51Q: If Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are healthy, can anything hold back the Thunder?

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The Thunder have won 71% of their games with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook the last five years. The only team with a better mark in that span is the Spurs.

But without those stars, Oklahoma City’s win percentage drops to 57%.

When Westbrook got hurt in the 2013 playoffs, Oklahoma City lost in five games to the Grizzlies in the second round. Without Durant for large portions last season, the Thunder missed the playoffs entirely. In surrounding years – 2011, 2012 and 2014 – they reached at least the conference finals and even the 2012 NBA Finals.

At this point, we know this team. Oklahoma City is a championship contender when Durant and Westbrook are healthy, a borderline playoff squad when at least one isn’t.

With Durant and Westbrook healthy right now, can anything hold back the Thunder?

Serge Ibaka is a bona fide third core piece. Oklahoma City has spent to build a suitable bench. Durant remains under contract.

So much appears to be falling in line for the Thunder, but the list of potential pitfalls is long:

1. The NBA’s other contenders, especially in the Western Conference, are loaded. The Warriors, Spurs, Clippers and Cavaliers look about as good on paper as the Thunder. If they successfully integrate Ty Lawson, the Rockets could reach that level, too.

2. Most first-year coaches aren’t Steve Kerr. Looking beyond last season, history strongly suggests Billy Donovan will need more time before he’s capable of leading Oklahoma City to a title. Plus, he has the added challenge of coming from college – a jump few have successfully made.

3. Donovan must balance the Thunder’s fit/talent divide.

Andre Roberson and Steven Adams have played exceptionally well with Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka. That unit posted an offensive/defensive/net rating of 109.8/96.4/+13.4 last season. The year before, albeit in a small sample, it was 103.0/78.0/+24.9. Roberson is a defensive ball hawk, though his outside shooting is putrid. Adams, also defensive-minded, does a lot of the little things. They work well next to the ball-dominant Westbrook and Durant.

So where does that leave Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter? Waiters is a low-efficiency, chucker – an awful fit with other talented players. He doesn’t put enough energy into defense, either. But Oklahoma City surrendered a first-rounder for him for a reason, and he’ll likely be entering a contract year wanting to post big numbers. Kanter already his max contract, but he might see that as validation for deserving a large role. Kanter provides an offensive boost with his pick-and-roll finishing, but it’s not clear that offsets his defensive shortcomings.

Roberson and Adams know their limitations and play within them. With Durant and Westbrook, that’s frequently enough. Waiters and Kanter might be capable of more, but they too often fail to complement their better teammates. If Donovan can reign in those two, that’s ideal, though it will be difficult. It might be even more challenging to use them if they remain committed to their previous styles.

4. The roster is probably set, as is. There’s little room for upgrading. The Thunder are already above the luxury-tax line and might be reticent to accept more salary in a trade. Plus, they can send a team only one guaranteed first-round pick, and they can’t guarantee it will be conveyed until 2022.

5. Durant might get hurt again. His foot injuries were more serious than we initially knew, and they were already pretty troubling. There might be something about his long, lanky frame and playing style that leaves him susceptible to injury. Plenty of players have had their careers derailed by foot injuries.

If Durant has a structural issue, that’s it. The Thunder can’t win without him.

But if he and Westbrook remain healthy, we might look back on this team as the NBA’s best. It will still have to cross several landmines, but the potential is there.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First round dates, times, matchups

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We’ve all had our fill of the seeding games appetizer, it’s time to dig into the main course: The playoffs. On Thursday, the NBA released the first-round playoffs schedule for 2020.

Those seeding games saw unexpected stars — Indiana’s T.J. Warren looking like an elite scorer — and teams we didn’t expect exploding on the scene, such as the 8-0 Suns. The playoffs promise even more of that — and a few upsets.

Here are a few more notes on the NBA’s first-round playoff schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing with the Summer League/AAU style format with four games a day spread out over the course of the day.
• Games are played every other day in all eight series.
• It will not be known who which team the West’s top seed (the Lakers) will face in the first round until the play-in games on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.
• The first Western Conference Play-In game is Saturday, Aug. 15 at 2:30 ET (ABC). If the eighth-seeded team wins the series is over and that team moves on to the Lakers; if the eighth seed team loses a second game will be played on Sunday at 4:30 ET (ESPN).
• The Heat and Pacers played last Monday, meet again on Friday, then next Tuesday start a best-of-7 series. Miami won that first game in impressive fashion.
Chris Paul, now wearing a Thunder uniform, will take on his former team, the Houston Rockets.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020, first round, by date (all times are Eastern):

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Play-in winner

Game 1: Aug. 18, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 L.A. Clippers vs. Dallas

Game 1: Aug. 17, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Utah

Game 1: Aug. 17, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

Oklahoma City vs. Houston (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Orlando

Game 1: Aug. 18, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 7 Brooklyn

Game 1: Aug. 17, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 1:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Philadelphia

Game 1: Aug. 17, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

Miami vs. Indiana (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 6:30 (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Memphis advances to play-in; Phoenix goes perfect 8-0 but needs help to join them

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Memphis entered the bubble with a 3.5 game cushion as the eighth seed in the West. All Ja Morant and company had to do was hold on to that and they would be in the league’s new play-in series.

They didn’t.

Phoenix entered the bubble as a playoff afterthought, so far back of Memphis — and with so many teams between them — that Devin Booker would have to explode and the Suns would need to be perfect in the bubble.

They were. With a win over Dallas Thursday, Phoenix went 8-0 in the seeding games.

That still may not be enough.

Memphis beat Milwaukee 119-106 Thursday, with that the Grizzlies are assured of a spot in the play-in as at least the nine seed.

That means Phoenix needs Brooklyn to beat Portland later Thursday night. If the Nets pull the upset, the Grizzlies become the eight seed and the Suns would jump to the nine seed. If Portland wins, it is in the play-in against Memphis (with the Trail Blazers as the eighth seed), and Phoenix takes off for Cancun and the offseason.

The Grizzlies and Suns winning means the San Antonio Spurs historic playoff streak ends at 22 seasons, they are now mathematically eliminated.

Thursday’s games came with the promise of playoff-chase drama but ended up the kind of duds we see at the end of a typical regular season when one team has something to play for and the other is coasting and disinterested.

The Grizzlies didn’t win because Rookie of the Year to be Morant put up a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Rather it was a testament to the Memphis front office building out a solid, balanced roster around their young stars. Memphis got 31 from third-year player Dillon Brooks (a second-round pick they developed), plus 26 points and 19 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas (acquired in a trade).

The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo who was suspended one game for headbutting Moe Wagner of the Wizards. That certainly helped the Grizzlies, although it’s unlikely the Greek Freak would have played significant minutes.

Phoenix got 27 points from Devin Booker, plus balanced scoring behind him. Dario Saric added 16 points off the bench.

A lot of fans had hoped to see Booker and the electric Suns in the play-in game, but in the NBA winning games matters — and not just the last eight in the bubble. All of them. The Suns didn’t do enough of that before the coronavirus shut down the NBA for four months.

The Grizzlies did, so they advance.

Adam Silver: Players not in bubble have heard such positive reports, they’ve asked to join

NBA commission Adam Silver and Warriors star Stephen Curry
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NBA commission Adam Silver warned that everyone involved must be comfortable with some positive coronavirus tests in the bubble.

So far, there have been none.

Silver, in a Q&A with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

SI: The bubble—sorry, the campus—is operational. Is it what you hoped it would be?

AS: It’s better than what we had envisioned. Players have taken to it in a more spirited way than we thought they would. We knew that this would require enormous sacrifice on everyone’s part, but I think that what is hard to calibrate—and this maybe goes to my experience when I first came into the arena—is the human emotion that comes with being around other people. And I think everyone realized they missed it more than they even understood. There are players either whose teams are not participating, who were unable to engage this summer because of injuries or other issues, who, once they spoke to fellow NBA players, have asked to join the experience down in Orlando.

People generally enjoy being around other people. Basketball players like to play basketball.

The NBA bubble has made those activities – otherwise dangerous due to coronavirus – sufficiently safe.

That surely must be fulfilling for participating players (even if the reason for the whole operation is money, not fulfillment).

Warriors star Stephen Curry admitted his FOMO, and the Trail Blazers – presumably with Trevor Ariza on board – reportedly tried to get Ariza late admission into the bubble.

But I wonder whether there’s a level of “grass is greener on the other side” from the players who asked to join. The bubble participants are away from their families and friends for at least a month, longer if their team advances. That’s easier to accept in theory without actually experiencing it.

2020 NBA Finals schedule sent to teams (but it’s tentative)

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In a typical NBA season, the start date of the NBA Finals is set before training camps ever open.

Nothing about 2020 is typical, including the NBA’s bubble restart in Orlando. While we had known the league had a Finals start date of Sept. 30, and we knew games would be roughly every other day, there were not a lot of details.

At least not until the league sent a memo to teams on Thursday detailing the 2020 NBA Finals schedule, a memo obtained by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

 

While times have not been announced, expect tip-off at 8 or 9 Eastern.

The 2020 NBA Finals schedule has games every other day, except for the two-day gap between Game 4 (Tuesday, Oct. 6) and Game 5 (Friday, Oct. 9).

There is a theory some subscribe to around the league that playoff series will be shorter this year because the weaker team will not have the home crowd to pump them up to steal games. When a team gets down, they will be more likely to stay down. If that proves true — and good luck to you predicting how these Finals will actually go — then the league might move up the Finals date. But don’t be on it, moving the Finals would take coordination with television partner ABC and more, and more than likely the games stay where they are.

The road to the finals, the NBA playoffs, start next Monday  Seven of the eight series are set, with the final spot in the West still up for grabs and headed to a play-in series (the teams in that series will be determined Thursday, with the games Saturday (Aug. 15) and, if necessary, Sunday.