Boston Celtics v Miami Heat

Seven NBA playoff story lines to watch

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After weeks of trying to predict seedings and matchups while watching teams rest their perfectly healthy superstars, the playoffs are finally upon us.

In no particular order, here are the story lines we’ll be watching when the postseason tournament opens on Saturday.

How much damage can the Lakers do without Kobe Bryant?

L.A. opened the season as the favorites (on paper) to challenge the Heat in the Finals, thanks to the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the offseason. An early season coaching change, followed by an insane rash of injuries derailed the Lakers’ chances all season long, and Kobe Bryant became the final casualty of the seemingly lost season once he went down with a torn Achilles injury just as the team was making a run at that final playoff spot in the West.

The Lakers managed to keep it together without Bryant long enough to beat the Spurs and the Rockets to seal a playoff berth, and enter the postseason winning eight of their last nine games. But how this team fares without Bryant while they try to combat the efficiency of the Spurs machine in a series will be extremely interesting to watch, though undoubtedly nerve-wracking for Lakers fans at the same time.

How far can the Clippers go, and what will that mean for Vinny Del Negro’s future?

Vinny Del Negro is legitimately on the hot seat in Los Angeles, for a variety of reasons. How far the Clippers do or do not advance in the postseason is likely to determine his fate, but just how far does L.A. have to get for him to be safe?

The Clippers have a tough but favorable first round matchup against the Grizzlies, who they beat in the first round of the playoffs a season ago in seven games. Last year, the Clippers were swept by the Spurs in the second round, so getting there again this year probably won’t be enough by itself to bring Del Negro back next season.

A trip to the Conference finals might be enough improvement to retain Del Negro’s services, but honestly, it’s going to be Chris Paul’s decision as much as it will be anyone’s inside the organization. Paul is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and will have all the say in the world regarding whether or not Del Negro is brought back next season.

Will the Thunder return to the Finals without James Harden?

Thanks to Oklahoma City largely returning the same roster from a season ago that got them to the NBA Finals, the Thunder are once again poised to make a deep postseason run. But the elephant in the room is the fact that they traded James Harden away to Houston, and the reality is that if they don’t make it back to the Finals, this season will be a wild disappointment, and the front office will be scrutinized for choosing dollars over a legitimate championship chance.

Can the Knicks win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years?

It seems like a silly question, given the success New York has put together this year while being lead by the league’s leading scorer in Carmelo Anthony, and a likely Sixth Man of the Year candidate in J.R. Smith. But nothing is guaranteed for the Knicks despite holding the two seed in the East, and a first round matchup against the Celtics could be terrifying given the history between the teams this season, along with the intensity that veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will bring to a seven-game series.

How much noise can the Warriors make?

The Warriors are in the playoffs for just the second time in the last 19 years, and with one of the best fan bases in the league there to support them, it’s an exciting time in the Bay Area for a basketball resurgence to be taking place. Mark Jackson has been successful in installing a winning culture in just his second season as head coach, but he and the team have said all along that simply making the playoffs was not the ultimate goal this season. We don’t know what the team believes it’s capable of internally, but a first round matchup with an injury-depleted Nuggets team could prove favorable if Golden State can play flawless basketball during the road games of this series.

Will the Spurs finally live up to their potential?

San Antonio has always been one of the more well-coached regular season teams. Gregg Popovich has his system installed, and has the players on the roster to execute it to perfection, no matter the injuries that may take place over the course of the season.

But despite the regular season success, the Spurs haven’t been to the Finals since winning it all in 2007, and have lost to teams they were favored to beat in the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. We know the system allows for regular season success, but at some point the Spurs are going to run out of chances with their core of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili to get back to the Finals. Another early exit this season would be a major disappointment, and might signify the end of an era in San Antonio.

Will the Heat repeat as champions?

This is the question we all want answered. Miami ran roughshod over the rest of the league during the regular season, and just about everyone fully expects them to continue the trend throughout the playoffs. The Heat have the best player in the game in LeBron James, and All-Star complimentary pieces in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that are a wealth of riches when compared to the rosters of other teams Miami might face on the way to a title.

The Heat aren’t just the favorites to repeat as champions; they’ve become the expectation. The way they finished the regular season by winning 37 of their final 39 games is absolutely absurd, and they did so even while resting their best players at times along the way.

It’s gotten to the point where we’d all be surprised if Miami didn’t win the title again this season. But that won’t make the journey any less exciting to watch.

Thunder guard Cameron Payne has surgery to repair Jones fracture in right foot

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 26:  Cameron Payne #22 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrates his three point shot in the second half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on January 26, 2016 in New York City.The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the New York Knicks 128-122 in overtime. 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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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Hopefully, this does not develop into something chronic.

After a promising rookie season and an impressive Summer League in Orlando where he averaged 18.8 points per game, Thunder second year player Cameron Payne had surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot, the team announced Monday. Here it is from the Thunder’s press release.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Cameron Payne underwent a successful procedure today to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot, it was announced today by Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti.

The team is optimistic he will be ready to go by the start of the season (there is usually a 6-8 week timetable), but Payne and the Thunder need to be patient here. The fifth metatarsal is the bone that runs from the base of the little toe up to the ankle on the foot. While surgery can repair it, healing can be slow because that is not an area of the foot with great natural blood flow. The Thunder were down this road before with Kevin Durant, he came back eight weeks after the surgery but ended up needing a couple more to get everything fixed and missed 55 games because of it.

Payne played well as a rookie and is expected to see a healthy bump in playing time next season as a scoring guard off the bench behind Russell Westbrook. He just needs to get right first.

Report: Cavaliers reach five-year, $35 million contract extension with Tyronn Lue

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22: Head coach Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers speaks onstage during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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Coaches who win rings often get a pay bump. Guys who break a 52-year championship drought deserve one.

That includes guys who only coached half a season — especially ones working on the same contract they had before taking the big job.

Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers just agreed to a healthy contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

That seems fair.

What Lue got that his predecessor David Blatt never could was real buy-in from LeBron James and the rest of the Cavaliers. Blatt came off as wanting to be the smartest guy in the room at all times — and don’t you dare discount his experiences coaching in Europe — while Lue was more humble and more direct. He didn’t get to put in everything he wanted, and the team didn’t play faster for him (statistically) as he wanted, but there was better chemistry.

This isn’t rocket science for Cleveland — if you have a coach that your franchise player backs, and said coach has proven he can win, you keep him.

Report: Westbrook doesn’t want to be traded, but real question is summer of 2017

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 23: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands under the hoop prior to the game against the Boston Celtics on November 23, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Since the day after Kevin Durant said he was going to sign with Golden State — which came as a shock to a lot of people with the Thunder organization — there has been a sense from the Thunder and people close to it that they thought they could keep Russell Westbrook. That ultimately, he would prefer to stay. Few around the league were buying that, but OKC believed it.

Maybe it’s optimism. Maybe it’s reality. But the question isn’t about the 2016 season that starts in October; it’s the 2017 season. Does Westbrook want to stay with the Thunder long term and sign an extension to prove it? Or when he’s a free agent next summer does he want to at least listen to his other options? Because if it is the second option, even if Westbrook says he likely stays, well, the Thunder just went down that road and got burned. They have no choice but to move him. And he knows it. He just didn’t expect to have to make this decision now.

Westbrook doesn’t like the idea of being traded, reports Royce Young at ESPN.

According to sources with knowledge of the situation, he doesn’t want to be traded. He wants to play next season with the Thunder. It’s the year after that which is in question. There’s a growing belief Westbrook will think heavily about an extension but will first weigh every angle before doing it.

That extension would put $9 million more in Westbrook’s pocket next season (because the Thunder are under the cap) and he would get raises off of that for three more seasons. It’s a good deal, what he would ultimately lose is one more guaranteed year on the end of his contract if he left the Thunder, two if he stayed.

The real question is: Does he want to be wooed as a free agent next summer?

If the answer is yes, the Thunder have no choice but to trade him — and other teams will have lowball offers unless he guarantees to re-sign where he is traded (no team is giving up many quality future assets to rent Westbrook).

If the answer is no, he should go the James Harden route and sign an extension.

Either way, the answer is coming this summer.

Kevin Durant’s “KD” restaurant in Oklahoma City closes, to re-open under new name

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands on the court in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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More than just a new name, they may need to call in Robert Irvine for a “Restaurant Impossible” makeover.

Kevin Durant‘s restaurant in Oklahoma City KD’s has closed its doors — which makes a lot of sense, that’s not a name that’s going to sell much in OKC anymore. Brianna Bailey of the Oklahoman has the details.

Kevin Durant’s Bricktown restaurant closed Sunday, but vows to open with a new theme after Labor Day, Hal Smith Restaurant Group said Monday.

“The concept will offer an updated atmosphere with a similar menu to what has been available at that location in the past,” the restaurant group said in its announcement.

The restaurant had mixed Southern food classics — fried green tomatoes, po’ boys, fried chicken — in with steaks, burgers, and classic American fare.

The restaurant has been a popular eatery for years, and the ownership group said that didn’t change even after Durant decided to take his talents to Golden State. Still, seems a smart move to have name/theme change after Durant’s decision. I just recommend avoiding a California cuisine theme.