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Playoff Preview: Three Questions about Dallas Mavericks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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On the surface, this 3 vs. 6 seed matchup shouldn’t be close. Oklahoma City won 55 games (and played better than that based on point differential), has two of the top five players in the NBA, and in Enes Kanter may have the Sixth Man of the Year (he’ll finish in the top three in the final voting). Meanwhile, Dallas scrambled to make the playoffs and needed the defense and energy of a rookie — Justin Anderson — to get them over the hump at the end.

But the more one delves into the matchups, the more this looks like a series where Dallas can give Oklahoma City some problems. Not enough to win the series, but enough to make the Thunder work a lot harder than they expect to, and enough to put doubt in everyone’s mind (including Kevin Durant‘s, which could have huge implications come July 1).

Here are three questions that will be key to this first round Western Conference showdown.

What devious plan does Rick Carlisle have in store for the Thunder? Remember the first round in 2014, when the on-a-mission Spurs took on the poor, overmatched, outclassed Mavericks team. Except that behind an incredible game plan from Carlisle and a veteran team — Dirk Nowitzki is going to go to his grave knocking down midrange shots — the Mavs pushed the Spurs to seven games. It was (arguably) the toughest series the Spurs had in those playoffs.

This has a bit of that feel. Carlise is a wizard — in the Hogwarts, not Washington, sense. Oklahoma City has weaknesses to attack — Enes Kanter on defense, Dion Waiters, the small forward position — and the only Xs and Os guy on Carlisle’s level in the league is Gregg Popovich (and, maybe, Brad Stevens). Talent, more than coaching, tends to win in the NBA, but this is a series where coaching could make a difference. Russell Westbrook is going to see a lot of defensive looks (not just a steady diet of Wesley Matthews), and some of them will get him thinking. I’m not questioning Billy Donovan as a coach, but welcome to the playoffs rookie.

Can Oklahoma City get the tempo up and take advantage of their athleticism? If this series is a track meet, Dallas players can start booking tee times for April 25 — the day of Game 5. Whatever Rick Carlisle’s game plan is, you can be sure it includes slowing the game down to a crawl. Dallas (like every other team in the league) has no answer for Westbrook in the open court. Or Kevin Durant. One advantage for Dallas: Their guards — Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Wesley Matthews, Raymond Felton — take care of the ball. They had the second lowest team turnover percentage this season. If Dallas is going to win games, they need to defend well in the half court and take away easy buckets for the Thunder. Controlling the tempo — and ideally, frustrating the Thunder — will be huge for Dallas.

Will the Thunder be able to execute in the clutch? The biggest knock on former Thunder coach Scott Brooks? His team is unimaginative and too predictable — Westbrook and Durant isolations — in the clutch, and it cost them games. So in comes Billy Donovan and… meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The Thunder have struggled late in games. Since the All-Star break, the Thunder have been outscored in the fourth (by 50 points). After the All-Star break, the Thunder were involved in 15 games that were within five points in the last five minutes of the game (the standard NBA definition of crunch time) and in those minutes Durant and Westbrook took 69 percent of the Thunder’s shots. If you’re predictable, you’re defendable. And while I just talked about the offense, it’s the Thunder defense in the clutch that has been worse. Oklahoma City was 3-12 in those 15 close games.

Dallas will grind the series down as much as they can, and if the Thunder are truly the contenders they believe they are, they need to execute in the clutch to win these games. The Westbrook/Durant pick-and-roll, as dangerous as it can be, is not enough.

Prediction: Thunder in six. Maybe OKC is better than I think, maybe they thrash Dallas (that’s more likely than a Mavs series win). But expect Dallas to make them work for it. That said talent will win out. And the Thunder have way more of it.

 

Report: Lakers asked LaVar Ball to pull back on criticism of Luke Walton

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There’s so much transparent marketing happening with LaVar Ball that it’s often not worth the server space to type up what he says and post it. The father of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball is so breathlessly unexciting in his pitch for relevance in comparison to the actual happenings of the NBA, the irony of which is not unnoticed here.

Still, Mr. Ball has infrequently stepped out from his professional Uncle At a Barbeque cosplay to criticize the Lakers and coach Luke Walton. Mr. Ball has made it clear he thinks Lonzo should play more often, and in fourth quarters. That hasn’t been productive for either side, and it appears that the team has asked Mr. Ball to pull back on openly criticizing Walton.

According to a report from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, the team and Mr. Ball met to discuss their relationship in November.

Via ESPN:

The meeting, which took place within the past few weeks, was called by Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka.

LaVar Ball confirmed the meeting took place, telling ESPN, “It was the best thing, man. Everybody’s going to try to make it an ego thing, like I’m trying to tell them what to do or they’re trying to tell me to tone it down. It’s not about that. It’s about coming together and to get a solution to this problem.

“It may sound crazy to other people, but I really just want the best for Lonzo, and the best for Lonzo is going to be what’s best for the organization. Because if everybody winning, we good.”

“I’m going to say whatever I want to say, however I want to say it,” Ball said. “And they said, ‘LaVar, come and talk to us first.’ So that’s fine too.

“But I am going to say, to plant a seed, ‘Let’s look for this now.’ They may not want to hear that, but it’s going to be successful if you listen to what I’m saying on that fact that I know what it takes for my son to run like this.”

Mr. Ball’s influence on his son is unique, but the team is far more than an avenue for Lonzo to play basketball. Indeed, Lonzo is not even one the best two or three players on the Lakers. The organization needs to function at a professional level and doesn’t need Mr. Ball to achieve that. Sidestepping any Whataboutism in the face of sketchy NBA decisionmaking — Phil Jackson, the Bulls front office, any Billy King trade, Isiah Thomas, etc. — it’s not immediately clear that Mr. Ball agrees.

It’s got to be a hassle for Walton to have to deal with this type of thing. The team started enforcing an existing rule a rule recently that stops members of the media from congregating in the same area where NBA friends and family are after a game, but it’s unlikely that will stop reporters from ambulance-chasing Ball any time soon.

Lonzo has remained in LA, which is exactly what Mr. Ball wanted when his son went to UCLA. The younger Ball has struggled a bit, but he’s part of an energetic young core that’s on the up in a tough conference. Lonzo is even leading the team in assists. But Mr. Ball persists in stepping where he’s unqualified, presumably as a means to continue his guerilla marketing campaign (or perhaps motivated by it). LaVar doesn’t realize his work is done — Lonzo is a Laker — and he should let 16 championship trophies in the No. 2 TV market in the country take it from here.

Instead, Mr. Ball produces the most boring and uninspiring stories week after week. This is the league where major free agents break their legs in the first five minutes of play with their new team, where MVPs sign with the best team of all-time after they’ve already won a championship, and where the best player of all-time gives you a crucial chasedown block in Game 7 of the Finals. Nothing Mr. Ball can do will ever be interesting in the grand scheme of the NBA.

Meanwhile, the Lakers and the New York Knicks actually played a pretty wild OT game on Tuesday. If only that were what we could all concentrate on.

Watch the Knicks and Lakers make every shot for 2 straight minutes of game clock

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Tuesday night’s game between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers was a good one, with the teams going-back-and-forth all night. In an OT game that came down to the wire, a sequence in the third quarter was perhaps indicative of the kind of contest it was in Madison Square Garden.

Starting with a little more than six minutes to go in the third the teams traded eight consecutive baskets while MSG rose to an accompanying fever pitch.

The whole sequence was pretty hilarious, and lent to that feeling you get sometimes while watching competitive NBA games of complete exhilaration.

Via Twitter:

The gap spanned from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s missed 3-pointer with 6:21 left to Brook Lopez‘s missed shot with 3:51 to go.

New York wound up winning in OT, 113-109.

Joel Embiid says he thinks people are about to start hating him

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Philadelphia 76ers have been the Twitter darlings of the NBA for the past few years. Thanks to former general manager Sam Hinkie and the tanking process, guys like Joel Embiid have become even more admired now that the team is in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Of course, players like Embiid are part of the generation that is always online, and the fact that they play in the NBA doesn’t keep them from participating in social media with their contemporaries. Embiid has a great Twitter feed, and is often out on it trying to get dates from the likes of Rihanna while trolling other NBA stars on Instagram.

Of course, as we’ve seen with players in the past, good fortune does not always shine forever. Indeed, conscious of this fact, Embiid as much to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne during a recent interview.

Via ESPN:

People love you at the beginning,” Embiid explains. “But at some point they’re gonna start hating you. LeBron. Russell Westbrook. All the superstars. Even Steph. He’s so likable. He does nothing wrong, but some people still hate him. It just comes with the nature of it. I’ve seen it.

“I feel like I’m about to go through it. I think it’s coming. People always want something new.”

The ups and downs of how NBA fandom changes the perception of certain players is fascinating, and some even try to directly manipulate that. And indeed, while Embiid is certainly hilarious on social media, the best thing to keep fans at bay will be him staying on the floor and playing games for the Sixers.

Let’s hope that keeps happening and nobody turns on him anytime soon.

Gregg Popovich says he was ‘guilty of over-coaching’ LaMarcus Aldridge

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LaMarcus Aldridge has been much better for the San Antonio Spurs this season. This comes after a tumultuous offseason in which it became clear that Aldridge was unhappy with his time in Texas.

That information came to light over the summer, and indeed both Aldridge and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat down to have a discussion to work out their differences in preparation for the upcoming season.

The results have been stupendous, with Aldridge playing better than ever in San Antonio despite the team lacking star Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge is averaging career highs in points per-100 possessions, which makes sense given his career-high 119 offensive rating.

Apparently part of Popovich’s change in dealing with Aldridge was how he coached him. Popovich told NBA.com recently that he made the mistake of over coaching Aldridge, saying that the veteran didn’t need as much guidance as young star players did when they came to him in the past.

Via NBA.com:

“We broke bread a few times, talked about it, laughed about it, discussed what we thought needed to happen, and frankly 95 percent of it fell on me because I made an error in trying to change him too much. That might sound odd, but he’d been in the league nine years and there’s one way he plays on the offensive end and feels comfortable with. I tried to turn him into Jack Sikma, told him I was going to teach you how to play on the elbow, go on the wing, face up. It was confusing for him. It really didn’t fit his style of play. I was guilty of over coaching in a sense.

“We came to an agreement on what had to happen. Well, on defense, I told him ‘I’m going to get on you like I do everyone else. But on offense, I don’t even want to talk to you. When they double you, kick it. Other than that, you be LaMarcus Aldridge.’ You see the result right now. He’s happy, confident and kicking everybody’s butt.”

Now that everything is sorted for the Spurs, we just have to watch out for them as they gain momentum heading into 2018. Leonard made his debut for the season on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, and as a publication time he had nine points in 10 minutes.

God help us if Gregg Popovich has finally found a way to make the mercurial LaMarcus Aldridge happy and pair him with a fully healthy Leonard.