bulls game (can you imagine?) or force any trade you want. It’s also why three ball-dominant scorers playing iso ball don’t work, much to the chagrin of Oklahoma City Thunder fans. If you’re not an OKC diehard, this is probably the only thing you wanted to see outside of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony wrecking the rest of the Western Conference. It was never going to be interesting if this team got the 5 seed. Missing the playoffs is the next most interesting thing that could have happened, and frankly, perhaps the most understandable given the talent out West.

5 Down

Everyone is getting kicked out of games

Kevin Durant — long lauded as a silent assassin in the NBA — has been ejected from multiple games over the past month. He even had to be separated from DeMarcus Cousins after a recent one, which is crazy. Shaun Livingston‘s AARP card couldn’t get him immunity from an ejection. Hell, even a referee got suspended in that one. Tensions are rising in the NBA, and it feels like we all missed some memo from the league about a point of emphasis for this season saying everyone’s going to get rung on one technical foul. Are players flailing or is the league being unreasonable? I’m not sure, but tossing stars has to stop so you would think the league office will be looking into this.

Markelle Fultz is STILL out … for some reason

Markelle Fultz is fine, nothing to see here. I mean quite literally, because despite Fultz’s shoulder being A-OK, he’s still not scheduled to find an NBA floor for another three weeks. This feels like a decision the team would make under Sam Hinkie while winning single-digit games, but Hinkie is long gone and the Sixers are — gasp! — a .500 team sitting just outside the 8 seed. This still feels like some major piece of information is missing and I don’t know that we’ll hear about it save for in Fultz’s inevitable book in 20 years detailing Philly’s 8-peat championship run starting in 2020.

We’re not getting basketball in Seattle any time soon

A new memorandum of understanding was signed in the Emerald City this last week, meaning they are going to keep the ugly roof on top of Key Arena, knock down the walls, and dig a hole to the center of the earth as a means to expand the seating. Seriously, they have to dig down just to fit enough people in the arena. What this doesn’t mean is an NBA team. Los Angeles-based Oak View Group has said they will pursue both an NHL team and an NBA team, although locally in Seattle it’s known this plan puts events and NHL first. This is a bummer for NBA fans in Seattle, and for anyone trying to drive through Lower Queen Anne at any time of the day.

Everything happening with the Clippers

There’s almost too much to list here, but it’s topped by just how bad this team is. They were a .500 team when Patrick Beverley got hurt, and then Blake Griffin naturally followed. Danilo Gallinari has been on and off the court, and it’s been a quick degradation for LA after the flight of Chris Paul to Houston. DeAndre Jordan‘s contract now looms over the salary cap like a raincloud, and where he goes nobody will know. Can you tank and still keep Doc Rivers as your coach in 2017?

Marc Gasol is still a Grizzly

The Grizzlies are another mess, and disappointingly so. They were a perennial Good Team™ and both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol should have been favorites of yours to watch in the playoffs (mostly losing to the Spurs). Now, the team is in turnaround. Owner Robert Pera has been given an ultimatum from his minority owners, David Fizdale is gone, and Gasol is still starting games. It seems like there’s less heat on the team to move Gasol, but that’s how it always works in these situations when it’s not a garbage fire like Paul George last year. I expect to see Gasol moved before the trade deadline precisely because it feels like it would be super strange to see Marc Gasol not in a Grizzlies jersey. Hey, maybe to the Spurs?

Three Things to Know: Victor Oladipo drops 47, he and Pacers are legit

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Victor Oladipo drops 47 on Nuggets, shows he’s an All-Star and Pacers are for real. When the Pacers traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, we thought it was a massive step back for the Pacers. The Pacers also ditched Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles, and Monta Ellis and brought in Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph, which had them rebuilding (we figured low 30s in wins, tops).

We were wrong.

Last Wednesday Oladipo hit the game-winner against Chicago, then he led the Pacers to a win over Cleveland (snapping the Cavs 13-game win streak), and on Sunday he dropped 47 points on the Denver Nuggets in another Pacers’ win, the team is now 16-11.

Victor Oladipo has been playing like an All-Star — he should be one of the East guards off the bench — making a leap from role player in OKC to leading man in Indiana. The Thunder brought him in to be a third scorer behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but when Durant left and Westbrook took over Oladipo regressed. This season Oladipo has the ball in his hands, is drawing contact and getting to the line on drives like he hasn’t in years, is finishing at the rim better than he has before (62 percent), is killing it from three (43.9 percent overall and 45.7 percent on pull-up jumpers from three), and he’s dishing out assists like he hasn’t since his rookie season in Orlando.

All of that — plus the fact Sabonis has taken a big step forward this season — has led to talk in some quarters that the Pacers won the trade with OKC that sent Paul George to a “super team.” Oladipo isn’t playing that game.

What Oladipo is doing is leading a Pacers team that has the sixth best offense in the NBA, and a team that’s getting easy buckets (fifth highest percentage of offense in transition, according to Cleaning The Glass). While the Pacers take more midrange jumpers than one might prefer, they are the second best team in the league at hitting them, so it works.

Maybe the Pacers come back to earth a little (their defense has been middle of the pack), but probably not as their point differential is pretty much in line with their record. Nate McMillan and company have gotten eight new players on the roster to blend beautifully. The Pacers are for real. This is who they are.

And Victor Oladipo should be suiting up as an All-Star in Los Angeles. He’s earned it.

2) Second most impressive feat of the night: Michael Beasley fouls out in 10 minutes. Michael Beasley has found regular minutes a bit hard to come by with the Knicks this season. Sunday, when the Hawks rotations forced the Knicks to play more small ball, Beasley got his run and was aggressive trying to make his mark and defend. What he did was foul out. Quickly — in 10 minutes. That got him a standing ovation in Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks ultimately got the win thanks to Kristaps Porzingis‘ 30 points and Doug McDermott adding 23 off the bench. And, of course, the efforts of Beasley (he was +10 in his 10 minutes, to be fair).

3) Kobe Bryant gave Eagles pep talk before they beat the Rams. Philadelphia came to Los Angeles Sunday for what was the NFL’s game of the week (and it was an entertaining one). The Eagles practiced for a few days in the sunshine of Los Angeles before the game, and on Friday huge Eagles fan Kobe Bryant came out to pump up the team.

Kobe also had a little video message for the world.

The Eagles got the win, but it may have come with a high cost as quarterback Carson Wentz suffered a knee injury and the signs aren’t good.

Michael Beasley fouls out in 10 minutes, gets standing ovation (VIDEO)

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Michael Beasley hasn’t played all that much for the New York Knicks. The journeyman forward is 10th in minutes played for the team, and is a bench contributor at this stage in his career.

Beasley appeared to be a bit overexcited to get some run late in Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks, 111-107. Having played just 10 minutes in the game, Beasley quickly racked up three fouls in the span of one minute and 45 seconds.

That earned him his sixth foul — the others were picked up earlier — and a standing ovation from the Madison Square Garden crowd after his disqualification.

Via Twitter:

Support your guys, NBA fans, even if they’re out here getting DQ’d after scoring one point and grabbing two rebounds.

Kobe Bryant gave a 30-minute pep talk to the Eagles before Rams game (VIDEO)

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Kobe Bryant is just about everywhere during retirement. We’ve talked before about how his post-playing career revisionism is one of the greatest works of sports marketing currently underway.

Of course, Ol’ Bean has to take some days off from being a “storyteller” and that includes cheering on his hometown Philadelphia Eagles. Bryant was born in Philly and lived there for various parts of his childhood, of course going pro directly from Lower Merion High School, located in a nearby suburb.

So despite the return of the Los Angeles Rams, it appears that Kobe is still an Eagles fan through and through. He apparently even spoke to the Eagles for half an hour before the team practiced in California on Friday.

Bryant also gave the world a little video message.

The bummer news for Eagles fans, of course, was that it was Philadelphia QB and MVP candidate Carson Wentz who was hit high and low on Sunday, and the team fears that he has torn his ACL.

Kobe is looking pretty thick in that jersey. Maybe they should work him out and see if he can’t beat out Nick Foles for the starting job the rest of the season?