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Playoff Preview: Three Questions about Dallas Mavericks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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On the surface, this 3 vs. 6 seed matchup shouldn’t be close. Oklahoma City won 55 games (and played better than that based on point differential), has two of the top five players in the NBA, and in Enes Kanter may have the Sixth Man of the Year (he’ll finish in the top three in the final voting). Meanwhile, Dallas scrambled to make the playoffs and needed the defense and energy of a rookie — Justin Anderson — to get them over the hump at the end.

But the more one delves into the matchups, the more this looks like a series where Dallas can give Oklahoma City some problems. Not enough to win the series, but enough to make the Thunder work a lot harder than they expect to, and enough to put doubt in everyone’s mind (including Kevin Durant‘s, which could have huge implications come July 1).

Here are three questions that will be key to this first round Western Conference showdown.

What devious plan does Rick Carlisle have in store for the Thunder? Remember the first round in 2014, when the on-a-mission Spurs took on the poor, overmatched, outclassed Mavericks team. Except that behind an incredible game plan from Carlisle and a veteran team — Dirk Nowitzki is going to go to his grave knocking down midrange shots — the Mavs pushed the Spurs to seven games. It was (arguably) the toughest series the Spurs had in those playoffs.

This has a bit of that feel. Carlise is a wizard — in the Hogwarts, not Washington, sense. Oklahoma City has weaknesses to attack — Enes Kanter on defense, Dion Waiters, the small forward position — and the only Xs and Os guy on Carlisle’s level in the league is Gregg Popovich (and, maybe, Brad Stevens). Talent, more than coaching, tends to win in the NBA, but this is a series where coaching could make a difference. Russell Westbrook is going to see a lot of defensive looks (not just a steady diet of Wesley Matthews), and some of them will get him thinking. I’m not questioning Billy Donovan as a coach, but welcome to the playoffs rookie.

Can Oklahoma City get the tempo up and take advantage of their athleticism? If this series is a track meet, Dallas players can start booking tee times for April 25 — the day of Game 5. Whatever Rick Carlisle’s game plan is, you can be sure it includes slowing the game down to a crawl. Dallas (like every other team in the league) has no answer for Westbrook in the open court. Or Kevin Durant. One advantage for Dallas: Their guards — Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Wesley Matthews, Raymond Felton — take care of the ball. They had the second lowest team turnover percentage this season. If Dallas is going to win games, they need to defend well in the half court and take away easy buckets for the Thunder. Controlling the tempo — and ideally, frustrating the Thunder — will be huge for Dallas.

Will the Thunder be able to execute in the clutch? The biggest knock on former Thunder coach Scott Brooks? His team is unimaginative and too predictable — Westbrook and Durant isolations — in the clutch, and it cost them games. So in comes Billy Donovan and… meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The Thunder have struggled late in games. Since the All-Star break, the Thunder have been outscored in the fourth (by 50 points). After the All-Star break, the Thunder were involved in 15 games that were within five points in the last five minutes of the game (the standard NBA definition of crunch time) and in those minutes Durant and Westbrook took 69 percent of the Thunder’s shots. If you’re predictable, you’re defendable. And while I just talked about the offense, it’s the Thunder defense in the clutch that has been worse. Oklahoma City was 3-12 in those 15 close games.

Dallas will grind the series down as much as they can, and if the Thunder are truly the contenders they believe they are, they need to execute in the clutch to win these games. The Westbrook/Durant pick-and-roll, as dangerous as it can be, is not enough.

Prediction: Thunder in six. Maybe OKC is better than I think, maybe they thrash Dallas (that’s more likely than a Mavs series win). But expect Dallas to make them work for it. That said talent will win out. And the Thunder have way more of it.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 25, lead Pelicans to crucial win vs. Trail Blazers

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Zion Williamson had 25 points for his seventh straight game with at least 20 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 128-115 on Friday night.

The No. 1 draft pick was playing in just his 11th game after a right knee injury sidelined him for the first half of the season.

The Pelicans, who led by as many as 22 points, have won four of their last five games.

The Blazers, who have lost three straight, were without Damian Lillard, who is expected to miss three or more games because of a groin injury that occurred in Memphis last week. It kept Lillard out of the All-Star Game and the 3-point contest last weekend.

Lillard is averaging a career-high 29.5 points and 7.8 assists per game. His absence hurts the Blazers, who went into the game 3.5 games back of Memphis for eighth in the Western Conference standings.

And it’s not just Lillard: Portland had only nine players available for the game.

CJ McCollum took over as point guard and finished with 27 points and 10 assists. Hassan Whiteside added 19 points and 12 rebounds.

The Pelicans were among four teams, along with the Blazers, fighting for those last playoff berths with just a third of the season left. Coach Alvin Gentry said he’s treating the last 27 games like a college season.

“We want to play to get into a tournament. We want a high seed. Those are the things that we’ve talked about. Obviously, we have to play good basketball,” Gentry said.

The Pelicans also won the previous three meetings this season with Portland. Earlier this month in New Orleans, Williamson had 31 points and nine rebounds in a 138-117 victory over the Blazers.

Williamson, who played just one season at Duke before going pro, went into the game against the Blazers averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.

His streak of games with 20-plus points is the longest among NBA rookies this season. And he was the first player since Michael Jordan to have 20 or more in eight of his first 10 NBA games.

Lonzo Ball’s 3-pointer put the Pelicans up 29-17 in the opening quarter. But the Blazers closed within 40-38 early in the second on Whiteside’s dunk. It was as close as Portland could get, and Williamson’s dunk gave New Orleans a 54-46 lead.

Williamson’s layup pushed the Pelicans’ advantage to 65-50 and New Orleans led 73-63 going into halftime. He led all players with 19 points.

Consecutive jumpers from Carmelo Anthony and Whiteside’s dunk pulled Portland within 80-75 in the third quarter. The Pelicans pulled away with a 12-0 run to head to the fourth with 102-83 lead.

Portland closed the gap a bit in the fourth when back-to-back 3-pointers from Trevor Ariza and McCollum got the Blazers within 114-105. Jrue Holiday‘s 3 and Ball’s layup extended New Orleans’ lead again and fans at the Moda Center headed for the exits.

Holiday finished with 20 points and nine assists.

Pascal Siakam scores 37, Raptors remain red hot with win vs. Suns

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TORONTO (AP) — Pascal Siakam had 37 points and 12 rebounds and the Toronto Raptors beat the Phoenix Suns 118-101 on Friday night for their 16th victory in 17 games.

Serge Ibaka scored 16 points, Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis each had 14, Kyle Lowry had 13 points and 10 assists and OG Anunoby aded 12 points for the defending NBA champion Raptors.

After Toronto’s franchise-record 15-game winning streak ended with a loss at Brooklyn in the final game before the All-Star break, the Raptors bounced back by starting the second half with their eighth consecutive home victory.

The Raptors have not lost back-to-back games since an overtime loss at Indiana on Dec. 23 and a home loss to Boston on Christmas Day. Toronto has gone 19-1 since.

Siakam connected on 12 of 19 attempts, going 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

That was just one fewer than the six 3-pointers the Suns managed on 34 attempts. Phoenix shot 17.6%t from long range, its lowest mark of the season. No Suns player made more than one shot from distance.

Devin Booker scored 21 points and Deandre Ayton had 17 points and 10 rebounds for Phoenix. The Suns lost for the seventh time in nine games.

Ayton returned to the starting lineup after missing the final two games before the All-Star break because of a sore left ankle.

Phoenix trailed 93-78 through three quarters, but the Suns cut the gap to six points, 96-90 on a basket by Ayton with 8:08 left to play. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson made a pair from the line, and VanVleet and Siakam both scored to put the Raptors up 102-90 with 6:58 remaining.

Booker missed a 3 with 4:45 left that would have made it a four-point game. Anunoby scored on a dunk and, after another missed 3 by the Suns, Ibaka banked home a 3-pointer to restore Toronto’s 12-point cushion.

Moe Harkless says no buyout with Knicks: “I’ll be here the rest of the year”

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Moe Harkless went from a guy often starting and playing critical minutes for a contender in the Clippers to being the matching salary in a trade and finding himself on the woeful Knicks.

“It is definitely an adjustment with the way things are,” Harkless told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “Everything is different, the culture and everything.”

If there was a player nobody would blame for wanting a buyout and the chance to get back to a team playing for something, it would be Harkless.

That’s not happening. Multiple reports have surfaced that he is not talking buyout with New York running up to the March 1 deadline. The latest comes from Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Then Harkless was even more direct speaking to Bondy.

“I’ll be here the rest of the year,” he said.

Harkless has fans in NBA front offices, with the Lakers rumored to be among them (although they are about to land Markieff Morris in a similar role). Harkless could play good defensive minutes on the wing down the stretch for a team, buying rest for key guys, plus in the playoffs he could be advantageous in certain matchups.

Morris and the Knicks have time to change their minds, but it sounds like he will play out the season in New York then be a free agent next summer.

Lakers reportedly will waive DeMarcus Cousins to clear roster spot

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If the Lakers are going to add Markieff Morrisas has been rumored — or anyone else via free agency, they are going to need to clear out a roster spot.

That has the Lakers looking to waive DeMarcus Cousins, a report broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Cousins signed with the Lakers over the summer but never set foot on the court with them after tearing his ACL during summer workouts (which led to a scramble and L.A.’s fortuitous signing of Dwight Howard). He was around the team and rehabbing, and while they would never officially rule him out, Cousins was never expected to play.

He was not waived before because his $3.5 million salary might have been useful in a trade. When that didn’t materialize at the deadline it, became likely he could get waived.

It’s highly unlikely a team picks up Cousins this season, while he continues to rehab from his injury. However, it might be a good roll of the dice this summer by a team to sign him to a minimum contract for next season. Cousins still has some NBA basketball in him, if he can just stay healthy.