After rough fourth quarters during season, Thunder find late-game swagger in playoffs

Getty Images
2 Comments

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The team that struggled to protect a fourth-quarter lead all season long suddenly has figured out how to stage late comebacks in the postseason – against the toughest teams and in the most hostile environments, no less.

Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder will look to build on their 1-0 lead in the Western Conference finals after rallying down the stretch to hand the defending champion Golden State Warriors their first home loss these playoffs and just their third all season at Oracle Arena.

“Just being able to go in and lock in,” Russell Westbrook said Tuesday. “You’ve got to give credit to our guys just coming in and focusing on the task at hand. We couldn’t have done a better job of that, especially in the playoffs.”

The Thunder won three straight road games against teams that had lost only three times combined at home all season. On Monday night, they did it with a fourth-quarter comeback against the defending NBA champion Warriors, who had won their first six playoff games at Oracle Arena. Game 2 is Wednesday.

Oklahoma City lost 14 games during the regular season when it led going into the fourth. But with Monday night’s 108-102 victory to open the best-of-seven series, the Thunder won their second straight road game when trailing after three quarters. They also came back in the crucial Game 5 in the last round at San Antonio.

“We just find a way to finish the game,” Thunder guard Dion Waiters said. “Early in the season when we had a lead into the fourth quarter, we let a lot of games slip away. And I think just coming down in the postseason we’ve just been finding ways just to finish it out. We get up big, just try to keep the lead just to get the win.”

Now, Golden State is embracing the chance to rally from down 1-0.

“Every team that I was on that won a title lost at least a home game during the playoffs, so it happens,” Coach of the Year Steve Kerr said. “There’s a reason we pour champagne on each other when we win. It’s hard, it’s a grind, and this is a great reminder of that.”

This is the first time the Warriors have lost a series opener under Kerr, but last year they had to rally from 2-1 down in both the second round against the Memphis and the NBA Finals facing Cleveland on the way to the franchise’s first title in 40 years – an experience they believe could help them this time.

“I was telling the guys when we look at our championship run, anytime we talk about it, we talk about being down 2-1 to Memphis. Being down 2-1 to Cleveland. We never talk about beating the Pelicans 4-0. We never talk about beating the Rockets 4-1,” Draymond Green said. “You talk about the trying times. So right now is one of those times. We’ve never been down 0-1, so this is foreign territory for us. But at the same time we’ve been in positions where we’ve had to battle back before.”

After leading 60-47 at halftime, the Warriors allowed 38 points in the third quarter and scored only 14 in the fourth. They got outrebounded 52-44, with MVP Stephen Curry‘s playoff career-high 10 boards leading the way along with his 26 points and six 3-pointers.

“Long series, we’ll be able to bounce back and get back to who we are,” said Curry, who last week was named the first unanimous MVP in NBA history.

Kerr begged for a traveling call against Westbrook with 17.2 seconds left and the Thunder ahead 105-102, but a timeout was given. NBA senior vice president for replay and referee operations Joe Borgia went on NBA TV after the game and said Westbrook did drag his pivot foot.

Going forward, the Warriors want to handle what they can control down the stretch.

First-year Thunder coach Billy Donovan appreciates how his team has responded in crunch time when adjustments are needed. Oklahoma City lost Game 1 to San Antonio in the last round before beating the Spurs 4-2.

“I’ve always said this about these guys, I think as a coach, when you bring things to their attention of areas that we’ve got to get better at, concentrate and try to improve on, they really give a good, concentrated effort to do that,” Donovan said. “We just kept playing, and that’s what you’ve got to do.”

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

Jae Crowder does salsa dance in Suns-Lakers Game 6
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

WhatsApp's "Naija Odyssey" New York Premiere
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
0 Comments

Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.

 

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

Pregame of Philadelphia 76ers vs Miami Heat
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
0 Comments

Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.

 

Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets
Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images
0 Comments

The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.