NBA Playoffs: Slow start dooms Thunder as Mavericks roll in Game 3

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After stealing home-court advantage from the Mavericks with a win in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, one would think the Thunder would have come out firing once the series shifted to Oklahoma City, ensuring that the victory they worked so hard to get on the road wouldn’t be immediately wasted. But it was Dallas who was the aggressor in Game 3, jumping out to a huge early lead that they would never relinquish.

The Mavericks led by as many as 17 in the first quarter, and 23 in the second, before hanging on for a 93-87 win that put them back ahead in the series.

“Tonight, we played championship-level defense for the first time in the series,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said afterward, in a news conference streamed live on NBA.com. “And now, the challenge is to sustain.”

Dallas jumped on the Thunder from the start, and made shots at a 51.2 percent clip in the first half while taking a 16-point lead into the break. Dirk Nowitzki had little to do with it, however, scoring just four points as Shawn Marion did the early damage offensively.

Nowitzki finished with 18, but he was hounded all night by the aggressive defensive play of Nick Collison, who was allowed to be overly-physical with little restrictions from the officials.

Carlisle was complimentary of Collison’s defense afterward, but did point out that it may have, at times, been more physical than the rules would normally allow.

“In terms of legal limits, I believe the line may be crossed at times,” Carlisle said. “But if so, then the league will see that.”

While Nowitzki was held in check, Dallas got productive performances from seven of its players. It was far too much for the Thunder to overcome, on a night when Kevin Durant was cold (missing 15 of 22 from the field), and no one on the team outside of he and Russell Westbrook were able to crack double figures.

Westbrook bounced back as expected in this one, after being benched for the entire fourth quarter of Game 2. Depending on who you believe, the relegation to the bench was either because of the reserves rolling at the time, or a blown play that pushed his coach over the edge.

In Game 3, there were no such issues. Westbrook was attacking hard all night, going to the basket again and again on his way to a game-high 30-point performance.

Oklahoma City made its run late, but the 23-point first-half deficit was too much to overcome. The Thunder pulled to within six with 3:20 to play, but missed two wide-open looks from 3-point range (one from Westbrook, one from Daequan Cook) that could of made things interesting. But on a night when the team finished 1-for-17 from beyond the arc, perhaps OKC should have tried a different approach.

It has to be disappointing for the Thunder that they missed so many shots early and dug themselves such a huge hole in such an important game. As we look ahead to Game 4, getting off to a strong start is just one of the things they’ll need to concern themselves with.

Containing Nowitzki again will be a tall task, especially if Carlisle’s (relatively tame) comments about the way Collison is being allowed to play him end up affecting the officiating. Durant will need to regain his scoring touch, and OKC will need a large helping of the “good” Westbrook if the team is to counter the depth of Dallas and the way the Mavs execute beautifully on the offensive end of the floor.

In short, the Thunder will need to be the aggressor from the very start Monday. Otherwise, this series could be over in five.

Counter-report: Kyrie Irving has been ‘communicative and forthright’ with Celtics

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Kyrie Irving, according to a report, has ghosted the Celtics as free agency approaches.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Whoever leaked the initial information wanted to make Irving look bad. Whoever leaked this wanted to make Irving look good. Who’s telling the truth?

Who knows?

Maybe Irving’s and Boston staffers have differing definitions “communicative and forthright.” They could each be telling their own truths. But neither side is above spreading inaccurate rumors to sully someone else’s reputation.

Breakups get messy, and it appears this one is already there.

Beyond all the noise about how Irving is leaving, the most important detail: This is yet another report he’s leaving for the Nets.

Report: Hornets’ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist opting in for $13 million

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The Hornets’ last hope for super-maxing out Kemba Walker and avoiding the luxury tax without trading or stretching anyone has been extinguished.

With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s $13 million salary locked in for next season, Charlotte faces hard choices.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

If the Hornets re-sign Walker to the super-max, sign their draft picks (Nos. 12, 36 and 52) and add no other free agents, they’d project to be about $9 million over the tax line.

Would Walker take that large of a discount? That $9 million below the super-max would be for just next season. Over a five-year contract with max raises, he’d be leaving about $54 million on the table. And that’s all to maintain a lottery team that’s not really upgrading.

Would Michael Jordan pay the tax? He never has, and I doubt this mediocre team sways him.

The most likely outcome if Walker re-signs: Charlotte trades an undesirable contract – Kidd-Gilchrist’s, Nicolas Batum‘s, Marvin Williams‘, Cody Zeller‘s) – or stretches Bismack Biyombo. Trading those rotation players would probably require a sweetener. Stretching Biyombo would create a cap hit through 2022.

So, the Hornets get even more depleted in the long-term, maybe also the short-term.

That’s the cost of overpaying so many players – including Kidd-Gilchrist, who plays hard and defends well but hasn’t developed enough of an offensive game.

Report: After working out Darius Garland, Knicks set on R.J. Barrett with No. 3 pick

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R.J. Barrett is the consensus No. 3 prospect in this draft. The Knicks have the No. 3 pick.

A potential snag  – New York working out Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland today – apparently won’t keep Barrett from his desired Knicks.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The top of the draft looks clear:

1. Pelicans: Zion Williamson

2. Grizzlies: Ja Morant

3. Knicks: R.J. Barrett

New Orleans has the No. 4 pick but is looking into trading it. I rate Garland as the top available prospect, but the Pelicans already have Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday in the backcourt. They could still take Garland, but the fit would be tricky.

Will New Orleans pick Garland? Take someone else? Trade the pick?

The draft will get interesting at No. 4.

Trade who? Wizards reportedly will offer Bradley Beal three-year, $111 million contract extension

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Predicting what the Wizards will do this off-season — from the No. 9 pick in the draft on Thursday through what to do with Jabari Parker‘s $20 million team option — is difficult because they do not have a permanent general manager. The Wizards have made a run at Toronto’s Masai Ujiri (something sources told me is true despite owner Ted Leonsis’ denials), but for now in-house candidate Tommy Sheppard is running the show (and will for a while longer).

The biggest question: What will the Wizards do with Bradley Beal?

While every team in the league has called to try and feel out trade possibilities, the Wizards are leaning toward offering him a three-year, $111 million extension to his current contract, something reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

“He’s eligible for a three-year, $111 million extension. I’m told it’s the team’s intention to offer that up to him and try and move forward.”

The Wizards should offer it up.

It would be a surprise if Beal accepted it.

In part because he will want to see who is in charge and what direction this person takes the franchise before he commits to it, but also in part because it doesn’t hurt him financially. Beal can get a larger-year four-year extension in the summer of 2020, or become a free agent and sign a max five-year contract in 2021 (or, he could bolt them to another team that summer). Beal is just 25 years old and has not had the kind of injury issues that would make him think he needs to take the security now (he has played 82 games the last two seasons).

This little dance will go on in our nation’s capital, but it signifies nothing. Meanwhile, Beal will gear up for next season, another without John Wall where Beal will once again be the focal point of the office.