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.

Paolo Banchero, Scoot Henderson highlight player pool for Rising Stars during All-Star weekend

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The big winner in last year’s All-Star Friday night Rising Stars game was the new format (and Cade Cunningham). The new setup saw players onto four teams of seven, with those four teams going into a tournament bracket. The games were not timed, but players competed to a target score — something that actually had the young stars defending and playing hard. Things too often lacking All-Star weekend.

That format is back, and an impressive crop of players is involved: Rookie of the Year favorite Paolo Banchero, last year’s ROY Scottie Barnes, and expected No.2 pick in the upcoming draft Scoot Henderson of the G-League Ignite. Here is a complete list of the players competing (the rookies and sophomores will be drafted into three teams of seven players each, and the G-League players will make up their own team).

Rookies

Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic)
Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons)
AJ Griffin (Atlanta Hawks)
Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons)
Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz)
Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers)
Keegan Murray (Sacramento Kings)
Andrew Nembhard (Indiana Pacers)
Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets)
Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs)
Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Sophomores

Jose Alvarado (New Orleans Pelicans)
Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors)
Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Jalen Green (Houston Rockets)
Quentin Grimes (New York Knicks)
Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets)
Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Trey Murphy III (New Orleans Pelicans)
Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets)
Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic)

The G-League team will consist of:

Sidy Cissoko (G League Ignite)
Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite)
Mojave King (G League Ignite)
Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Memphis Hustle)
Mac McClung (Deleware Blue Coats)
Leonard Miller (G League Ignite)
Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers)

There are former NBA stars to coach each of the teams: Former All-Stars Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Deron Williams will coach the three Rising Stars teams, while former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry will coach the G League team.

There will be three games Friday night during the Rising Stars challenge, with each game played to a target score of 40. If it’s anything like last year, it’s worth tuning in.

Needing defense, Kings reportedly eyeing 76ers Thybulle for trade

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At 28-21, the Sacramento Kings sit as the No.3 seed in the West with the second-best offense in the league — they seemed destined to break their 16-year playoff drought and very well could even host a first-round playoff series.

However, their 23rd-ranked defense (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers) will undo them come the playoffs.

That has the Kings looking for some defensive help and they are eyeing Sixers wing Matisse Thybullereports Marc Stein in his latest Substack newsletter.

Sacramento is said to be monitoring the availability of Philadelphia’s Matisse Thybulle as the Kings, unexpectedly holding the West’s No. 3 seed after a league-record 16 consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, ponder the pursuit of a more defensive-minded option on the perimeter.

Thybulle has lived in the rumor mill for a while, this is nothing new. However, those rumors carry more weight because Thybulle’s role in Philadelphia has shrunk considerably with the additions of De'Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker as defensive-minded forwards who can provide more offense than Thybulle. Doc Rivers also leans into Georges Niang more off the bench because of his shooting.

Thybulle is in the final year of his contract and is headed for restricted free agency, the Kings might be interested in re-signing him (depending on the price and his fit with the roster). The Kings can match salaries easily enough with Davion Mitchell, Terence Davis or Alex Len, the question is who will the 76ers want back, and will the Kings need to throw in a second-round pick?

There’s some logic to this trade getting done in some form, it’s worth keeping an eye on.

 

Nets reportedly in no rush to sign Kyrie Irving to contract extension

Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyrie Irving wanted a contract extension with the Nets this past summer, but that went nowhere (as did his looking around for a new home). Now, Irving’s representative again wants to talk contract extension with the Nets.

The Nets are in no rush, partly because they feel they have all the leverage, reports Marc Stein in his latest newsletter.

Irving hopes to sign a contract extension with the Nets — but substantive talks between the sides have yet to begin. Some league observers have posited that this could be by design on Brooklyn’s part, with the Nets apparently convinced that they are under no pressure to move swiftly on the extension front when Irving would likely need their help via sign-and-trade to relocate in the offseason to any other team he likes.

The teams with potential cap space next summer are the Spurs, Rockets, Magic, Pistons, Hornets, Pacers and Thunder (a few teams, like the Lakers, can create some cap space but not at the max money Irving would seek). It’s a list of teams that may take a step forward toward the play-in, but there is not a contender in the mix.

If Irving wants out of Brooklyn to get to the Lakers or another team he sees as a threat to win it all, it will come via an off-season sign-and-trade. Irving will have to work with the Nets, one way or another.

There is a growing sense around the league that ultimately Irving will re-sign in Brooklyn if the team’s recent run of strong play continues into the playoffs. For all the tension between Irving and Nets’ ownership in recent years, he fits well there on the court and likes playing with Kevin Durant. He likes being in Brooklyn. This can still be a fit that works for everyone.

The interesting part with Irving’s next contract will be the years — would any team lock into him for four fully-guaranteed years? He may not get more than a couple of years, at least from any team he would want to play for.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
117

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,271

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Jan. 31 at Knicks
Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Since he turned 38 (on Dec. 30), LeBron has averaged 35.2 points per game, which would see the mark broken at home against the Thunder.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”