NBA Playoffs: Westbrook, Thunder implode in the fourth quarter

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In Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal matchup between the Thunder and the Grizzlies, Oklahoma City was powerless against Memphis’ big men. In the early parts of Game 3, it was the Thunder’s speed that made the difference, particularly the speed of Russell Westbrook. However, the Thunder ended up falling on their own sword late in the game, and are now facing a 2-1 deficit after a heartbreaking overtime loss.

After a breakout regular season, Westbrook has had an up-and-down playoffs, mixing brilliant performances with games where he strangled the Oklahoma City offense by dribbling the air out of the ball and forcing outside jump shots. On Saturday, Westbrook had a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance that served as a microcosm of just how dangerous Westbrook can be to both is opponents and his own team.

For the first three quarters, Westbrook was masterful. He didn’t have a particularly efficient scoring performance, but he set the pace of the game. He attacked the rim constantly, pushed the pace to keep the Grizzlies from setting up their half-court defense, and did a fantastic job of setting up his teammates. Westbrook finished with 12 assists, and seven of Kevin Durant’s field goals were set up by a Westbrook assist.

When the Thunder played the Lakers in last year’s playoffs, Durant struggled to find space against Ron Artest in isolation situations, and only shot 35% for the series. With Westbrook commanding the defense’s attention and allowing Durant to either catch and shoot or roll to the rim for a dunk, Durant has been exponentially more effective. When Westbrook balances efficiency with aggression, the Thunder are a completely different kind of offensive animal than they were in last year’s playoffs.

In the fourth quarter, however, the bad Westbrook showed up, and the Thunder offense went completely stagnant. The team only scored two points between the 7:43 mark of the fourth quarter and the 0:52 mark of the game, and the Grizzlies were able to tie the game by outscoring the Thunder 15-4 during that stretch. Although the entire Thunder team deserves a share of the blame for Oklahoma City’s miserable offensive display, Westbrook was the primary culprit for the Thunder’s offensive struggles — he dribbled the ball aimlessly, didn’t look to make aggressive moves to the rim, was far too eager to settle for jump shots, and made little effort to get his teammates involved. When Durant did get the ball, he usually got the ball 25 feet away from the basket with the shot clock running down and a defender in his face, and not even Durant is able to turn those situations into high-percentage opportunities.

While the Thunder imploded offensively, the Grizzlies were slowly but surely able to claw their way into the game, and the game went into overtime with the score tied at 86.

In overtime, the Grizzlies continued to attack the basket aggressively; the Grizzlies scored 80 points from the paint and the free throw line on Saturday, and all of their overtime points came at the rim or the free throw line. Meanwhile, the Thunder continued to look confused — a beautiful James Harden feed to set up Nick Collison for a dunk only served as a reminder of just how broken the Thunder’s late-game offense was. When it was all over, the Thunder had been outscored by 20 points over the last 17 minutes of play, and they now find themselves in a 2-1 series deficit.

This was a horrible loss for the Thunder, and it could easily have been the difference between a conference finals berth and an early playoff exit. The Thunder did everything right. Westbrook and Durant were working well together, the offense was rolling, and Perkins and Co. were actually winning the battle in the trenches against Memphis’ twin towers, holding them to 12-36 shooting from the field . They were doing absolutely everything they needed to do to beat the Grizzlies and regain home-court advantage.

Then they imploded, and they now have to face the fact that they beat themselves in a game they needed to win. Winning four out of seven games against the Grizzlies is no easy task; in order to advance after this performance, the Thunder will essentially have to beat Memphis five times in seven games.

If the Thunder play the way they did in the first three quarters for a full 48 minutes, they can absolutely tie up the series before it comes back to Oklahoma City. But on Saturday, the Thunder’s inexperience was their undoing, and they may not be ready to contend for a championship until Westbrook and company can stop putting on these types of performances.

Report: NBA cancels vote for in-season tournament, play-in tournament

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
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The NBA had some big ideas about revamping its schedule – in-season tournament, play-in tournament and reseeded semifinals.

It seemed strange that the least radical of these proposals – replacing the conference finals with reseeded semifinals – gained no traction. Who disapproved of that yet supported an in-season tournament and play-in tournament?

Apparently not enough teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This vote won’t happen, because the proposal would lose. The official vote is merely a formality. The NBA knows too many governors would vote no, so not even holding the vote saves the league some embarrassment.

I don’t see how further study will help the in-season tournament. It’s just a bad idea. People won’t care about it. That’s why there have been so many suggestions for generating interest. It’s a losing battle.

A play-in tournament could work. There are several viable permeations. I buy that time to build consensus for that could be helpful.

These changes don’t have to take effect in 2021-22. The 75th-anniversary season just provided an opportunity for spin. If the NBA implemented the new schedule that season and it backfired, the league could drop it and claim it was a one-time alteration.

That window isn’t quite shut, but read the writing on the wall: Too few owners want these changes.

LeBron James again leads NBA jersey sales, Giannis Antetokounmpo second

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Combine the brands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers and it’s going to sell a lot of jerseys.

If you needed confirmation of that — and why would you? — the NBA announced that LeBron leads the league in jersey sales through the start of this season (October 2019 through the end of the calendar year). Giannis Antetokounmpo is second, and Stephen Curry rounds out the top three. Then the list gets interesting.

Here are the top 15 players in jersey sales:

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors=
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics=
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
6. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
7. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
11. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
12. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
15. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Tatum climbing up to fourth — in front of Harden and some other established stars — shows both the growth in his popularity and the power of Celtics’ nation.

The fast-rising popularity of Luka Doncic also is evident with him being sixth, in front of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, both of whom switched teams (which often can spike jersey sales).

Also, note Zion Williamson is 15th without having stepped on an NBA court. Yet.

The Lakers head the list of the team with the most merchandise sold, with the Celtics second and the 76ers third. Toronto is fourth after its championship run (their first time in the top five), and the Brooklyn Nets are in the top 10, a first for that franchise.

These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from October 2019 through December 2019.

Frustrated Bradley Beal reportedly “angry with and emotional about” Wizards

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Just before the start of training camp, Bradley Beal locked himself in with the Wizards agreeing to a two-year, $71.8 million contract extension. That new contract meant not only some bigger paychecks down the line but also Beal could not be traded during this season — a season everyone realized would be difficult with no John Wall.

All the losing is wearing on Beal, however, who said after Thursday night’s Wizards loss to the Bulls:

“I don’t like losing. I’m sorry — especially winnable games… I don’t like losing, so [my frustration is] gonna keep building up for me until we starting winning and changing our culture.”

How do you change the culture?

“Winning games. Have a winning attitude, winning habits.”

This is more than just frustration of the moment with another loss, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Bradley Beal’s pique after his team’s 115-106 loss to the Bulls was real. Really real. A source who was also there told me Thursday that Beal was as angry with and emotional about his team as he’s ever been since being drafted by the Wizards in 2012.

Beal may have intellectually understood what he signed up for this season, that doesn’t make going through it easier emotionally. This season in Washington was going to be about finding players to go around Beal and Wall and make this team a threat. They found a few — Davis Bertans has had a breakout season (but may be tough to keep as a free agent this summer), rookie Rui Hachimura showed promise before his groin injury, Jordan McRae and Thomas Bryant have had their moments.

The concern for GM Tommy Shepard and the Wizards is Beal gets so frustrated he demands out, throwing off Washington’s plan. Technically, Beal cannot be a free agent until the summer of 2022 (or 2023 if he picked up a player option), but that has not stopped players in recent years from leveraging their way out in “pre-agency.” Maybe Beal doesn’t go that route this summer, but you can be sure a lot of teams will be calling Washington just to check on his availability. (This is where we say “the league is cracking down on player-to-player tampering/recruitment,” but if you think that will stop players I know a Nigerian prince who needs a loan and wants to talk to you.)

Much like with Karl-Anthony Towns, expect teams to be monitoring this situation. Just in case. Wizards fans may want to monitor it, too.

 

 

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
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As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.