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.

James Harden buys piece of MLS Houston Dynamo

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NBA players being minority owners in a soccer team is not new, LeBron James owns a small piece of Champions’ League winner Liverpool, for example.

James Harden is keeping it closer to home — he bought a share of the Dynamo, Houston’s MLS franchise.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to join the ownership group of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash and proud to be a part of a club with tremendous history and a great future,” Harden said in a statement. “Houston is my home now, and I saw this as a way to invest in my city and expand my business interests at the same time. Soccer in general, and especially MLS, have exploded in this country throughout my lifetime. I’ve been a fan of the game for several years, and I know that Houston has a massive soccer fanbase, so it was an easy decision for me when this opportunity arose.”

Harden reportedly purchased a five percent stake in the team.

The Dynamo — a former MLS cup champion and a franchise that has consistently been strong — is primarily owned by Gabriel Brener, and it has boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya as one of its minority owners.

Harden has earned more than $141 million in NBA salary in his 10 NBA seasons and has four years left on the $228 million contract extension he signed with the team in 2017. In addition, he has a large shoe contract with Adidas and other endorsements.

Report: R.C. Buford moving on from Spurs GM role, Brian Wright taking over

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For 15 years, through championships and an unparalleled run of playoff berths and success, R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich seemed to work as one brain. Popovich was the coach but also team president, Buford the GM, and together they built an NBA powerhouse.

Buford is moving on from that role. Or, more precisely moving up into a new management role, and assistant GM Brian Wright is taking over as GM, reports Jabari Young of The Athletic.

After a little more than 15 years serving as GM, Buford is getting prepared to bequeath the role to assistant GM Brian Wright, league sources have confirmed to The Athletic. Wright will report directly to Buford, who will officially get a new title that some around the NBA believe will be a role helping to oversee Spurs Sports & Entertainment.

When the Spurs initially hired Wright in 2016, he stayed behind the scenes and focused mainly on scouting. But sources have informed The Athletic over the last year Wright has been more involved, even fielding calls and packages for the trade of Kawhi Leonard the previous summer.

Wright came to the Spurs from the Pistons a couple of years ago. That said, don’t expect a big change in how things are done in the Spurs front office. For one thing, Popovich is still there. Also, Wright has an excellent reputation around the league as being smart and a straight shooter. On top of all of that, Buford will remain his ultimate boss, although Buford’s role will change into one of more of a business manager for Spurs Sports & Entertainment.

Young hints there could be more changes coming. Obviously, the biggest would be when Popovich decides to step back in his dual roles as coach and president, but there could be shifts in the assistant GM ranks as well.

Just don’t expect the Spurs to stop being the Spurs.

Exclusive video preview: Dwyane Wade joins America’s Got Talent as guest judge

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Dwyane Wade is retired. He’s got some time on his hands.

But if he wants to spend quality time this summer with his wife, Gabrielle Union, he’s got to get on the set of America’s Got Talent, because she is a judge on the hit show. So, Wade did exactly that and steps in this week as a guest judge.

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In the video at the top of this page, you can see an exclusive of Wade and the rest of the AGT crew watching and judging an insane danger act out of India, a sneak preview of the show airing on NBC this Tuesday night (8 p.m.).

Wade knows talent on the court, but we’re going to see what talents impress him on the stage.

Kings hire WNBA’s Lindsey Harding as assistant coach

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The Sacramento Kings have hired former WNBA player Lindsey Harding as an assistant and player development coach on Luke Walton’s staff.

The team also hired Stacey Augmon and Rico Hines on Friday.

Harding played nine years in the WNBA before working as a pro personnel scout and then player development coach for the Philadelphia 76ers.

She becomes the latest woman to serve as a coach in the NBA, joining others like Boston’s Kara Lawson, San Antonio’s Becky Hammon, Dallas’ Jenny Boucek and Cleveland’s Lindsay Gottlieb.

The Kings have a history of hiring female coaches, notably Nancy Lieberman and Boucek.