NBA Playoffs: Four guys who could make the West wild

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russell westbrook.jpgWith ABC and TNT covering the playoffs you can count on a couple things. One is more Closer/V promos than you can stomach. Second is more star hype — Kobe, LeBron, Howard, Wade — than you can stomach. Basically, you might want to keep the Pepcid AC on hand.

You and I both know that it’s usually the unheralded guy who wins the series. It’s Robert Horry with the big shots. We’re taking a look at a few guys in the West who can change the course of their first round series (and maybe beyond).

Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder): If you are going to knock off the defending NBA champions you are going to have to attack where they are most vulnerable, and that means at point guard. The Lakers Derek Fisher cannot defend quick point guards any better than an orange traffic cone, and his help off the bench in Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are not really that much help. Westbrook can be that point guard. Look at it this way: In the three Laker wins this season over the Thunder Westbrook shot 38.8 percent (9-21, 5-16, 5-12) but in the Thunder’s blowout win he was   10-13. That’s not a coincidence.

For the Thunder to win this series Westbrook is going to not only have to get into the paint but also finish at the rim. Andrew Bynum is going to be there, protecting the rim with his albatross wing span, Plus Pau Gasol (and even Lamar Odom) will be there and probably making better rotations defensively than they did at the end of the regular season. Westbrook has the reputation of being able to get by anybody but taking terrible shots in the lane if he can’t get all the way to the rim — he needs to be smarter about that, hit open spot up shooters with a pass and not miss the opportunities he creates.

Kevin Durant is going to get his because he is Kevin Durant. But Westbrook is the one who could change this series.

Marcus Camby (Portland Trail Blazers): At some point during this series, Marcus Camby is going to end up in an Amare Stoudemire poster. If you try to defend the rim against Phoenix that is going to happen now and again. Hazard of the job.

But Camby is going to be the guy matched up on STAT, and if the Blazers (without Brandon Roy) are to have any chance Camby is going to have to win that battle. He is going to have to be the man on the pick and roll that slows Nash and Amare. Camby is one of the few players in the Association with the skills to pull this off — he can show out on Nash and still recover well, he is long and plays smart. Nobody stops the Suns, but Camby could make them less efficient. That’s a start, then all the Blazers need to do is find some scoring.

J.R. Smith (Denver Nuggets): When J.R. Smith comes in off the bench, he will change the game. Sometimes it’s with electrifying dunks and plays that ignite the crowd and his team. Sometimes it is with a series of missed threes that suck the life out of the Nuggets offense. But he does change the game.

When he is on, he is as unstoppable as anyone in the league. He can hit the three (or from a few feet back of the arc) with a hand in his face, but if you run out on him he will put it on the floor and drive well past you. When he is playing like this, he makes no bad decisions because there are no bad options. The problem is, even on his off days, he plays with that same mindset.

Utah and Denver are going to have a tight series. Smith can swing games with his play and may well decide this series. But which way he swings it remains to be seen.

Rodrigue Beaubois (Dallas Mavericks): Some guys are just fun to watch play. They are smooth and make the impossible seem effortless. They wow the crowd and have even opposing fans buzzing. That is Beaubois, and that is what he did the other night in a start against the Los Angeles Clippers. For a while, he stole the show (really saved the show, there wasn’t much of one without him).

The question is, will he get the minutes to do that in the playoffs? With a veteran team heading into the playoffs, will Rick Carlisle give Beaubois the burn?

As our own Rob Mahoney pointed out to me, last year the Mavericks knocked the Spurs out of the playoffs in part because JJ Barea was seemingly unstoppable. Beaubois is a better version of Barea — faster, better shooter, more athletic. Beaubois can score. He will be very hard for the Spurs to stop and can be a real spark for Dallas.

If he gets on the court.

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets
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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.

Annual GM survey predicts Bucks vs. Warriors Finals, Doncic MVP

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The NBA’s annual GM survey is more of a snapshot of the conventional wisdom around the league than a good predictive tool — last season the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Kevin Durant as MVP. Didn’t exactly work out that way.

Still, it’s an interesting view into where things stand — and where it stands is a Bucks vs. Warriors NBA Finals. When asked who would win the NBA title, 43% predicted the Bucks, 25% the Warriors, 21% the Clippers and 11% the Celtics (a number that unquestionably fell since the news of Ime Udoka’s suspension came out).

Here’s how the GMs see the top six in each conference, courtesy of Jon Schuhmann and NBA.com who did the survey:

EAST
1. Bucks
2. Celtics
3. 76ers
4. Nets
5. Heat
6. Cavaliers

WEST
1. Clippers
2. Warriors
3. Suns
4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
6-T: Mavericks and Timberwolves

Here are some other highlights from the survey:

• Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP and the choice of the GMs, with 48% of them picking the Dallas star to win the award. Second was Giannis Antetokounmpo (34%) followed by Joel Embiid (14%).

• But ask GMs if they were starting a franchise today and could sign anyone, and they take Antetokounmpo (55%) over Doncic (45%). Those are the only two names on the list.

• Asked the player most likely to have a breakout season and the Cavaliers Evan Mobley led the way with 21% of the vote, followed by Cade Cunningham and Anthony Edwards tied for second (17%).

• The most athletic player in the league? The GMs voted for Ja Morant (38%) over Antetokounmpo (31%) and Anthony Edwards (24%).

• When asked which team had the best offseason, 41% of the GMs picked the Cavaliers, with Donovan Mitchell being named the player changing teams who would have the biggest impact this season.

• The most underrated offseason pickup: Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics, according to the GMs (28%).

• Most surprising move of the offseason for the GMs was Rudy Gobert to Cleveland (47% of the vote), but Mitchell to the Cavaliers was a close second (43%).

Paolo Banchero is the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year (79%).

• Antetokounmpo was voted the best defensive player in the NBA (45%), with Draymond Green a distant second (24%).

• Gobert, however, was the runaway winner of the best interior defender (83%).

• Best coach in the NBA? Erik Spoelstra led the way with 52% of the vote, followed by Steve Kerr at 22%. The Clippers’ Tyronne Lue, however, won the vote for best in-game adjustments by a coach.

• The Toronto Raptors were voted the team with the best home court advantage (21%), with Boston and Denver tied for second (17%).