Lack of Ibaka has Thunder scrambling to find lineups that work (going small sure didn’t)

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Thunder coach Scott Brooks had no good answer.

The absence of Serge Ibaka was everything Thunder fans should have feared — the Spurs scored 66 points in the paint (tied with the most OKC gave up all season), and San Antonio hit 25-of-29 shots at the rim after shooting just 50 percent there in for regular season meetings. The Spurs scored at will and with that handily won Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals 122-105.

All game long Scott Brooks tried to find a lineup answer to the loss of Ibaka, and nothing worked.

He started the regular guys just with Nick Collison at the four — when asked why before the game Brooks said, “Why not?” — but the Spurs dared Collison to take the shots Ibaka knocks down and Collison was 0-of-3 from the floor in the game.

As expected Brooks tried to go small. Down 11 just 6:37 into the game Brooks goes small with a lineup that had Kevin Durant at the four and Kendrick Perkins at the five (Perkins was replaced by Steven Adams a couple minutes in) and that group had some short-term success closing out the quarter on a 20-12 run.

But over the course of the game the multiple small-ball lineups that had Durant at the four were -9 and couldn’t stop the Spurs from scoring.

Brooks even went with an ultra-small lineup with Durant at the five for seven minutes (Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Durant) and that group put up 16 on 50 percent shooting, scoring points in 7 minutes, knocking down three from beyond the arc. And that group was -1 as it could not slow the Spurs offense in the least.

So what does Brooks do now?

Well, for one play Nick Collison and Steven Adams together — when Ibaka went down in Game 6 against the Clippers he leaned on that frontline pair for 17 minutes together and they were +16. That combination didn’t play one minute together in Game 1 against the Spurs.

To play those two, especially if Thabo Sefolosha is also on the court, is to ask Durant and Westbrook to completely carry the offense while getting extra attention from the Spurs — but they are going to have to do that this series anyway. Brooks can slide Reggie Jackson or Caron Butler in at the other guard slot to provide a little more offense and see if that works. But the fact is KD and Westbrook are gong to have to put up monster numbers this series for the Thunder to have a real chance.

One other lineup note: The starting five “big” lineup the Thunder used got them back in the game to start the second half — it was ultimately +4 in that stretch. Yes, that group got blitzed to start the game but in the second half they settled down and did protect the paint better.

The picture Game 1 leaves us with is that going big seems to work better for OKC. That puts a lot of pressure on Durant and Westbrook, but as noted they already had that pressure on them. It’s not new.

Serge Ibaka is not walking through that door for the Thunder. Brooks needs to trust the guys he’s got. It’s go big or go home.

Data via NBA.com.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.