NBA Playoff Preview: Oklahoma City vs. Denver

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SEASON RECORDS
Thunder: 55-27 (No. 4 seed)
Nuggets 50-32 (No. 5 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Oklahoma City 3-1, including sweeping two games in April when the Nuggets were playing well and were everyone’s new second favorite team.

KEY INJURIES
Thunder: No significant injuries.
Nuggets: Ty Lawson sprained his ankle in the season finale Wednesday and it has been described as “throbbing” but he is expected to go and maybe start Game 1; Arron Afflalo has a lingering hamstring injury and while he is expected back for the series when remains unknown; both Nene and Danilo Gallinari are expected to play through minor injuries in this series.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Thunder: Off. 108.6 (4th in NBA); 104 (13th in NBA)
Nuggets: Off. 109.5 (1st in NBA); 104.8 (16th in NBA)

THREE KEY THUNDER

Kevin Durant: He is the leading scorer in the league and he will be the focus of the Thunder offense — and Denver doesn’t have a real good way to stop him. He dropped 32 and 21 on them in the two April meetings (Durant was very efficient in the first game, not efficient in the second but it didn’t matter). In a series where the Oklahoma City Thunder defense may make it hard on the Nuggets to score, the points that Durant does put up may be the difference.

Russell Westbrook: We know just how good he is, but he has to start taking the next step because he is the key to how far the Thunder go this playoffs. If he plays within the system, the Thunder will win this series and likely more. If he starts trying to do too much himself, taking on the defense and not setting up teammates, playing selfishly and then turning the ball over, Denver will be right there. Westbrook can be a force of nature, but as the point guard he still has to share the wealth.

James Harden: Since the trade that sent Jeff Green out — for Kendrick Perkins in a very good move for the Thunder — Harden has picked up the scoring slack. He is averaging 15.8 per game since the All-Star break, and he does it with this cool old-man-at-the-Y game. He hits his shots, defends, always seems to be in the right spot making the right play. Not flashy, just damn good.

THREE KEY NUGGETS

Ty Lawson: The Nuggets need him healthy — he played well against the Thunder this season, nearly 16 points per game on 57 percent shooting. He’s quick, can penetrate and break things down. Easy points are hard to come by against the Kendrick Perkins Thunder, they need all the shooters they can get.

Danilo Gallinari: He is matched up on Kevin Durant. He has got to get a hand in his face when he shoots and make Durant do a lot of work on defense. Contest and just try to wear him down. The Nuggets are going to need points from the Italian star to hang with the Thunder.

George Karl: During the regular season, he got his team to play defense, share the ball and play with a real chip on their shoulder. That kind of team ball won them a lot of games and made them a fun team to watch. They became the plucky underdogs everyone wants to root for. But now he’s got to find a way to slow down a young, energetic team with much more firepower than he has at his disposal.

OUTLOOK

The real key to this series in the Thunder defense — they shut the Nuggets down in two recent meetings. In those games Denver shot 42 percent and in both games had an offensive rating of under 100 (points per 100 possessions). If Denver does not find a way to get some points — ideally some easy buckets — this series could be a lot shorter than people think.

Ty Lawson has to come up big, Nene needs to get Kendrick Perkins into foul trouble and keep Russell Westbrook from doing whatever he wants in the lane. Kevin Durant has to be forced to work for his shots and find them contested. Denver has to play as well as it can.

Problem is what we saw in the two recent games between these teams — OKC plays well as a team too, and they have Durant and Westbrook. Better players, more firepower.

PREDICTION

There will be no easy games for the Thunder, Denver will make them work for it. But in the end, Oklahoma City is just the better team.

Thunder in 6.

Report: Rockets waiving Ryan Anderson

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To facilitate a trade from the Rockets to the Suns last summer, Ryan Anderson reduced the guarantee of his 2019-20 salary by $5,620,885. Anderson barely played in Phoenix, got traded to the Heat, barely played in Miami and got waived. He again signed with the Rockets this summer.

Now, after barely playing in Houston, Anderson will continue his odyssey elsewhere.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Anderson was guaranteed $500,000 on his minimum-salary contract this season. By the time he clears waivers, he will have earned $434,704. So, assuming Anderson goes unclaimed, Houston will be on the hook for the remaining $65,296.

This might end the career of the 31-year-old Anderson. Once a premier stretch four, he no longer stands out in a league where 3-point shooting has become a common skill for power forwards. He’s also a major defensive liability.

Report: Doubts linger around Rockets about Tilman Fertitta-Daryl Morey fit

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Before Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet sparked an international geopolitical firestorm, it created a fissure in Houston. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly tweeted that Morey didn’t speak for the organization. It was a harsh public rebuke that led to major questions about Morey’s future in Houston.

Especially because there was already concern about the Fertitta-Morey relationship.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

Though a couple of NBA executives speculated Morey might have greater difficulty attracting marquee free agents to Houston, few said that his ability to perform his job would be affected beyond having to placate Fertitta, a shotgun marriage that sources close to the Rockets have considered a tenuous fit since Fertitta bought the team in 2017.

Morey has been operating like someone who doesn’t believe he’ll be in Houston long-term. Morey traded the Rockets’ last four first-round picks. He traded multiple distant-future first-round picks and took on significant future salary to upgrade from Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook. Morey also gave a three-year-guaranteed contract extension to a 30-year-old Eric Gordon.

To be fair, Morey has also been operating like someone whose team’s championship window is closing. That could also explain repeatedly mortgaging Houston’s future. It’s difficult to parse the difference.

But the costs incurred to contend now have veered toward paying later than paying now.

Morey has kept the Rockets out of the luxury tax – a detriment to their on-court ability, but a boon to Fertitta’s wallet. There’s no reason for Morey to operate this way if not directed by the owner. Yet, Fertitta has claimed the luxury tax didn’t influence roster decisions. That’s totally unbelieve, but if taken at face value, Fertitta was throwing Morey under the bus for downgrading Houston’s roster.

It’s easy to read between the lines and see a disconnect between Fertitta and Morey. This is only corroboration, and considering Arnovitz describes his sources as “close to the Rockets,” it’s particularly persuasive.

But Fertitta signed Morey to a five-year extension earlier this year. Fertitta also stood by Morey during the China-Hong Kong controversy, calling Morey the NBA’s best general manager. Whatever problems between the two, Fertitta continues empower Morey in significant ways.

Danny Green – yes, Danny Green – flies in for tip dunk, and Lakers go wild (video)

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Danny Green is a quietly effective player. He shoots 3-pointers. He defends. He tries to build team chemistry.

I didn’t know he could do this.

Judging by how his Lakers teammates reacted, they didn’t know either.

Raptors do not plan to give championship rings to Delon Wright, Jonas Valanciunas

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Who gets a championship ring when a team wins a title?

Everyone on the roster for the playoffs, obviously. But what about guys who contributed a lot to the season but were traded away or cut before the playoffs started? Do they deserve one?

The Toronto Raptors will not be giving rings to the three players shipped out in the Marc Gasol trade, reports Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun.

Delon Wright, Jonas Valanciunas, and CJ Miles, the three players involved in the Marc Gasol deal at the trade deadline in February will not be getting rings the Sun learned.

Wright was asked pre-game on Saturday about it. He said he had not heard one way or the other but the very fact that he had not been asked for his ring size suggested to him that one would not be coming…

“It’s not an easy decision,” (Raptors GM Bobby) Webster began, “but, to be honest  I think it’s standard. I mean we did our homework, we talked to teams and I think – I don’t remember – there was maybe one scenario where a team offered one. I think it was Anderson Varejao in Golden State but I think it was a really unique circumstance.”

The line does need to be drawn somewhere. The question really becomes, how much does a player need to contribute during the course of the season for it to make a difference in where the team ended up ultimately. Valanciunas played in 30 games for Toronto that season, started 10, and averaged 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. Is that enough? Kyle Lowry reportedly reached out to Valanciunas about ring size, but that may not have been his place.

The team has made its call, and it does fall in line with how NBA teams generally handle the situation. Someone always ends up just missing out, but if the Raptors don’t make that deal for Gasol do they even make the Finals?