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.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.