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.

Gordon Hayward posts new workout video, he is moving pretty well

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Player workout videos on Instagram are a lot like how your life (or, your parent’s life) appears on Facebook — everyone looks their best, is always having fun and doing something interesting, and the daily grime of life has been scrubbed away.

That said, Boston’s Gordon Hayward looks good — he seems to be moving very well — in this latest workout video he posted.

It’s a good sign to see Hayward moving like that in July, months before that reconstructed ankle needs to be put to the test on the NBA hardwood.

With Hayward and Kyrie Irving healthy, the Celtics start the season as the favorites in the East — but Toronto is a sudden, serious challenger if Kawhi Leonard is all the way back and healthy. Philadelphia is talented and in that mix as well if Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can take strides forward with their game.

The top of the East is going to be very interesting next season.

Montrezl Harrell reportedly reaches deal to return to Clippers

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The Clippers liked Montrezl Harrell last season (he came from Houston in the Chris Paul trade), he averaged 11 points a game for the team with a very efficient PER of 24.7.

He was one restricted agent some around the league thought another team would try to poach, but in a tight market nobody was making an offer because the Clippers were just expected to match. So the Clippers and Harrell (and his agent) sat down and figured out something that worked for both sides, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The deal is fully guaranteed for both years, according to the report. That’s a fair price for his services, and Harrell gets back on the market in two years when the salary cap will have gone up by more than $15 million (at least by the NBA’s early predictions). He will have more options on 2020.

The Clippers are now just $500 below the luxury tax. They also have 16 contracts, which is bad news for C.J. Wilson and his non-guaranteed deal. (Technically Patrick Beverley has a non-guaranteed contract as well, but if healthy he will be back.)

For a couple of seasons, this is a good fit. Harrell will bring some athleticism and bounce to a frontcourt rotation that already includes Tobias Harris, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marcin Gortat, and Boban Marjanovic. The Clippers are a pretty good team, the problem is in the West pretty good could be the 10 or 11 seed. The conference is that deep and brutal.

Would Dwyane Wade take a big payday in China? Would Jahlil Okafor?

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Dwayne Wade is making a tough decision: Does he want to go through the physical grind to get his body ready for one more season of NBA basketball in Miami? Or, is it time to retire?

For some of the greats — most recently Kobe Bryant talked openly about this — they still love the game and the camaraderie, but they get to a point they no longer have the same passion for putting in the increasing work on their bodies to get it in NBA-level condition to perform at the level they expect. Wade is struggling with that debate right now.

Or, he could just go to China.

From Sportando:

Dwyane Wade is still a free agent after his season with Cavaliers and Heat. Wade has not decided yet whether to play one more season or retire. But D-Wade is wanted in China. Xinjiang Flying Tigers are ready to offer him a monster deal, as reported by Zhang Duo.

It’s hard to imagine Wade jumping on that, but not impossible. The salary is not going to be the motivator — he has made just shy of $180 million in salary alone in his career, and much more with endorsements — but rather the move would be about building his brand and his new lifetime shoe deal with Li-Ning, a China-based shoe manufacturer. Business-wise, it could be good for Wade to spend a season in China.

Of course, family and other considerations have to be at the forefront of his mind, which is why this still feels unlikely. Just never say never.

One guy who could go there and rehab his reputation is free-agent Jahlil Okafor. Also from Sportando:

Okafor is practicing in Miami but the Heat are unlikely to sign him but in China there are several teams interested in signing the former Duke center, as reported by Zhang Duo.

Okafor has worked out for NBA teams but has no offers (or, at least none he’s taken) and it’s increasingly unlikely he would get a fully guaranteed contract for this season. He, understandably, is clearly still working toward that goal.

In China, Okafor could put up big numbers, show he is healthy and moving well, get a good payday, and be back in the USA in time to get picked up by a team for a playoff run (the Chinese season ends in February or March, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs). It’s a big cultural adjustment and not for everyone, but Okafor has to be considering all his options at this point.

Jazz ending sponsorship deal with Papa John’s

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Jazz are ending their sponsorship agreement with Papa John’s Pizza after the company’s founder and spokesman used a racial slur.

A person with knowledge of the team’s decision confirmed the move Friday and said it was because of the controversy. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the organization will not make a formal announcement.

A number of professional and college teams have cut ties to the company over Papa John’s founder John Schnatter’s comment during a company conference call in May. Among them are the Orlando Magic, Seattle Seahawks, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, University of Louisville,  and numerous others.

Schnatter apologized and stepped down as chairman but remains on the company’s board. He’s since said his decision to step down was a “mistake.”

The company says it’s also investigating allegations reported in Forbes that Schnatter oversaw a work culture where women were subject to sexist behavior.