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.

Fans to be refunded for Team USA-Australia games last summer

Team USA-Australia
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Russell Crowe disliked his view for the Team USA-Australia exhibition games in Melbourne last August.

He wasn’t the only one.

Many fans griped about the sightlines from their floor-level seats. Even Australia upsetting the U.S. in a pre-World Cup tune-up didn’t satiate the Boomer fans who wanted a better look at the action – and paid plenty for their seats.

But those fans will get compensated.

Jake Michaels of ESPN:

Around AU$5 million ($3.08 million U.S.) will be refunded to spectators of last year’s Boomers vs. Team USA two-game series at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium after the Australian consumer watchdog found that promoter TEG Live made false claims about its seating plan.

The 20,000 refunds will be paid out to those who purchased floor-level seating for the games. Despite a mock-up depicting tiered seating, the seats used were in flat rows, lower than the court and, in some cases, more than 30 metres from the action.

That comes to $154 per ticket – not cheap for an exhibition game.

Now, who do American fans see about restitution for their team not meeting expected standards?

2020 PBT Awards: Executive of the Year

Clippers executive Lawrence Frank with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu
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The NBA regular season might be finished. Heck, the entire NBA season might be finished. Even if play resumes with regular-season games, there’d likely be an abridged finish before the playoffs (which will also likely be shortened).

So, we’re making our 2019-20 award picks now. If the regular season somehow lasts long enough to reconsider our choices, we’ll do that. But here are our selections on the assumption the regular season is over.

Kurt Helin

1. Lawrence Frank, Clippers

2. Sam Presti, Thunder

3. Danny Ainge, Celtics

Lawrence Frank gets his name called but the Clippers operate more like a team in the front office than a top-down dictatorship. Michael Winger, Mark Hughes, Jerry West, Trent Redden, Lee Jenkins, Dee Brown and the rest of the team pulled off the incredible Kawhi Leonard/Paul George double last July and around that have built the deepest, most dangerous roster in the NBA. Maybe Frank can write up a report for Jason Kidd on how he pulled all this off. Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti also deserves credit for pivoting and lining up a rebuild while keeping the Thunder a winning and competitive team on the court.

Dan Feldman

1. Lawrence Frank, Clippers

2. Sam Presti, Thunder

3. Pat Riley, Heat

Oklahoma City improved… while adding an incredible haul of future draft picks. Sam Presti had a special summer. But the game is winning championships, and the Clippers went from feisty upstart to title contender by completing an ambitious plan to add Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Maybe the Clippers will never win a championship. Perhaps, the Thunder set themselves up to win multiple titles down the road. But the Clippers’ big strides took them far closer to the finish line, and I’ll reward the more-known quantity.

Pat Riley got third place primarily on two moves – improving from mediocre to quite good by landing Jimmy Butler and creating significant salary-cap flexibility in the Justise WinslowAndre Iguodala trade. That topped Nets general manager Sean Marks, who lured Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving but faced complications in overseeing his team’s new direction.

Keith Smith

1. Jon Horst, Bucks

2. Lawrence Frank, Clippers

3. Sam Presti, Thunder

For a second straight year, Jon Horst put together a dominant and deep team. Milwaukee lost Malcolm Brogdon, but got a first-round pick for a free agent. That’s solid work. He also re-signed Khris Middleton, George Hill and Brook Lopez to fair contracts. And around them Horst added Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Kyle Korver and Marvin Williams to fill out the roster. Milwaukee goes 13-deep in legitimate rotation players for the team with the league’s best record.

Lawrence Frank built the Clippers on the fly. When Kawhi Leonard said he’d sign if LA traded for Paul George, Frank didn’t hesitate and made it happen. Frank also re-signed Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green, while adding Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson in- season. The result is a team that is 10-deep in playoff players and one of the Western Conference favorites.

When the Thunder traded away Paul George and Russell Westbrook, it was assumed that Sam Presti would eventually move Chris Paul too. Instead, Oklahoma City has been one of the league’s best surprises. All of the trade acquisitions have played a big part in that. Paul has had another great season Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari have turned in good years. And rookies Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort look like keepers too. Oh, and Presti has up to seven extra first-round picks and a couple of years of swap rights coming too.

Ben Wallace not sure Pistons would have won titles if they drafted Carmelo over Darko

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Carmelo Anthony said recently if the Detroit Pistons had drafted him No. 2 instead of Darko Miličić, he would have won two or three titles. Chauncy Billups agreed with him.

Ben Wallace isn’t buying it.

Wallace appeared on the on the 120 Watts podcast and said if the Pistons had taken Anthony the team would have developed differently and might have come together in a way that it did not win a title in 2004 or any others (hat tip to NBA Reddit):

“If we would’ve drafted Carmelo, I honestly don’t think we would have ever won a championship. Melo wanted to play right away. It would have had the potential to disrupt the team chemistry… By drafting Darko, he came in and said that he is not ready to play on this team. Who I am going to play in front of. I’m not ready, and by him doing that and accepting his role, it allowed us to build and grow and get stronger and eventually win a championship…

“If we drafted Carmelo, Tayshaun [Prince] wouldn’t blossom to be the type of a player that he way. We won that championship on the back of the best block I’ve ever seen in my life, and I blocked a lot of shots. That is the type of grit and grind that the team had.”

It’s an interesting point and Wallace is right about this: We never know how a team would have developed differently if ‘Melo had been a Piston. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked, perhaps it would have thrown off the team chemistry and softened up that elite defense.

Still, put me in “the more talent the better” camp. Anthony is a future Hall of Famer who came into the league knowing how to get buckets. That Pistons team had some of the greatest defenses the league has ever seen, but the question was always could they score enough. Anthony would have had to accept more of a role, but he fills that scoring need. And, on a team of players he respects, Anthony is willing to play his part.

Count me with the group that thinks the Pistons win more with ‘Melo than they did with Darko. Or, frankly, Chris Bosh (fourth in that draft). Or Dwyane Wade (fifth). But the Pistons made their bet and they still got a ring.

NBA coaches use break to prepare for possible playoff matchups

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — With NBA games indefinitely on hold, there has been a lot of discussion about postseason possibilities — including by coaches around the league.

They’re preparing for what a resumption of the season that was shut down March 11 could look like in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse said he’s trying to prepare for every possibility that would allow the Raptors a chance to defend their title.

“We’re ready for whatever is thrown at us,” Nurse said recently during a conference call with reporters. “I don’t think it really matters. What matters is that we attack the title in whatever format it’s going to be presented in and we go for it.”

No one knows what will be thrown at the NBA or the rest of the sports world. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising against large gatherings make the calendar a major factor in how the league could resume its season.

The ideas are many, from a shortened version of the remaining schedule played without fans to the very real possibility of jumping straight into the playoffs to ensure a season is completed before the end of summer.

Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said he has spent part of this hiatus studying the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets — the Bucks’ two most likely first-round playoff foes — as well as other Eastern Conference teams.

Nurse had already begun thinking postseason before the season was suspended.

“When we hit March 1, we’ve got a kind of playoff prepping plan thing that kicks in,” the Raptors coach said. “We spread the teams around our staff members and they prepare a pretty detailed couple of hour video sessions.

“They would normally come into my office and start showing that to me one-on-one. It’s a two-hour video that we go through probably in about three hours on certain teams in the East and then a handful of them in the West as well.

“The coaches were started in on that already and they’ll continue on that. The only difference is there’s no real one-one-one time with me yet. They’ll probably just have to send me their edit and then I’ll just have to watch them and talk to them on the phone.”

If the NBA resumes the season with the start of the postseason, Nurse and Toronto would be the No. 2 seed in the East and would host No. 7 Brooklyn. Other matchups would be: No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Orlando; No. 3 Boston vs No. 6 Philadelphia; and No. 4 Miami vs No. 5 Indiana.

In the West: No. 1 LA Lakers vs No. 8 Memphis; No. 2 LA Clippers vs No. 7 Dallas; No. 3 Denver vs No. 6 Houston; No. 4 Utah vs No. 5 Oklahoma City.

As good as the matchups look on paper, the play could be sloppy.

Celtics center Enes Kanter estimates it would take at least two to three weeks for players to get their bodies in game shape. Part of the reason, he said, is the time players have had away from the court.

Kanter believes a training camp-like period would probably be needed.

“You can’t just say ‘OK, we’re going to play the games a week later.’ Some players are doing some things. Some players are in their apartments not doing anything,” Kanter said during a conference call. “We need to make sure everybody is doing their stuff and is in good shape to go out there and compete if we jump straight into playoffs.”

Kanter said a training camp setting would also help players refocus. He said while he’s staying in shape, he’s also spending time reading, watching documentaries and teaching himself to cook and play the piano.

It’s clear time is not the NBA’s friend.

Monday marked the 26th day of the shutdown, a stoppage that has already cost the league more than 100 games. And the CDC is recommending that no in-person events involving 10 or more people be held through the end of April as the U.S. fights the spread of the pandemic. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Monday the league would not make any decisions about resuming the season until May at the earliest.

Kanter said if a decision is made to jump straight to the postseason, he hopes the length of the series won’t be affected.

“We’re competitors, man. We want to go out there and push through and finish the season,” he said. “It’s crazy because we have a really good chance to go out there and get a championship. So, it’s like for sure you want to go out there and compete.”