NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: So freaking close.

The Thunder beat the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals in Oklahoma City by 11 points. A double-digit victory over he mighty triumverate. It was their fifth win in a row and they looked, as teams do when the win by double-digits, like the superior team in every way. Russell Westbrook couldn’t be stopped. Kevin Durant couldn’t be stopped. The Heat couldn’t keep up with their athleticism and offensive firepower.

They never won again that season.

The next three game were decided by 16 points total. The Heat won four straight, sending the Thunder home after another step forward but once again without the prize.

It was a season that showed considerable growth for the three stars, Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. Durant became an even more efficient scorer and a better defender, Westbrook increased his production and cut down on his mistakes, Harden grew into a playmaker. The team overall, though, was much te same as it was the year before. Great offensively, pretty good defensively, dominant most of the time and exciting to watch. Defense was the only question, and in the end, it was the only one that mattered, as the grind-it-out style of the Heat wore them down and eventually bested them.

The Thunder had to have walked away from 2012 neither convinced that they could or could not win the title.

Key Departures: Nazr Mohammed played 11 minutes per game last season. He’s gone, so there’s that. That’s pretty much it. And, you know, there’s no real concerns on the horizon. Oh, wait, James Harden.

Key Additions: Perry Jones III plummeted down the draft board, all the way to the Thunder. With no concerns about how he would affect team chemistry or the expecations that would be heaped on him, the Thunder leapt at him and snatched him up. Jones gives them a versatile stretch four who can likely play 3 in some big lineups and has the potential to be an absolute steal if thigs work out right.

They brought in Hasheem Thabeet to replace Mohammed, which is fine. He has to come in, not be horrible, contest or block shots, and rebound. He will do just enough of this to not stand out while clearly still being the weakest link on the team.

How about Daniel Orton? Can I interest you in Andy Rautins? Care for some DeAndre Liggins? No? No? Anybody?

Three One keys to the Thunder season:

1) KEEP CALM AND THUNDER UP: The Thunder don’t need to adapt or change or alter. They don’t need to play differently or mix it up or make things more complex. They just need to do what they did last year.

They just need to show up, run, score, and rock. They are very fittingly the AC/DC of the NBA.

They just need to play better and hope the Heat aren’t as good as they were last year. Bear in mind that in all these other previews I can give you in-depth reasons and tactical adjustments, lineup or chemistry tweaks, philosophical or pragmatic deviations necessary for improvement. I have none for the Thunder. They just need to play a little better. That’s all I’ve got.

What Thunder fans should fear: Chemistry is the thing. This team has accomplished remarkable things at a young age, all built on the strength of their bond with one another. Young players who came up together in a small market with few distrctions who liked each and liked playing with and for one another.

But business has come. Westbrook got his extension, but there are people, even those in Oklahoma City who think that eventually, he’s going to want the opportunity to show what he can be as the main act. James Harden’s contract is on the clock. If it gets done, the Thunder have to plan for their future. If it doesn’t, they have to figure out what to do with him.

This team has exemplified fun and youth for three years, and it’s been an incredible ride. But it’s extremely rare for a team like this to stay together as they get older and the money gets bigger. It’s like the circle of life, only with publicists.

How it likely works out: It’s going to come down to the Lakers or them for the West. There is zero doubt in anyone’s rational, objective mind about this. It’s just a matter of whether Perkins can contain Dwight enough, if Durant can lift his game to another level, if Westbrook can out-produce Nash since neither can defend the other.

There is no way to tell who’s going to come out of it. It’s going to be extremely fun, and there will be many who will want to just skip right to it.

Prediction: 63-19. They have no injury concerns. They have the league’s second best player and best offensive weapons. They have twolegitimate MVP candidates. Their shot-blocking defensive star has reliable mid-range jumper. They have depth, youth, experience, energy, athleticism, skill, and are very, very hungry. The Lakers may have arrived once more. The Thunder are already here.

Warriors eager to get back on the court, respond from loss

AP
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) One good beating per series is plenty for Draymond Green and Golden State.

The Warriors got it in Game 2 at Houston, and now the defending champions plan to do what they seem to do best: bounce back with brilliance.

As the Western Conference finals showdown shifts to Oracle Arena for Sunday’s Game 3, tied at one game apiece, the Warriors have spent the past few days discussing their Game 2 troubles and what they’re striving to do in order not to be dominated again.

It’s time to play.

“I think we’re at our best when we feel threatened,” Green said Saturday. “Game 1 we felt threatened, we came out with a sense of urgency. Game 2 we maybe didn’t feel as threatened and the sense of urgency wasn’t there. I think you’re allowed one of those a series. We’ve had our one, now it’s time to lock in for the remainder of the series.”

And for the Warriors that starts on the defensive end against Chris Paul, James Harden and Co., because when they get stops it allows Golden State to get going in transition and find open looks from 3-point range that weren’t there during a 127-105 Game 2 defeat Wednesday night at Houston. That was largely because the Rockets had ample time to set their defense following made baskets.

Houston is making sure not to get too high from its impressive result. The Rockets lost Game 1, 119-106.

“Feels like Game 2 was a week ago now. That’s how it is in the playoffs,” Paul said. “I heard somebody say when you lose a game in the playoffs, you feel like you’re never going to win again, and when you win, you feel like you’re never going to lose again. We’ve done a great job all year staying even-keeled.”

The task gets tougher for the Rockets at one of the league’s most imposing venues.

Golden State has won an NBA record-tying 15 straight postseason home games, matching the Chicago Bulls’ mark from April 27, 1990-May 21, 1991.

“The Warriors at Oracle are a different story for sure,” Stephen Curry said.

Coach Steve Kerr spoke last week to former Warriors coach Mark Jackson about Golden State’s resiliency over years now.

Just as they did in losing once in each of the first two rounds, the Warriors hardly looked strong in Game 2. Kerr insists that rebounding from a bad loss is hardly about coaching, patting his chest to note that his players take it upon themselves based on their passion to respond from defeat.

“It’s a series. We’re not going to knock them out in one game,” Kevin Durant said. “Bad games happen throughout playoff series, throughout a season, throughout a career. So just move on, keep getting better and see what happens next game.”

And the Warriors aren’t worried about Curry rediscovering his shooting rhythm after making only two 3-pointers – one in each game – so far this series.

It might just take one to fall for the two-time MVP to start feeling it again. Or not even one.

“I only need one, that’s all I need,” Curry said. “Actually I might not need any because hopefully that first one that I shoot in Game 3 goes in, so I don’t really need any.”

Golden State, which realized it wouldn’t go a record 16-1 like last postseason’s remarkable run to a second title in three years, responded from defeats in the first round to San Antonio and then against the Pelicans in the Western Conference semifinals.

“It’s not just this year it’s the last four years,” Kerr said. “It shows you the resilience of our team. I was talking to Mark Jackson last week and I said, `When I knew how tough this team was, I think it was 2013 when Mark was coaching and they lost at the buzzer to Denver on the road in Game 1, Andre Miller hit a shot. The Warriors came back and won Game 2. They lost a heartbreaker in the next round to San Antonio at San Antonio, they had an 18-point lead with about five minutes left. A devastating loss, came back and won Game 2 on the road. I remember as a broadcaster watching those two games that showed what kind of guts these guys have. Mark agreed. We’ve both been blessed to coach the group. It’s not something that you coach, it’s just something that’s in them. Steph, Draymond, Andre (Iguodala) and Klay (Thompson), those are guys who have been here for a while, so then you add KD to that, a guy who’s seen everything in the playoffs. We’ve got a pretty resilient group.”

Mike D’Antoni knows what his Rockets are up against now that the series shifts to the Warriors’ imposing home court.

“We always talk about having a short memory, especially in bad times, but you have to have a short memory also in good times. Play with the same desperation. Play with the same force that we played offensively and defensively, knowing that they’ll have more of a force on their side,” D’Antoni said. “But we have to control what we can control, and make sure we’re aggressive.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Scottie Pippen on LeBron James, Michael Jordan: “It’s not a fair comparison”

AP
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The battle has, stupidly, raged on between supporters of Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Both sides seem to believe their preference is irrefutably the choice for the best player in NBA history.

And because they did not play in the same era, the question will never be answered. No doubt in 50 years they will write columns about Jordan vs. LeBron, just like their fathers, and their father’s fathers before them.

James has certainly seemed to take a bit of a leap in the eyes of the NBA community this season, likely because of his wonderful performance at age 33. He’s also single-handedly won two playoff series this year. It’s been incredible.

But LeBron rising above Jordan has also brought out some more reasonable takes. Former Chicago Bulls legend and Jordan running mate Scottie Pippen spoke up recently about the debate, giving a measured analysis that I think is pretty strong.

In short, Pippen basically said you can’t compare the two because of the eras, the style, and the fact they just don’t play the same position (if LeBron even has a position, that is).

Via Twitter:

That sounds right to me.

Cavaliers’ Kendrick Perkins not into “all that new stuff” like Chewbacca

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Chewbacca was at Game 3 in Cleveland Saturday. Sitting courtside.

Why? Because growing up on Kashyyyk he played a little hoop and admires LeBron James‘ skill? Because Drake gave him the tickets? Maybe. I mean, it’s not like that was just a clever little publicity stunt for a movie.

After the Cavaliers’ win, Kevin Love decided to make a little joke of it with noted humorist Kendrick Perkins, and it went over as well as expected (with Dave McMenamin of ESPN catching it).

That’s vintage Perkins.

Celtics’ Terry Rozier on Game 3: “We needed to get our butts whooped”

Associated Press
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Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.

Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.

Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”

Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.

From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.

Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.

When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.