ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: The Thunder finished the regular season with a record of 60-22, which was good for the number one playoff seed in the Western Conference.

Thanks to the unfortunate knee injury that occurred in Game 2 of the team’s first round playoff series against the Rockets, however, OKC quite literally limped to the finish line, and was overmatched by a Memphis Grizzlies team in the second round that took care of them easily in five games.

Signature highlight from last season: The play that was most impactful was, of course, Westbrook’s injury in the playoffs. But let’s keep it positive here, and with too many ridiculous Kevin Durant highlights to choose from, let’s go with this explosive dunk from Westbrook on the break that he threw down over Golden State’s Stephen Curry.

Key player changes: OKC didn’t make any additions that would lead you to believe the roster this year is better than it was a season ago, and lost it’s only reliable scorer from the bench unit in free agency.

  • IN: Rookies Steven Adams (drafted with the 10th overall pick) and Andre Roberson (drafted with the 26th overall pick by Minnesota, then dealt to OKC on draft night) are the only new faces with guaranteed contracts in place for the coming season.
  • OUT: Kevin Martin was allowed to leave in free agency, and although he got more from the Timberwolves than he would have been worth to the Thunder (especially when retaining him would’ve meant entering luxury tax territory), his loss will be noticed, especially in the early part of the season. Ronnie Brewer was a midseason acquisition, but he didn’t have much impact and ended up signing with the Rockets this summer.

Keys to the Thunder’s season:

1) The health of Russell Westbrook: We know Westbrook is going to miss at least the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season following an additional knee surgery that took place just recently. What we don’t know is how long it’ll be before he returns to form as one of the most dynamic and explosive players in the game today.

The timeline of Westbrook’s ascent back to the player he once was is going to make all the difference in how the Thunder’s regular season plays out. The team is obviously looking at playing deep into the postseason, after finishing with 60 wins last year and making it to the Finals in the season before that. But in the midst of a crowded Western Conference stacked with at least six powerful teams, finishing lower in the standings will make the desired playoff results that much more difficult to achieve.

2) The development of the bench: OKC traded away James Harden before the beginning of last season, and while history is not going to look kindly on the deal from the Thunder’s perspective, at least they got a semi-serviceable scorer in Kevin Martin in return who could fill that role off the bench. With Martin now gone in free agency (and with no one added to replace him), the Thunder are going to need to get production from the reserve unit somewhere if they’re going to be able to compete with the league’s elite teams.

The hope is that Reggie Jackson, who saw heavy minutes during the playoffs and performed better than expected, can continue to develop into a reliable contributor that he’s already shown signs of proving to be. But it would be nice if Jeremy Lamb, DeAndre Liggins or one of the freshly-drafted rookies could contribute as well, and there’s just no guarantee that they’ll come along as quickly as the Thunder need them to in order to remove some of the burden from the starters’ shoulders.

3) Kevin Durant, MVP? This could be the year that Kevin Durant unseats LeBron James as league MVP, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost on the list could be voter fatigue — we all know that James is considered to be the game’s best player, but if the Heat coast a little during the regular season and Durant is forced to put up ridiculous numbers to keep his team in the hunt while Westbrook is out, it would be easy to see him quickly becoming the favorite to take home the award if those making the call are looking to give it to someone besides James.

Durant is capable of dominating offensively, and will be expected to do so with his All-Star teammate sidelined. He could take on an even bigger role as the season progresses depending on Westbrook’s recovery and whether or not he gets much help from his teammates. If he puts up MVP-caliber numbers, there’s no reason the Thunder can’t be right where they need to be by the time the season concludes, despite all of the apparent challenges.

Why you should watch the Thunder: Durant and Westbrook are arguably two of the league’s top-five players. Beyond that, the intrigue with this Thunder team runs deep. Can Durant carry them to a high place in the regular season standings, or will the team collapse under heavy expectations, and due to Westbrook’s injury and the lack of a capable bench? There’s drama here, and that’s exciting.

Prediction: 53-29, good for a top-five finish in the West. Durant will need to come through with that MVP season for the Thunder to be in the championship conversation, especially in a deeper-than-usual Western Conference. While he’s certainly capable of that, the questions surrounding Westbrook and the reserve unit are too plentiful for the team to warrant anything more than a forecast of a similar outcome as it experienced a season ago — a second round playoff loss.

Joel Embiid will not return to 76ers game due to left ankle injury

Joel Embiid injury
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Philadelphia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bubble continues.

Joel Embiid went back to the locker room during the first quarter of the 76ers game against the Trail Blazers and will not return to the court due to a left ankle injury, the team announced, via Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

There are no other details yet on Embiid’s condition. He has been far-and-away the best player on a Philadelphia team that has struggled through the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

The 76ers have already lost Ben Simmons, likely for the rest of this season, due to knee surgery.

Despite the injuries and rough play, Philly was 3-1 entering Sunday. However, the one loss was to red-hot T.J. Warren and Indiana, which essentially locked the 76ers into the six seed (and a likely first-round meeting with Boston).

Embiid is averaging 30 points a game in Orlando and put up a ridiculous 41 points, 21 rebounds line against Indiana.

If Embiid misses much time, the Sixers’ chances against any team near the top of the East are slim. At best.

Play-in series guaranteed in West after Toronto beats Memphis

NBA play-in
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s now official: There will be a play-in series to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Memphis’ 108-99 loss to Toronto on Sunday means that it’s no longer possible for more than a four-game difference in the standings between the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West when the seeding game schedule ends later this week.

By the rules the NBA set for this season’s restart, there had to be more than a four-game cushion for the No. 8 team to get the final playoff spot outright. The league decided to add the play-in series option in an abundance of fairness, since about 14% of the regular season schedule was eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis remains alone in eighth place, even after Sunday’s loss. Portland is one game behind and is in the nine seed (with a Philadelphia Sunday night). San Antonio (who beat New Orleans Sunday) and red-hot Phoenix are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies. New Orleans is now two games back and with a difficult road to the postseason.

No team has clinched a spot in the play-in series; the Grizzlies could have assured themselves of no worse than that had they beaten the Raptors on Sunday.

Game 1 of the play-in series will be Saturday, with Game 2 — if necessary — the following day, Aug. 16. To advance and face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, the eighth-place team will have to win one of the two games and the ninth-place finisher would have to go 2-0.

ABC will air Game 1 of the play-in series on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Game 2, if necessary, would be Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.

There will be no play-in series in the Eastern Conference; Brooklyn and Orlando have secured what were the last two available spots on that bracket, with Washington — the only other team that came to Disney with a chance of qualifying in the East — already eliminated.

The playoffs begin Monday, Aug. 17.

“Obviously, that’s what everybody’s goal is,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Sunday.

The matchup for the play-in will be known no later than Thursday. There are four seeding games on Friday, the last day of the regular season, though none of them will have any bearing on the West matchup.

Scoring, three-pointers taken both way up inside NBA restart bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time there was a slate of five or more NBA games on the same day, with every team scoring at least 110 points, was more than 32 years ago.

That is, until the opening of the league’s so-called bubble amid the coronavirus pandemic – where it already has happened twice.

Scoring numbers are soaring inside the NBA’s bubble, where the restarted season is happening at Walt Disney World. Entering Sunday’s games, 17 of the 22 teams inside the bubble were exceeding what had been their scoring averages before the season was suspended on March 11 because of COVID-19.

Games on average have seen nine points more than what had been the norm this season. The number of 3-pointers in each contest – which had been on a record clip when the season got suspended – is up as well. And Indiana’s T.J. Warren, not even a top-50 scorer when the pandemic hit, is leading the bubble in points per game so far, averaging 34.4 and nearly doubling what was his season average.

“T.J. Warren is on a different planet right now,” Pacers guard Victor Oladipo said.

He’s not alone. The bubble is working for just about everybody, or so it seems.

There was a six-game NBA schedule on Feb. 21, 1988, and all the teams playing that night scored at least 110 points. That hadn’t happened, on a day of five or more games, again in the NBA until July 31 – the second day of bubble games. It happened again Saturday.

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle says there might be multiple reasons why the numbers are up, but foremost on the list is that the NBA has created an environment where players are comfortable.

“We came from a situation at home where players could only do individual workouts, you know, with a coach with a mask on and rubber gloves,” Carlisle said. “When you walked in the practice facility, you had to clean your shoes. You had to fill out a form, you had to take your temperature, you had do a lot of things and that was before serial testing began. So a lot has gone into this.”

It’s paying off.

Maybe this should have been expected, even after teams went 4 1/2 months without playing a real game during the suspension. Hostile fans aren’t screaming at and distracting shooters in the bubble. Nobody is weary from a long flight the night before. And the conditions inside the three different game arenas at Disney – from the lighting to the temperature – are relatively close to identical.

“Obviously, even though we are playing on different courts, they all kind of feel like the same arena,” Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez said. “It’s not like we’re going from Milwaukee to Philly, Miami, back to Milwaukee or anything like that. It’s pretty consistent in that regard.”

Only five teams – New Orleans, Toronto, Washington, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers – entered Sunday with a lower average in the bubble than they had before coming to Disney.

“It’s a very weird dynamic,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time. It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in.”

Put simply, it is taking a ton of points to win. Entering the bubble, San Antonio had been 58-5 under coach Gregg Popovich when scoring 125 points or more; the Spurs are 0-2 at Disney when scoring that many. And entering Sunday, there had been 54 games completed in the bubble – with the winning team scoring at least 100 points in all 54 of them.

“I think shooting travels,” New Orleans’ J.J. Redick said. “If you can make shots, you can make shots. … I’ve shot in high school gyms. I’ve shot in civic centers. I’ve shot in arenas. I’ve shot in basements of Catholic administrative buildings. If you can make shots, you can make shots.”

Carlisle has another theory or explanation that can’t be argued: Wherever they are, bubble or no bubble, pandemic or no pandemic, NBA players in this era can score from practically anywhere.

“To me, it’s just the level of aggression of the players,” Carlisle said. “And the fact that, you know, the skill sets of NBA players are increasing exponentially by the month. I mean, it’s just getting harder and harder to guard these guys. There’s a high level of enthusiasm. The closeness of the games has been crazy to watch. It’s just been a very special time here – even though it’s been quite unusual.”

Hall of Famer Paul Westphal diagnosed with brain cancer

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Paul Westphal, the Hall of Fame guard who played at the peak of his career with the Phoenix Suns (and earlier won a championship with the Boston Celtics) has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

Longtime sportswriter Mike Lupica made the announcement.

Glioblastoma is a particularly aggressive and difficult form of cancer to treat.

Westphal was born and raised in the South Bay area of greater Los Angeles and went on to play his college ball at USC. He was the No. 10 pick of the Boston Celtics in the 1972 NBA Draft and went on to play three seasons with the Celtics, winning a title with them in 1974.

After that he went on to Phoenix, where he was an All-Star player and was named to the All-NBA team four times. Westphal also played for the Knicks and Sonics during his career. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame last September.

After playing he became a coach, spending at least part of seven seasons as the Suns head coach, plus he coached the Kings for three seasons.

One of the best-liked people in NBA circles, there are a lot of people in Westphal’s corner today and going forward.