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.

LeBron James on surpassing Michael Jordan: “It’s a personal goal”

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Since he was a teenager, LeBron James has been compared to Michael Jordan. That comparison has usually been used as a way to cut him down or explain why he’s not in the same class, but that’s changed since he won his third championship, and first in Cleveland, in June. Now, LeBron has started to be a lot more open about his desire to eventually surpass Jordan. He said so in an interview with the AP’s Tom Withers after practice on Tuesday:

Now that LeBron James has won a championship for the ages, he’s set a loftier goal:

Catching Michael Jordan.

Long flattered to be mentioned in the same company with Jordan and other NBA legends, James has been hesitant to publicly acknowledge that he wants to be remembered as the greatest in league history.

It’s time now.

“It’s a personal goal,” James told The Associated Press on Monday. “I just never brought it up. It’s my own personal goal to be able to be greater than great. I think that should be everybody’s personal goal.”

Now that James has indisputably cemented his legacy as one of the handful of greatest players ever to play the game, he has a lot less to lose by openly talking about these things. Five years ago, he would have gotten killed for bringing it up. Now? It just seems plausible more than anything else.

Kevin Durant says Nike didn’t influence his free-agency decision

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses for NBA team photographer Noah Graham during the Golden State Warriors Media Day at the Warriors Practice Facility on September 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Many different factors went into Kevin Durant‘s decision this summer to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors — basketball fit, location, his friendships with Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, and more. But one thing he wants to make sure you know didn’t influence him is Nike. Durant told reporters this week that the shoe company, which he endorses, didn’t steer him one way or another in free agency, and they didn’t even know his plans beforehand.

It’s a little hard to believe that Nike had zero advance knowledge of Durant’s plans — if not a hard answer, at least a strong indication of which way he was leaning. Durant was one of the most popular players in the league in Oklahoma City, so Nike would have been fine either way. But his presence in Golden State, a much bigger market and the dominant story in the NBA this season, will only help them. It doesn’t hurt, either, that they now have one of their biggest athletes in the same market as Stephen Curry, who had been taking advantage of all the attention on the Warriors to raise Under Armour’s profile. Now, Nike can get some of that spotlight back in the Bay Area.

Barnes, Bogut highlight latest round of changes for Mavs

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 08:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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DALLAS (AP) Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are in, Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia are out and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has a retooled roster for the sixth consecutive time since winning a championship.

“Well, we love it,” Carlisle said at media day this week as someone chuckled. “What’s more exciting than getting seven new guys? New blood. It’s fresh every year.

“Really, that wasn’t meant to be a joke,” he added. “If you view it as a negative, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be a negative. I don’t look at it that way.”

The Mavericks have made the playoffs all but one season since the constant turnover started after owner Mark Cuban chose salary cap flexibility over keeping a few key players when a new labor agreement was reached six months after his team won the title in 2011.

But Dallas still hasn’t won a postseason series since beating Miami in six games in those NBA Finals.

Repeated efforts to land big names in free agency failed, which this year led to the additions of Barnes and Bogut from 2015 champion Golden State after the Warriors lured Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City and had to unload both starters to make cap room for the four-time NBA scoring champion.

Barnes headlines the group of newcomers because he’ll be a top option on offense after signing a four-year, $94 million max contract. Over his four seasons with the Warriors, he was always a role player behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“It’s going to be bigger expectations and I’m going to have a larger role on this team,” Barnes said. “I feel like we have a lot of pieces this year, either coming back off injury, guys who are motivated, have a lot to prove. So hopefully we can all come together and do something special.”

There’s actually some stability in the starting five because point guard Deron Williams is back for a second season with his hometown team.

Nowitzki, going into his 19th season at age 38, says Williams was the best player on the team at times last season, and the Mavericks missed him in their five-game loss to Oklahoma City. He was limited by a sports hernia injury that required offseason surgery.

Parsons signed a max deal with Memphis, and Pachulia went to the Warriors after the trade that landed Dallas the 7-footer Bogut, who should be a much stronger shot-blocking presence than his predecessor.

The changes fit the formula of at least two new starters each season going back to the title year.

“There are similarities to other years,” Carlisle said. “The ability to add Bogut and Barnes was huge for us. We caught some good luck on that.”

The other notable newcomer is Curry’s younger brother, Seth Curry, who is on his fifth team in his fourth season but finally had a more prominent role last season in Sacramento. Former Baylor standout Quincy Acy is in Dallas after bouncing around his first four years.

The Mavericks are deep at guard with holders J.J. Barea and Devin Harris behind Williams and Wes Matthews, in his second season as the shooting guard and now more than a year removed from tearing an Achilles tendon his final season in Portland.

Also returning are athletic young forwards Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell along with 7-2 Tunisian center Salah Mejri, a surprising shot-blocking presence last season as a 30-year-old rookie.

“They’re definitely athletes and we should be able to have a great defensive lineup once I’m out,” said Nowitzki, poking fun at his defensive skills. “I think we have a (backup) lineup out there that could be really, really good, and obviously youth and athleticism is a big part.”

Barnes wanted to be a part of it even though the Mavericks appear further from championship contention than other Western Conference teams.

“I think when you look at what this franchise has done year in, year out, stable on their ship,” Barnes said. “And be able to learn from a guy named Dirk who’s done it year in, year out. He’s pretty much built this place through his work ethic.”

And now Nowitzki is getting used to another new collection of teammates.

Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

Jazz’s Dante Exum says his knee is completely healed from 2015 ACL tear

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 17:  Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz drives to the lane during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 17, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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After a promising rookie season, Dante Exum missed all of 2015-16 rehabbing a torn left ACL he suffered during an exhibition game with the Australian national team in summer 2015. As the Jazz kick off training camp, Exum says he’s fully recovered after his year off and he’s ready to go.

Via Jody Gennessy of the Deseret News:

“I was just excited to get back out there,” Exum said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I was feeling good. … I was just ready to come out there, talk when I can and run between every drill.”

Both his attitude and his body were at 100 percent as he returned from a yearlong rehab that followed his September 2015 surgery on his left knee that had been injured in a friendly international game with the Australian team.

With the Jazz’s trade for George Hill over the summer, Exum won’t have to be the starting point guard, which will take some pressure off of him to get back to full strength right away. A torn ACL is something that usually takes time to return from, and having guard depth to ease his workload will help with the transition. If the Jazz get good production out of Exum, it will be a bonus for what looks to be one of the most exciting young teams in the Western Conference.