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

Add Milos Teodosic to long list of stars missing EuroBasket

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The last Olympics in Rio saw a long list of NBA players sitting it out, either due to injuries, concerns about Zika virus, a serious dislike of açaí berries or just choosing to do something else with their time.

Now it looks like EuroBasket is suffering the same fate.

The latest name to come up is Milos Teodosic, who signed this summer with the Clippers, could never get healthy, and is out for Serbia. He joins a long list — Sportando put together a list of NBA players and stars who are out.

More than just one someone is missing, guys such as Ivica Zubac, Mario Hezonja, Paul Zipster, and others are out as well.

Spain, led by Pau Gasol, remain the heavy favorites to win EuroBasket 2017, with Serbia, France, and Lithuania potential contenders. There may be a lot of players missing, but there is still a lot of talent, and when guys are playing for national pride there is plenty of emotion and fire as well.

Lakers owner on Lonzo Ball: “He’s going to bring an element that’s very similar to Magic”

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Lonzo Ball has yet to play a minute of professional basketball in the NBA, but fans in Los Angeles sure are happy to have him on board as they get ready for a new era in team history.

An exciting run through the Las Vegas Summer League in 2017 certainly showed us that Ball is ready to meet the challenges of a rookie in the NBA.

Ball won the LVSL MVP award while posting averages of 16.3 points, 9.3 assists, and 7.7 rebounds per-game. Ball and teammate Kyle Kuzma also helped the Lakers beat the Portland Trail Blazers in the championship game to close the tournament.

Lakers owner Jeanie Buss is just as excited about Ball as fans in California are. Speaking on the Petros and Money Show in LA it recently, Buss compared the buzz around Ball to that of Kobe Bryant, saying, “No other draft pick, except maybe Kobe Bryant, has had this kind of excitement about him.”

Buss also has high hopes for Ball’s style of play.

Via Lakers Nation:

“There’s something special about Lonzo […] I think because he just wants to play basketball, he’s selfless. He has a certain charisma and I think the fact that his teammates at UCLA loved playing with him and all the nice things that they have to say about him, I think he’s going to bring an element that’s very similar to Magic Johnson.”

Whatever criticism of his father you want to muster aside, Ball does seem relatively at ease in Los Angeles and in the spotlight. While he will no doubt struggle as a rookie, as even the best do, but it is starting to look up for LA in the post-Kobe era now that Ball is in town.

They seem to have the right coach in Luke Walton to help develop him, and no doubt fans in LA will be hoping that Ball is a superstar sooner rather than later.

Blake Griffin on LeBron James: “I don’t see him coming to L.A.”

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Is LeBron James on his way out of Cleveland? Rumors have it swirled around The King’s exit from his kingdom as of late, which his camp has vehemently denied.

However, LeBron suffered yet another loss in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and his relationship with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has appeared to sour. The history between the two is well-documented, and recently Gilbert failed to renew GM David Griffin’s contract, all without consulting James.

Meanwhile, the rumor has been that James prefers to land in Los Angeles, where he keeps a second home. James can play either with the LA Clippers or Los Angeles Lakers, which would allow him to perhaps add some of his favorite players — Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, or Dwyane Wade. The banana boat crew, as it were.

But one player already in Los Angeles doesn’t think that LeBron is on his way to California.

Speaking on a recent podcast with the Sklar Brothers, forward Blake Griffin said he did not think that James would come to L.A. Instead, he thought the best place for James to land would be in New York with the Knicks.

Via View from the Cheap Seats, h/t Complex. The LeBron conversation starts around the 50-minute mark:

“Honestly, I don’t see him coming to L.A. period. Listen, again, I have no idea. I think something is brewing with him and his group of guys. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think something’s brewing and they’re going to try to make that work.”

“I could see him going to New York before L.A. I still think, when you go to the Garden, it’s a completely different feeling. The energy, there seems like there’s just a consistent buzz the entire game … even last year when you go play them, it’s still there.”

To give more context to this quote in case you aren’t able to actually listen to the podcast, Griffin is simply speculating based off of what he thinks could happen. He prefaces it by saying it is just a feeling, and my reading of his intonation makes me think Griffin believes there are too many roadblocks to get LeBron to Los Angeles. Couple that with an increasingly difficult Western Conference, and Griffin doesn’t think that The King will give up being able to get to the Finals every year just to come to L.A.

Given all that has happened with the Knicks over the last few decades, it also seems like a fair stretch to think the next best option would be to see LeBron in New York. Remember, with Steve Mills as president a lot of the people who torpedoed the Carmelo situation are still in place even with Phil Jackson gone. If LeBron does indeed want us to pair with Carmelo, or even if he is simply an influence on him as a friend, New York seems like an unlikely destination.

Still, it is interesting to hear the insight of other professionals in this context. It just goes to show you that even NBA players don’t know where LeBron is going to end up.

Report: Nerlens Noel switches agents in hopes of max deal with Mavericks

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Is Nerlens Noel worthy of a max contract? Not on your life.

But will he get it? That remains to be seen after reports that Noel recently fired his agent and will make the switch to Dan Fagen.

According to NBC 5 in Dallas, Noel has done just that and will be seeking a huge deal from Mark Cuban’s organization.

From NBC 5’s Newy Scruggs:

No other NBA clubs tried to sign the restricted 6-11 center. He has a one year qualifying offer of $5.8 million on the table but it’s not to his liking so he switched agents.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” is what Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle told me back in July on NBC Sports Radio when I brought up the contract talks between Dallas and Noel. The NBA salary cap didn’t go up has high as many previously projected, so the summer of 2017 was not a bonanza some players hoped for.

Even with the increase in the cap, and with big contracts flying around for young talent, Noel has done nothing to prove himself worthy of an offer like that for the Dallas Mavericks. Yes, his advanced numbers from his third season in the NBA looked much better, and that was great news as young big men often take time to develop.

Yet the body of work for Noel is simply not there. Fifty games of good play over a 200 game career does not, or should not, earn you a max contract.

Then again, this could simply be Noel preying on Cuban’s need to rebuild.

With Dennis Smith Jr. at the helm, an aging Dirk Nowitzki, and the team that could soon be irrelevant in a increasingly tough Western Conference, Noel stands as a future franchise piece if he does indeed fulfill his potential.

The question now is, especially after how this summer has gone, do you pay upfront for potential talent to an extent that seems unreasonable to a fault?

I would still doubt that Noel ends up with that max contract, but some positioning here could earn him a few extra bucks.