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.

Markelle Fultz’s draft day shoes were made out of basketballs (VIDEO)

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Markelle Fultz was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night, but what may have just stole the show were his shoes.

Fultz, 19, Showed up in New York dressed to the nines while also rocking some pretty unique sneakers. When asked what inspired him, Fultz said he just wanted to go with something crazy.

The shoes are apparently made out of real basketball leather, so I can’t imagine they breathe very well. They sure do look pretty sweet.

Probably better than any Big Baller Brand shoe.

Philadelphia 76ers select Markelle Fultz No. 1 overall in 2017 NBA Draft

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The Philadelphia 76ers have selected Markelle Fultz No. 1 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft.

We’ve known this was coming for some time after the Sixers moved up in the draft and swapped picks with the Boston Celtics. Philadelphia originally had the No. 3 overall pick, but traded rights to their selection in order to take the Washington Huskies point guard.

Philadelphia would now appear to have a solid core in place after stockpiling young players for years under former GM Sam Hinkie’s leadership. Hinkie is no longer with the team, but the results of his process have created one of the strongest young teams in the Eastern Conference.

Fultz joins a core of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, and Jahlil Okafor in Philadelphia. At 6-foot-5, Fultz is a tall young guard who can bring not only a pick-and-roll game to the Sixers, but some shooting as well. That bodes well given how much ball-handling duties we expect to see from Simmons, who is an elite passing talent but has not shown the ability to shoot the ball just yet.

The Sixers still need to add some kind of shooting element to their roster, but having Fultz not only as a lead ball handler but as an off-the-ball option might just take some of the pressure off of Bryan and Jerry Colangelo when it comes to finding another shooter on the wing.

Fultz Played just one season for Washington, scoring 23.2 points and dishing out six assists per-game. He shot 41% from 3-point range and even averaged 8.8 rebounds per 100 possessions. Fultz was named to the PAC 12 all-freshman team and all-conference team for 2017.

The real question for Philadelphia moving forward of course is the health of their previously drafted hopeful stars. Yes, That the Sixers have eight seemingly embarrassing amount of riches on their roster is a great thing for fans who have watch a team continue loosely lose for nearly half a decade. But Embiid Has been plagued with leg injuries, and Simmons missed his entire first season with a foot injury.

Fultz perhaps caps this incredible run in the NBA draft for the Sixers given his draft position and the needs of the roster. Philadelphia is in an excellent position to succeed in the Eastern Conference, which still doesn’t have a true challenger to LeBron James. But Fultz, Simmons, Embiid, and the Sixers will need to not only advanced together on the floor, but stay on the floor in order to make that happen.

Drafting Fultz is a great step for the Sixers. After years of trusting the process, fans in Philadelphia won’t be the only ones hoping to see them succeed now that their faith has been verified.

2017 NBA Draft pick-by-pick tracker with analysis of each move

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Already the 2017 NBA Draft has been crazy — the No. 1 pick was traded for only the seventh time in NBA history. The No. 2 pick from a couple years ago has already been moved to make way for the next No. 2 pick coming to Los Angeles.

Now it is likely to get even wilder.

This is the best place to follow all of it. Just keep hitting refresh all night.

We will constantly be updating this post throughout the course of the night — it will be live with a quick analysis of every pick and how they fit in with the team that took them. We’ll also be on top of trades and everything else happening around the NBA tonight. About the only thing we know is what’s happening now with the No. 1 pick, so let’s put the Sixers on the clock.

 

 
Sixers small icon 1. Philadephia 76ers: Markelle Fultz, 6’4” point guard (Washington). The Sixers hope they have their big three rounded out with Fultz. One scout I trust told me this was a one-player draft at the top — Fultz was clear and away the best guy available. What doesn’t he do well offensively? He can score off the pick-and-roll from all three levels: He makes threes, can hit mid-range pull-ups, or attack and finish above the rim. He can make plays in transition, makes good decisions off the pick-and-roll, uses both hands, and had great body control and footwork. The concerns are he can be passive, lets the game come to him a little too much, and can be a lazy defender (despite elite physical tools). Stlll, he was the clear No. 1 for a reason.

 
Lakers small icon 2. Los Angeles Lakers: Lonzo Ball, 6’6” point guard (UCLA). You can’t teach his court vision and passing skills, which remind one of a LeBron/Ricky Rubio level of passer. With those skills, he is amazing in the open court. Yes, his shot is awkward (because of it he can’t pull up going to his right well), but in catch-and-shoots the ball goes in. Concerns about his shot – and his father — are overblown. The real questions are how he defends at the next level (he was disinterested for long stretches in college), and can he create in the halfcourt (he didn’t do a lot of pick-and-rolls, and on them 75 percent of his drives ended with a pass, he has to be more of a scoring threat).

WE HAVE A TRADE: The Chicago Bulls are sending Jimmy Butler to play with his old coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota, in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 pick in this draft. That is a great deal for Minnesota.

 
Celtics small icon 3. Boston Celtics:

Report: Suns discussing trade of Eric Bledsoe to Nuggets

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The Phoenix Suns are rebuilding and they have one good trade chip in their hands — Eric Bledsoe. He remains a very good point guard who could help a lot of teams, and the Suns want young players and/or picks back in any potential deal.

Enter the Denver Nuggets, reports Chris Haynes of ESPN.

That has potential, depending on what the Suns thing of Emanuel Mudiay. They might prefer Jamal Muray, and also is there someone they like in the 13th pick area.

Of all the wild rumors flying around on draft day, this one makes some of the most sense. For the Suns, they could land a couple of quality young players to go with their No. 4 pick, all of whom can be paired with Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Alex Len and the rest. For the Nuggets, they get a veteran point guard that helps them look more like a playoff team next season.

That said, teams are talking to everyone about almost everything right now. Whether this one goes through remains to be seen.