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.

Rockets to add Spurs buyout DeMarre Carroll, free agent Jeff Green

Spurs forward DeMarre Caroll
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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that DeMarre Carroll and the San Antonio Spurs have agreed to a buyout. Carroll will then sign with the Houston Rockets:

ESPN’s Tim McMahon added in a subsequent report that the Rockets will bring in free agent forward Jeff Green:

Green will first sign a 10-day contract with the Rockets, so he can get used to their system and see if there is a fit, Woj reported.

Carroll signed a three-year, $20.65 million contract as part of a sign and trade from the Brooklyn Nets to the Spurs this past summer. That agreement was part of a three-team trade that saw San Antonio send forward Davis Bertans to the Washington Wizards. The 10-year veteran is owed $7 million for this season, $6.65 million for 2020-21 and $1.35 million guaranteed for 2021-22. San Antonio will incur a cap hit for each of the three seasons as part of the buyout process with Carroll. How much of a cap hit will depend on how much money Carroll gave up as part of the buyout agreement.

Carroll was added via sign and trade after Marcus Morris spurned the Spurs in free agency. Morris had originally agreed to sign with San Antonio, but backed out after the New York Knicks offered him $15 million as a free agent. The Spurs moved on to Carroll as a backup plan, but he was never able to crack the rotation. He’s played only 135 minutes over 15 games with San Antonio.

Green was with the Utah Jazz earlier this season, before being waived to create a roster spot for Rayjon Tucker. The 11-year veteran Green averaged 7.7 points per game in 30 appearances with Utah. The Rockets will be the ninth different franchise Green has played for.

In Houston, Carroll and Green will join Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball crew as big man depth. Carroll and Green will likely back up P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington up front. Their experience at both forward spots will give the Rockets additional depth for their playoff run. Carroll and Green are also likely be to asked to play some center, as Houston has downsized dramatically at that position, including trading Clint Capela at the trade deadline.

NBA players’ union votes to support formation of G-League union

Kyrie Irving
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Better pay. Better working conditions. Not to be treated as disposable parts by their employers.

The players in the G-League want the same thing out of a union that auto workers, teachers, and (most obviously) NBA players do. As had been expected (talks had been going on for a while), on Monday the National Basketball Players Association (the NBA players’ union) voted to support the formation of a G-League union, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The G-League players are expected to support this. Sources have told NBC Sports that team and league officials will not oppose the players unionizing, they believe there will be benefits, too.

The primary issue will be pay. Most players in the G-League earn a $35,000 salary, unless they’re an elite high school prospect, or on a two-way contract (which means they are tied to an NBA team and can be called up for 45 days a season). Some players make more through an Exhibit 10 contract with a team — meaning they go to training camp with a team, then get a bonus ($50,000 or so) if they sign with that team’s G-League team.

Other issues would include freedom of player movement, work benefits, and giving the players a voice in other matters like discipline issues.

The NBA continues to push toward each of its teams having a minor-league affiliate. Right now, only the Trail Blazers and Nuggets do not. As the G-League grows, it’s understandable the players want a larger voice in how things are run.

In other news out of the players’ union meeting, Kyrie Irving was voted in as vice president, replacing Paul Gasol. Via Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Chris Paul remains the union president.

Check out Dr. Dre’s Kobe Bryant tribute

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CHICAGO — In a weekend filled with spectacular tributes to Kobe Bryant, this one stood out.

Legendary rapper, songwriter, record producer, and businessman Dr. Dre — a guy who grew up in Los Angeles — released a tribute that stood out (and was highlighted on TNT). Dre did this with Gibson Hazard and Jackson Bannon.

Kobe’s public memorial service takes place Feb. 24 at Staples Center.

Giannis Antetokounmpo on team’s All-Star plan: Attack James Harden

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
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CHICAGO – James Harden has griped about Giannis Antetokounmpo winning Most Valuable Player last year.

After his team lost to Harden’s in the All-Star game Sunday, Antetokounmpo got in a dig at Harden.

“Offensively, we were just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding,” Antetokounmpo said of his team’s strategy late. “That’s who we thought we’d have the opportunity to score on.”

Harden is not a good defender. But this is playing right into his hands. He’s at his best in isolation, especially in the post. He faces far more difficulty when run through actions off the ball or trying to keep up in transition.

Down the stretch, Harden defended more effectively than usual. Not great, but above his usual standard. Good enough for LeBron James‘ team to win.

At least, as Giannis previously noted, the MVP trophy is at his house.