Thunder/Spurs Game 2: The rise of Westbrook, Harden

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I said going into this series Russell Westbrook was the key to Oklahoma City’s chances against the Spurs — he needs to attack off the pick-and-roll, get into the lane and finish. Or kick it out. But he needs to disrupt the Spurs defense and put a lot of points on the board in the half court.

James Harden has the same burden on him — he should be the guy setting up plays for the Thunder in the half court late in games. Yet Harden only had one possession where he controlled the ball in the last 10 minutes of Game 1 and that is just bad execution by the Thunder. Harden is their best playmaker.

Westbrook and Harden — more than Kevin Durant — are the keys to the Thunder getting the Game 2 win Tuesday and evening the Western Conference finals at a game a piece.

What Thunder fans learned the hard way in Game 1 is that the Spurs are a relentless offense — they keep attacking, keep pressuring, keep looking for lineups that work then they exploit it. In Game 1 the Spurs had success by going small in the fourth quarter, which allowed them to get their points in the paint thanks to a matchup that favored them. They had Manu Ginobili with 26 points, Tony Parker with 18 and they had balance.

There was a logical adjustment to the small ball for Scott Brooks — Serge Ibaka. But he didn’t go there. And he regrets it, as reported by the Expres-News.

“Every decision you make, if it doesn’t work out, you always say, ‘Why did you do that?’” Brooks said. “I’m with you on that. I wish I would have played Serge last night.”

The problem is if Ibaka does play the disciplined spurs will just move on to the next option that works. It is what they do.

Which is why the Thunder can’t have their offense go stagnant as it did in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Which brings us back to Westbrook and Harden.

Late in the game, Harden needs to be the playmaker for the Thunder. The ball needs to be in his hands because when it is Durant still gets his but so does everyone else. In Game 1 Durant was the guy with the ball, and the combination of good defense from Stephen Jackson and little off-ball movement stalled out the Thunder attack. It opened the door and Ginobili pulled the Spurs through it.

On the pick-and-roll, Westbrook simply cannot settle — he has to attack and get into the teeth of the defense. The same is true of Durant. In Game 1 the Thunder ball handler on the pick-and-roll hit just 10-of-28 shots, and that’s not good enough in this series. They are not playing the Lakers with Andrew Bynum’s long arms back there anymore, the Spurs don’t have that kind of back line. OKC has to get its points inside.

All this does not mean OKC should just try and run on the Spurs — San Antonio is more efficient in transition than the Thunder. Over the course of the season it’s true, and if this just because an up-and-down battle it doesn’t really favor the Thunder. There were 97 possessions last game, the Spurs won. As was pointed out in one Spurs preview, San Antonio has won 21 games in a row when the pace is above 94.

It’s not about just being fast, it’s about being smart.

And it’s about Westbrook and Harden.

While his brother spars online with Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins takes up fight with Stephen Jackson

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Jimmy Butler lit a fuse by requesting a trade from the Timberwolves.

Then, Andrew Wiggins‘ brother, Butler, Stephen Jackson and Wiggins himself all fanned the flames of the resulting fire.

Butler reportedly had problems with Andrew Wiggins last season, specifically Wiggins’ work ethic and defensive approach. Want corroborating evidence the Minnesota teammates aren’t simpatico? Wiggins’ brother, Nick Wiggins, tweeted (and deleted) “Hallelujah” to news of Butler’s trade request:

Butler – probably not coincidentally while working out – responded via Instagram:

Butler:

Hallelujah, keep that same energy

Then the retired Jackson acted out an elaborate scene in which Andrew – played by Jackson – copped to having no heart:

The real Andrew Wiggins didn’t like that and posted on Instagram:

Jackson responded:

If he didn’t like Butler giving him grief, Wiggins darned sure isn’t ready for heat from Jackson.

Mark Cuban explains some, though not all, of his role in Mavericks’ hostile work environment (video)

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As a result of the investigation into his team’s hostile work environment, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban will donate $10 million “organizations that are committed to supporting the leadership and development of women in the sports industry and combating domestic violence.” The Mavericks will also report to the NBA on structural changes to their organization.

And Cuban showed accountability by granting an interview to Rachel Nichols of ESPN:

I appreciate Cuban sitting for this interview with Nichols, who grilled him. I appreciate him apologizing to the actual victims. I appreciate him taking responsibility for the wrongdoing that happened beneath him. I appreciate him explaining what he did wrong and what he learned. I appreciate him, along with Mavericks CEO Cynthia Marshall, explaining the changes they’re making to rectify the situation.

But, though he explained his logic and subsequent lesson from handling Earl Sneed’s domestic violence, Cuban gave no real answer to how he let former CEO Terdema Ussery – found to be an serial sexual harasser – remain in power for 15 years. Taking Cuban at his word – that he was blind to the sexual harassment prevalent in the Mavericks business office – means shattering his image as a great businessman. The sharp and in-charge owner Cuban presented himself as would never grant Ussery such unchecked power for so long. “If I was in our business office five times in 15 years, that was a lot,” Cuban told Nichols. “I mean, it’s embarrassing to say.”

And that’s the benign explanation. Embarrassing is nothing compared to the alternative – that Cuban was as involved as he portrayed, which would mean he knew about Ussery’s misconduct and excused it. The choices are that Cuban’s first-rate businessman image was fraudulent or that he’s directly complicit in Ussery’s sexual harassment.

More than anything, hopefully Cuban has truly learned how not to repeat his prior errors.

Report: Clippers emerging as frontrunner to sign Kawhi Leonard

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Does Kawhi Leonard prefer the Clippers or Lakers in 2019 free agency? Reports have been mixed, though credible journalists have increasingly favored the Clippers since LeBron James signed with the Lakers. Yet, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN held out on the Lakers being Leonard’s top choice.

Now – with Jimmy Butler reportedly preferring a trade to the Clippers – Wojnarowski appears to be coming around on the Clippers.

Wojnarowski:

The Clippers have two max contract slots available in July, and are emerging as a front-runner for Toronto’s All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard when he becomes a free agent in July, league sources said.

Leonard and Butler would form a tantalizing tandem.

Butler reportedly wants to showcase himself in a big city while Leonard seemingly wants both to be in Los Angeles but remain out of the spotlight. Together, maybe they could both get what they want.

Though Butler’s demanding style has worn on teammates in Minnesota, nobody has ever accused Leonard of lacking work ethic or competitiveness. I bet Butler would respect Leonard.

They’re both elite defensively and at least very good offensively. There could be issues with how often each likes to isolate, but get all that talent to L.A. then figure out the rest later.

The question for the Clippers: Do they trade for Butler now or wait to try signing both stars in free agency next summer? The latter option carries more upside, allowing the Clippers to preserve assets. But it also risks Minnesota trading Butler and his Bird Rights to another team and him re-signing there.

The Clippers have several veterans – Tobias Harris, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari – who might appeal to Tom Thibodeau, who seemingly wants to win now. L.A. could also offer 2018 lottery picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Alexander. However, the Clippers can’t convey a first-round pick until 2021 at the earliest.

I don’t know whether they’ll trade for Butler, but if the Clippers do, I know we’ll crank up the Leonard-Clippers speculation even higher. There’s value in putting that in Leonard’s mind while the Raptors are trying to woo him first-hand over the next year.

Reports: Jimmy Butler’s trade preference is Clippers, Knicks less interested

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Knicks president Steve Mills said New York wouldn’t trade its draft picks and wouldn’t trade for players it could just sign in free agency. In other words: No more Carmelo Anthony– or Andrea Bargnani-type deals.

Then, Jimmy Butler – who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer – requested a trade from the Timberwolves and put the Knicks on his list of preferred destinations (with the Nets and Clippers).

Will Mills hold firm in his patient plan?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Brooklyn and the Clippers appear motivated on Butler, while the Knicks have been firm all summer that the team does not want to part with assets and instead prioritize signing free agents outright, according to sources.

The Knicks should be reluctant to trade for Butler now. Especially with Kristaps Porzingis injured, Butler is unlikely to help New York win meaningfully this season. It’d be much better to sign him next summer and preserve assets.

But there’s no guarantee the Knicks sign him next summer. Whichever team has his Bird Rights and ability to offer him a larger contract will have the upper-hand. There is value in trading for him now.

Perhaps, the Knicks can find a worthwhile Butler trade that includes trading picks. The only way to find out is negotiating with Minnesota.  For New York to eliminate the idea outright because the team made mistakes in similar situations would be misguided.

But Knicks are going to Knick.

At least New York isn’t Butler’s first choice.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Might that other max slot go to Kyrie Irving?

First, L.A. must make the best offer to the Timberwolves and one acceptable to a reportedly reluctant Tom Thibodeau. Then, the Clippers must lure Irving – or any star (Kawhi Leonard?) – from his team.

It’s easy to imagine. It’s far more difficult to turn into reality.