Oklahoma City Thunder forward Durant walks with his head down after a teammate fouled a Memphis Grizzlies player in Game 5 of their NBA Western Conference semi-final playoffs in Oklahoma City.

Thunder enter summer with one big goal: Get healthy

39 Comments

It’s this simple: If Russell Westbrook were playing the Oklahoma City Thunder would be on their way to the NBA Finals.

Instead, there was disappintment as they fell in the second round to a very good Memphis Grizzlies team 4-1. This was not some blowout, Memphis was just +18 for the entire series. No game was decided by more than six points.

You don’t think a healthy Russell Westbrook changes that outcome?

Which is why, while there are things the Thunder need to deal with this summer on the roster, the only thing that really matters is getting healthy. Specifically, getting Russell Westbrook healthy and close to his old self.

Do that and the Thunder are title contenders again. This team won 60 games in the regular season and had the best margin of victory in the league. Healthy they are just fine.

There was a lot of “see, the Thunder could have used James Harden” talk during the playoffs. That talk needs to stop. For one, the Harden ship has sailed, move on. Second, they didn’t need him — they needed Westbrook. You saw it against Memphis — the Grizzlies could load up and make life difficult for Kevin Durant, take away his comfort zone, and the Thunder didn’t have a good second scoring option. Westbrook solves that problem in a big way. Whatever you think of the Harden trade it’s this simple: Without Westbrook the Thunder were not winning a title, regardless of the other moves.

So get healthy this summer, RW.

But there are a couple things the Thunder need to address this off-season.

First is Kevin Martin, who is an unrestricted free agent. He was a good fit with OKC, averaging 14 points a game and shooting better than 42 percent from three. He’s not Harden in terms playmaking but he spaces the floor as a scorer and provides value for them.

The question is how much are you willing to pay for that value. Martin made $12.4 million last season and a pay cut is coming, but how much? And how much are the Thunder willing to pay — they have $67 million on the books already for next season (because Serge Ibaka’s extension kicks in), which has them flirting with the luxury tax line (likely to be $72 million next season). How much is Martin worth? Around $8-9 million for a few years?

One way to clear up some cap space would be to amnesty Kendrick Perkins, who is set to make just shy of $9 million next season. The fans in OKC want this, and the deal helps them on paper, but remember that when you amnesty a player you still have to pay him, he just comes off the official books. If your the Knicks or Lakers, that’s a sunk cost you can ignore, but for the Thunder that is still nearly $19 million over a couple years they have to pay whether Perkins plays in OKC or not. Whatever they do the Thunder need to get another solid big man defender this summer — Perkins was a liability at both ends in the playoffs, especially against the Grizzlies. He had a negative PER of -0.7 for the postseason, which is head-scratchingly bad. The Thunder need to consider a change next to  Ibaka up front.

The Thunder could use some depth, everyone could use more shooters and athletes and defenders. But the pieces are pretty much there with the Thunder. They have good role players — Reggie Jackson is a solid backup point guard, Thabo Sefolosha can defend on the wing, Nick Collison gives you solid minutes off the bench as a center. There are good players who can develop such as Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb.

This is a well-constructed roster. When healthy. That’s all they really need.

Cavaliers’ defense foundation for blowout win

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gestures in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Getty Images
1 Comment

Cleveland blitzed Toronto from the opening tip.

Literally.

Cleveland cranked up their defensive pressure by getting back to aggressively blitzing Raptors’ guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan every time they came off a pick. Or they would chase DeRozan over the top of the pick and trail him, never letting him get comfortable to pull up from the midrange. Whatever the defensive scheme, the Cavaliers were physical with Lowry and DeRozan — the pair was 4-of-14 shooting in the first half.

From the start, the Cavaliers defense dictated the flow of the game and set the tone for a 38-point blowout win.

It is that defense they will need to close out this series on the road Friday night.

“We understood that coming back from Game 3 and Game 4 we just didn’t play our defense the right way,” LeBron James said after the game. “We didn’t play how we should have played, and they took advantage of every moment. We had to get back to our staple; we had to get back to what we wanted to do defensively in order for us to play a complete game. That’s the most satisfying thing, the way we defended, holding these guys to 39 percent shooting.”

Defense triggered the offensive runs by the Cavaliers in the first half — Cleveland had eight steals and scored 20 points off turnovers before halftime. Playing with a renewed energy, the Cavs did a fantastic job fighting over screens and disrupting plays, and they closed out on shooters at the arc. It was their best defensive game of the series. It was the polar opposite of how they played in Toronto.

“I think our intensity picked up, our aggressiveness picked up, we were very physical to start the game and it just kind of led to us getting out in transition, us getting steals and getting easy baskets,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

“They were locked in, from the start to the finish,” according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.”The force that they play with is different here and we didn’t meet it.”

Back home and with their backs against the wall, you can expect a very different, very desperate Raptors team. Lowry and DeRozan will shoot better.

But if the Cavaliers pack their defense and take it north of the border this time, they should close out the series.

LeBron James was dunking all over the Raptors (VIDEO)

1 Comment

With their defense creating turnovers to get breaks — and the Raptors’ defense just breaking down — the Cavaliers put on a dunking exhibition against Toronto Wednesday.

LeBron James led the way, with 23 points and plenty of dunks. Here is another.

To change things up, here is an and-1.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
5 Comments

The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Associated Press
Leave a comment

And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.