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.

In wake of Mavericks’ scandal, Adam Silver warns other teams to eliminate harassment

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The sexual harassment and workplace environment scandal that engulfed the Dallas Mavericks shook other NBA teams and forced some internal reassessment long before the league and an independent investigator released their report on Dallas this week. As part of the deal, Mark Cuban is donating $10 million to “organizations that are committed to supporting the leadership and development of women in the sports industry and combating domestic violence,” and the team must subscribe to a number of new reporting procedures.

Just to hammer the importance of the issue home, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sent a memo to all 30 teams saying they need to think about diversity in management and have a focus on preventing workplace harassment.

While the money from the $10 million goes to good causes and is four times what the NBA could have fined Cuban itself under the current league bylaws, it is not going to hurt a man worth an estimated $3.9 billion. Cuban appeared both repentant and bothered by what was happening under his roof, but the punishment handed down came off as light, even though Cuban did quickly make changes within the organization — long before the report came out, starting at the top with the hiring of Cynthia Marshall as CEO — and was not personally involved nor did he have knowledge of the situation, according to the investigation. There is no right answer here. What would have really sent a message to teams was taking away draft picks, however, Dallas’ basketball side of the operations — players, coaches, etc. — were not implicated in the investigation, and it was instead the opposite, the basketball side was seen as a safe haven. Taking away draft picks felt like punishing the wrong people for the crimes, sort of like the NCAA. There were other options, but all seemed flawed.

Having it happen once can be spun as an outlier by the league, a one-off situation. If it happens again, the conversation changes. Silver does not want that to happen, hence the memo and reminder.

Jimmy Butler’s camp reportedly says concerns about salary “manufactured” by Wolves brass

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There are more spin doctors at work around the Jimmy Butler trade request than there are working congressional campaigns right now.

Among the flood of reports that came out was one that Butler’s primary issue was his salary — he wanted Minnesota to clear cap space so he could renegotiate his current deal to near a max contract, then extend him off of that deal. That the issue was less personal with Towns and more about the money.

Not true, reports Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

To add to the Butler drama there have been multiple reports in the Minneapolis area to come out this week that money was the main sticking point for Butler to demand his departure, but a source in his camp told the Sun-Times on Friday that it was “manufactured’’ by “ownership mouthpieces’’ to make Butler look bad….

According to the source, this is about a philosophy in making an impact in the Western Conference, and in Butler’s mind you can’t run down a dynasty like Golden State when two of the so-called dogs in the pack are in fact kittens.

Two thoughts here. First, this report makes more sense — to give the Butler the kind of raise talked about would have required gutting the Timberwolves roster. Meaning the would have had to dump guys that have value such as Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, or they would have had to find a sucker to take on the contracts of Andrew Wiggins or Gorgui Dieng, and to do that would have required sending out quality talent or picks as sweeteners. Butler is smart and understands the NBA business, he would know this was never going to happen, he realizes his money was going to come as a free agent next summer. The idea he demanded this always smelled fishy.

Second, Butler and a lot of people want to lump Towns and Wiggins together as players who don’t work hard, don’t have much of a motor, and don’t seem to love the game. Nobody who has watched Wiggins play — especially last season — is going to put up much of an argument about that in his case. Wiggins looks like an anchor contract, unless he suddenly sees the light.

Towns, however, is different. His game has improved year-to-year, he does have a good motor on the court (at least on offense), and he does put in work in the off-season. Maybe he is young and doesn’t wear it on his sleeve like Butler, and certainly Towns was taught some tough lessons in the playoffs by Clint Capela last season, but Towns is not Wiggins. Towns was an All-NBA player last season for a reason. Lumping him and Wiggins together is a mistake.

NBA approves three rule changes, including reset of shot clock to 14 after offensive board

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The three rule changes approved by the NBA owners on Friday are not going to have a dramatic impact on this NBA season…

Until in a close playoff game in May it’s a little harder for a team getting offensive rebounds to just kill the clock. Or in that same playoff game, when clear path foul is called because an offensive player outraced a defender down the court.

As had been expected, the NBA’s Board of Governors — the owners — approved three rule changes for the coming NBA season. They are:

• The shot clock will reset to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound rather than 24 seconds. This has been experimented with in the G-League, the WNBA, and Summer League this year with some success. The goal is to speed up the pace of play, not letting a team get an offensive rebound then back it out and pound the ball for 20 seconds to kill time. Thing is, that was not much of a problem last season, as was noted at Nylon Calculus.

 

<em>Over 30 percent of offensive rebounds result in putbacks (the 0 Duration value on the graph) and 75 percent of offensive rebounds result in a possession that is five seconds or less. Only 6 percent of all offensive rebounds resulted in possessions that are 14 seconds or greater last year. Given that the league average for offensive rebounds was the lowest ever this past season at 9.7 per game, this rule would apply to roughly half a rebound per team per game last year.</em>

When fans will notice it, when it will have the intended impact is end-of-game situations — rather than a team grabbing offensive rebounds then killing the clock for 20 seconds, they will have to get up a shot, which will lead to the other team getting an opportunity.

• The league “simplified of the clear-path rule. The NBA’s old clear path rule was overly complicated and it led to things that looked like clear path fouls not being, and things that clearly were not being fouls. Here is the NBA’s explanation of the new rule, with some video help below.

A clear path foul is now defined as a personal foul against any offensive player during his team’s transition scoring opportunity in the following circumstances: the ball is ahead of the tip of the circle in the backcourt; no defender is ahead of the offensive player with the transition scoring opportunity; the player with the transition scoring opportunity is in control of the ball (or a pass has been thrown to him); and if the foul deprives his team of an opportunity to score.

As part of the clear path foul rule simplification, referees will no longer need to make judgment calls as to whether or not a defender was between (or had the opportunity to be between) the offensive player with the transition scoring opportunity and the basket.  In addition, referees will no longer have to determine whether or not the defender was at any time ahead of the offensive player prior to committing the foul, nor will it be relevant whether or not a defender beat the offensive player with the transition scoring opportunity into the frontcourt.  Further, plays of this nature will no longer have to originate in the backcourt (since transition scoring opportunities can originate in the frontcourt).

• The NBA expanded what is defined as a “hostile act” so that replay can be triggered more easily. Currently, to be a hostile act according to the NBA rulebook it has to be an altercation between players that is “not part of a normal basketball play” or where a player “intentionally or recklessly harms or attempts to harm another player.” Broadening the scope of this will give referees more chances to review off-ball or other altercations, and these are the kinds of serious situations the league should review.

Dirk Nowitzki likely to come off bench this season, coach Rick Carlisle says

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Dirk Nowitzki said something this summer rarely seen from future Hall of Famers who are the best player in their franchise’s history, he was willing to come off the bench.

It looks like Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is going to take Nowitzki up on that offer, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

That might have been happening at the start of the season anyway, as Nowitzki’s injured ankle is not 100 percent and you can be sure the Mavericks are not going to push him.

Nowitzki off the bench just makes more sense for the Mavericks. DeAndre Jordan is the starting center, Harrison Barnes is really a four (56 percent of his minutes were at that spot last season), rookie Luka Doncic is a ball-handling three, Wesley Mathews is finally healthy and should be the two guard, and Dennis Smith Jr. is at the point.

Then the bench is a throwback to Mavericks favorites with Nowitzki, J.J. Barea, plus Yogi Ferrell, Dwight Powell, and Devin Harris.

Nowitzki is going to get the grand farewell tour this season, as he deserves. He’ll start a few games, particularly his final one at home. But for the team this season, which has dreams of a playoff spot (as long a shot as that may be in the West), this is the best move.