Five things to watch: Thunder-Lakers

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The playoff race is heating up and with the Lakers battling for the division and the third seed and the Thunder haggling with the Spurs over the top seed in the West, Sunday’s game is the rare late season meeting with meaning. The Lakers need to get a win to lock in no-worse than fifth and drop their magic number over the Clippers to just one. The Thunder have to hang on as long as possible and hope the Spurs, facing an easier schedule, pull their starters and actually lose.

Plus, you know, these two have some history. So here are five things to keep an eye on when the Thunder face the Lakers.

1. Have  You Ever Seen The Rain?: The Thunder can score in a torrent, with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, all capable of putting up 40. The Lakers’ defense has backslid considerably, and have the fourth worst defensive efficiency over the past four games. Ramon Sessions, Metta World Peace, and Kobe Bryant are going to have to do serious work on the perimeter to contain the Thunder trio. Having help defense from Andrew Bynum (when he cares) isn’t enough. It’s going to take perimeter containment because OKC’s top three can all hit the mid-range jumper consistently off the screen. Sessions has to get through screens faster and more forcefully, Bryant has to attack Harden’s dribble to get the ball out of his hands, and MWP has to just hang on and hope KD doesn’t have a good night. He can do damage against Durant regardless, but if he’s hot, he’s hot, and that’s all there is to it.

2. Ain’t That A Kick In The Teeth?: The Thunder can bully you. They’re not a great defensive squad, but a good one, and they tend to sheepdog opponents into bad positions on the floor where they can trap. They bring help immediately and Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison are all more than willing to give you a stiff forearm to the back down low. Meanwhile, the Lakers can absolutely brutalize their opponents with MWP, Matt Barnes, Josh McRoberts, and Andrew Bynum. The battle between Perkins and Bynum for low-post supremacy remains a key matchup and whoever can establish their physical superiority is going to have a huge edge. Bynum should win based off of just physics, but if he’s not engaged, Perkins can stonewall him.

3. A Mid-Range Oven: In the first two games, Serge Ibaka was 6-11 from mid-range for 55% shooting from space when Pau Gasol was on the floor. He’s usually a 38% shooter from there. Gasol usually shoots 47 percent in the paint, non-restricted area. Against the Thunder, he shot just 33 percent, despite taking a higher than average percentage of his shots from there. Basically, whoever can take over from mid-range is going ot give their team a sizeable advantage. Gasol needs to hit a few over Ibaka using his height advantage to spook the youngster. Once that happens, Ibaka will go for the pump-fake and Gasol can create higher looks for himself and others. This is a crucial matchup for the Lakers, one they have to win.

4. Awkwardness and You: Derek Fisher is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Players Association, with the Executive Committee having voted 8-0 for a no-confidence vote against the President Fisher and asking him to resign. Fisher refuses. In the middle of all this, Fisher has to go out and be a leader and calming influence on the Thunder, providing valuable backup point guard minutes. Fisher’s a professional, and it’s unlikely that this off-court matter will affect his on-court play. But it’s something to watch, especially in relation to how his teammates approach him.

5. Fresh Legs: The Lakers have to start thinking about resting key players. They need to get healthy and in good condition for the playoffs. They’re a win and a Clippers loss away from clinching the 3rd seed and the Clippers would need a lot of help to overtake them. If the OKC game gets away in either direction for the Lakers, Mike Brown needs to rest his guys. If they catch the Thunder napping, let the bench mob close out the game. If they get blown out of the building, sit Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum and let the Thunder have their way. Burning them out with a week to go makes little sense. Big picture is always more important.

Celtics hope return home can slow LeBron, Cavs in Game 5

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BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics expected to see a different LeBron James in Cleveland after the Cavaliers fell into a 2-0 hole to open the Eastern Conference finals

Two games and back-to-back wins later, James has reminded everyone exactly why he’s been to seven straight NBA finals.

Boston will be back in the embrace of its raucous fans at TD Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday. But a team that has thrived on youth this postseason suddenly looks disoriented without a go-to player and opposite a more veteran squad that has found a new attitude thanks to the fuel being provided by its biggest star.

“My teammates are putting me in position and wanting me to be in attack mode and trusting me to put our guys in position to be successful,” James said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the collective group, and I’m one of the byproducts of that.”

While the Cavs are certainly feeling rejuvenated, coach Tyronn Lue said it hasn’t changed their sense of urgency.

“We still gotta play,” Lue said. “We have veteran guys who have been there and know what it takes, but this is a young team, a good team that’s playing at home so experience is not going to be a factor. We have to come in there and have the same mentality that we had in Game 3 and 4.”

Two games ago, the numbers seemed all on the Celtics’ side.

They had moved to 9-0 at home during these playoffs and taken 2-0 series lead, which has been a magic number for a franchise yet to surrender such an advantage during its storied history (37-0). Over the last 96 minutes, Boston has been outscored by 39 points, has dropped to 1-6 on the road and is suddenly facing a must-win game to maintain home-court advantage.

Coach Brad Stevens said at the start of the playoffs that he believed there was value in the greenness of a young group that had several players getting their first taste of postseason basketball. He was proven right with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum all thriving as first-time postseason starters.

Their success had the cumulative effect of masking the absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Now, the lack of an alpha like Irving capable of creating his own shot is sticking out with every 40-point game James produces.

Al Horford, Boston’s only healthy All-Star, was never a dominant scorer, but more of a facilitator who worked well in a finely tuned system.

Horford started off the series strong but his scoring and assist numbers have declined over the last two games.

Lue’s move to reinsert Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup in Game 2 is a huge reason.

Thompson has not only helped things move better on the offensive end for Cleveland, he’s combined with Larry Nance to make things difficult on Horford. Horford had just four shots and seven points in 30 minutes in Game 3. He scored 15 points in Game 4 but was just 5-of-13 from the field with one assist.

If the Celtics are going to get back to the by-committee style that got them here, it must begin with his leadership. To that end, Horford said they’ll focus on correcting their issues, but also won’t dwell on them.

“As a group, we’re excited to be back, going back home,” he said. “Obviously we understand the challenge of it. We can’t think about the past. We just have to worry about this opportunity. We have a Game 5 at home, and we have to make the most of it.”

Cleveland is hoping James’ once quiet supporting cast continues its surge in Boston.

Kevin Love just missed his third straight double-double in Game 4 and sharpshooters JR Smith and Kyle Korver were 12 of 19 from the 3-point line in Games 3 and 4.

Korver’s efforts have stood out.

At 37 years old he was all over the court scoring in Game 4, diving for loose balls and collecting three blocks. While he anticipated being sore from all the activity, Korver said playing “fun basketball” is still propelling a guy looking for his first ring after appearing in 124 playoff games for five different teams during his 15-year career.

“There’s not many of us `03 class guys still around,” James said of Korver. “I feel like we’re just cut from a different cloth because we’ve been around for so long. We have this work ethic and you see him every day putting in the work, putting his mind, his body into it. It’s not about his age.”

 

Report: Timberwolves would dump Thibodeau before trading Karl-Anthony Towns

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In the NBA, when it comes down to a struggle between an elite player and the coach/GM, who wins? The player. A top 10 NBA player is much harder to get than a coach. If you don’t believe it’s the player go ask David Fizdale or Kevin McHale or Paul Westhead or.. I could fill up the entire NBC server with instances, you get the point.

As the tension between Karl-Anthony Towns and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau has bubbled to the surface in Minnesota, some teams have called up Thibodeau and the Timberwolves to check on KAT’s availability in a trade.

But would the Timberwolves really trade Towns? If one side is going to lose this battle, it’s Thibodeau, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on The Russillo Show (hat tip Uproxx).

“I think their owner would trade management/the coach before he would trade Karl-Anthony Towns. I don’t think they would allow that. I just don’t believe they’d allow that kind of decision. And I don’t know that they’d want to trade him… he’s Karl-Anthony Towns, they’re not moving him, Towns is eligible for his extension this summer. You know Jimmy Butler… it’s more of a question of Andrew Wiggins. That to me would be, if someone was going to get moved — and I’m not saying anyone’s going to get moved — I think Andrew Wiggins is the one you’re going to look at first. Because you don’t have to make a decision on Towns and Jimmy Butler and one of those guys having to take less on an extension, because you can’t have three [max] guys.”

To be clear, Thibodeau isn’t going anywhere this summer (unless he makes some kind of a power play move, like trying to trade Towns). The Timberwolves improved by 16 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 — that was a step forward. Maybe not as big of one as some wanted/expected, but it wasn’t the kind of season that gets a coach/GM fired.

There’s also an odd dynamic in this with Jimmy Butler — he is Thibodeau’s guy. Butler has his back, and he can be a free agent in a couple of years, so if Minnesota wants to keep him then keeping the coach matters.

As for trading Wiggins, that is something to keep an eye on. Even if it’s not likely. After a disappointing 2017-18 season, there has been buzz around the league about the Timberwolves testing the market for Wiggins. The problem is Wiggins’ five-year, $148 million fully guaranteed contract kicks in next season — few teams want to take that on. To move Wiggins, Minnesota will have to take back bad contracts and/or send out sweeteners with him. Demand will not be high, despite Wiggins’ potential.

As Wojnarowski noted, both Butler and Towns have new contract coming up in the next couple of seasons, and both are clear max players. It puts Minnesota in a tight spot with the cap. They will be looking for some relief.

Just remember, if it comes down to Thibodeau or Towns, the player always wins. Especially a young, on-the-rise player.

Boston vs. Houston Finals? In 2-2 series, team with home court wins 80% of time

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Game 1 of the NBA Finals will see the Boston Celtics at the Houston Rockets starting May 31.

Or, at least that’s what the historic odds favor.

Most fans (and media/analysts) expect the Finals will still be Cleveland vs. Golden State, those are the two proven teams. However, as our own Dan Feldman noted, historically in a 2-2 series the team with two home games wins four out of five times.

Tuesday night, Houston looked every bit the kind of team that can stand up to the defending champion Warriors. Down 10 entering the fourth quarter, Houston’s improved ball-pressure defense wore down a Golden State team and took Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson (and in the fourth Stephen Curry) out of their rhythm. The Warriors couldn’t get the shots they wanted, didn’t get to the rim, went 0-of-6 from three and 3-of-18 overall in the fourth quarter. They looked like they were replaying the final games of the 2016 NBA Finals again (just with Durant). Meanwhile, Chris Paul was efficient and James Harden made plays that got Houston the comeback win. It was the kind of victory that can define a championship run.

Still, they need two more wins against a Warriors team that is loaded with All-Stars and has been to three straight Finals for a reason. Golden State believes it has another gear, now it needs to find it.

Out East, Boston heads home for Wednesday night’s game — the Celtics are 9-0 in the postseason and 22.4 points per 100 possessions better than on the road. Boston’s young role players have just been vastly superior on the parquet on both ends of the court. Plus, while the Cavaliers won Game 4, the Celtics won the last three quarters and seemed to find some defensive setups and plays that work for them.

Cleveland, however, has LeBron James.

Finally, we’ve got the kind of playoff drama we have wanted out of these conference finals.

Dikembe Mutombo to receive Sager Strong Award

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NEW YORK (AP) — Hall of Fame basketball player Dikembe Mutombo will receive the Sager Strong Award at this year’s NBA Awards show.

The award is named for longtime Turner Sports sideline reporter Craig Sager and presented annually to an individual who has been a trailblazer while exemplifying courage, faith, compassion and grace.

Mutombo’s honor was announced Tuesday by the NBA and Turner.

The four-time Defensive Player of the Year created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve conditions for people in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital has treated nearly a quarter of a million people since opening in 2007.

He will receive a colorful suit jacket, the kind Sager fashioned during his years on air before dying of leukemia. The award will be presented on June 25 in Santa Monica, California.

Former New Orleans coach Monty Williams was last year’s inaugural recipient.