NBA Playoffs: OKC takes Game 2 as Denver’s depth disappears

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Game 1 of the series between the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder stood out as a highly entertaining contest in an opening weekend full of highly entertaining contests, but the reprise in Game 2 couldn’t quite measure up as a competitive spectacle. Blame the Thunder; OKC used a dominant first quarter as a catalyst for spectacular game-long performance, and endured Denver’s runs along the way to win 106-89.

However, the most interesting dynamic in Game 2 may have been the complete inversion of both teams’ offensive identities. Structurally, the Oklahoma City Thunder are as traditional as contenders come. They have two dynamic stars at their core, surrounded by a defensive specialist on the wing, an enforcer in the middle and an x-factor. They have some depth, but generally run about eight deep.

The Nuggets are a bit of a different beast. They rely on having a stable of versatile and capable contributors to overwhelm and outrun their opponents. Denver relies on a collective offensive effectiveness and an aggressive defensive philosophy, neither of which is exactly possible without contributions from one to eight (or sometimes nine or 10).

Yet in Game 2, it was the Thunder who benefited from a balanced attack while the Nuggets struggled to find competence among their regulars. Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and James Harden scored a combined 40 points for OKC, providing a huge boost to the typically star-centric outfit. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were still productive, but they were able to rely on the efficient production of their supporting cast and pick their spots to be aggressive.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets were forced to lean heavily on Al Harrington, as only Ty Lawson, Nene, and Raymond Felton were otherwise able to contribute reliably. To be fair, Harrington played relatively well, but his sudden opportunity was more a testament to the failures of his teammates than any particularly outstanding element of his performance. Kenyon Martin didn’t make much of an impact on either end of the court. Danilo Gallinari couldn’t consistently create scoring opportunities. Wilson Chandler forced shots (and didn’t make a single one), all while putting in subpar defensive effort. J.R. Smith was effectively banished from the rotation after seven early minutes of play. Between widespread struggles and the absence of Arron Afflalo, Denver was surprisingly short-handed against an opponent playing excellent team basketball. Things went about as poorly as one would expect.

OKC looked like the best in the West on Wednesday and Denver something decidedly less than. The problem with the Nuggets doesn’t lie in their formula, but in their execution. Denver isn’t incapable of winning against quality opponents, but the odds are certainly stacked against them when they struggle this mightily on both ends of the court. The Nuggets just needed something more: scoring from the wings, stronger rebounding, better team defense overall, or even a superlative individual performance from one of many candidates. None of the above came, and the Thunder looked dominant as a result.

Denver’s defense and depth can typically throw opponents off-guard enough to allow some wiggle room, but Oklahoma City was simply clicking on another level on Wednesday, one on which a struggling Thunder team had no way of competing. Give OKC’s defense (and offense, for that matter) the appropriate credit, just don’t invoke the name of Carmelo Anthony; the Nuggets didn’t experience problems because they didn’t have a star player, but merely due to the fact that the typically effective players on their roster didn’t perform as they’re capable of performing.

Carmelo Anthony responds four times to Instagram post calling Kyle Korver better: ‘FOH’

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Carmelo Anthony was the No. 3 pick in the 2003 NBA draft. He had just led Syracuse to the national title as a freshman, and some fans and media advocating taking him No. 1 overall ahead of LeBron James (and Darko Milicic).

Korver was the No. 51 pick in the same draft. He looked like this:

Fifteen years later, Anthony and Korver are still in the league. Korver is helping the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, and Anthony and the Thunder already got eliminated. That sparked an Instagram post that clearly irked Anthony:

Anthony has had a better career than Korver. But who’s better right now? It depends on the terms of the debate.

Anthony is still a more-skilled all-around offensive player. (Neither gains credit for their defense.) Anthony can create in ways Korver just can’t.

But any team running its offense through Anthony now is asking for a bad time. Even if that’s that the best style for maximizing him individually, he’s no longer good enough to justify having the ball that much.

Korver is a far superior complementary player. He’s an elite 3-point shooter who moves well off the ball. Anthony struggles in that role.

In a hypothetical game between Anthony plus four average players and Korver plus four average players, I’d lean toward Anthony’s squad. But an actual NBA team capable of winning needs players better than both, and at that point, I’d rather have Korver.

Pistons hire Ed Stefanski to advise owner on searches for general manager and coach, with Dwane Casey reportedly top target

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After interviewing Kiki VanDeWeghe, Ed Stefanski, Gersson Rosas, Trajan Langdon, Brent Barry and Shane Battier, the Pistons picked Stefanski… to help pick the head of basketball operations.

Pistons release:

Detroit Pistons Owner Tom Gores announced today the hiring of Ed Stefanski as a senior executive reporting directly to Mr. Gores with responsibility for helping reshape the team’s basketball operations infrastructure and strategy. In this new role, Mr. Stefanski will assist in the searches now underway for a new head coach and new head of basketball operations; conduct a broad review of the existing structure in which the two jobs were previously combined;  recommend enhancements and improvements to that structure; and act as a long-term strategic adviser to Mr. Gores and the Pistons’ ownership team. His contract has a three-year term.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Pistons’ top target in the coaching search is former Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey, according to league sources.

Gores loves his consultants. He hired former Knicks and Jazz president Dave Checketts as an advisor shortly after buying the Pistons in 2011. That led to keeping Joe Dumars as president of basketball operations for three more, nearly doomed-to-fail, years. When Gores set out to replace Dumars in 2014, the Pistons trumpeted their use of search firm Korn/Ferry. On the recommendation of Korn/Ferry, Gores hired Stan Van Gundy as president-coach.

Now, with Van Gundy out and Detroit untangling those roles, Gores has turned to Stefanski.

Stefanski ran the 76ers from 2007-10, and he worked for the Grizzlies the last few years. Maybe his many years of experience will help in the latest general-manager search.

But then what?

Once the Pistons hire a general manager, what will Stefanski do? How will Gores distribute power so the new general manager and Stefanski aren’t stepping on each other’s toes or, worse, undercutting each other?

Locking in on Casey before hiring a general manager also seems like a mistake. Casey is a good coach and would be a good hire based on his acumen. But that should be the next general’s call. Forcing a coach onto a general manager usually goes poorly – though there might be a selection bias, because the type of team that does that usually has wider problems, too.

Which, yeah.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on Kyle Korver’s playing time: Brad Stevens ‘threw us for a loop’ by not playing Semi Ojeleye

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LeBron James is obviously the Cavaliers’ best player. Cleveland’s second-best player? Usually Kevin Love, but Kyle Korver has made a case lately.

So, how did Korver play just 19 minutes, including none in the first quarter, in the Cavs’ Game 5 loss to the Celtics last night? That was his playoff low, besides Game 1 against the Pacers, when he was still recovering from injury.

Blame Boston coach Brad Stevens removing Semi Ojeleye from his rotation.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue:

Well, initially, he’s been putting [Semi] Ojeleye in, so that’s been kind of Kyle’s matchup when he comes in the game. He didn’t play him tonight, so it kind of threw us for a loop.

This won’t slow the talk of Stevens being a genius. He neutralized one of Cleveland’s best players simply by not using a limited rookie.

Still, Lue’s strategy held some merit. Korver is a defensive liability, but Ojeleye’s offensive limitations make it hard to take advantage. Ojeleye’s biggest strength, his physical strength, is of limited utility in trying to stick tight to Korver on the perimeter.

In Games 1-4, Cavaliers with Korver on and…

Ojeleye on:

  • Offensive rating: 111.9
  • Defensive rating: 102.1
  • Net rating: +9.9

Ojeleye off:

  • Offensive rating: 97.0
  • Defensive rating: 109.5
  • Net rating: -12.5

That said, Korver is too good to plant on the bench. Other perimeter options – J.R. Smith, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Jeff Green (who actually played fine last night) – are just so unreliable. Lue shouldn’t just wait for the perfect matchup to use Korver.

But will Lue get it, anyway?

Stevens:

We believe in Semi and we think he’s a big, huge part of our team. It would not be a shock if he plays a ton for us in Game 6.

Lue better develop a plan for using Korver in Game 6 Friday, with contingencies based on Stevens using or not using Ojeleye. I wouldn’t trust Stevens’ declaration one bit, and Lue doesn’t want to get thrown for a loop again.

PBT Extra: Rockets showed defense, resilience, can Warriors show same in Game 5?

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Game 4 was an epic game, and the Houston Rockets proved they are a serious threat to knock the Warriors off the top of the mountain. They took Golden State’s big punch to start the game (a 12-0 run) and Stephen Curry haymaker in the third, cranked up their defense, got a great game from Chris Paul, and evened the series at 2-2.

Heading back to Houston, we can expect more of the same out of the Rockets Thursday night — they know a win in Game 5 puts them in a very dominant position in the series.

The question is, do the Warriors have another gear? That’s one of the topics I get into in this PBT Extra. For a few seasons now, the Warriors have been able to play lockdown defense and hit tough shots in the clutch, with Kevin Durant making them especially hard to stop, but in Game 4 when it got tight they looked tired and slow. Houston’s ball pressure threw Golden State off its game, and fatigue had set in for the Warriors. Can they not only go on big runs but slow down Chris Paul, James Harden and the Rockets’ attack?

Thursday night is going to be interesting.