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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.

 

Fergie says she “tried my best” after national anthem blowback

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Fergie is apologizing after trying something different with the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game.

“I’ve always been honored and proud to perform the national anthem and last night I wanted to try something special for the NBA,” the Grammy-winning singer said in a statement Monday. “I’m a risk taker artistically, but clearly this rendition didn’t strike the intended tone. I love this country and honestly tried my best.”

Fergie’s slow, bluesy rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sunday night wasn’t particularly well received at Staples Center or on social media before the 67th edition of the NBA’s annual showcase.

A low chuckle rumbled through the sold-out arena after she finished the first line of the song with a throaty growl on “the dawn’s early light.”

Fans throughout the star-studded crowd reacted with varying levels of bemusement and enthusiasm while her languid, 2 +-minute version of the song continued. Although Fergie was on pitch, her tempo, musical accompaniment and sexy delivery were not exactly typical for a sporting event or a patriotic song.

Golden State All-Star Draymond Green captured Sunday’s mood – and became an instant GIF – when he was shown open-mouthed on the scoreboard and the television broadcast in apparent confusion over the unique vocal stylings. Green then chuckled to himself after realizing he was on TV.

After a forceful finish, Fergie finally got big cheers when she shouted, “Let’s play some basketball!”

The Black Eyed Peas singer, born Stacy Ann Ferguson, is from nearby Hacienda Heights, California.

Famed basketball commentator Charles Barkley joked that he “needed a cigarette” after Fergie’s performance during the TNT halftime show.

Former Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal leaped to Fergie’s defense, saying: “Fergie, I love you. It was different. It was sexy. I liked it. Leave her alone.”

Others on social media weren’t as kind, with criticism of the performance outpacing the positive reviews.

 

Did Lakers help keep LeBron James in Cleveland with trade?

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When the trade went down between the Lakers and Cavaliers before the deadline — sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland in exchange for Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye plus Cleveland’s 2018 first-round draft pick (top-five protected) — it caught the NBA by surprise.

The first reaction for a lot of people to the deal? This opens up as much as $70 million in cap space for the Lakers this summer (depending on other moves with players such as Julius Randle). Los Angeles could sign two max players — LeBron James and Paul George. Why would Cleveland help Los Angeles open up room to steal LeBron.

The Cavaliers didn’t see it that way — they knew they had to make a major shakeup or LeBron was gone. At that point, does it matter where? So in a series of moves, Cleveland GM Koby Altman radically remade the roster around LeBron. The goal was to energize them back into being the team to beat in the East, and from there make it hard for him to leave as a free agent. Since the trades, the Cavaliers are 2-0 and LeBron has clearly been reinvigorated, plus they will add Kevin Love back in a few weeks.

Altman’s plan seems to be working, one executive told Mark Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays in Cleveland now,” one high-ranking Eastern Conference team executive said. “The Cavaliers put a really good team around him. The Cavaliers have made it really tough for him to decide to leave Cleveland again. The Lakers might have helped them keep LeBron.”

I had heard from sources for a while LeBron to the Lakers was not likely (Paul George is another story, that door remains open). As Spears notes, the Lakers did not have an All-Star in Sunday’s game. Even if LeBron and PG13 went to Los Angeles, that team was third or fourth best in the West next season. LeBron is in full on legacy mode and wants to win rings. Los Angeles is not the place to do it.

Houston is interesting (and it’s still a team I hear some execs think has a real shot), but the gutting or role players on that roster to make it work would be a concern. Maybe a dark horse such as Philadelphia can emerge. However, if LeBron can lead this newly-energized Cavaliers team to the Finals again (his eighth consecutive trip there), they get a high draft pick with the Brooklyn pick, then LeBron gets a commitment from Altman and owner Dan Gilbert to keep spending and being aggressive, where is he going to be closer to a title than at home?

Lou Williams trolls Jimmy Butler for resting during All-Star Game

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Jimmy Butler was in Los Angeles and enjoying his well-earned All-Star slot on Team Stephen.

Well, except for the actual playing basketball part. Butler did not set foot on the court during the All-Star Game at his own request.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

Lou Williams, the Clippers’ guard who likely would have been near the front of the line for an open All-Star roster spot in the West (likely second in the queue behind Chris Paul), but instead took part in the Saturday Skills Competition then had Sunday off, trolled Butler for it on Twitter.

This seems more good natured than genuinely bitter.

Williams will roll with it, but his point’s a valid one — if you’re an All-Star, at least play a little and give the people what they want. Get out there for five minutes or whatever. LaMarcus Aldridge only played four minutes, no big deal.

If you’re not going to use the roster spot, give it up to someone who will.

Report: Raptors won’t sign Vince Carter if he gets bought out

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Of returning to the Raptors, Vince Carter said, “It’ll happen one day.” It sounds as if the Kings would buy him out if he wants.

Will he end the season with Toronto?

Josh Lewenberg of TSN 1050:

After speaking with a few team sources, I can confirm that they’ve had internal dialogue and debate about the idea of bringing Vince Carter back. It’s something that they wanted to do over the summer. That’s why they made him an offer, something that I’ve reported in the past. And it’s also something that they’d be open to in the future, perhaps next year in some capacity. But they’ve decided now is not the right time. And I think the consensus seems to be there’s so much going on right now, and they want this season to be about this team, their accomplishments and their playoff push and not the sideshow that I think would come with a Vince Carter return.

The Raptors (41-16) are on pace for their best record ever. They’re excelling offensively and defensively. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are spearheading a more dynamic offense that spurs hope for more playoff success.

Toronto is probably correct to save the Carter reunion for another year – though it depends who else is available. That 15th roster spot could be useful. If Carter is the best player who’d sign, the Raptors should sign him and deal with the hoopla.

But it’s not clear whom they could get or whether they could even get Carter. He hasn’t sounded like someone who’d forgo guaranteed salary to play for the minimum.