NBA finals Game 4: Five things the Thunder need to do to win

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Miami has made its statement. Nobody ever questioned their talent, the questions were how LeBron James would deal with being back on the biggest stage, and secondly, would they bring consistent effort that they had lacked all playoffs?

LeBron has been the series MVP so far and for two games in a row the Heat have played at a sustained level of intensity they rarely have through the playoffs.

The ball is in the Thunder’s court to adjust for Game 4 Tuesday night. And they better do it now because they are down 2-1 and no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals. Oklahoma City needs to play with real desperation, and they need to execute better.

Here are five keys for OKC if they are going to tie this series up.

1) Protect the paint. In Game 3 it looked like a Miami conga line to the rim. The Heat were getting into the paint on cuts and penetration — they finished the game with 35 shots at the rim, plus all that action got them 35 free throws. Miami will win every time that happens.

In Game 3 Serge Ibaka made the adjustment and stayed with Shane Shane Battier at the arc rather than leave him to protect the paint, and for most of the game Battier was less of a factor (9 points). But having the league’s best shot blocker out at the arc does the Heat no good. I still think the Thunder need less Kendrick Perkins and more Ibaka (he didn’t play the fourth quarter of Game 3). Pairing them hasn’t really worked.

Also, the Thunder are hinting at zone (or zone-like defense) and that could work well, too — anything that makes the Heat a jump shooting team.

2) Would the real James Harden please stand up. Harden is the Thunder’s best playmaker late in games, a guy who is a threat to score or set others up. But in his quest to set others up these finals he has not been himself — 2-for-10 shooting last game with two key turnovers. In the finals he is averaging just 11.7 points on 40.7 percent shooting and he’s had one good half. He is the Thunder’s X factor this series and he has to be at his best. Harden needs to be a little selfish, get some buckets and draw the defense, then set guys up. OKC needs the All-Star level James Harden.

3) Scott Brooks needs to change rotations to what works. Put simply, if Kevin Durant gets in foul trouble, don’t sit Russell Westbrook at the same time. You need the scoring against the Heat, and they are already a good defensive team happy to muck things up and play ugly. You’ve got to find a way to keep Ibaka near the basket where he is a shot blocking threat. Brooks has been out-coached by Erik Spoelstra this series. The Thunder need the coach that made moves Gregg Popovich couldn’t match.

Which ties into….

4) Kevin Durant can’t get in foul trouble. This falls in part to Brooks because he has Durant trying to guard LeBron and that has been part of the foul trouble. Brooks needs to put Thabo Sefolosha on LeBron (he’s the Thunder’s best defender and Dwyane Wade isn’t healthy and is not as big a threat). Durant has to be part of this as well — recognize how the game is being called and if it’s tight on the perimeter then be more careful, avoid contact. You can’t help your team from the bench.

5) Get out and run. Half court ugly games will not work for the Thunder, they need to get out and go. Russell Westbrook needs to push the pace. It has to start with better defense and stops, but then they need to turn that into some easy baskets. In the paint. If the Thunder want to win, they need to set the tempo for Game 4.

LeBron tells Adam Silver he wants to own expansion team in Vegas

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers
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The odds are good that Las Vegas will get an NBA expansion team. Eventually.

But when it happens, LeBron James wants to be in the Vegas ownership group — and he made that pitch directly to Adam Silver after the Lakers exhibition game in Sin City against the Suns on Wednesday.

“I know Adam is in Abu Dhabi right now, I believe. But he probably sees every single interview and transcript that comes through from NBA players,” James said, via the Associated Press. “So, I want the team here, Adam. Thank you.”

Silver is in the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting an exhibition game between the Bucks and Hawks this week. But LeBron doesn’t need to worry about Silver seeing this request. He probably already has.

The widely held belief around the league is that the NBA owners will not entertain expansion until a new CBA and a new television/streaming rights deal are locked in (driving up the franchise prices), things that will take a couple of years. Expansion talk may come after that, and maybe there will be two new NBA teams by the end of the decade.

“We are not discussing that at this time,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said of expansion last June. “As I said before, at some point, this league invariably will expand, but it’s not at this moment that we are discussing it.”

If and when expansion happens, Las Vegas, along with Seattle, are the clear frontrunners to land teams. Most importantly, both cities have NBA-ready stadiums and fan bases to support the franchises, and their mayors are on board.

LeBron would be the face of an ownership group. While LeBron himself is a billionaire, Silver had called reports of a $2.5 billion expansion fee per team “low.” And that’s not including all the other start-up costs that come with a team.

But if the NBA is coming to Las Vegas, don’t be shocked if LeBron is involved.

Zion and more: Five must-watch intriguing NBA players this season

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At the start of every season, there are the guys you just can’t take your eyes off.

The “will it come together” guys. The “will they break through” guys. The “their team really needs them” guys. We know what most NBA players bring to the table, but the intriguing guys are the ones where we don’t know the answer. Where we’re finding out just as their coaches and teammates are.

Here are my five most intriguing, must-watch players of the season.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Kind of a no-brainer — but we’re all going to be watching.

Williamson was given a max contract off the 85 games he played through three seasons, and the questions are clear: Can he stay on the court? And if he does, can he mesh with CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, return to being a dominant scoring force inside, and turn the Pelicans into a playoff team?

The early reviews are promising. He came into camp in the best shape we have seen him in, and he showed off his ridiculous explosiveness in his first preseason game following missing last season after foot surgery.

If Williamson can be that guy, if he can play at an All-Star level, lead the league in scoring efficiency, and give the Pelicans a guy who can get to the rim and draw fouls (something they lacked much of last season, McCollum and Ingram are happy to pull up and nail the jumper), it’s not just Zion who is intriguing. This entire team is.

We know we’re not going to be able to take our eyes off Zion all season. No matter what happens.

Ben Simmons, Nets

Another rather obvious selection, but it doesn’t make it any less a reality — we will all be watching. Especially after his ugly exit from Philadelphia last season, only to not play for the Nets.

What will his role be next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant? In the first preseason game, Simmons brought the ball up, initiated the offense a lot, and didn’t take a shot outside the paint (he made his shots at the rim, but his turnaround jumper was… rusty would be the kind word). Simmons brings elite perimeter defense the Nets need, but most scouts picture him in a Draymond Green-style role within the Brooklyn offense, the question is will he play that way  — and will Steve Nash ask him to?

No team has more questions this season than the Nets, and Simmons may be the biggest one.

Precious Achiuwa, Raptors

Achiuwa was a different player after the All-Star break last season. Something clicked for him and he jumped to averaging 12.2 points a game (up from 7.5 pre-All-Star) with a 55.2 true shooting percentage (46.7%), in part because he found his 3-point stroke (39.2%).

Was that stretch a fluke, or did Achiuwa figure things out? The early preseason returns suggest the latter.

After the All-Star break Achiuwa looked like a key young part of the Raptors moving forward, the question now is can he sustain and grow that? The key is his jumper — if that is falling and he is spacing the floor, he becomes a much bigger part of the Raptors’ offense (and gives Nick Nurse another 6’8″ switchable defender for his positionless style). We’ll be watching to see if Achiuwa can take the next step.

Onyeka Okongwu, Hawks

Clint Capela will be the Hawks starting center to open the season — but for how long?

Make no mistake, Capela is a quality NBA starting center, but Onyeka Okongwu — the No.6 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft — has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons. For example, during the 2021 Atlanta run to the Eastern Conference Finals when he was Atlanta’s best option in dealing with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last season there were stretches where he looked like the future in Atlanta. There’s a sense around the league that this is the season Okongwu puts it together — elite defense with some improved rebounding and a jumper — and Nate McMillan will have no choice but to move him into the starting lineup.

Okongwu will get more minutes this season with Danilo Gallinari gone from the Atlanta rotation and questions about the future of John Collins with the team. He can defend at a high level and is an efficient scorer inside — we’re watching to see if this is the season he breaks out. Combine that with a Trae Young/Dejounte Murray backcourt in Atlanta, and things get interesting.

De'Aaron Fox, Kings

If the Sacramento Kings are going to end the longest playoff drought in major American professional sports (16 years), it will be because De’Aaron Fox found genuine chemistry playing off of Domantas Sabonis, something the two started working on last season.

How is that chemistry now? Does Sabonis working out of his preferred high post make finding driving lanes tough for Fox?

“I mean, it’s still a work in progress, but I feel like I can break down anybody at any time. So for myself getting to the pain is not a problem,” Fox said after the Kings’ first preseason game.

Fox scored 23.2 points a game last season but his efficiency (and 3-point shooting) dipped. That has to change. Fox has to be efficient, and new coach Mike Brown has to find a way for his team to get stops, for them to break the streak. Also, Fox has to stay healthy and on the court — he hasn’t played more than 59 games each of the past three seasons.

The Kings are an interesting team this season, and Fox could be their bellwether.

DeMarcus Cousins looking for NBA return: ‘I just want a fair shot’

2022 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors
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DeMarcus Cousins can still help a team. He did it last season, first in Milwaukee because they needed depth (Brook Lopez was out following back surgery) and he gave them 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game of solid play. Then, the Bucks let him go for financial reasons and the Nuggets picked him up to play behind Nikola Jokic and he was again a solid reserve, with 8.9 points and 5.5 rebounds a game (and he had a 31-point night against the Rockets).

Cousins, however, has not landed with a team heading into this season, with teams more concerned about his character and influence than his game. Cousins told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports he has learned from his past mistakes and wants another chance.

“Have I made mistakes? Absolutely,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. “Have I done things the wrong way? Absolutely. For that, I’m very apologetic. But I’ve done even more things the correct way and I’ve done even more positive things compared to my negatives. I just don’t want those positives to be overlooked. And obviously, whenever it gets to the point where the negatives outweigh the positives, you should probably move away from him. That’s just how life goes. But I don’t believe I’m in that boat. I’m just asking for a chance to show my growth as a man and a player…

“I think the misperception of me is that I’m this angry monster that just goes around bullying people, beating people up, uncoachable, and a cancer in the locker room,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. “I think it’s all false. I played for coach [John] Calipari, a legendary coach. I was more than coachable. Steve Kerr would attest to that and coach Malone. Obviously, you can always go back to my time in Sacramento. I was a young kid. I was still figuring this business out. I was ignorant to a lot of things. I handled a lot of things the incorrect way, but I’ve also learned from those mistakes…

“So, to hold my time in Sac over my head, I think that’s unfair. I believe we all should have a chance to grow and change and actually have that change be embraced. I just want a fair shot.”

Cousins also said he is working out daily to be ready when the phone rings and understands he is now a role player.

It will ring. At some point an injury will happen and a team will turn to Cousins to be that solid backup big they can give 15 minutes a night (or, a team will realize they need more size than they currently have on their roster). Center has become a bit of a mercenary position in the NBA, one where teams often look to fill roles on the cheap so money can be spent on perimeter players, and teams think low-risk with those spots. Fair or not, Cousins is not seen as low risk.

But his stint with the Warriors before the bubble (and before he tore his ACL) and last season with the Bucks and Nuggets show he can fit in on an established team and contribute. Eventually, he should get that chance.

Report: Draymond Green facing potential discipline after fight with Jordan Poole

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Warriors practice got heated on Wednesday and Draymond Green reportedly escalated some chest bumping with Jordan Poole and punches were thrown. The team is now considering internal disciple, according to The Athletic.

When a heated interaction with guard Jordan Poole escalated, Green forcefully struck Poole and needed to be separated swiftly, sources said. Green and Poole came chest-to-chest, with both players pushing and shoving each other prior to Green’s escalation of the physical altercation, those sources said.

The two players had been jawing at each other when it escalated and Green punched Poole, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. There aren’t details of the incident beyond that description (at least so far), although several reporters have confirmed the was a fight and the two had to be broken up. Poole was seen getting up shots after practice when the media was allowed in and reportedly was joking with teammates.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports Tweeted out what feels like the Draymond Green camp spin on the incident.

Warriors elder statesman Andre Iguodala Tweeted out this on the situation, wanting to keep it all in the family, and adding that “it broke my heart… but it fixed my vision.”

There is a history of tension between Green and Poole, including a public flare-up between the duo early last season, but the two talked after and smoothed things over. At least for a while.

What punishment Green will face from the team remains to be seen.

Poole is on the verge of an extension to his rookie contract, one where Tylyer Herro just set the market.

Green had hoped for an extension from the Warriors this offseason but there were limited discussions between the parties. Green can opt out of the final year of his contract at the end of this season and become a free agent.