NBA Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

L.A. Clippers 57-25 (three seed in West)

Oklahoma City Thunder 59-23 (two seed in West)

Thunder advanced to second round with seven game win over Grizzlies. Clippers advanced to second round with seven game win over Warriors.

KEY INJURIES

Chris Paul is nursing a sore hamstring that is certainly slowing him some but he is playing through it.

Hedo Turkoglu suffered a bruised lower back in Game 5 against the Warriors, it is unclear when he might return.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possessions)

L.A. Clippers: Offense, 109.4 (1st in NBA); Defense 102.1 (7th in NBA)

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

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

Chris Paul vs. Russell Westbrook. Two of the best point guards in the game but with radically different styles. Paul is the classic floor general, controlling the tempo and flow, looking to set up his teammates and scoring when he has to. Westbrook uses his exceptional athleticism and aggressive style to put pressure on the defense. Westbrook can be a double edged sword, as we saw against the Grizzlies — in Game 7 (and one) he was poised and getting teammates involved, carving up the defense. But through the middle of the Grizzlies series he shot poorly and just kept on shooting first and asking questions later. We could see that again — in the regular season Westbrook shot just 6-of-23 (0-of-6 from three) when guarded by Paul (stats via NBA.com’s Sports VU cameras). OKC needs facilitator Westbrook in this series. For Westbrook the other key is his defense — if he (with likely help from Thabo Sefalosha) can keep CP3 from conducting the Clippers offense and getting teammates easy buckets and open looks the Thunder will have a key advantage.

Blake Griffin vs. Serge Ibaka. These two have a history. Blake Griffin’s game doesn’t have many holes in it anymore — he has great handles, a midrange game defenders have to respect, plus he still hast that explosive athleticism. Serge Ibaka, perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, is one of only a handful of defenders who can really make life difficult for Griffin. In the regular season Griffin shot 14-of-35 (40 percent) when Ibaka guarded him. OKC will throw some Steven Adams and Nick Collison at Griffin as well, trying to wear him down. Overall during their regular season meetings Griffin averaged 24.8points a game shooting 49.3 percent against OKC, solid performances close to his regular season averages. Will it be different with playoff matchups? If Griffin wins the battle against Ibaka it would be huge for Los Angeles.

Can the Clippers slow Kevin Durant? Memphis had Tony Allen, who for six games did all you could ask in terms of keeping the soon to be MVP in check. The Clippers lack that kind of lock down perimeter defender. In their four meetings this season Durant averaged 32.5 points per game but shot just 44.1 percent (29 percent from three). During the season Durant made 25-of-30 shots at the rim, but was just 6-of-21 from the midrange and was 7-of-24 from three against LA. Matt Barnes will get the call to start against Durant and KD shot 10-of-22 against Barnes in the regular season (they were matched up for 17 minutes). The Thunder are going to need better games than that out of Durant in this series, or they need a third scoring option to step up.

PREDICTION

This is a toss up. It could go either way. About the only think we can say with certainty is this will go at least six games. I’d like to think the Clippers are moving past the Donald Sterling fiasco and that will not impact them, but you can expect more revalations during the series, and them having to answer more questions about it. On the court the Clippers have better depth and a coach who can use guys like Jamal Crawford and DeAndre Jordan to create matchup problems (Crawford had 36 in one regular season meeting and was a problem all season for OKC). During the season the Thunder were better defensively and that could be their key — if OKC’s defense really steps up (and off it they get some buckets in transition off it) they have the upper hand. It will take the best of the Thunder to win this — Westbrook controlling the tempo and shooting a high percentage, Durant being Durant, a third scoring option stepping up — they have no margin for error.

Thunder in 7.

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.

Steve Kerr has “regrets” over time as Suns GM with Mike D’Antoni as coach

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Saturday night, Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni will square off as the coaches of the two best teams in the NBA this season (the Warriors and Rockets), teams loaded with offensive talent that play fast — Kerr and D’Antoni have some of the same basic philosophies about the game. Right now they have a mutual admiration society going.

But remember when Kerr took over as the general manager of the “seven seconds or less” Suns? Then traded for Shaq, which was the first step in D’Antono going out the door to New York.

Kerr opened up about his regrets from that era to Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News.

“I have some regrets,” Kerr said. “I think we had a few differences that I probably didn’t handle very well as a GM that I could’ve probably handled better, especially given that we really like each other and have a lot of similar viewpoints on the game.”

The Suns were a contender, but not one that could get over the hump of the peak San Antonio Spurs of the mid-2000s (it was more than just the year Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the boards and A’mare Stoudemire got nailed for leaving the bench). Kerr felt the need to do something, so he traded Shawn Marion for an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal who did not at all fit the Suns’ style. That move ended an era, and the next summer D’Antoni signed in New York (with a front office that never gave him the pieces for his style of play).

“I should have let Mike know, ‘It’s okay, keep kicking [butt] and keep going, and we’ll make some moves that aren’t so radical that fit more with who we are as an organization,” Kerr said. “We swung for the fences, and it was not the right move to make as an organization. I didn’t envision that as GM. I didn’t have the macro view of what we needed to do….

“I needed to tell Mike, ‘It’s okay if we don’t win the championship,’” Kerr said. “We were so desperate to win. But not everybody can win. But what you can do is keep putting yourself in a position to get there. Then maybe the breaks fall your way.”

Kerr said he’s matured in the way he views the game and team building since then. That is evident in the way the Warriors have been built, with a big-picture view of everything that gets done — they win not only because they are loaded with talent but how that talent fits together. However, they are really an extension of the changes D’Antoni brought to the NBA in Phoenix, just with better defense and some ridiculous shooters.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles with rosters that were ill-suited for his style, D’Antoni is winning big again in Houston because James Harden was really a point guard and GM Daryl Morey has put the right pieces around him to play D’Antoni’s style.

But once again D’Antoni seems just short of a ring because a legendary team — and Steve Kerr — is in the way.

Reports: Jazz might trade Rodney Hood before deadline

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Rodney Hood has been a solid shooter for the Jazz this season, averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting 41.3 percent from three. Of course, you remember him better for this.

Hood is in the final year of his rookie contract, and with the rise of Donovan Mitchell it’s not exactly clear what Hood’s role would be for the Jazz going forward.

Which means Utah might trade Hood, according to multiple reports.

Hood isn’t going to net much in return because he’s in the final year of a contract and because he misses time with nagging injuries (he was out the end of Friday’s game against the Knicks with a lower leg contusion), but considering the number of teams who could use another shooter in the mix there will be interest. More than the big name deals — Kemba Walker, DeAndre Jordan — this is the kind of trade likely to get done at the deadline.

Lowry scores 24 points as Raptors beat Spurs 86-83

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TORONTO (AP) — Kyle Lowry scored nine of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, DeMar DeRozan added 21 and the Toronto Raptors beat San Antonio 86-83 on Friday night to snap a four-game losing streak against the Spurs.

Jonas Valanciunas had 15 points and 11 rebounds as the Raptors improved to 17-3 at home, the second-best home record in the NBA behind San Antonio’s mark of 19-2.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 17 points and 14 rebounds, Pau Gasol scored 15 points and Patty Mills had 13 as San Antonio lost for the fourth time in six road games. The Spurs are 11-15 away from home.

It had been more than two years since Toronto last beat San Antonio. The Raptors won 97-94 at home on Dec. 9, 2015.

San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili missed his second straight game because of a sore right thigh. Ginobili returned to Texas after the Spurs won at Brooklyn on Wednesday.

The Spurs trailed 70-69 after a 3-pointer by Bryn Forbes at 6:52 of the fourth, but DeRozan and Lowry connected on back-to-back possessions, giving Toronto a 74-69 lead with 5:11 remaining.

After a jump shot by Mills, Toronto reeled off a 6-0 run including baskets by Lowry, Valanciunas and DeRozan to lead 80-71 with 2:40 left.

Another 3-pointer by Forbes made it 86-83 with six seconds left. DeRozan was fouled but missed both free throws, giving San Antonio a chance to tie, but the Spurs couldn’t get a shot off in time.

After making seven of 23 shots in the first quarter, the Raptors hit 11 of 20 attempts in the second, including a buzzer-beating jumper from DeRozan that gave Toronto a 44-37 lead at halftime.

Toronto led 55-41 on DeRozan’s three-point play at 7:33 of the third but Aldridge did all the scoring in an 8-0 Spurs run that cut the gap to 63-60 heading to the fourth.