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Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Not just Lillard, CJ McCollum outplaying OKC, too

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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) It’s not a one-man show, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum outplaying Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Coming into the series, both Portland and Oklahoma City faced a question: Could their stars help overcome weakness with their depth and support players. Through four games, one team’s stars are outplaying their counterparts.

That played out again on Sunday: Russell Westbrook was 0-of-7 shooting in the second half, 5-of-21 for the game, finishing with 14 points. Paul George was 8-of-21 shooting but at least was getting to the free throw line on his way to 32 points. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard had 15 points in the third quarter alone when Portland started to pull away, CJ McCollum hit some critical threes in the fourth (he was 5-of-9 from three for the game) to help the Trail Blazers stay ahead on his way to 27 points.

Portland went into OKC and won 111-98, taking a commanding 3-1 lead heading home for Game 5.

After the game, Jusuf Nurkic (sidelined with a leg injury) couldn’t resist taking a little shot at Westbrook and his postgame antics.

A lot of the attention this series has gone to the heads-up matchup of Westbrook vs. Lillard duel — and with good reason, it’s been bad blood and entertaining. However, that has left McCollum in the shadows and he deserves some spotlight for averaging 26.3 points, shooting 51.6 percent from three, plus having 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game against the Thunder through four. Oklahoma City has not had an answer for him.

Oklahoma City has had to play a lot of Dennis Schroder this series because he’s been efficient on offense (17 points on 6-of-12 shooting Sunday) but either Lillard or McCollum can just take him in isolation whenever they want and get buckets. It also helps Portland when Al-Farouq Aminu is giving them 19 points, as he did Sunday.

The big picture lesson in this series: Shooting matters. Oklahoma City’s stars are not finishing well enough inside, settling for more midrangers than they should, and unless it’s from the right corner the Thunder struggle from three. You’re not going to win a lot of games with the shot chart the Thunder had on Sunday.

2) Boston sweeps past Indiana to advance, East races shaping up as expected. The playoffs in the East are going to be a dynamic show, but we knew that was really going to start in the second round. One could make a case for Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, or Boston to come out of the conference, but after those four there was a talent drop off. There was the first round to get through before the real fireworks began.

Boston advanced Sunday with a sweep of the Pacers, winning 110-106 behind 20 points from Gordon Hayward, who had himself a night.

Frankly, this series was decided back in January when Victor Oladipo went down with a ruptured right quadriceps tendon. Without him the Pacers — who played hard and smart in his absence, and were brilliantly coached by Nate McMillan — just did not have the firepower to score enough to make this series interesting.

Also in the East on Sunday, Toronto overwhelmed Orlando 107-85 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead as things head back north of the border for Game 5. That loss by the Magic all but sealed this series, which might have been a sweep if not for the rider in every Toronto player contract that they have to stink in the first game of every playoff series.

Milwaukee likely sweeps Detroit out of the playoffs on Monday night, setting up their showdown with Boston in the second round. Brooklyn has put up a fight against Philadelphia — down to their GM breaking NBA taboos and going into the referees’ locker room to discuss how they officiate Joel Embiid — but with the Sixers up 3-1 and having game 5 at home Tuesday, this series also feels inevitable.

Then we can get on to the main course in the East.

3) Klay Thompson goes for a swim, comes out of the ocean and destroys the Clippers, Warriors go up 3-1. Klay Thompson hadn’t played poorly through the first three games of the Warriors’ first-round playoff series with the Clippers, he’d played impressive defense and averaged 13.7 points on 44.4 percent shooting. But he hadn’t had a breakout game, the kind we expect from one of the game’s best shooters.

So he went for a swim (via NBC Sports Bay Area and Monte Poole).

“I told Jonas [Jerebko] yesterday when we went to the beach to play some volleyball, like, ‘Yo, I’m just going to jump in the ocean. I know that will reset my mind.’ And it worked.”

Sunday Thompson had 27 points in the first half, going on to finish with 32 on 12-of-20 shooting (6-of-9 from three). The Warriors won 113-105 to take a 3-1 series lead heading back to the Bay Area for Game 5.

“The Pacific Ocean is undefeated,” said Stephen Curry after the game (he struggled with 12 points on 14 shots, the Clippers have defended him well this series).

Golden State has a showdown with Houston coming. With all due respect to the other teams still in the dance in the West, that is your Western Conference Finals, it’s just taking place in the second round. Houston has dominated Utah and can sweep them out of the playoffs Monday night.

Houston is playing its best basketball of the season, it is defending at a high level, and the Rockets have a shot against the Warriors. They believe they can win, but we’ll find out starting next weekend (most likely, dates for the second round are not public yet).

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

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After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.