Three reasons this is not 2012 and the Thunder are not coming back on the Spurs

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Oklahoma City has been here before, exactly here, in 2012.

The San Antonio Spurs had won the first two games of the Western Conference Finals and seemed to be in control. On blogs and across talk radio there were questions about just how good the Thunder really were. Then suddenly the lightbulb went on over the Thunders’ head before Game 3 — “We’re way more athletic than these guys and we can overwhelm them on both ends of the court.” They did. Oklahoma City defended aggressively, won Game 3 by 20 and went on to sweep the Spurs right out of the series.

Thunder fans are hanging their hat on that again in 2014 — they turned it around against the Spurs before, they can do it again.

No. Not this time.

This time the Spurs are going to win this series and return to the NBA Finals. It will take four or five games, based on the fact they won the first two by a combined 52 points (it was 12 in 2012).

Here are three key reasons 2014 is not going to be a repeat of 2012.

1) No James Harden. Back in 2012 it was the heady days when the Thunder were a trio, not a duo. Harden came in off the bench but was the Thunder’s second leading scorer in that series, averaging 18.5 points a game with a true shooting percentage of .641 in those six games (Westbrook scored 18.3 but had an unimpressive true shooting percentage of .450). At the end of games OKC put the ball in Harden’s hands to create for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, to guide the offense and share the ball. That third scorer no longer exists. That glue that got Durant and Westbrook to play with each other and not next to each other is gone. And it shows.

2) No Serge Ibaka. Thunder management made the call to pay Ibaka and not Harden, and while there are things you may question about that choice you can’t question how much Serge Ibaka means to the Thunder. Not now. On one end the Spurs have scored 120 points in the paint in two games, exploiting the lack of shot-blocking with Ibaka out with a calf injury (Scott Brooks should play more Steven Adams, but that doesn’t solve this issue). However, the Thunder miss Ibaka more on offense — they miss his baseline jumper to bail out Westbrook on drives, they miss his offensive putbacks, they miss his activity off the ball and his energy. They are not the same offensive team without Ibaka, thy are much easier to defend. And it shows.

3) The Spurs are much more athletic, much deeper now. When these teams met two years ago, the fourth leading scorer for the Spurs was an aging Stephen Jackson. Kawhi Leonard was still growing into the player his now, he was not a defensive force, he was not getting that much run. Tiago Splitter was not a guy Gregg Popovich trusted, now he starts and is a key defensive force. Splitter gives them a versatile big man who is a defensive anchor and can make a few plays on offense, too. Danny Green wasn’t getting many minutes, nor was Patty Mills. Bottom line is that the Spurs are still not the most athletic team in this series, but they closed the gap some. And it shows.

The Thunder can play better, make some adjustment (start Steven Adams and Caron Butler, for one) but this is a very different Spurs team from two years ago. One that is not going to let the Thunder roll them this time.

It’s not 2012.

Magic sending Raptors draft pick as compensation for hiring Jeff Weltman

AP Photo/John Raoux
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The Raptors promoted Jeff Weltman, still working under Masai Ujiri, to general manager last year.

That paid off for Toronto when the Magic hired Weltman as their new president.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The Magic have their own and the Lakers’ second-round picks next year. Even the lower of those two selections could be somewhat value.

In other words, Weltman’s already-difficult job is getting even harder simply by Orlando hiring him.

LeBron James still striving to surpass Michael Jordan

AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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LeBron James has discussed chasing Michael Jordan’s “ghost,” motivating himself by trying surpass Jordan as the greatest player in NBA history.

Just 27 points behind Jordan for the all-time playoff scoring lead – a record he could break in Cavaliers-Celtics Game 5 tonight – LeBron is again discussing that pursuit.

LeBron, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

“It’s just a personal goal of mine,” James said Thursday before Cavs shootaround in preparation of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. “It has nothing to do with passing the rings, passing the points, passing MVPs. It’s just my personal goal to keep me motivated — that’s all.”

“You guys are going to have the conversations about who is greatest of all time and things of that nature,” James said. “It doesn’t matter to me. At the end of the day, it’s so funny that the conversation is always talked about in the NBA about who is the greatest but it’s never talked about in the NFL about who is the greatest quarterback. It’s just like: [Dan] Marino, [John] Elway, [Peyton] Manning and [Tom] Brady. All great quarterbacks, you know — and it should be the same for us.

Jordan or LeBron? Save your hot takes. LeBron just burnt them all.

The greatest quarterback of all time is never debated? Claiming that is now the hottest take in the entire realm of the Jordan-LeBron debate.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue: Kyrie Irving feeling ‘good’ after ankle injury

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BOSTON (AP) — Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue says that Kyrie Irving‘s left ankle is feeling “good” in advance of Cleveland’s Game 5 matchup Thursday night with the Celtics.

Irving was moving around and putting up shots during the Cavs’ morning shootaround.

The All-Star rolled his ankle in the third quarter of Game 4 when he stepped on Terry Rozier‘s foot. Irving was able to stay on the floor and finish the game, scoring a career playoff-high 42 points.

Cleveland leads Boston 3-1 and can wrap up its third straight Eastern Conference title Thursday night.

Several Celtics are also fighting injuries as they try to stave off elimination.

Jaylen Brown is listed as questionable with a right hip pointer. Jae Crowder is probable with a left groin strain, and Amir Johnson is probable with a right shoulder sprain.

Danny Ainge: Lonzo Ball declined to work out for Celtics, who hold No. 1 pick

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LaVar Ball said his son, highly touted draft prospect Lonzo Ball, would work out for only the Lakers.

You thought he was bluffing?

Celtics president Danny Ainge, whose team holds the No. 1 pick, on 98.5 the Sports Hub:

We just tried to get him in for a workout, and they politely said no.

It’s not ideal.

Listen, we’ve drafted guys that wouldn’t come in for workouts before. I mean, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve watched them play a ton. We have a lot of information on them.

Good for Ball. Professional sports teams already hold inordinate power over players entering the workforce. In no other industry are top young employees assigned to a particular company, the worst-performing companies typically getting priority, with no ability to bargain with competitors.

Ball wants to play for the Lakers, who offer proximity to his family and hold the No. 2 pick. He can’t force Boston to pass on him or Los Angeles to pick him. But he can influence decision-making.

It seemed likely the Celtics would draft Markelle Fultz, and though they could still pick Ball, him declining a workout with Boston makes that only less likely. The Lakers will probably draft Ball, but this plan carries risk. If they pass, he could fall once he gets to teams less familiar with him.

Still, Ball deserves to decide for himself how to manage his career – especially in such a closed job market. Not working out for the Celtics is probably his best path to getting where he wans to go.