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.

Shaq attacks verse in new TV series "Poetry in America"

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shaquille O’Neal called himself “The Big Baryshnikov” and “The Big Socrates” in his days in the NBA. Now he can add “The Big Shakespeare.”

The basketball Hall-of-Famer, TNT TV analyst, commercial pitchman and onetime rapper is putting poetry on his lengthy resume as part of a new public television series.

He brings his best bard to a dramatic reading of a poem in his episode of the 12-part “Poetry in America ,” then discusses it with Elisa New, a Harvard English professor who hosts the show.

“I’ve always been into poetry,” O’Neal said in an interview with The Associated Press in a sunlit conference room overlooking the Los Angeles skyline. “I’ve been writing rhymes all my life.”

“Poetry in America,” distributed by American Public Television and presented by WGBH in Boston, is airing at various times on local public TV stations. Some episodes, including Shaq’s, are already available to stream.

On the show the 46-year-old former All-Star from the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat recites “Fast Break,” a poem by Edward Hirsch from his 1986 book “Wild Gratitude.” It describes some very imperfect players who manage to put together a perfect basketball play.

“A hook shot kisses the rim and hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,” the poem begins, “and for once our gangly starting center boxes out his man.”

O’Neal, whose 350-pound bulk would never be called “gangly,” still related to the center in the verse, but said he initially missed the poem’s point.

“The first mistake I made was thinking it was about basketball,” he said. “I read it real quick I said `fast break, shovel passes, sure, this is what I do.”‘

He said New, who sat next to O’Neal in the interview and like almost everyone is utterly dwarfed by him, gave him whole new insights that led to a fast friendship.

“When she broke it down intelligently for me, I was very astounded and very amazed,”

The poem is written for a close friend and playing partner of Hirsch’s who had just died. That’s easy to miss if you skip past the dedication at the top, as most readers do.

“It’s fun that only later as you’re reading, you look back at that dedication,” New said. “One line can change everything.”

Suddenly it becomes an examination of transcendent moments and human connections.

“It’s about friendship, it’s about caring, it’s about emotions,” O’Neal said. “I had missed that.”

His latest learning experience took O’Neal’s thoughts back to high school, where he had a 69 percent in English after blowing a test during the basketball playoffs, and needed a 70 to stay eligible for sports.

The teacher allowed him a retest, and suggested a tutor.

“This guy, his name was McDougal, he was a geek, he saved my academic life,” O’Neal said. “Everybody bullied him in school, except me.”

O’Neal said he took the work and “broke it down, made it seem so simple.”

“I retook the test, got an 80, and we won the state championship,” O’Neal said.

“Now,” he said, “I always tell kids I’m a geek.”

The professor had another name for him. “He’s a learner!”

O’Neal partly looked the poet during the interview in a polo shirt and jeans, having traded his basketball sneakers for a pair of slip-on Toms shoes, size 22.

When he wanted them, a company executive told him “it wouldn’t be worth it to make them in my size unless I bought 500 of them,” O’Neal said. “I told him to give me 2,000.”

 

Rumor: Grizzlies had to choose between Marc Gasol and David Fizdale

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David Fizdale has been linked to most of the NBA’s head-coaching vacancies.

He developed a legion of backers as lead a Heat assistant, and he did good things guiding the Grizzlies before they unexpectedly fired him. He deserves consideration.

But he also must explain his fractured relationship with Memphis star Marc Gasol. They weren’t speaking for a while.

And maybe the problem was even worse than that.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to a source close to Fizdale briefed on the Grizzlies’ decision, it was ownership having to make a choice — trade their All-Star center Marc Gasol, who has fallen in love with its small-market city, or fire the coach. Their relationship had gotten that bad.

If Grizzlies ownership felt it had to choose between Gasol and Fizdale, it’s not clear why.

Fizdale benched Gasol down the stretch during the coach’s last game, and Gasol publicly expressed his frustration.

But Gasol denied issuing a me-or-Fizdale ultimatum. Fizdale said focus on his relationship with Gasol was “overblown,” adding he cared far more about whether he could win with a player than whether they got along personally.

Memphis obviously sided with Gasol – probably too strongly.

LeBron James bought Cavs teammates matching designer suits to wear to game tonight

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I’m still trying to decide if this is cool or a little too Stepford.

The Cavaliers rolled into the Bakers’ Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis tonight wearing matching designer suits, all paid for by LeBron James and custom fitted to each player.

If a college team rolled into a game in four-digit designer suits, the NCAA would have questions. And not about the vests.

The Cavaliers are LeBron’s team, and if he wants to buy his teammates suits and tell them to wear them it’s going to happen. Is it a bonding thing that helps bring them together? Sure. Is it in place to make sure LeBron remembers which ones are his new teammates? Probably not.

Do the suits help on the court? No. And the Cavaliers better bring it in Game 3 because if they go down 2-1 in this series — something that is a realistic possibility — the whispers of doubt are going to get a lot louder.

Report: Knicks to discuss coaching vacancy with Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer

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Mike Budenholzer is restless in Atlanta, seeing a rebuild coming and looking at other jobs (something Hawks management is fine with). He went down the road a ways with the Suns before pulling out of that process, but he’s still looking around.

The Knicks are casting a wide net in their search, talking to virtually everyone looking for coaching jobs.

So, this seemed inevitable, right? Budenholzer and the Knicks are going to talk, according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This will be very preliminary. The Knicks have already had some level of conversation with Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Jerry Stackhouse, David Blatt, Mike Woodson, and TNT analyst Kenny Smith (Jackson and Fizdale are the rumored early leaders). Budenholzer has established a style and culture in Atlanta, giving the franchise a path forward. New York could certainly use that.

However, the Knicks job comes with real challenges, too. That starts with James Dolan as owner and the erratic, at times paranoid culture he has created there. Also, expectations in New York are always high, but the team will be without Kristaps Porzigis for at least half (maybe all) of the upcoming season as he recovers from an ACL injury, and that puts a ceiling on the team in the short term. Is all that worth leaving Atlanta for?