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



Oklahoma City: 60-22, first seed in East

Houston: 45-37, eighth seed in East


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.


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)


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.


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.


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.


Thunder in six

Jeff Hornacek says he wants to know future with Knicks, doesn’t

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A couple months ago, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said he believed he had the backing of president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry.

Now, Hornacek isn’t being quite so presumptuous.

Hornacek, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

“At the end of the season I’m sure we’ll sit down with (president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry) and figure out what we’re doing,” said Hornacek, whose two-season coaching record with the Knicks fell to 55-96 following Thursday’s loss to the Sixers. “As a coach you’d like to know if you’re going to be here next year. But our job right now is take the guys that we have on this team and try to get them better.”

Hornacek then acknowledged that the conversation with the front office about his future has not yet happened.

The Suns fired two of Hornacek’s assistants in 2015 then fired Hornacek about a month later. He knows what the writing on the wall looks like.

And there’s plenty of writing on the wall in New York, even if the Knicks aren’t firing shots across Hornacek’s bow quite so aggressively.

The since-ousted Phil Jackson hired Hornacek. Most executives in Mills’ position want to hire their own coach.

Notice how hard Hornacek is trying to frame this Knicks season as about player development, not their record (which, incidentally, is the correct way to view it). But here’s betting Mills uses Hornacek’s dismal record as cover to fire him.

That isn’t exactly fair to Hornacek, but he’s also the one who started Jarrett Jack at point guard most of the season. Hornacek tried to win with a flawed roster and didn’t. Hornacek’s player-development credentials are hardly impeccable, either. Coaches in his position usually take the fall.

There’s still a chance the end-of-season conversation leads to the Knicks keeping Hornacek. But, at this point, that’d be surprising.

Likely lottery pick Trae Young leaving Oklahoma for NBA draft

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LeBron James said Trae Young better go pro.

The freshman Oklahoma point guard listened.

Young, as told to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’ve been preparing most of my life to join the NBA, and that time has come for me now: After an unforgettable year at the University of Oklahoma, I will enter the June NBA draft and fully immerse myself in the pursuit of a pro basketball career.

Young is one of the NBA draft’s most polarizing prospects. He should still go in the lottery, but where will likely depend on the order of teams.

His fans see him as the next Stephen Curry, and Young has certainly shown flashes. He handled a huge load of the Sooners’ offense, because he was comfortable pulling up for deep 3-pointers and passing out of the pick-and-roll.

But he can be too sloppy with the ball, and NBA defenses will take away some of the simpler passes he made with great consistency at Oklahoma.

There’s also concern about his diminutive 6-foot-2 frame, especially defensively. If Young isn’t a lights-out shooter, that deficiency becomes a much bigger concern.

Young made 41% of his 3-pointers through December then just 33% this calendar year. His overall percentage – 36% – is still strong, especially coupled with an 86% mark on free throws. But he’s not the sure thing from outside he appeared to be when perception took hold.

Young’s reputation is probably ahead of his ability. But that can be true right now, and the 19-year-old could still have an NBA career worthy of a very high pick.

Reports: Stephen Curry targeting Friday return to Warriors

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For the second half of Monday’s loss to the Spurs, the Warriors were without Kevin Durant (ribs), Stephen Curry (ankle), and Klay Thompson (thumb), and Draymond Green (hip contusion) — all four All-Stars sidelined with injuries.

That’s about to change — Curry is expected back Friday night against Atlanta. Chris Haynes of ESPN was first with the story, and Monty Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area fills us in with the details.

Curry could, however, return as soon as Friday when the Atlanta Hawks visit Oracle Arena, multiple sources disclosed to NBC Sports Bay Area on Monday night. ESPN, citing league sources, was first to report the team’s plan.

The two-time MVP’s right ankle is scheduled to be re-evaluated Tuesday, after which time a firm return date is expected.

Curry was physically able to play — and actually pushed to return — last weekend, according to league sources. But the Warriors, looking ahead to the playoffs and seeing diminished value in the remaining regular-season games, opted to continue rehabilitation in hopes of maximizing support for the area around his ankle.

If this were the playoffs, Curry would have been back three games ago. However, the Warriors have all but conceded the No. 1 seed to the Rockets and the focus now is on getting Curry and the other All-Stars back and healthy for another deep playoff run.

Curry has played at a first-team All-NBA level when healthy this season, averaging 26.3 points and 6.2 assists per game, shooting 42.4 percent from three. The other three All-Stars are needed for the Warriors to be the team to beat in the NBA, however, Curry is the guy the system was built around and they need him right. It’s his gravity to draw defenders out — whether he has the ball or not — that opens up everything in the offense. When Curry is on the court, the Warriors offense is 14 points per 100 possessions better this season, and when he sits their offense tends to be about league average.

The Warriors expect to have all their stars healthy are ready for the postseason, but it’s something to watch as we move through the final weeks of the season.

Three Things to Know: Kevin Love is back, but it’s still all about LeBron in Cleveland

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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) Kevin Love returns, but it’s still LeBron James’ night in Cavaliers win. Kevin Love is back — and he didn’t look bad considering the time off. Love had 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting, and seven rebounds (two offensive), but most importantly he was aggressive on the glass and worked hard on defense. He had four assists and the Cavaliers offense is just more dynamic with him because of his passing and ability to space the floor.

That said, Love needs to work on his form getting back on defense.

Love’s return is nice and all, but Cleveland goes as LeBron James goes — and he went off on Milwaukee. He always seems to get up for Giannis Antetokounmpo the Bucks. LeBron had 40 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists — all while guarded by Antetokounmpo (one of the leagues better defensive forwards because of his length). Take a moment on that: That’s three triple-doubles in four games, and LeBron became the third-oldest NBA player to have a 40-point triple double (Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Elgin Baylor are the two ahead of him). What LeBron has done this season at age 33, with 15 seasons of miles on him, is stunning.

The win has the Cavaliers back as the three seed in the East.

Antetokounmpo had a good night of his own, 37 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, but the Bucks continue to stumble, losing 8-of-12. Milwaukee appears destined for the eight seed in the East and a trip to Toronto to start the postseason.

2) Tyronn Lue is out as Cavaliers coach for “a while” in an effort to get control of health issues. There are things — frankly, a lot of things — more important than NBA basketball. Health is certainly one of them — for an NBA coach the long hours, stress, travel, eating on the go, all combine to form a far from a healthy lifestyle.

All of that caught up with the Cavaliers’ Tyronn Lue this season, who is stepping away from the team temporarily to get control of health issues.

“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby (Altman, Cavs GM) and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season,” Lue said in a statement.

“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is.”

That’s scary (and the reports from people close to the team are worse — like coughing up blood worse). Reports out of Cleveland are that Lue will return before the playoffs, in fact, he’d like to be back on the sidelines in a week, but someone needs to slow his roll a little. Lue needs to prioritize himself and his health above a playoff run. Steve Clifford, the Charlotte coach to missed 21 games this season to get a handle on severe headaches and issues related to sleep deprivation, and Clifford has already reached out to Lue and the pair are expected to talk. That is a good start.

As for what happens to the Cavaliers while Lue is out… probably not that much. Assistant coach Larry Drew takes over, but this team’s systems and coverages are not about to change. The Cavaliers are who they are, the challenge is integrating all the new bodies — that includes Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and the rest coming off injuries — and to get some cohesion before the playoffs start. Right now, the Cavaliers are nowhere near that on the defensive end, and they don’t have a lot of time to sort it out.

3) Draymond Green leaves Warriors loss with a hip contusion — joining Curry, Durant, Thompson on sidelines — in Warriors loss. Curry could return Friday. The Spurs looked like a team about to drop out of the playoffs a couple of weeks ago — and Kawhi Leonard’s return remains a mystery — but the Spurs playoff streak looks like it will reach 21 seasons.

San Antonio has won four in a row and moved up to the fifth seed in the West following an 89-75 win over Golden State Tuesday. Fivethirtyeight.com has San Antonio with an 89 percent chance of making the postseason now, as they are full three games clear of the nine-seed Clippers.

The Spurs took advantage of a banged-up Warriors team — Kevin Durant (ribs), Stephen Curry (ankle), and Klay Thompson (thumb) were already sidelined for this one, and in the second quarter Draymond Green left the game with a hip contusion. X-rays were negative, he’s not expected to miss much time. Without their four All-Stars, the Warriors scored just 12 points in the fourth quarter, and that allowed the Spurs to pull away for a low-scoring win 89-75.

Curry is reportedly targeting a Friday return to the court, against Atlanta. All of the Warriors injuries are not expected to linger into the postseason — it’s something to watch, if Golden State is not at 100 percent the Rockets threat grows (and it’s already very real), but as of right now the Warriors should be a fully formed Voltron by the start of the playoffs.