ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: The Thunder finished the regular season with a record of 60-22, which was good for the number one playoff seed in the Western Conference.

Thanks to the unfortunate knee injury that occurred in Game 2 of the team’s first round playoff series against the Rockets, however, OKC quite literally limped to the finish line, and was overmatched by a Memphis Grizzlies team in the second round that took care of them easily in five games.

Signature highlight from last season: The play that was most impactful was, of course, Westbrook’s injury in the playoffs. But let’s keep it positive here, and with too many ridiculous Kevin Durant highlights to choose from, let’s go with this explosive dunk from Westbrook on the break that he threw down over Golden State’s Stephen Curry.

Key player changes: OKC didn’t make any additions that would lead you to believe the roster this year is better than it was a season ago, and lost it’s only reliable scorer from the bench unit in free agency.

  • IN: Rookies Steven Adams (drafted with the 10th overall pick) and Andre Roberson (drafted with the 26th overall pick by Minnesota, then dealt to OKC on draft night) are the only new faces with guaranteed contracts in place for the coming season.
  • OUT: Kevin Martin was allowed to leave in free agency, and although he got more from the Timberwolves than he would have been worth to the Thunder (especially when retaining him would’ve meant entering luxury tax territory), his loss will be noticed, especially in the early part of the season. Ronnie Brewer was a midseason acquisition, but he didn’t have much impact and ended up signing with the Rockets this summer.

Keys to the Thunder’s season:

1) The health of Russell Westbrook: We know Westbrook is going to miss at least the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season following an additional knee surgery that took place just recently. What we don’t know is how long it’ll be before he returns to form as one of the most dynamic and explosive players in the game today.

The timeline of Westbrook’s ascent back to the player he once was is going to make all the difference in how the Thunder’s regular season plays out. The team is obviously looking at playing deep into the postseason, after finishing with 60 wins last year and making it to the Finals in the season before that. But in the midst of a crowded Western Conference stacked with at least six powerful teams, finishing lower in the standings will make the desired playoff results that much more difficult to achieve.

2) The development of the bench: OKC traded away James Harden before the beginning of last season, and while history is not going to look kindly on the deal from the Thunder’s perspective, at least they got a semi-serviceable scorer in Kevin Martin in return who could fill that role off the bench. With Martin now gone in free agency (and with no one added to replace him), the Thunder are going to need to get production from the reserve unit somewhere if they’re going to be able to compete with the league’s elite teams.

The hope is that Reggie Jackson, who saw heavy minutes during the playoffs and performed better than expected, can continue to develop into a reliable contributor that he’s already shown signs of proving to be. But it would be nice if Jeremy Lamb, DeAndre Liggins or one of the freshly-drafted rookies could contribute as well, and there’s just no guarantee that they’ll come along as quickly as the Thunder need them to in order to remove some of the burden from the starters’ shoulders.

3) Kevin Durant, MVP? This could be the year that Kevin Durant unseats LeBron James as league MVP, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost on the list could be voter fatigue — we all know that James is considered to be the game’s best player, but if the Heat coast a little during the regular season and Durant is forced to put up ridiculous numbers to keep his team in the hunt while Westbrook is out, it would be easy to see him quickly becoming the favorite to take home the award if those making the call are looking to give it to someone besides James.

Durant is capable of dominating offensively, and will be expected to do so with his All-Star teammate sidelined. He could take on an even bigger role as the season progresses depending on Westbrook’s recovery and whether or not he gets much help from his teammates. If he puts up MVP-caliber numbers, there’s no reason the Thunder can’t be right where they need to be by the time the season concludes, despite all of the apparent challenges.

Why you should watch the Thunder: Durant and Westbrook are arguably two of the league’s top-five players. Beyond that, the intrigue with this Thunder team runs deep. Can Durant carry them to a high place in the regular season standings, or will the team collapse under heavy expectations, and due to Westbrook’s injury and the lack of a capable bench? There’s drama here, and that’s exciting.

Prediction: 53-29, good for a top-five finish in the West. Durant will need to come through with that MVP season for the Thunder to be in the championship conversation, especially in a deeper-than-usual Western Conference. While he’s certainly capable of that, the questions surrounding Westbrook and the reserve unit are too plentiful for the team to warrant anything more than a forecast of a similar outcome as it experienced a season ago — a second round playoff loss.

Watch Harrison Barnes nab a game-saving steal to put Mavericks past Clippers, 97-95

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DALLAS (AP) Harrison Barnes thrived in a new position on Thursday night, and so did the Mavericks.

Barnes made the go-ahead basket, then stole the ball from Blake Griffin with 3.9 seconds left as Dallas beat the Los Angeles Clippers 97-95.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle started a big lineup, with Barnes moving from power forward to small forward.

“I have a little bit more energy from not banging with as many bigs,” Barnes said.

Barnes made a 14-foot jumper with 1:06 remaining for the game’s 11th lead change, making it 96-95. After he stripped Griffin, Wesley Matthews made a free throw with 0.9 seconds to play before J.J. Redick missed a 3-point attempt that would have won it at the buzzer. His shot bounced off the far side of the rim.

“We had a great shot on the last play,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “That was great execution, and it was a 3, would have been a game-winner. Make, miss, we will live with that.”

Griffin scored 21 points, including nine in a row in the fourth quarter, but he missed his last three shots and turned the ball over four times in the game.

“I got to take care of the ball on the last play of the game,” Griffin said, “if you trust me with the last play of the game.”

Dallas expected Griffin to have the ball.

“I have to give credit to our coaching staff,” Barnes said. “They scouted that play well before the game. We knew it was coming to Blake. I just tried to play good defense, and I was in the right spot and the right time.”

The Clippers had their three-game winning streak snapped. Dallas, battling from behind for a playoff berth, had lost four of six.

“I don’t care about the race,” Rivers said. “I care about how we play.”

Seth Curry led Dallas with 23 points. Barnes finished with 21 and Dirk Nowitzki had 14.

The new lineup had Nerlens Noel starting at center and point guard Yogi Ferrell on the bench.

Curry started at point guard and had four assists.

“We’re going to give this a look,” Carlisle said. “It may be the rest of the year, it may not.”

Noel finished with 12 rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals, including one in the final minute.

DeAndre Jordan had 14 points and 18 rebounds for the Clippers. Chris Paul scored 15 points and Austin Rivers had 13.

The Mavericks led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter. But after trailing 44-32, Los Angeles finished the first half on a 22-4 run for a 54-48 halftime lead.

Paul had 13 points in the first half, and Jordan already had a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Nowitzki and Curry each had 10 points for the Mavericks.

Dallas started the third quarter with a 13-2 run to regain the lead at 61-56. The Mavericks took a 79-77 lead into the fourth quarter.

TIP-INS

Clippers: Redick’s four-point play in the second quarter was the 31st of his career. … The Clippers outrebounded Dallas 25-15 in the first half, but only 20-19 in the second.

Mavericks: Barnes has scored 20-plus points 35 times this season. He totaled 19 games of 20-plus in his first four NBA seasons with Golden State. … Dallas scored 21 points off 17 turnovers, nine in the second half. The Mavericks committed only nine turnovers for eight points.

THE LINEUP

Carlisle seemed pleased with the lineup change.

“We got to look at Curry at point with a really conventional team out there. We got a look at Noel with Dirk and Barnes. We got to see how things would shake out with Barnes at 3.”

THE MIGHTY FALL

Dallas’ J.J. Barea – listed at 6 feet, 185 pounds – was ejected with 5:29 to play in the third quarter after pushing the 6-10, 251-pound Griffin to the floor.

Crew chief Bill Spooner explained the call.

“The contact, in our judgment, was deemed unnecessary and excessive. The contact was to the shoulders and above to the throat. That is deemed as a flagrant penalty two.”

UP NEXT

Clippers: Begin a three-game homestand on Saturday afternoon against Utah.

Mavericks: Play the third game of a four-game homestand vs. Toronto on Saturday.

Marquese Chriss gets up for huge alley-oop off no-look pass vs. Nets (VIDEO)

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Phoenix Suns rookie Marquese Chriss is an athletic big man. During Thursday night’s matchup against the Brooklyn Nets, Chriss got loose behind the defense for an alley-oop off a no-look pass from Tyler Ulis.

The play came about halfway through the first quarter. Ulis was out in transition, and four Nets players committed to the arc with nobody back to guard the rim.

That allowed Chriss to slip past everyone down the left side of the floor for the monster dunk.

Brooklyn beat Phoenix, 126-98. The win was the Nets’ first consecutive win of the season.

Watch DeMar DeRozan score 40 as Raptors beat Heat, 101-84 (VIDEO)

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MIAMI (AP) DeMar DeRozan scored 40 points, marking the first time he’s had that many in consecutive games, and the Toronto Raptors pulled off their 19th double-digit comeback of the season to beat the Miami Heat 101-84 on Thursday night.

DeRozan shot 14 for 25 from the field and 12 for 13 from the line. He needed 38 shots to score 42 against Chicago on Tuesday.

Norman Powell scored 14 and Delon Wright added 13 for Toronto, which never led until midway through the third quarter. The Raptors allowed 33 points in the first quarter, then held Miami to 35 points over the next 27 minutes.

Playing with 13 stitches in his right hand, Hassan Whiteside scored 16 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for Miami. Rodney McGruder and Goran Dragic each had 13 points for the Heat, with Dragic shooting just 5 for 18.

He wasn’t the only Miami player to struggle. The Heat shot only 39 percent, 26 percent from 3-point range. The 84 points tied for Miami’s second-lowest total of the season, and was the first time the Heat failed to reach 90 at home.

The Raptors trailed by 15 points early and eventually led by as many as 17 – a 32-point turnaround. No one in the NBA has been better at pulling off big comebacks than the Raptors, who have come from behind six times since the All-Star break alone.

“It talks about toughness, heart,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Our give-a-crap level is pretty high, and it’s one of those things where when you count us out, we find a way. My thing is just find five men who are going to play hard.”

Neither team moved in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. Toronto (43-29) remained in the No. 4 spot, pulling within a half-game of No. 3 Washington. Miami (35-37) stayed No. 8, now just a game ahead of No. 9 Chicago and No. 10 Detroit.

TIP-INS

Raptors: DeRozan has two 20-plus-point halves against Miami this season. He had 22 in the second half on Nov. 4, and 24 in the first half of this one. … P.J. Tucker started for Serge Ibaka, who served his one-game suspension for fighting Chicago’s Robin Lopez on Tuesday. … Toronto outrebounded Miami 51-36.

Heat: Wayne Ellington played, one day after the birth of his son. Wayne Ellington III arrived Monday afternoon. … Miami’s three second-quarter field goals were a season-low for any quarter. The previous low was four, done four times. … McGruder reached double figures for only the second time in his last 14 games.

DEROZAN HISTORY

DeRozan became the second player in Toronto history to have a season where he scored 32 or more points at least 20 times. He was an 11-year-old when it last happened – Vince Carter had 28 of those games in 2000-01.

WAITERS UPDATE

Heat guard Dion Waiters missed his third game with a sprained left ankle, and remains in a walking boot. There’s still no timetable for his return, but the Heat said the swelling in his ankle continues to decrease.

UP NEXT

Raptors: Visit Dallas on Saturday. It’s the second time this month Toronto faces Miami and Dallas consecutively.

Heat: Visit Boston on Sunday. Miami is 0-3 against Boston this season, losing by eight, 10 and three points.

JJ Barea goes after Blake Griffin, earns Flagrant 2 and ejection (VIDEO)

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Dallas Mavericks guard JJ Barea didn’t like that Los Angeles Clippers big man was coming to set a screen on him, so he slapped his hand away. Griffin then retaliated with an elbow — which may or may not have connected — and that kicked off a row between the two players that resulted in Barea claiming a Flagrant 2 and an ejection.

It came during the third quarter with Barea at the top of the key and both Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on either side of him.

Here’s how the play looked from multiple angles:

Curious that Griffin wasn’t assessed a foul at all given his own handsy nature. After the game referee Bill Spooner responded to pool reporters by saying that Barea was ejected for his contract above the throat. Meanwhile, Spooner also said that whether Griffin flopped or not was irrelevant.

“It has nothing to do with the merits of the play,” said Spooner.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks beat the Clippers, 97-95.