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.

No surprise: It’s Cavs-Warriors in the NBA Finals, again

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OAKLAND (AP) — Here they go again.

For the third straight year, it’s Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA Finals. The 2016 champions versus the 2015 champions . The first “threematch” – rematch of a rematch – in league history. It’s the matchup most expected, the matchup most predicted, and probably the matchup the Cavaliers and Warriors wanted as well.

Let the hype, and the waiting, begin: Game 1 isn’t until June 1.

“I’ve been very blessed the last few years to be a part of this league and play on the big stage,” said Cleveland star LeBron James, who has now reached the Finals for the eighth time – including each of the last seven years. “But we’re going to enjoy this for a couple more days before we have to lock in on that juggernaut out west.”

The Cavaliers and Warriors split their two meetings this season, both winning at home. Cleveland won by one on Christmas Day, Golden State prevailed by 35 on Jan. 16.

Golden State led the league with 67 wins this season and is a staggering 27-1 in its last 28 games – including a perfect 12-0 in the Western Conference playoffs, the first time a team has gone this deep into an NBA postseason without losing. Cleveland, which seemed sleepy at times in the regular season, went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs that ended with a win over Boston on Thursday night.

“Playing in this league, you can’t take anything for granted,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Thirty teams suit up every year trying to get to this point, and only two teams do. So you have to appreciate it. … We need to understand the privilege that we have and the opportunity that we have to play in the Finals again, to have the opportunity to win a championship.”

Already, the back-and-forth is underway.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue was quoted earlier this week saying he thought Boston’s offense was “harder to defend” than Golden State’s. Countered Golden State acting coach Mike Brown, when asked about it Thursday: “That’s his opinion. It’s cute.”

And there will be reminders of the Halloween party that James threw for the Cavaliers last fall, with “3-1 Lead” – a nod to what the Warriors lost in last year’s Finals – prominently displayed on the drum set.

Much more of that sort of that will likely follow over the next week, filling time before Golden State plays host to Game 1. But there’s also a clear respect level between the clubs as well.

“The best team in our league the last three years,” James said of the Warriors. “And they’ve added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year. So it makes it even more difficult. They’re going to challenge us a lot, offensively, defensively, mentally, physically. We have to be ready for the challenge.”

For James, the Finals are an annual rite.

For Durant, this trip ends a five-year wait.

Durant’s only other time in the Finals was 2012 when he was with Oklahoma City. The Thunder lost to Miami in five games, a series that made James a champion for the first time.

At the very moment where the clock ran out in that series, the person James was embracing was Durant – telling the then-Thunder star, his offseason workout partner at the time, how proud of him he was.

“Hopefully,” James said that night, “I don’t continue to have to run into him.”

They’ll collide again, starting next week.

Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder for Golden State as a free agent last summer meant the Warriors went from mere overwhelming favorites to win the West again to super-duper-overwhelming favorites to win the West again. They got a big scare in late February when Durant had a left knee injury, but he’s back and the Warriors have rolled since.

“It’s a little different, definitely. I can’t lie,” Durant said, when comparing the 2012 Finals trip to this one. “I went when I was 23 years old, and it felt like the Western Conference Finals was almost like the championship. Just getting to that point, you know how hard it is and how much work you put in to start the season. So it’s a little different now, obviously. We have a bigger goal in mind.”

The storylines are many. Can James win his fourth ring? Can Durant win his first? Will the Warriors be haunted by letting last season’s 3-1 lead slip away? Will they become the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in a postseason? How will Golden State guard Kyrie Irving? How will Cleveland try to contain Curry?

There’s also the irony that Brown, the first coach who took James to an NBA Finals in 2007 – Cleveland was swept by San Antonio – will now coach against him, likely in the same leading role he’s had for Golden State since head coach Steve Kerr was forced to take a break because of continued problems with his surgically repaired back.

“I don’t care who you’re playing, to make it to the NBA Finals, to win your conference finals, it’s a big task,” Brown said.

The biggest task awaits.

Isaiah Thomas wants Celtics to sign free agents, reportedly they are not looking to trade him (yet)

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The Boston Celtics made a huge leap forward this season: They got the No. 1 seed in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. For a team on the rise, that’s impressive.

However, as soon as they landed the No. 1 pick in this draft, a big question started to bubble up:

What is the future of Isaiah Thomas with this team? Which is a strange thing to say about a guy who averaged 28.9 points per game and was All-NBA this season, but here we are.

First, the Celtics are not looking to trade IT this summer as some have suggested, reports Sean Deveny of the Sporting News.

That starts with All-Star Isaiah Thomas, whose name has lately been the subject of trade speculation. But league sources indicate that any talk of dealing Thomas is strictly speculation at this point — the Celtics have had no such discussions. Not yet, at least.

The challenge for the Celtics seems to be this: If they draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 (as is expected by everyone around the league), then what is the future for Thomas? Do you want to pay Thomas max money just as he turns 29 when you have a stud young point guard coming up behind him?

That led to talk of extending Thomas this summer with the team’s cap space (which assumes they do not sign Gordon Hayward). Except Thomas would rather the money be spent on free agents than himself, as he told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“We need the best possible player that’s gonna help us win, and I’m with that,” said Thomas. “Anything Danny and this organization need me to do to help bring even more talent to this city, I’m all for that. I want to win a championship and being so close to getting to the Finals, that makes you want it that much more.

“I’m all help if they need it. I’ll be around.”

Nothing is certain in the NBA, but here is the most likely outcome of the Isaiah Thomas situation: They keep him, they draft Markelle Fultz, they do not extend Thomas (whether they land Hayward or not), and they see how it all fits together for a season. Then they make a decision on Thomas in the summer of 2018. The bottom line is he may well have more value to the Celtics than another team, and while he’s certainly getting a raise from the $6.3 million, he will make next season he may fall short of the max, and in a zone where the Celtics are willing to keep him.

In pure basketball terms, the Celtics may be hesitant to spend on Thomas, but he is also the most popular player on the team by a mile. Letting him go is not that simple.

There are a lot of questions to be answered between now and next summer when it comes to IT.

Spurs’ David Lee will not need surgery on knee, will be ready for training camp in the fall

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David Lee was certainly not going to swing the series against the Warriors one way or another. However, the veteran forward with a varried offensive game still has an NBA role in the right setting.

He has a $1.6 million player option with the Spurs next season, and whatever he decides it’s good news that he will not need surgery to repair the knee injury that sidelined him in the Conference Finals. From Ramona Shelburn of ESPN.

Good news to end the week. David Lee doesn’t need surgery on his knee, per his agent Mark Bartelstein. He’s got a sprained patellar tendon that should heal in about six weeks.

As a big off the bench, David Lee can still help the right team. His game has limitations, but put him in the right situation and he can help. It’s just that due to injury, the Spurs had to ask more of him in the playoffs than he can deliver anymore.

Draymond Green says Warriors are “more relaxed” this season

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Last year, the Warriors entered the NBA Finals with the weight of expectations: Defending NBA champions, 73 regular season wins, if they got the title they would leap up the ladder of all-time great teams, lose and it would be a massive let down. We all know what happened from there.

The Warriors are back in the Finals, taking on the Cavaliers for the third year in a row — but this year things are going to be different. Mostly because of Kevin Durant changing the equation. But also the Warriors mindset is better if you ask Draymond Green. Which Mark Spears of ESPN did.

This makes sense. The Warriors to a man denied the pressure and how physically/mentally taxed they were by the chase for 73, but it clearly wore on them physically and mentally. Green was thrashing about and drawing techs, over-reacting to everything (although sometimes that feels like his default setting). Curry was injured but also tired. The Warriors opened the door, LeBron James and the Cavaliers stormed through it.

Will a rested Warriors make a difference this time around? Maybe. But again, Durant matters more than rest.