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

Report: At least seven teams will try to pick of free agent Andre Iguodala from Warriors

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Golden State has a lot of free agents to retain or replace this summer if they are going to keep their championship team together. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are the two biggest names, but both going to get massive paydays from the team and are not going anywhere. Then there are the role players teams could try to pick off: Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West, plus Matt Barnes.

However, Andre Iguodala is the free agent most teams are targeting. At least seven teams have Iguodala on their radar, reports Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Andre Iguodala has become the foremost target in an attempt to weaken the Golden State Warriors’ chokehold on the NBA, league sources have told ESPN.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs, LA Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz are among the teams interested in the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, sources tell ESPN. It is not yet known if Iguodala will take meetings.

Iguodala, who just finished a close second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting, still can hit threes and bring some buckets, but more importantly he brings defense, flexibility, and leadership. He’s crucial to the switching small-ball lineups the Warriors employ, and he stepped up his game last season when Durant was down. Losing Iguodala would be a blow to these Warriors.

Durant has said he will take a little less money and structure his deal so that the Warriors can retain Iguodala and Livingston, but both of them are unrestricted free agents with options.

Iguodala, 33, is coming off a four-year, $48 million deal and the Warriors would like to retain him in that ballpark of $12 million a year or a little less. The question is the years, Golden State may want to do two, Iguodala will want four, and the likely will settle at three, but that could change or have options.

For Iguodala the question becomes: what if another team comes in over the top, promising a few million more a year and a starting role? At this point in his career, does he want to stay with the Warriors and win, or would that tug on his pocketbook and ego be too much of a draw? Iguodala has said he and GM Bob Myers have been clear and up front with each other throughout the season and talked out scenarios.

Iguodala likely re-signs with the Warriors, but with a number of teams hunting him it may not be that simple a decision.

Kevin Durant congratulates Westbrook on MVP: “F—- balled out. Gotta respect it!”

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Whatever animosity there is between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — and I don’t think it’s as much as some people want to drum it up to be — is more from the Westbrook side. He had the right to feel jilted, even if it was just business.

Monday night Westbrook won the NBA MVP award, and deservedly so after his historic season. Tuesday, Durant was congratulating the winners in the community section of his YouTube page, and that included Westbrook.

“Huge congrats to Russell Westbrook on MVP, that boy went out there and was a created player on 2k all year, F—– balled out. Gotta respect it!”

KD also had some love for his other former teammate, James Harden, who came in second in the MVP voting.

“Shoutout my boy James Harden. For 5 years now he’s taken his game to the next level, he will be an MVP one day, he’s an MVP now, he’s made so many people proud. I know this first hand, recognize what he has done for the game!”

Durant had love for everyone. Which is how he’s feeling after his bold move last summer paid off with a ring.

LaVar Ball confronts wrestler at WWE event (video)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LaVar Ball has brought his Big Baller Brand from the basketball court to the wrestling ring.

The outspoken father of NBA draft No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball showed up with the newly minted Los Angeles Laker and another son, 15-year-old LaMelo, for a live segment on Monday’s “WWE Raw” at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

During the segment, LaMelo Ball twice used the n-word, which was broadcast over the air. WWE says in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that the language “was not scripted nor reflects WWE’s values.”

For LaVar Ball’s appearance, the ring was decorated with mannequins displaying his Big Baller Brand clothing line. He got in a heated confrontation with WWE wrestler The Miz, and took his shirt off to cheers from the crowd.

Bulls, with Michael Carter-Williams, first team to decline extending qualifying offer to Rookie of the Year

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Just four years ago, Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year.

Now, the Bulls don’t even see a $4,187,599 qualifying offer as worth extending.

David Kaplan of CSN Chicago:

Credit Sam Hinkie for trading Carter-Williams (to the Bucks) at just the right moment, netting the 76ers a valuable Lakers first-round pick that Philadelphia used to trade up for Markelle Fultz. Carter-Williams hasn’t nearly lived up to the typical production of a former Rookie of the Year.

The Bulls got Carter-Williams far cheaper from Milwaukee, for Tony Snell (who had a breakout year with the Bucks). But Carter-Williams continued to regress in Chicago. It’s just hard for a point guard with such a shaky outside shot, and Carter-Williams’ injuries haven’t helped.

With a smorgasbord of point guards that now includes Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne, the Bulls can move on.

Carter-Williams can probably latch on as a backup point guard somewhere. As an unrestricted free agent, teams will have greater comfort pursuing him. But this is a blow for someone with such a big accolade on his résumé.