NBA Playoffs: Thunder barely outgun Nuggets

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In a weekend full of high intensity, close games full of excitement, it was only fitting that the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets provided one last fireworks show. The game was the equivalent of some sort of bizarre video game. You have expected a mythical creature to burst through the floor and battle the players.

The Nuggets lead for the majority of the game, thanks to everything that got them to the fifth seed in the first place: ball movement, crack shooting, even scoring distribution with an attitude of “ruin all before you.” But the consistency from the Thunder was too much. If by consistency you mean Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Durant had the playoff game he was unable to muster against the Lakers last year, scoring 41 points on just 22 shots, while Westbrook had 31 points on 23 shots.

It would be easy to look at the Nuggets and consider their problem down the stretch to have been that lack of a star player. Then you look across the way and see what Carmelo Anthony managed against the Knicks especially on his final possession and maybe that wasn’t the answer. The Nuggets lost, but A. they pushed the Thunder on the road in the opener and B. did so without Aaron Afflalo. The Nuggets have a lot to feel good about going forward, except the biggest question entering the series: who’s going to guard Kevin Durant?

One thing that will be apparent going forward is that Nene is an unstoppable machine-man sent from the future to destroy us all. Nene banged knees with Kendrick Perkins in the third quarter, then came back in and helped spark the run which gave the Nuggets back momentum before the final Thunder push. He finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds, but the impact was greater considering how many people he posterized in the course of the night. That the Nuggets went away from him was mind boggling.

The Thunder have to be concerned with their defense. They eventually out-ran the Nuggets, but Denver shot 51% from the field despite shooting just 25% from 3-point land after starting 3-3. They surrendered a 110 efficiency and only slightly won the four factors battle. They had enough weapons to finish off the Nuggets Sunday but Game 1 proved this is likely to be a long, brutal series, and one that is likely to wind up with a few scuffles along the way. Put simply, these teams don’t like one another.

Some notes:

  • Eric Maynor was huge off the bench for the Thunder, particularly from the perimeter, hitting two spot-up threes. With Raymond Felton struggling across the board, that’s a big swing vote for OKC. Felton did have 8 assists, but he and J.R. Smith combined for 7-19 shooting off the bench. Denver’s strength is its depth. It can’t afford to lose points off the pine.
  • Kenyon Martin took 12 shots for Denver. Yeah, we don’t know either.
  • The Nuggets went away from Gallinari late for reasons which seem to confuse beyond all reason. He was just as unguardable for the Thunder, working both off the cut and from the perimeter. Balanced offense is great, but maybe give the players playing well more opportunities?
  • Durant had 16 at the half and finished with 41. He had 22 of 25 points the Thunder scored between the third and fourth quarter. In a round of Game 1s  full of insane performances from stars, Durant may have topped them all.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.