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.

Reports: Lakers, Pacers both confident in tampering case

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The Lakers reportedly expect to be cleared of the tampering allegations brought by the Pacers over Paul George.

As for the Pacers?

Bob Kravitz of WTHR on The Rich Eisen Show

They feel very strongly that there were correspondences between Lakers executives and Paul George’s representative. They had heard those rumors for quite some time. They think there’s some there there.

Wishful thinking by both sides? It sure looks like it.

The Lakers probably tampered, because everybody tampers. But teams are rarely punished for it, so they can also believe they did nothing egregious enough to become an exception.

A paper trail between the Lakers – Magic Johnson or any other executive – and George’s camp would go far. But even that must be more specific. George’s agent, Aaron Mintz, also represents Lakers forward Julius Randle and former Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell. So, he’d have good reason to communicate with the organization.

I don’t know what the NBA will do here. Tampering rules are rarely and arbitrarily enforced. That gives each team plenty of room to believe it’s right.

Only two of 38 rookies surveyed say No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz will have class’s best career

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The 76ers drafted Ben Simmons No. 1 last year, believing he’d have the best career of anyone in his draft class. This year, Philadelphia traded up to draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 for the same reason.

Their fellow rookies – Simmons missed all of last season due to injury – aren’t nearly as enthused.

John Schuhmann of NBA.com conducted his annual rookie survey, polling 39 players who weren’t allowed to vote for themselves or college or NBA teammates. Thirty-eight responded to the best-career question:

Which rookie will have the best career?

1. Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers — 18.4%
Jayson Tatum, Boston — 18.4%

3. Josh Jackson, Phoenix — 10.5%
Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas — 10.5%

5. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento — 7.9%

6. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia — 5.3%
Harry Giles, Sacramento — 5.3%
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia — 5.3%

Others receiving votes: Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn; John Collins, Atlanta; Jonathan Isaac, Orlando; Luke Kennard, Detroit; Kyle Kuzma, L.A. Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah; Malik Monk, Charlotte

Simmons might not have come to mind to players at the rookie photo shoot, which was for the most recent draft class. And rookies have tended to pick someone other than the No. 1 pick for this question. Anthony Davis in 2012 was the last No. 1 pick to lead voting. Simmons tied for fourth at 6.7% last year – behind Brandon Ingram, Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield. Even Karl-Anthony Towns landed behind Jahlil Okafor in 2015.

But so few votes for Fultz – the consensus top prospect in the draft – is fairly stunning.

Dennis Smith Jr. received the most votes for Rookie of the Year, but at just 25.7%. A large majority of rookies picked someone other than the Mavericks point guard.

Lonzo Ball (71.8% for best playmaker) was the only player to receive a majority of votes in a category. Luke Kennard (48.6% for best shooter) and Smith (43.6% for most athletic), who each tripled second place, came close.

LeBron James reemerged as rookies’ favorite player after a three-year run by Kevin Durant. Maybe that Warriors backlash if finally catching up to Durant?

Kendall Marshall, Marshall Plumlee headline Team USA’s AmeriCup roster

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AmeriCup, previously called the FIBA Americas Championship, lost its luster when FIBA decided the continental tournament wouldn’t double as World Cup qualifying.

But the U.S. is still sending a team, coached by Jeff Van Gundy. The roster (team last season):

  • Billy Baron (UCAM Murcia, Spain)
  • Alec Brown (Windy City Bulls)
  • Larry Drew II (Sioux Falls Skyforce)
  • Reggie Hearn (Reno Bighorns)
  • Darrun Hilliard (Detroit Pistons)
  • Jonathan Holmes (Canton Charge);
  • Kendall Marshall (Reno Bighorns)
  • Xavier Munford (Greensboro Swarm)
  • Marshall Plumlee (New York Knicks)
  • Jameel Warney (Texas Legends)
  • C.J. Williams (Texas Legends)
  • Reggie Williams (Oklahoma City Blue)

The Americans should still be favored, though obviously not as overwhelming as they’d be with NBA players, in a field also comprised of Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Uruguay, Panama and U.S. Virgin Islands.

This will be a good benchmark, as the U.S. might take a similar roster into World Cup qualifying.

Report: Tampering investigation stems from Magic Johnson’s TV interview

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In April, new Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and discussed then-Pacers forward Paul George:

We’re going to say hi, because we know each other. You just can’t say, “Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,” even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [blinks repeatedly]. You know what that means, right?

Now, the Lakers – at Indiana’s request – are being investigated for tampering.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

The investigation, which has been going on since May, stemmed from comments Magic Johnson made on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” that angered Pacers owner Herb Simon, according to several NBA officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

This doesn’t mean the Pacers believe Johnson tampered with his televised comments. It seems as if that was the last straw following numerous rumors about George going to Los Angeles.

However, there’s a case Johnson’s televised remarks alone would constitute tampering. The Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits “assurances of intent, or understandings of any kind (whether disclosed or undisclosed to the NBA), between a player (or any person or entity controlled by, related to, or acting with authority on behalf of, such player) and any Team (or Team Affiliate)” – and even attempts to solicit assurance of intent or understanding – when the player is still under contract with another team. Johnson sure appeared to do that.

But it’d be shocking if Johnson or the Lakers were punished for the interview alone. Indiana probably needs more evidence.

Then again, the arbitrary way the NBA enforces tampering, who knows?