Marc Gasol, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka

NBA Playoff Preview: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

Memphis Grizzlies: 50-32 (7 seed)
Oklahoma City Thunder: 59-23 (2 seed)

KEY INJURIES

None to speak of. Both teams have all the guys in their regular rotations. While Oklahoma City had kept Russell Westbrook out of back-to-backs as a precaution down the stretch, but that’s not an issue come the postseason.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Memphis Grizzlies: Offense 103.3 (16th in NBA), Defense 102.1 (T-7th in NBA)

Oklahoma City Thunder: 108.1 (7th in NBA), Defense 101 (5th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Can Memphis slow Kevin Durant? Durant will be the NBA’s MVP — 32 points a game on 50.3 percent shooting, hitting 39.1 percent from three. He is going to get his in this series, but during the season the Grizzlies have had some success keeping Durant in check when Tayshaun Prince was guarding him. In the more than 30 minutes Prince was on Durant this season Durant was 19-of-47 overall (40 percent) and 4-of-12 from three (33 percent), according to the NBA’s SportsVU camera data. The questions here for Memphis are: 1) Can Prince sustain that? Durant has torched Tony Allen and the other Grizzlies’ wings, so there aren’t a lot of good options; 2) If Prince can somehow sustain it he is an offensive black hole (true shooting percentage of 43.8, PER of 8.2) and they need scoring. Durant is an incredibly efficient scorer and will probably average 30 points a game in this series, but can the Grizzlies grind him and just make him less efficient? It’s key for them.

2) Can Oklahoma City slow Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol? Last year when these teams met in the playoffs Scott Brooks played Kendrick Perkins better than 20 minutes a game and that was an issue because they needed offense with Westbrook out. This year Westbrook is back and this may be the one series where leaning on Perkins is not a bad thing — when matched up on Gasol or Randolph, Perkins allowed fewer shots than any other Thunder big and held them to 40 percent shooting, according to the NBA’s SportsVU data. Gasol-Randolph shot 42 percent against Steven Adams and 48 percent against Serge Ibaka (but he had four blocks). Memphis is going to grind and get most of their points from this tandem, if OKC’s bigs can keep them from being efficient it will be a tough go for Memphis.

3) Russell Westbrook vs. Mike Conley. Mike Conley has become the best point guard in the NBA nobody is talking about. He is a traditional floor general, although the Grizzlies will needs one points out of him this series. More importantly, he’s one of the better defensive point guards in the league and he’ll be tasked with keeping Russell Westbrook in front of him and out of the paint — penetration breaks down any defense, the physical Grizzlies included. Westbrook cannot have an open runway to the rim and that falls on Conley — a task he is up to. The other key that ties into this (and falls on all the Grizzlies and not just Conley) is keeping Westbrook and the Thunder out of transition. If the game is fast paced — even for just a stretch — and the Thunder are getting easy buckets in transition, the Grizzlies will not be able to match that scoring. This needs to be grit and grind at its best for the Grizzlies. The Thunder need Westbrook to put up points, especially if the Grizzlies focus on Durant, but to do it efficiently.

PREDICTION

Thunder in seven. Memphis is not your standard seven seed — this is a 50-win team that was 33-13 after Marc Gasol returned from his knee injury and is hitting its stride at the right time. For Memphis to pull the upset (and it’s possible) they will need a monster series from Mike Miller — spacing the floor has been the Grizzlies’ issue the past few seasons (only 17.1 percent of their shot attempts this season were threes, lowest in the league) yet Oklahoma City can take mental defensive vacations where they give up good look threes. If Miller (45 percent from three this season) and the Grizzlies (Courtney Lee matters here too) can hit enough threes they have a chance. But Oklahoma City’s perimeter defense when focused is too much… plus they have that Kevin Durant guy. He’ll get them a win or two this series alone.

Is this the moment DeMarcus Cousins found out he was traded? (video)

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 18:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings attends practice for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 18, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS — DeMarcus Cousins was set to answer questions after the All-Star game, when a Kings public-relations official said, “All-Star questions first, please. All-Star-game questions.”

“What other questions we got?” Cousins asked, seemingly unaware of his trade to the Pelicans.

The PR person whispered in Cousins’ ear.

“Oh, really?” Cousins asked.

More whispering.

“It’s whatever,” Cousins said.

Then, asked about his All-Star experience, Cousins smiled big and said, “It was amazing, man. I enjoyed the city of New Orleans. I love it here in New Orleans.”

West bench goes wild over Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook alley-oop (video)

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NEW ORLEANS — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook connected on a fantastic alley-oop in tonight’s All-Star game, but the reaction of the Western Conference bench was even better.

Both Durant and Westbrook downplayed the play after the game, but not everyone agreed.

 

“Defining moment in history right there,” All-Star MVP Anthony Davis said.

 

Report: Kings agree to trade DeMarcus Cousins to Pelicans for Buddy Hield, several picks

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 17: Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans talks to DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings during the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 17, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS — There has been a faction within the Kings organization that wanted to move DeMarcus Cousins for a while, even though they wouldn’t get equal value back, even though it would mean extending their decade-long playoff drought and rebuilding all over again. Despite Cousins’ unquestioned talent on the court, some in the franchise questioned if they could build a consistent, quality team with him as the cornerstone and pointed to the win total in recent years as their example.

For years, Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadive stood in the way of that — he was Cousins’ biggest supporter in the organization.

However, that changed recently according to a source near the Kings, and once it did things moved quickly for Cousins to be traded to the Pelicans in a blockbuster move that few in the league saw coming this quickly or at this low a price. Adrain Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports broke the trade, while Marc Stein of ESPN followed up with details.

This is a big win for Pelicans’ GM Dell Demps, who has been on the hot seat for his inability to put a good team around his All-NBA star in Davis. It’s a move that comes with risks, but risks the Pelicans needed to take. How well Davis and Cousins can play together remains to be seen, and the team still desperately could use more shooting. The biggest challenge will be re-signing Cousins, who has one year left on his deal after this one (and now cannot be signed to a designated player supermax deal the Kings allegedly were going to offer). Look at what Cousins’ agent said.

Kings GM Vlade Divac was known to be a big Buddy Hield fan heading into the last draft (the Pelicans took him a few spots ahead of the Kings’ pick). Why he still seems to be this high on him is a mystery. If these picks are 2017 ones, as reported, that helps a little as this is considered a deep draft. However, it’s still not anywhere close to equal value and the Kings will take a massive a step back — and they weren’t far forward already. The Kings’ front office reportedly presented Ranadive with the two best choices, and he went with this one. The trade is the first step in a long rebuild for a Sacramento fan base that is understandably hurt. 

The next question for Ranadive is if Divac is the guy to lead that rebuild?

Cousins himself played only two minutes in the All-Star Game Sunday, a sign something was up. Davis, who was the All-Star Game MVP scoring a record 52 points, was asked about Cousins before the trade was announced.

“He’s a great player, dominant in this league, of course, with all the numbers he put up. But I haven’t heard anything,” Davis said.

Cousins also said knew nothing about the deal when he spoke to the media, and added he was just frustrated that once again he was at the All-Star Game and the focus was on trade talk surrounding him.

“Give me a break. I just need one All-Star where it’s just All-Star questions man,” an exasperated Cousins said. “This is my third one and it’s always been something… It’s disappointing I’m spending another All-Star talking about the Kings rather than my All-Star experience.”

As for if he wanted to play in New Orleans (that rumor had been flying around the Smoothie King Center all night), Cousins simply said, “if it happens it happens” and that he was happy in Sacramento.

Cousins said he hadn’t heard from Divac or anyone, and West coach Steve Kerr said that he only played Cousins two minutes in the All-Star Game at Cousins’ request because he is banged up and wanted to rest. Nobody is buying any of this, but that’s what they said.

 

Anthony Davis sets All-Star game record with 52 points, wins MVP, gets DeMarcus Cousins as teammate

Western Conference forward Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans (23 ) slam dunks during the first half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, Pool)
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NEW ORLEANS — After an exhausting game to cap an exhausting weekend, Anthony Davis finally sat down and let his guard down.

“Aw, f—,” Davis said.

The the biggest problem appeared to be that Davis was in front of a room jammed with media, but his harmless lapse to begin his post game press conference was collectively forgiven with a laugh.

The bigger, not-yet-know issue issue: It was too early for the Pelicans star to relax.

After handling All-Star hosting duties in New Orleans, setting an All-Star game record with 52 points and winning MVP, Davis saw the Pelicans trade for DeMarcus Cousins.

“He’s a great player, dominant in this league,” Davis said when the deal was still in the rumored stage.

Cousins will finally give Davis a star teammate and push the Pelicans closer to playoff contention. Davis said he didn’t recruit much this weekend, but he clearly delivered for New Orleans by winning All-Star MVP.

“It was amazing,” Davis said. “That’s what I wanted to do. I stressed that, I think more than enough, to the guys in the locker room before the game. I wanted to get MVP for this crowd, for this city. The guys did a great job of finding me.”

Davis played 31 minutes and 50 seconds — the most in the last three All-Star games. His 52 points broke Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star record of 42 points in 1962 — the season Chamberlain set NBA records with 50.4 points per game and scored 100 in a single game.

“The next one I’m going to try to do is 100 points,” Davis said.