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Playoff preview: Four key questions about San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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Between 2011 and 2014, the Spurs and Thunder combined for six Western Conferences Finals appearances with at least one reaching it each year. Last season featured Warriors vs. Rockets. This year, one – but only one – of San Antonio and Oklahoma City will return.

1. Are these Kevin Durant‘s final games with the Thunder?

Let’s get this out of the way. Durant, as you well know, will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. At this point, the best thing Oklahoma City can do to keep him is win. He knows the city. He knows the franchise. He knows the roster (which would likely return in similar form if he re-signs). Whether the Thunder send him into free agency with a good taste in his mouth is the biggest variable.

Will Durant leave just because Oklahoma City loses to the Spurs? Of course not. Will Durant stay just because Oklahoma City beats the Spurs? Of course not.

But this is a big opportunity for the Thunder to accentuate their positives – and the Spurs, another team in the Durant hunt, to do the same.

2. Who wins the Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard matchup?

More directly on the court… Durant is involved in what might be the best individual matchup of the 2016 playoffs

Durant and Leonard should both finish top five in MVP voting. If they do, it’d be the first time two players top five in MVP voting who play the same position met in the playoffs since 2012, when LeBron James and Durant faced off in the Finals.

The matchup should be fun on both ends of the court, but it’ll be particularly intriguing when Oklahoma City has the ball. Durant is one of the NBA’s best offensive players, Leonard the best defender. I can’t wait to watch them go at it.

3. How do the Spurs handle Oklahoma City’s athleticism?

In his last 20 games against San Antonio, Serge Ibaka is 15-5. Ibaka embodies the athletic advantage the Thunder hold over the Spurs. At his best, Ibaka attacks with hops and speed the Spurs’ bigs can’t match. Ibaka looked old throughout much of the regular season, but he appeared rejuvenated in the first round against the Mavericks. If he was just saving his energy for the playoffs, following the Dwight Howard model in previous years, Ibaka could play a major role.

Ditto Russell Westbrook, who will challenge Tony Parker to keep up. San Antonio could cross match with Danny Green, but that presents complications in transition.

The Spurs are collectively more skilled, but the Thunder have done a better job than most at neutralizing that advantage.

4. Has Billy Donovan found a rotation that narrows the gap?

Billy Donovan passed his first playoff test against Rick Carlisle. Now the challenge grows even greater against Gregg Popovich.

One thing Donovan did right: Putting Nick Collison, not Kyle Singler, in the playoff rotation. Collison’s minutes could be key against a Spurs team that often plays two slower bigs. I guesses Singler rather than Collison would play regularly, which lowered Oklahoma City’s adjusted net rating by a few points per 100 possessions when projecting using only players in the playoff rotation.

I’ll again use nba wowy! to rank playoff teams by regular-season net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only lineups that include five players projected to be in the team’s postseason rotation, once the first round ends. But for now, here are San Antonio’s and Oklahoma City’s ratings, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the playoff rotation:

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 110.5 to 110.0
  • Defensive rating: 99.4 to 96.1
  • Net rating: +11.1 to +13.9

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 113.6 to 117.3
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.6
  • Net rating: +7.6 to +12.7

Both teams — already strong by this measure — benefited from beating up on their first-round competition, and the Thunder got a bump for using Collison over Singler. Oklahoma City still trails the Spurs, but the gap is much closer than overall regular-season results would suggest.

Prediction: Spurs in 7

Knicks reportedly had players-only meeting before David Fizdale was fired

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New York had lost eight in a row, blowing big leads in a couple of those games. The last two games the Knicks were listless — a 44-point crushing by the Sixers, then a 37-point thrashing by the Nuggets — and looked like a team that had given up.

Friday morning, team veterans — led by Marcus Morris — called a players-only meeting before practice to talk about the need for the players to not roll over and play harder. Particularly with coach David Fizdale’s job on the line. That meeting was reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Fizdale then ran the team practice.

One meeting and one practice was not going to stop the inevitable, Fizdale was fired later on Friday. The Knicks have made that official and assistant coach Mike Miller will take over as the interim head coach.

Sometimes there is a boost of energy teams get from a coaching change, but in the case of the Knicks it may well be a dead cat bounce. That is unless the veterans really do take charge and start pushing this roster.

While Fizdale certainly deserves blame for the lack of identity on offense and defense from the Knicks, I’m not a believer that an NBA coach is fully responsible for his team’s motivation. These are professionals getting paid millions of dollars, it shouldn’t take a rah-rah speech from a guy in a tie to get them focused and ready to do their job. It’s on the players. Motivation is always part of a coach’s job, and with a young team keeping the players on task certainly is part of the coach’s responsibility, but at the NBA level a coach should have to worry less about firing his guys up on a nightly basis.

Knicks make it official: David Fizdale fired, assistant Mike Miller promoted to head coach

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UPDATE: The Knicks have made all the reporting official.

As had been expected, David Fizdale is out as the Knicks head coach after an ugly 4-18 start to the season. This was a case where Fizdale was given an “Island of Misfit Toys” roster to work with that was never going to be good, but he also didn’t do much with it. New York had no identity on either side of the ball. The Knicks have lost eight straight, the last two by at least 37 points, and the team was simply lackadaisical in its effort recently.

Who will coach the Knicks next season depends on the answer to another question: Are team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry safe, or are they on their way out, too?

In the short term, New York promoted Mike Miller into the big chair, and bring up Keith Bogans from the G-League coaching staff to round out the roster, something first reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Miller spent four years as the head coach of the Westchester Knicks, the franchise’s G-League affiliate, and was the G-League Coach of the Year for the 2017-18 season. He was eventually promoted to the Knicks bench.

Don’t expect a major shake-up in the Knicks’ offensive and defensive systems, or with the rotations, at least in the short term. There just are not a lot of practice days built into the NBA schedule to allow a mid-season replacement to overhaul everything. Plus, with this roster, there’s only so much a human being can do.

 

As was expected, Stephen Curry reportedly has second wrist surgery to remove pins

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This was both expected and right on schedule.

Stephen Curry said almost a month ago that he was going to need a second surgery to remove pins that were inserted during the first procedure back on Nov. 1. Curry suffered a fractured hand back on Oct. 30 when Suns’ center Aron Baynes fell on him, and in the first surgery pins were inserted to stabilize the bone through the healing process.

That second surgery has taken place, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This has been confirmed by Logan Murdock of NBC Sports Bay Area.

Curry has said he fully expects to play this season, although it wouldn’t be until the end of what is a lost cause campaign for Golden State. For now, Curry is focused on recovery.

“[Managing the]swelling is something that’s going to be of the utmost priority early in the rehab process to get me a chance to come back and get my range of motion back pretty quickly,” Curry said last time he spoke to the media.

Without Curry or Klay Thompson yet this season (plus, of course, Kevin Durant on crutches in Brooklyn), and D'Angelo Russell missing a chunk of time as well due to injury, the Warriors have struggled to a 4-19 record with a bottom-five offense and defense.

The hope for the Warriors is to get Curry and Thompson back by next summer and working out, they get a high draft pick, make a couple other moves around the edges, get Draymond Green healthy, and this team is a threat again. This season it’s more like the Warriors are taking a season off to find themselves and travel the world.

Report: Knicks fire David Fizdale

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The Knicks started 2-8.

Then, it got worse.

Knicks owner James Dolan ordered president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to address the media after a loss. Mills and Perry spoke before coach David Fizdale, a break in decorum that ignited speculation about Fizdale getting fired.

Then, it got worse.

New York lost six straight.

Then, it got worse.

After a 44-point loss to the Bucks, Fizdale said the Knicks entered the game not believing they even could win. They followed that with a 37-point home loss to the Nuggets yesterday that Fizdale called “sickening.”

Finally, with New York 4-18 and on an eight-game losing streak, the Knicks are making a major change.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This was inevitable. Mills wanted Fizdale gone and knows how to navigate Madison Square Garden politics.

The season was already a lost cause, and it’s likely to remain a mess. Keith Smart, who previously coached the Warriors and Kings, was the only other member of the staff with NBA non-interim head-coaching experience.

The big question: Will Mills and Perry survive?

They gave Fizdale a lacking roster and outsized expectations. Nearly any coach would have been doomed to fail in this situation.

To be fair, Fizdale provided no evidence he deserved to be an exception. The Knicks lacked identity under his guidance, and development of younger players was uneven.

But the problems go way above Fizdale, starting with Dolan.

At least we’ll always have this Fizdale quote comparing the Knicks to slipping in ice, dog poop and pee.