PBT Playoff Preview: Thunder vs. Mavericks

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Season Records:

Oklahoma City (47-19, 2 seed) vs. Dallas (38-28, 7 seed)

Season Series:

OKC 3-1

Offense/Defense Rankings (points per 100 possessions):

Offense: OKC 107.2 (2nd in NBA) vs. DAL 101.1 (20th in NBA)

Defense: OKC 100 (9th in NBA) vs. DAL 98.6 (8th in NBA)

Three Key Thunder:

Kevin Durant: Durant just locked up his 3rd consecutive scoring title, and he did it with a ludicrously high true shooting percentage of 61%. Durant can take the ball to the rim, he can catch and shoot, he can knock down contested jumpers, he can do it all. Basically, if it involves putting a basketball in a hoop, Kevin Durant is really good at it. Durant will likely finish 2nd to LeBron James in MVP voting, but he’s got a great chance to make up for it by winning a championship before LeBron does.

Russell Westbrook: For all the junk Westbrook takes about whether or not he’s a true point guard and how many shots he takes, the Thunder run their offense through the ultra-talented Westbrook, and it’s been working for them, to say the least. When Westbrook can get the Thunder out in the open floor, they become completely unstoppable, and he’s getting better and better at picking his spots and setting up his teammates in half-court situations. The Thunder offense will stagnate when Westbrook tries to take contested jumpers early in the shot clock that he shouldn’t be taking, but there’s no denying that the UCLA product is a true superstar and a main reason the Thunder have been so successful.

James Harden: Harden makes bad basketball plays about as often as he shaves his beard. Harden isn’t the most athletic star in the league, and he took a bit of time to develop, but he’s become a true star and a lock for the 6th Man of the Year Award. Harden has true 3-point range, can slither between defenders and get to the rim, and is a fantastic playmaker to boot. It’s almost unfair that the Thunder have the luxury of bringing him off the bench, because he can pick apart a defense as well as almost any player in the league, starter or non-starter.

Three Key Mavericks:

Dirk Nowitzki: The reigning Finals MVP. What more do I need to say? Dirk finally got the monkey off his back by winning it all last season, but he followed it up with a bit of a down year statistically, as his points per game went down and his FG% was as low as it’s been since his rookie season. Still, Nowitzki can take over a game at any time with his unblockable fadeaways, and the Thunder won’t sleep on him after what he did to them in last year’s Western Conference Finals.

Jason Terry: Terry is a player who can simply light up the scoreboard and take over a game whenever he feels like it. Terry has range out to the parking lot, doesn’t seem to care whether there’s a hand in his face or not, and lives for clutch situations — it takes some serious stones to get a tattoo of the NBA Finals trophy before the Finals begin, and Terry backed it up last season. The Mavericks are coming into this series as underdogs, but I get the feeling that’s how Terry likes it.

Shawn Marion: Marion isn’t the two-way force he was in Phoenix, but he’s still capable of doing a ton of things on offense and guarding almost any player on the court. Against the Thunder, he’ll have the unenviable task of trying to use his length to limit the damage Kevin Durant will do — if he can’t find a way to slow down the Thunder’s offensive attack, it could be a very short series for the defending champs.

Outlook:

Normally, it’s never wise to bet against the defending champs until they’re actually beaten, but Mark Cuban changed the game a little bit when he decided to let Tyson Chandler walk in free agency in the hope of landing Dwight Howard or Deron Williams this off-season. The Mavericks have a lot of experience, and were able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against the Thunder in last year’s Western Conference Finals last season, but a more experienced and confident Thunder team should be able to roll through this year’s Mavericks squad without too much trouble.

Prediction:

Thunder in 6.

Pacers’ Myles Turner fined $15,000 for flipping bird at Sixers fans

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Myles Turner had to know this was coming.

Frustrated after fouling Joel Embiid under the basket and being taken out of the game, the Pacers’ big man flipped off some Sixers fans as he walked to the bench.

Saturday the league announced Turner was fined $15,000 for “making an inappropriate gesture toward the spectator stands.” The league, understandably, is not a fan of its players flipping off fans.

That fine is pretty much the going rate for these kinds of incidences.

Embiid went on to score 40 Friday night in a dominant performance, but the Pacers won the game 113-101.

Why are Lakers saving their young core? Reportedly to chase Anthony Davis.

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Anthony Davis is the target at the top of the Lakers’ wish list.

He’s also at the top of the wish list for the Boston Celtics and about 27 other teams, too. But if Davis is put on the trade block — something that is not likely until this summer, New Orleans is working to keep him — the Lakers and Celtics will be at the front of the line.

Which is why, when reports that the Lakers would not include any of their young core in a trade for Trevor Ariza came out, it fit with the Lakers’ long-term thinking. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN discussed this on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“Here’s the line [the Lakers] have to walk: they’re not going to give away picks and their top young players in some deal that makes them incrementally better this season because they have to save all those assets for Anthony Davis, a big trade this summer either pre or post free agency…

“The absolute dream scenario, people talk about (how) they can trade for Anthony Davis or sign a free agent. The dream scenario is they do both.”

The dream is to sign Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant and get Davis, and while that dream may be a long shot the only chance they have is if they still have their core players to throw in a package.

The larger point also is valid — the Lakers are not going to beat the Warriors come the playoffs this season (assuming the Warriors are healthy) and L.A. should keep its powder dry for bigger battles. And Davis will be the biggest of battles.

New Orleans wants to keep Davis, they are actively trying to be buyers at the trade deadline, not sellers. Sources have told me the Pelicans’ plan is to win as much as possible this season and show Davis they are serious, then come July 1 offer Davis a designated veteran contract extension worth $230 million (or a little more, depending upon the cap). It’s roughly $40 million more than any other team can offer guaranteed. If Davis and his agent Rich Paul — the same agent as LeBron James — turn down that contract then the Pelicans will be forced to consider a trade.

If we get to that point, then all bets are off and the Lakers are all in. Until then, the Lakers are wise just to be patient.

Despite fast start in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard reportedly still eyeing return to Los Angeles

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The Toronto Raptors are making their case to Kawhi Leonard this season — Toronto is 23-8, in first place in the East by 2.5 games, and look like a real threat to make the NBA Finals. Leonard, averaging 26.2 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, is a guy who has returned to the MVP conversation.

Still, the Raptors don’t know if he’s staying, or what he’s thinking, because Leonard doesn’t talk about it in a meaningful way.

“It’s been good so far,” Leonard told NBC Sports of the fit in Toronto. “Like I said, we’ve been winning, everyone’s playing well. Can’t complain.”

Nothing he’s done has slowed the speculation and buzz about what Leonard will do as a free agent next summer… which Leonard is working to ignore.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before the Raptors faced the Clippers last week. “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

A lot of the speculation around the league has remained that Leonard is headed back to Los Angeles next summer, most likely with the Clippers. Here is what Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“They can’t change the geography. They can’t change the weather in Toronto. Those were always be things against them in this,” said Adrian Wojnarowski. “Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this.”

“Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said about the weather. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.”

Clippers president Lawrence Frank and other Clippers executives have been a fixture at Raptors games this season, doing their part to recruit him early. They are going to make a strong play for him. So will the Lakers, although I have heard from multiple sources he’s not likely to play with LeBron and in that spotlight.

Nobody knows what Leonard will do next summer, or even what he’s thinking. Leonard doesn’t speak much, and when he does it’s in cautious cliches providing little if any insight. As long as that is the case, the speculation will continue.

Why didn’t Lakers trade for Trevor Ariza? Suns owner reportedly blocked it.

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There were eight teams (that we know of) having some level of contact with Phoenix about getting in on a Trevor Ariza trade. The Lakers were one and — as with all things Lakers — were the most talked about.

But the Lakers were never going to pull off that trade because the Suns’ owner, Robert Sarver, didn’t want it to happen, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Sarver — a very hands-on owner when it comes to basketball decisions — is probably still stung by buying out Tyson Chandler and watching him go to the Lakers and dramatically helping their defense (the Lakers are allowing less than a point per possession when Chandler is on the court). And certainly spiting the Lakers will play well with the Suns’ fan base.

However, the best franchises put aside petty thinking and do what’s best for them. If the Lakers had made the best offer (and we don’t know if it was) then take it. If it makes the Lakers better this season, or even the next few seasons, so what? If you’re the Suns, you’re in a rebuilding process and should be focused on the long term.

That said, the Laker trade was always going to be complicated and hard to pull off, LeBron James wasn’t going to be able to call up Suns GM James Jones and make this one happen. The Lakers wanted to land Ariza but also wanted to send out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and KCP doesn’t fit with what the Suns wanted (a point guard and young players or draft assets). That means a third team was going to have to get involved, maybe Philadelphia, and possibly even a fourth. The Lakers were not going to trade any of their four core young players, making this trade even harder.

What the Suns got in the trade with Washington was what they wanted: A point guard (Austin Rivers, who is not all that good, as evidenced by his 7.1 PER this season, but is better than anyone the Suns have) and a young wing in Kelly Oubre who fits on the timeline of Devin Booker and the other young Suns. Phoenix did reasonably well in this trade.

Could they have done better? Doesn’t matter, if the owner is shooting down an idea then it’s dead. That’s his prerogative.