Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs

Western Conference Finals preview: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs

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SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio Spurs 62-20 (No. 1 seed in West)

Oklahoma City Thunder 59-23 (No. 2 seed in West)

KEY INJURIES

San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker has a strained hamstring but will play in Game 1 Monday. If he is hampered and can’t penetrate off the pick-and-roll, can’t push the pace in transition, it will be an issue.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka is out for the playoffs with a strained calf muscle (suffered in Game 6 vs. Clippers). This is a huge blow for the Thunder, who lose their third best player and an athletic shot blocker on defense. In these playoffs Ibaka has averaged 12.2 points on 61.6 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks a game — his catch-and-shoot baseline jumper is a key part of what the Thunder do.

If I were a Thunder fan this is the stat that would scare me the most: In four games this season San Antonio’s offense averaged 93 points per 100 possessions when Ibaka was on the court, and 120.8 (shooting 51.4 percent) when he was on the bench. That is 27.8 per 100 better when he was out, and he is out for all seven games.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS IN PLAYOFFS (points per 100 possession)

San Antonio Spurs: Offense 111.1 (second in playoffs); Defense 101.2 (third in playoffs)

Oklahoma City Thunder: Offense 107.9 (seventh in playoffs); Defense 102.8 (fifth in playoffs)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How do the Thunder replace Serge Ibaka? The short answer is they can’t. Not easily. In four meetings with San Antonio this season the Thunder did not use any five-man lineup that didn’t feature Ibaka for more than 10 minutes. Over the course of the first couple games of this series expect Scott Brooks to throw a lot of different looks against the wall to see what sticks.

Here are two to watch for. First, Kevin Durant at the four spot. This would be the “going small” lineup and it could create some matchup issues for the Spurs. That lineup can work if the Thunder hit their threes and can play up tempo, but it also creates some defensive challenges. Second, when Ibaka went down in Game 6 vs. Clippers Brooks turned to a front line of Nick Collison and Steven Adams to great success. That lineup also keeps Kendrick Perkins off the court, which is a good thing for the Thunder.

2) Can Tony Parker get into the paint and finish at the basket? It’s not a shock to find out Tony Parker had success driving the lane against Oklahoma City, he does that against everybody. According to the Sports VU camera data this season Parker didn’t get in the lane as much when Westbrook was his primary defender, but when it was Reggie Jackson or the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka switched on him on a pick-and-roll Parker drove in at will (he will be more aggressive against Perkins/Adams/Collison, all of whom are slower of foot than Ibaka).

But when he got to the rim on those drives Parker only finished 13-of-24 (54.2 percent) — that is what Ibaka’s length and shot blocking bring. As a team the Spurs shot only 50 percent in the restricted area in four meetings between these teams this season, the length and athleticism of the Thunder disturbed those shots. Will that happen with Ibaka out? If Parker, Manu Ginobili and the Spurs as a whole get into the paint and finish a higher percentage at the rim things will look very good for them this series.

3) Can the Spurs hit their corner threes, open midrange looks? Why have the Thunder taken 10-of-12 from the Spurs the last few years? Athleticism on defense. Gregg Popovich’s mantra is “good for great” and the Spurs are better than any team in the league at making the extra pass to get the open look. The Thunder’s length and athleticism on defense (Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Westbrook) negates that — OKC can recover and contest that shot anyway. In four regular season meetings this year the Spurs shot just 9-of-28 (32.1 percent) on the corner threes they love and just 39.7 percent from the midrange. Will that change with Ibaka out? As with #2 above on drives, if the Spurs are hitting their corner threes it tilts everything toward the Spurs. Watch for Danny Green, if he gets hot from deep it’s huge for San Antonio.

PREDICTION

The Thunder swept the regular season meetings and have won 10-of-12 between these two teams — their athleticism has given them a real match advantage in this series. It will again, but that is diminished some without Ibaka. Oklahoma City is going to miss Ibaka as a third scoring option. The Thunder need to run more this series and get some buckets in transition. Kevin Durant has to have a monster series despite Kawhi Leonard being on him (Durant shot 43 percent with Leonard on him in the regular season), Westbrook has shot just 32 percent with Parker guarding him during the regular season. OKC’s stars are going to have to be phenomenal for them to have a chance. They can do that a couple of times, but not enough to win the series.

Spurs in six.

Report: Celtics, Cavaliers talking Kevin Love trade; could include Knicks, ‘Melo

Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love holds the ball away from Boston Celtics' Amir Johnson during the second quarter of a NBA basketball game in Boston Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Associated Press
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The Celtics are looking for an elite player to improve their deep cast of role players. The Cavaliers are looking for depth. And Carmelo Anthony may just be looking to win.

All of that has talks between the Cavaliers and Celtics on a potential Love deal progressing, with the possibility of the Knicks as a third team also in the mix, according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.

The Daily News has learned that the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers have discussed a blockbuster trade centered around Kevin Love. There were very preliminary discussions about expanding the deal to include the Knicks and Anthony, who would have to waive his no-trade clause in order to facilitate a deal to the Cavs.

The Knicks would receive draft picks and players in return. One of those players is believed to be Timofey Mozgov, who five years ago was traded by the Knicks to Denver in the Anthony deal.

This is a longshot, but the report has some legs.

It’s not clear how far along these talks are. The trade deadline is Feb. 18 (next Thursday) and conversations tend to move past the theoretical/value judging phase and get real come All-Star Weekend, when many GMs and decision makers are in one place (and nobody can go outside because it is too cold in Toronto). This trade works for the Cavaliers if they get a quality stretch four in return — Kelly Olynyk? — plus some depth and a quality pick. The question for the Cavs is simply how much can they get back — this is a win-now team and Love helps that, so how does a trade make them better?

Would Danny Ainge move the unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick to get Love? Jae Crowder? How much would Boston surrender to get an elite star, especially one under a reasonable, long contract?

Carmelo Anthony wants a ring, if he could end up playing with LeBron and be much closer to it than he is now, he would waive his no-trade clause.

That said, this trade sounds like a longshot. At least at the deadline. Next Summer… who knows?

Watch Kevin Hart be Kevin Hart at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

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Kevin Hart has a movie to promote decided to come out of retirement to play in the NBA All-Star Friday Night Celebrity Game.

And, he did what Kevin Hart does.

Well, except win MVP of the game, that went to Win Butler (the Canadian lead singer of Arcade Fire). Butler led Canada to a 74-63 win over Hart and the USA.

Drake to introduce players for All-Star Game Sunday

Drake stands in front of Canada's bench before the Celebrity Game, part of NBA basketball's All-Star weekend, in Toronto on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Associated Press
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You knew Canadian hip-hop star Drake was going to be involved directly in the All-Star Game in a way more than just having his back-and-gold OVO owl gear sold at the Air Canada Centre. Now we know how.

Drake will introduce the NBA All-Star players Sunday.

Drake has experience with this, he has introduced the Raptors — for whom he is a “global ambassador” — before.

This works for me. However, just to be clear, Drake is going to be introducing the players and Sting will headline the halftime show Sunday. Because nothing says NBA and millennials like “Fields of Gold.”

LeBron James says he’s undecided on 2016 Rio Olympics

US forward LeBron James celebrates after
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TORONTO — LeBron James has played in three Olympics, won two gold medals (and a bronze), and has done his duty representing his country internationally.

But it’s why he might skip this summer’s Rio Olympics that turned heads in the last couple days — he is reportedly pissed that Kobe Bryant will not be making his farewell with another gold on the international stage.

As you might expect, LeBron was asked about that during All-Star media day Friday in Toronto. Also, as you might expect, he dodged the question, saying he doesn’t know what he’s going to do this summer.

“Well, for me, I haven’t quite decided if I’m on the fence of going or not,” LeBron said. “But I’ve always loved representing my country. I’ve been playing in the Olympic games since 2004. So, no, I haven’t made a decision yet.”

My guess is LeBron’s body would love him to take the summer off — he’s played in five straight Finals with an Olympics in that mix — but his brand managers (and Nike) would love to see him play.

With him, the USA will win a gold medal. Without him, the USA will win the gold medal. The Americans are clear and away the best team in the world and only they can beat themselves. LeBron’s leadership can help make sure that happens, but it’s not required.

In the end, LeBron needs to do what’s required to bring a championship “to the ‘Land.” The playoffs, and how he feels after them, will likely determine where LeBron is in early August more than anything else.