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Oklahoma City vs. Golden State preview: Five Things to Watch

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For 82 games it felt like San Antonio was destined to be the final hurdle between the Warriors and a second straight trip to the Finals. Instead, it’s the far more athletic Thunder. You can bet the NBA’s broadcast partners are good with this outcome, but will it make a more interesting series? Here are five key things to consider:

1) Can Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder starters go off in this series? There isn’t a big secret here: the Thunder need both Westbrook and Durant to play at their peak this series to have a shot. They need more than that — a defensive performance like OKC had against the Spurs, role players stepping up — but none of it matters if KD and Russ are not the cornerstones. Durant has been a thorn in the Warriors’ side averaging 36.3 points per game on 53 percent shooting against them this season, in part because the Warriors have no good defensive matchup for him (unless they want to risk foul trouble on Draymond Green). Andre Iguodala had the most success and likely sees plenty of time on him, but put KD on your daily fantasy teams. Westbrook, on the other hand, shot just 34.7 percent against Golden State this season — that number must improve, and he must not have many turnovers this series, or it will be trouble for OKC.

It can’t be just the big two, the Thunder will need Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, and others to step up. That said the Thunder starters have had success in this matchup. As noted by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, the Thunder’s usual starting five were a plus-23 in 32 minutes against Golden State, playing phenomenal defense. But when Billy Donovan went to the bench things fell apart.

2) Will the big Thunder lineup with Enes Kanter and Steven Adams work against Golden State? Going big won the Thunder the series against the Spurs — when Adams and Kanter were on the court together the Thunder out-scored the Spurs by 27 points in 66 minutes, the rest of the Thunder lineups combined were a -30 to the Spurs. But is that going to work against Golden State? Donovan is going to try it — he’s going to stay big this series because he doesn’t want to go small and try to out Warrior the Warriors —  but when the Thunder roll out Adams/Kanter the Warriors will go small, spread the floor and expose the lack of foot speed those to have relative to Golden State’s guys. The Warriors move the ball better and are more versatile than the Spurs, and they can expose these kinds of lineups and carve them up.

3) Can the Thunder defend for a series like they did for at times against the Spurs? Give Billy Donovan and the Thunder credit: during wide swaths of the last series they defended as well as anyone recalls for this squad. They were locked in, used their athleticism, cut off passing lanes and preferred options, and sucked the Spurs into their game. The book on the Thunder defense was (and remains) that you can get them scrambling, you can force rotation errors and other mistakes, it just takes excellent ball movement. The Spurs showed that in Game 1 of the last round, but as the Thunder defense improved the Spurs ball movement did not and OKC was able to stymie San Antonio. Golden State is an entirely different level of test for Oklahoma City — the Warriors have great ball movement from nearly everyone on the roster, and they have high IQ players that make the right reads. Especially with the “death lineup” where Green plays the center. Sleep on one Stephen Curry pick-and-roll and you pay with a three — the Thunder plan is to show out and dare him to drive (and that will test his knee), but that is an area Curry has improved this season. The Thunder will make a commitment to running Klay Thompson off the arc, something true of all the Golden State players. This Warriors offense stretches teams and makes them pay for mistakes, the Thunder can’t afford to make many.

There is a corollary question here: Does OKC have an answer for the Warriors small ball lineups? This ties into the question above, but it warrants its own discussion. With bigs — Adams, Kanter, Serge Ibaka — playing significant roles for Oklahoma City, expect Golden State to counter with a lot of Draymond Green at center and small lineups. How are the Thunder going to handle this? No team has had a good answer yet.

4) Festus Ezeli has to step up for Golden State.  Don’t expect to see Andrew Bogut completely healthy to the start this series, which means Ezeli will play a bigger role. This is not a bad matchup for the Warriors; he’s athletic enough to bang inside with Adams and he can get some points at the rim if the Thunder lose track of him. Ezeli has the toughness inside to have some real battles with Adams inside on the glass. The free agent will be put on a big stage with the chance to up his payday in this series.

5) Enjoy the shootout. Westbrook and Curry are going to trade off taking a lot of shots (and expect Donovan to put Westbrook on Curry for stretches). Durant is going to go off for some wicked scoring nights. Draymond Green is to be a brilliant playmaker. Expect (as always seems to happen) some role players for the Warriors — Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston, etc. — to go off and help the big two nightly. There are going to be spectacular dunks and long-range shooting exhibitions. This series is going to be entertaining. Enjoy it.

Prediction: Warriors in six. I wouldn’t be surprised if this series is 2-2 after the first four games, but the Warriors versatility allows them to adjust and adapt better than other squads. Oklahoma City needs specific things to happen to win this series (and maybe they can push it seven games), but the Warriors will figure out what works and go on a run that gets them back to the Finals.

Gordon Hayward does not plan to leave bubble for birth of son

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When Boston first went to the NBA restart bubble in Orlando, Gordon Hayward was upfront: He was leaving the bubble for the birth of his fourth child.

Hayward ended up leaving the bubble for another reason — he severely sprained his ankle and was out for more than a month. During his rehab, Hayward left the bubble and spent time at home, returning a couple of weeks ago. Saturday he played his first game back for Boston, helping it to a win against the Heat.

Hayward’s wife, Robyn, has yet to have their son, but now Hayward does not plan to leave the bubble for the event, something first reported by Rachel Nichols of ESPN during Saturday’s game.

Hayward confirmed this after the game. So did Robyn in a social media post, adding the reports she was in labor already were not true.

I don’t envy the Hayward family having to make this choice. As a parent, I can’t imagine having missed the births of any of my children, but, like everything else in 2020, this is far from a typical decision at a typical time. The Haywards are making the best of it they can. They deserve support no matter what they choose.

LeBron James, Dion Waiters’ son engage in a little trash talk

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“Yeah, right.”

That was Dion Waiters Jr.’s response to pretty much everything LeBron James during the Lakers’ practice on Saturday before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

LeBron was getting up some corner threes and told Waiters Jr. he would make 100 straight.

“Yeah, right.”

When LeBron missed one, “I missed that on purpose.” 

“Yeah, right.”

“I missed that on purpose, so you’d think I’m human,” LeBron joked.

Got to love Dion Waiters Jr. — he’s got some of his dad’s spunk.

Families have been allowed in the bubble for teams for a couple of weeks, although LeBron’s sons are not there, with LeBron saying it’s not a great place for kids (he’s right, for anyone over about 7 or 8, there would be little to do).

Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle — providing more quality wing play and good decision making — and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game on Saturday night.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart — an All-Defensive Team player — had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that — and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late — to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.