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Blogtable: Thoughts on Spurs-Thunder?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Can Warriors or Clippers better absorb loss of star guard? |
Thoughts on Spurs-Thunder? | Who should be the Lakers’ next coach?


> Game 1 of the Spurs-Thunder conference semifinals series is Saturday. Who or what is the X factor in this series? And which team do you predict will advance?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Danny Green, as another Spurs’ on-ball defender, is my X factor. When an opponent has two explosive scoring stars such as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it means some San Antonio player has to step up besides Kawhi Leonard. Green has the size to match up with Westbrook and the fundamentals to make deny or bother Durant while chewing up some shot clock. He also can force OKC’s guys to work at the other end if he’s able to contribute offensively. Green’s 40 percent shooting from the arc against Memphis was a nice start, a bump from his 33 percent of the regular season. Where does it all end? Barring any more of these playoff-convulsing injuries we’ve been getting, I think San Antonio advances in six or seven games.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com Serge Ibaka is my X factor. When he’s running the floor, guarding the lane and also knocking down jumpers, he’s an athletic force that can be tough for the Spurs to handle. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook demanding so much attention from defenses, Ibaka is the third weapon that can be a difference-maker. But we haven’t seen much of that guy all season. Spurs in 7.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: That guy trying to break into the Spurs rotation, Tim Duncan. That’s a little extreme, but Duncan did have a reduced role at just 20.3 minutes per game in the first round because of matchups and San Antonio blowout wins. Now comes the chance to face an opponent with more bigs — Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter — that should mean a larger presence for Duncan. A big contribution will be a step toward the Spurs advancing.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com This sounds weird, but the X-factors are named Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. For over a decade they were the backbone of the franchise. Right now, none are playing efficiently and for the most part are backup singers to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. That must change ASAP. San Antonio will need more from at least two of those three against a hungry OKC team, or else Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will be a series away from returning to the NBA Finals.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Danny Green is the X-factor. The ball will find the open man in the Spurs’ offense and that open man is often Green. He had a rough regular season, shooting 33 percent from 3-point range (27 percent in March and April), but was 6-for-13 in the first round. He’ll also be the primary defender on Russell Westbrook, so his ability to get back in transition, fight through screens, and stay in front of the Thunder point guard will be critical.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The dueling wild cards in this series are salty Kevin Durant and raging Russell Westbrook. The Thunder superstars (sorry Mark Cuban, they’ve got two) are playing with monstrous chips on their shoulders these days and nothing would delight them more than to upset all the conference finals plans we’ve all been talking about for months. That said, I’m picking the Spurs to advance in a knock down, drag out six-game affair.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: This one is going to be all about defense. The Spurs are the league’s most cohesive and versatile defensive team. Will the Thunder be able to match San Antonio’s passion and attention to detail? I’m afraid not.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogHaving seen both of these teams in person over the last two weeks, the one part of the match-up that I can’t reconcile is how will the Spurs stop Russell Westbrook? You haven’t seen elite speed until you’ve watched Westbrook in person — he literally flies down the court, his feet barely touching the floor, like he’s running across the surface of a lake. And i just don’t know how San Antonio matches that speed. I guess you could try Kawhi Leonard against him, although I’d rather save Leonard for Kevin Durant. Either way, the Spurs have a matchup problem waiting to happen.

Should Kanter be Fifth Man, not Sixth Man, for OKC?

He’s one of the most productive players in his first round series and in the entire NBA playoffs, if you project him over 48 minutes. But there’s no guarantee Enes Kanter will get more than his usual supply of 21 minutes in the next game against the Dallas Mavericks, or for the rest of the playoffs.

On the surface, that’s sheer lunacy. Kanter is averaging 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in 22.5 minutes against the Mavericks leading into Game 5. He’s doing more damage against Dallas than Kevin Durant. A big man blessed with a dancer’s footwork and a diamond cutter’s touch, Kanter can score and is a decent rebounder yet is still being punished for his defense which, real or imagined, is shoddy and plants doubt in the head of coach Billy Donovan.

And so the question is this: Is he really that bad a defender that it’s necessary to prevent Durant and Russell Westbrook from having a very solid third wheel for half a game?

In Game 4, while Kanter was doing a number on Dallas once again — he finished by making 12 of 13 shots, one by falling on the floor — Donovan reflexively tried to remove him from the game. It took the intervention of Westbrook, who told the coach to chill out, that kept Kanter on the floor.

“I was going back and forth, whether to keep him on the floor,” Donovan admitted. “But Enes was playing so well.”

Westbrook: “He’s been doing a great job all season and it goes unnoticed.”

If that’s true, then you only have Donovan’s substitution pattern to blame. Kanter averaged only 21.0 minutes during the season, yet averaged 12.7 and 8.1 rebounds anyway. Donovan starts Steven Adams, who’s tougher and sets meaner picks and yes, a notch above Kanter defensively. Crazy thing, though: Kanter’s minutes go unchanged even when Oklahoma City plays teams that lack an opposing big man who can score. And so, the question begs to be asked again: Is Kanter really so bad defensively that he can’t even defend centers who don’t touch the ball?

Donovan’s reasoning is that the two-headed center of Kanter and Adams works best for Oklahoma City, and Adams’ blue collar work is valuable for a finesse team. There’s also the feeling that Kanter doesn’t rotate well and therefore doesn’t offer “help” defense, especially on the pick and roll. Perhaps.

But it’ll be curious to see how Kanter is used should the Thunder eliminate the Mavericks as expected and face the Spurs in the next round.

He had success against the Spurs during the season, averaging 15.8 points and 14.8 rebounds in 27.9 minutes. He’d be matched against Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan, who are older yet very crafty. Duncan has been an afterthought for much of the season and particularly in the Spurs’ sweep of Memphis, but is Timmy showing his age, or merely laying low until the Spurs need him, which will be the case against Oklahoma City? Last season Duncan was tremendous in San Antonio’s seven-game series with the Clippers, and the Spurs can expect a similarly strong challenge from the Thunder.

Kanter finished third in the voting for the Kia Sixth Man of the Year Award and Westbrook thought the wrong guy won.

“All due respects to Jamal Crawford, but I don’t believe it should’ve been close for sixth man with Enes, a guy who shoots 68, 69 percent form the field. He’s been doing it all season.”

Well, that’s a question Westbrook should ask of his coach: If Kanter can do this all season as a sixth man, shouldn’t he start or at least get starter’s minutes? Shouldn’t he fill the role of the “missing” third wheel in OKC, especially in the fourth quarter, when he’s often on the bench?

Two-on-five works well for OKC


VIDEO: Thunder handle Mavs 131-102 in Game 3

DALLAS — There is never a downside to having a pair of top-five players as teammates, especially if they respect and genuinely like each other and seldom, if ever, conflict on the floor. This is certainly the case with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City would be a dusty NBA outpost without them.

There is a nit-pick, though. When the Thunder are involved in tight finishes, you often wonder why they bother calling a timeout, because there’s no sense drawing up a play. Everyone knows what’s coming. OKC will spread the floor and allow either Durant or Westbrook to go one-on-one.

It’s the type of simple and non-creative strategy that helped grease Scott Brooks‘ path out of town. The ex-OKC coach, freshly hired in Washington, showed no imagination with his playbook in the final two minutes and critics howled and cringed whenever OKC lost close playoff games to the elite teams in the West. The blame went to Brooks instead of key injuries to Westbrook and Durant.

But look here: Billy Donovan is doing the same thing, and in that sense, you can’t tell the difference between one coach and the other.

This strategy was moot in a pair of blowout victories over the Mavericks in their first-round series, but in Game 2, which OKC lost by a point, Donovan had Durant keep firing even though Durant eventually missed 26 shots. He did drill a critical 3-pointer in the final minute, but by then OKC was seconds away from being upset.

In one sense, how can any coach take the ball out of the hands of players who are averaging more than 20 points and bring great credentials? If anything, that would be grounds for a coach getting fired, or at least it seems. Besides, Durant and Westbrook probably wouldn’t stand for it and would keep the ball anyway.

“Kevin and Russell are such great one-on-one players that you’re not going to run motion offense,” Donovan said. “What you do is space the floor for them. When you create space, then it’s up to them to make good decisions. They just can’t jack-knife and shoot over two guys.”

Westbrook is so great at reaching the rim, and Durant brings superb shooting range, that Donovan (like Brooks before him) will play the odds. The downside is their teammates stand around and make little effort to be anything more than mannequins. Also, it feeds the notion that Durant and Westbrook don’t trust their teammates with the ball in those situations, and so great defensive teams will exploit that lack of trust and simply leave those teammates open while doubling on the All-Star duo.

Again, this is likely good enough to get OKC  beyond the first round and the understated Mavericks. But what about the next round against the Spurs, who can use Kawhi Leonard on single coverage on Durant? Or a smart defensive team like the Warriors? Doesn’t Donovan need to introduce a new wrinkle that in some way involves, for example, Enes Kanter, Serge Ibaka, the under-used Anthony Morrow or Dion Waiters?

It’s probably too late for that. Those players, neglected all season in these situations, probably aren’t comfortable with the ball and the burden that comes with it. And so, unlike the Spurs or Warriors, the Thunder’s offensive formula omits all but two players, although they are two very special players. OKC will go two-on-five and continue to believe that is a big advantage in its favor.


VIDEO: Durant scores 34 points in OKC’s Game 3 win

Morning shootaround — April 11


VIDEO: The Fast Break — April 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors locked in on history | Spurs won’t dwell on latest loss to Warriors | Kobe Bryant reflects on his final days | Colangelo’s rebranding in Philadelphia already underway

No. 1: Warriors locked in on history All that’s left is 48 minutes. A mere 48 minutes and the Golden State Warriors will have produced the finest regular season in NBA history, surpassing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls they tied for the best win total ever with Sunday’s win San Antonio. As our very own Fran Blinebury wrote after the Warriors snapped the Spurs’ bid to record the first perfect home record in a season, this history-making season has washed over the league in waves:

History comes in waves, like the relentless sets of breakers that Golden State used to wash over the NBA in a record-setting 24-0 start to the season that planted the flag in the ground and seemed to lift the Warriors up above mere greatness and pushed them on this journey.

All those games and all those nights in all those cities when they took the floor feeling and knowing and playing like they were truly superior to the guys in the other uniforms and never let themselves forget that.

All those other nights when maybe they weren’t at their physical or mental peak and had to somehow find a way to get it done. Like just 24 hour earlier in Memphis when it took digging down deep in the final seconds to pull out a victory over an outmanned bunch of Grizzlies to keep the quest alive.

If these same two teams meet again in six weeks in the Western Conference finals, this game will mean nothing then. But that doesn’t make it mean nothing today.

“Obviously, we’re in the moment, enjoying the ride and the goal is to win a championship,” said Curry after scoring 37 points. “That’s what we’re playing for. But we put ourselves in a great position to end the season with a win and do something that no team has done in history, so that’s an amazing accomplishment.

“It’s kind of hard to step outside the locker room and understand the spotlight that comes with it or just the hoopla because we come out every night trying to win. But when you think about it, I guess, perspective, only two teams have done what we’ve done so far and hopefully Wednesday we can finish that off. It’s unbelievable.”

Despite the offer, even the wish from coach Steve Kerr, that the Warriors regulars might choose to rest up for the fast approaching playoffs, there was never a question that any of them would sit with their feet up.

“I tried to do it with the way I played and obviously the decision on resting or not was a pretty easy decision for me,” Curry said. “I’m not nursing any injuries, I don’t think putting myself in a position to be a step slow come the playoffs. So why not go out and take advantage of an opportunity that may never come again?”

Kerr, of course, is the link, having played for 20 years ago for the 72-10 Bulls.

History comes in memories.

“I thought as a player it seemed like a bigger deal because the players talk about it, think about it,” Kerr said. “We never talked about it as a staff here this year. It’s really a players’ reward, a players’ honor, a players’ record. They’re the ones that go out and play. It probably meant more to me back then personally. But to see the look on these guys faces knowing that they have a chance to break the record and at least they tied it, they’re pretty excited and that’s what’s great about coaching, when you see your team smiling and happy.”

***

No. 2: Spurs won’t dwell on latest loss to Warriors The chance for history ended at the hands of the one team the San Antonio Spurs have not been able to solve this season. Their quest for the first undefeated home record in NBA history was blown away by a blitz from the reigning champion Golden State Warriors. But the Spurs will not let this latest loss to the Warriors, their third in four tries this season, linger. Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com provides some context for the Spurs:

The Warriors stopped cold San Antonio’s home winning streak at 39 games, while reaching historic win No. 72, marking the third time in four meetings — and second time in four nights — Golden State knocked off the Spurs. Still, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was satisfied with the team’s effort. He is confident that San Antonio’s experience mixed with a sharpened playoff focus, and a fresh game plan in late May could lift the Spurs over the Warriors when the stakes are highest in a potential Western Conference finals.

“We played a hell of a team, and I thought our aggressiveness, our attention to detail, was much better than [Thursday night’s loss at Golden State],” Popovich said. “They did a lot of good things out there. I’m really happy with how we performed.”

So instead of lamenting a loss they can’t get back, the Spurs choose now to focus on closing out strong in preparation for the playoffs.

“It’s a whole different ball game in the playoffs,” David West said when asked whether the Warriors now hold a psychological advantage, having defeated the Spurs three times in the regular season. “Hopefully, it will be another two months, or whatever it is, a month and a half, until we see them again. Our job is just to keep improving and prepare ourselves now for a tough first-round matchup against whomever; just keep developing who we are.”

The outing at the AT&T Center on Sunday played out much differently than Thursday’s 112-101 trouncing at Oracle Arena, yet San Antonio still managed to come up short despite making significant progress against the Warriors defensively.

“I think in Golden State for sure we were not sharp enough,” guard Manu Ginobili said. “Today we made a few mistakes. I think we played a good game. We were not good offensively. I’m not concerned. I was concerned after the Golden State game [on the road] because it was not us. I think a game like today can easily happen. We hadn’t lost one game at home the whole season. It can happen that you lose one against a team that is one of the best teams ever. We can’t start banging our heads against the wall and [saying], ‘Oh, we are terrible.’ It can happen.”

San Antonio slowed down the pace significantly in Sunday’s contest, giving Golden State its slowest paced game since defeating the Warriors 87-79 on March 17, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information. The Spurs also limited Golden State to an ice-cold shooting percentage of 35.1, while dominating the visitors in offensive rebounding 13-3. San Antonio’s 13 offensive rebounds in the first half go down as the most the club had snatched in a single half all season, not to mention the most the Warriors have allowed in any half over the past two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info. San Antonio’s supremacy on the offensive glass helped the Spurs outscore the Warriors 11-0 on second-chance points.

The problem is while administering suffocating defense and crashing the offensive glass, the Spurs managed to shoot even frostier (28.6 percent) than the Warriors. Then, as Golden State caught fire in the third quarter, going on a 12-0 run with Stephen Curry racking up 16 points for his 30th quarter of 15 points or more this season, San Antonio remained cold (34.3 percent shooting).

What’s more is the offensive rebounding subsided, too, with the Spurs grabbing just five more offensive boards in the entire second half.

“Our perimeter had a tough time making shots, that’s for sure,” Popovich said. “That was the problem offensively all night, but I couldn’t be more proud of them. Steph got away from us for a while, but a part of it was some bad shots. We lost our poise for about a three-minute period, and we were in constant transition, and he got away from us. That was the difference in the ball game. But I’m really proud of the guys what they did tonight.”

***

No. 3: Kobe Bryant reflects on his finals days  The finish line is in sight for Kobe Bryant. Tonight’s final game in Oklahoma City (8 ET, NBA League Pass) followed by Wednesday’s finale against Utah at Staples Center and that’s it, a 20 years of a Hall of Fame career comes to an end. In what has been a sobering and reflective season for one of the game’s all-time greats, there is finally a sense of relief and acceptance of his fate. Kobe didn’t go out chasing that sixth title, the way he had hoped. But as Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical points out, Kobe is going out on his own terms:

Against all odds, Kobe Bryant goes home for goodbye on two feet, goes home for goodbye on the best terms he could’ve ever dictated.

“It feels so good,” Bryant told The Vertical. “For the last three years, I haven’t been able to do it. Achilles. Knee. Shoulder. Serious injuries. My preparation was right. I worked and worked for my body to be able to get through this.”

“Coming into the season, I had the concern: Could I make it all year?” Bryant told The Vertical. “I had the fear. But I embraced that fear, and then I let it go. I realized: I can’t control it. I prepare. I do all the work. If that happens, it happens. And I stopped thinking about it.”

All around, the boom mics hung over us. His documentary crew comes everywhere now, chronicling every interaction, every interview. For a moment, Bryant was still thinking about life on a contender. He is nodding his head, insisting this is true: “Listen, I believe this: On a better team, I could play a lot better. Physically, I know I could do so much more. I found that rhythm, that balance. But after three major injuries, to get to the end [healthy], this means the world to me.”

There are two stories to end this NBA regular season: The Warriors’ historic march to 73 victories, and Bryant’s historic uneven, unnerving final season. They’ll remember Bryant as one of the NBA’s great champions, remember a relentless pursuit of perfection. Oh, he’d love to be chasing 73 victories, but mostly he wishes he was pursuing that sixth NBA title.

Somewhere along the way, Bryant had to let go. There wouldn’t be winning this season. There would be bouquets. He’s never minded everyone watching him, everyone feting his greatness. So started the legacy tour, so started a long, slow trot around the bases. Nevertheless, Kobe Bryant let himself think for a moment about that Golden State-San Antonio game on Sunday night, about the parallel universe of winning ball that’s left his life.

Had the Lakers still been a contender – had everything not crumbled around him – Bryant swears this would all be so different, so much more suited to his persona.

“The ovations wouldn’t be here,” Bryant told The Vertical. “We’d be amidst cutthroat competition. In this season, I’ve been able to come up for air, take the blinders off, look around, soak it all in – and say thank you. Had we been competing for a championship, there’s no way I’d allow all this to happen. We’d have one goal in mind and that would be winning the championship.

“In the end, this wasn’t hard to accept. I can accept reality and move on.”

***

No. 4: Colangelo’s rebranding in Philadelphia already underway Give Bryan Colangelo credit, he didn’t waste any time in his effort to change the narrative in Philadelphia. His rebranding of the situation with the Sixers began the moment he was introduced as the team’s new president of basketball operations Sunday. And if there is one thing Colangelo has learned in all of his years around the game, it’s that change at the fundamental level has to come immediately. David Murphy of Philly.com explains:

For all of the talk of the Sixers finally bringing in some real basketball men, the truth is that people like the Colangelos are, first and foremost, salesmen. They are billionaire whisperers, adept at convincing really rich people to entrust them with their capital. In 1999, Jerry published a book titled, How You Play the Game: Lessons for Life from the Billion-Dollar Business of Sports.

The elder Colangelo clearly succeeded at selling Harris and his partners on the need for a leader with a skill set that just happened to line up with the one his son offered. Bryan’s biggest theme during Sunday’s press conference was the need for the Sixers to build relationships throughout the league, one of many tacit references to Hinkie’s greatest perceived weakness.

Yet the logic starts to fall apart when you think about the fact that Ed Stefanski and Billy King were respected, personable executives who nevertheless were forced to overpay to keep their own players (Andre Iguodala) and to sign new ones (Elton Brand). Fact is, the Sixers are not an NBA destination, just like the Raptors weren’t when Colangelo was there (and when Chris Bosh left for the Heat).

Again, though, it comes down to messaging. As GM of the Suns, Colangelo “lured” Steve Nash away from Dallas in 2004, which sounds great, except “luring” really meant paying him $20 million more than any other team, including the Mavericks, who declined Nash’s request that they match the deal. When Colangelo attempted to bring Nash to Toronto in 2012, Nash leveraged Toronto’s three-year, $36 million offer into a three-year deal with the Lakers.

But, hey, it’s a relationship business, right?

Ironically, the failed pursuit of Nash is one of the reasons Colangelo has seen his legacy improve over the past few years as the Raptors have blossomed. Once he lost Nash, Colangelo traded a first-round pick for Kyle Lowry, who is now an anchor on one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams. Nash, meanwhile, was an unmitigated disaster with the Lakers.

That’s not to say the Sixers’ new president will destroy whatever foundation Hinkie has laid over the past three seasons. Both Colangelo and Harris repeatedly insisted that the change in leadership would not result in a change in vision.

“This is not about a departure from a process,” Colangelo said.

What was it really about? Let’s answer in a form Hinkie might appreciate. As Plato once said, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler did not fly to New Orleans with his teammates after Sunday’s game, but is expected to join them for tonight’s game against the Pelicans … The heated rivalry between the Warriors and Spurs extends beyond the court and also includes the Warriors’ broadcast team and the Spurs fans … Thunder coach Billy Donovan is employing a similar philosophy to what Steve Kerr has done with the Warriors in allowing the players to decide if they want to rest or grind through the end of the regular season … With the playoffs just days away, it’s time for Tyronn Lue to figure some things out about the Cavaliers and his rotation

OKC’s Durant oblivious to Celtics fans’ ‘Come to Boston’ chants

VIDEO: Celtics fans chants to Kevin Durant

If only it were so easy. Fill an arena with enthusiastic fans of the home team who nonetheless appreciate the value of a talented and lethal opponent, then pitch woo en masse in an orchestrated thundering chant.

That does it every time, right?

Wrong.

Kevin Durant‘s reaction to Celtics fans’ “Come to Boston!” chants Wednesday night were the equivalent of a homecoming queen’s “Who?” when asked about a classmate’s crush on her.

“I didn’t even hear that, man,” the Oklahoma City All-Star forward said after scoring 28 points with nine assists and seven rebounds in the Thunder’s 130-109 beatdown of the Celtics. “Promise.”

Durant had thrown a few niceties Boston’s way after shootaround Wednesday morning, telling reporters at TD Garden “I like the city a lot.” It was the usual stuff a high-profile free-agent-to-be says when visiting a road city, regardless of his actual interest in relocating there. But because the Celtics are one of the league’s legacy franchises, will have sufficient funds to spend this summer and appear to be long on supporting cast but short on cornerstone superstar, Durant’s comments generated more buzz than usual.

In Boston, anyway.

Thunder fans might feel a little skittish or even aggravated after a long season of speculation, rumors conjecture and guessing. Coach Billy Donovan has dealt with it everywhere OKC has played and chalked up Durant’s response Wednesday as the expected words of a friendly fellow.

“I think Kevin has always been respectful,” Donovan told reporters before the game. “He’s a great guy. I don’t think Kevin would ever say anything derogatory about another team or player or things like that. That’s just not who he is. And I think when he gets put into those situations, he’s only going to say positive things because that’s who he is.”

The Garden loyalists doing the chanting at the game, however, need to understand that Durant gets that stuff everywhere he goes. Imagine the question in the postgame video getting dubbed with one of those obviously-different, deeper dubbed voices saying “New York” or “Washington” or “Miami” rather than “Boston.”

And no, the game operations staff couldn’t help by playing that Dave Loggins song on the videoboard in place of dancing Gino for the night. Tampering rules, y’know.

Blogtable: Are Thunder a great team?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Are Thunder a great team? | Deciphering LeBron’s cryptic messages? |
More dangerous sleeper playoff team — Hornets or Blazers?



VIDEOInside the NBA’s experts dissect the Thunder

> After a loss last week, Kevin Durant said the Thunder want to be a great team, but they’re fooling themselves. My question for you: Are the Thunder a great team, or are they fooling themselves?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: You can’t be a great team with a middling defense (19th in points allowed, 13th in Defensive Rating). Nor can you be great when you’re 0-3 against the Warriors. Now, with two Alpha Males like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on your squad, you are always close to great. But until and unless the Thunder figures out how to incorporate everyone on offense on a consistent basis, I see the same ending coming in May. Of late, it looks like OKC is making a more concerted effort to get Serge Ibaka, for example, more shots (double figure attempts in his last 10 games). That’s a step in the right direction.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comWe throw around the word “great” way too easily. No, this OKC team isn’t “great.” There are two “great” teams this season, which is one or two more than most seasons, and one of them – San Antonio – could slip from that perch if a priority on resting players for the postseason chews up the final week or two of the regular season. If the Spurs were to knock off the Warriors, they still might wrest the “great team” title away from Golden State. But if the Thunder ends up winning the title, they’ll be known as the surprisingly good upstart team that upset the two powerhouses in the West.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Thunder have been fooling themselves for a while. They are an incomplete team with two great players and even with the splendid individual talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, that’s a recipe not likely to win a championship in the age of the Warriors and Spurs. For an “elite team” they cough up fourth-quarter leads because their offense relies almost exclusively on Durant and Westbrook to make big shots late. Too many other players around them with limited skills at one end of the court or the other. That’s quite dangerous on any given night, but that formula just doesn’t add up to 16 wins through the playoffs.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com Neither. They are not a great team. But they could become very good in time for the playoffs, where greatness is truly established. That’s the potential, not where they are now. The Thunder are definitely not fooling themselves, though. Durant and coach Billy Donovan, two of the critical voices in the locker room, have not hidden from the reality that OKC has been inconsistent much of the season, even when piling up wins the first half of the season, and that it has been getting exposed since the schedule turned tough. This team is struggling in some ways, but the ability to live in reality is not one of them.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: We must first define greatness before giving an answer. Is greatness the 1986 Boston Celtics? How about this season’s Warriors and Spurs, are they the benchmark for greatness? Then no, compared to the teams above in the West, OKC is merely very good at the moment and therefore fooling itself. But the Thunder have the potential to be in that class and anyone who doesn’t think so is fooling themselves. It comes down to whether OKC can play some D when it counts, and if Billy Donovan can convince his stars to occasionally chill with the one-on-one and play team ball in the crunch and be less predictable. Two very big ifs.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThey’re a very good team, but they’re a clear step below the Warriors and Spurs. Their offense gets too Russ-and-KD heavy, with little ability to adapt, down the stretch of close games. But defense, especially when they go to their bench, is their real problem. They rank 14th on that end and 25th since late January. They have matched up well with the Spurs over the last several years, so Saturday’s game in San Antonio will be telling. But I’d believe in them more if they could play their starting lineup, which has been the best high-usage lineup in the league, 48 minutes a game.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Great team? Not exactly. Very good team? Absolutely. And I agree with KD: they are fooling themselves if they think playing the way they have, particularly against the other very good and great teams, is going to get it done. The Thunder’s flaws get exposed far too often for me to believe they are title ready. And I still need to see them involve some of their role players at critical moments. It’s always on KD and Russell Westbrook to rescue the Thunder when things get tight. Leaning that hard on your superstars will get you to a certain point, but you need to have other guys to fill in the gaps and make plays, on both ends, in order to take that next step.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: They have great talent. Are they a great team? That’s one of those questions to be answered in hindsight only. Just because they have the talent and the potential doesn’t make them comparable to the Warriors or Spurs — the only way for OKC to be great is to prove it.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogThey are, obviously, a pretty good team. While their numbers are good, particularly offensively, to me the Thunder are a great example of the value of the eye test — despite a new coach and new philosophies, they seem to still end up going one-on-one and taking questionable shots at the end of games. (Unrelated but related: I don’t understand how a guy as big and athletic as Serge Ibaka is averaging fewer rebounds per game than Russell Westbrook.) I like the addition of Randy Foye, but I don’t think this team can get to that next level without major philosophical changes.

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 29


VIDEO: The Fast Break: February 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cavaliers don’t look title ready | Curry’s greatness at heart of skepticism about Warriors | Carmelo brushes off Stoudemire’s barbs about Knicks | Thunder had no answer for Warriors’ death lineup

No. 1: Cavaliers don’t look title ready — Losses to the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards over the weekend has taken the shine off of things in Cleveland, where the world knows it’s championship or bust for LeBron James and company. YEs, they remain the clubhouse favorites to win the Eastern Conference title and represent in The Finals, but they don’t look title ready right now, as Michael Lee of The Vertical points out after Sunday’s LeBron-less loss to the Wizards:

The Cavaliers have way too much talent, experience and shared success to use James’ absence as even a partial excuse for a 113-99 loss to the Wizards – a team that is currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff race looking in. Even if their best player – and apparently lone playmaker – decided his mind and body needed a break, the Cavaliers still had three times as many players on maximum contracts than their opponent, but none of them, Lue said, gave maximum effort.

The loss was more alarming and disturbing because it came two days after a loss to the steady-charging Toronto Raptors that led James to say, “We lack mental [strength] right now.” J.R. Smith took the critique to another level after Sunday’s loss with a very nonchalant slam of his team’s performance.

“If we lose a game like the other night to a team like Toronto and to come out here and play the way we did – you have a lack of energy – maybe we shouldn’t be in this position,” Smith said, voice barely rising above a purr. “We shouldn’t be who we are and be in these uniforms.”

The Cavaliers haven’t reached the point where they should panic but they can’t be extremely comfortable about where they stand. They were supposed to have a much easier run through the East than defending champion Golden State in the West, but they only have a two-game lead over the Raptors for the top spot in the conference while the Warriors’ lead over the 50-win San Antonio Spurs feels more vast than Steph Curry’s limitless range.

No other team in the East made the kind of offseason or midseason upgrades to pose much of a threat to James’ reign over the conference but the struggle has been real. The Cavaliers are easily the most talented team in the East, but they are among the least content. James once blamed complacency as the culprit for the team coasting at times, but the Cavaliers have been involved with a considerable amount of chaos for a team that was only two wins from an NBA championship last June despite missing two of its best players. There has been an intense pursuit of perfection that has robbed this season of the kind of fun that Cleveland’s record (41-17) should otherwise suggest.

“It’s the same thing we’ve been searching for, consistency and efficiency,” veteran forward James Jones told The Vertical. “We’re good enough, talented enough, to do things the majority of the time, to win games against the mid-tier teams. Against the good teams, we can piece together a game or two of really good basketball and look exceptional, but deep down inside we know that we aren’t hitting on all cylinders defensively, offensively. We still have some of the same issues of isolation and ball stopping and not moving bodies. For us, even though we’re having success, it’s not the fact we were winning but the way we were winning that gave us concern and you really can’t enjoy it as much when you know you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do.”

 

***

 No. 2: Curry’s greatness at heart of skepticism about Warriors — There’s a reason that some of the men who came before Stephen Curry cannot find a way make sense of what the reigning KIA MVP is doing right now. They’ve simply never seen anything like it, nothing close actually. And that unfamiliarity with a player who can shoot as well as Curry does, and in turn dominates the floor in ways no player has before him, does not register with the likes of Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. That inability to frame Curry’s exploits is what lies at the heart of all these doubters of both Curry and the Warriors, writes Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

The frustration is logical, though, in a historic sense:

When the old stalwarts don’t get what you’re doing … that’s when you know the revolution is well underway.

It works two ways: The criticisms from all-time greats such as Oscar Robertson highlight the vast gap between then and now and serve to motivate the Warriors to make it even greater.

“It’s starting to get a little annoying just because it’s kind of unwarranted from across the board,” Curry said late last week on the “Warriors Plus/Minus” podcast with Marcus Thompson II and me.

“When you hear kind of … obviously legends and people that respect their era and what they were able to accomplish and what they did for the game kind of come at you, it’s kind of, just, weird.”

Some of the skepticism is understandable, because Robertson and others are great figures in the game and, yes, the rules and standards are different now.

Times change, as they did from the era before Robertson to his era and so on …

Some of the carping is logical, because this Warriors team has just the one title (so far); some of it is envy for the current limelight; some is general cantankerousness.

But let’s underline the true heart of the public doubts about Curry and the Warriors coming from Robertson, Stephen Jackson — and even from Clippers coach Doc Rivers and others last offseason:

It’s about questioning Curry’s true status as a generational figure, because he’s a departure from the normal procession of bigger, faster, stronger (Elgin Baylor to Julius Erving to Michael Jordan to LeBron James).

Almost every other NBA quantum leap came in the form of a physical leap forward, and Curry’s ascension isn’t tied to strength, size or speed. He’s a skinny guy who went to Davidson and was supposed to be knocked around by Jackson and Monta Ellis in his first Warriors training camp.

But Curry wasn’t. He survived, they were sent away, and now here he is, with one MVP on his mantle and No. 2 coming at the end of this season.

Curry’s greatness is about an unprecedented talent level and work ethic — no matter what Robertson says about current defense, there is no consistent way to defend a man who can casually dribble into game-winning 38-footers, as Curry did in Oklahoma City on Saturday.

This is new. This is unfathomable, unless you know Curry, unless you’ve spent a few years studying how he is altering this sport.

Curry’s status is comparable to the way Wayne Gretzky changed hockey, the way the West Coast offense and Joe Montana reset football and the way Muhammad Ali made everything before him in boxing seem outdated.


WATCH: Steph Curry with the (12 from deep) shots

***

No. 3:  Carmelo brushes off Stoudemire’s barbs about Knicks — Amar’e Stoudemire has some interesting memories about his time in New York. There were good times and bad, plenty of ups and downs, and in hindsight, plenty of factors played into his time there alongside Carmelo Anthony. He spoke his mind when asked about his time there, with is Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden for a Sunday game. But Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony didn’t take any of it to heart and he certainly didn’t think Stoudemire was taking shots at him. Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com has more:

Asked if he feels for his former teammate Anthony for going through another tough season with the Knicks, Stoudemire hinted that Anthony needs to be better to pull the Knicks out of their mess. The Knicks (25-36) have lost 14 of their past 17 games.

“It’s tough,” Stoudemire said before the Heat beat the Knicks 98-81 on Sunday. “When you get involved in this situation, you have to take ownership of it. You have to make sure you made the right decisions for your team and teammates.

“You have to become a complete player in order to bring your team out of a rut. Everyone can’t do it. It’s not always easy.”

When asked if he has any advice for Anthony moving forward, Stoudemire mentioned how he knew at this stage of his career that he needed to surround himself with “other class A players” to chase a title.

“It’s a situation where you have options,” Stoudemire said. “If you want to win, that’s the main priority. And if physically you can’t do it as a player and make your teammates better and get them to the point they can win, then you surround yourself with a team that’s built to win.

“And for me, I knew Father Time was ticking on my clock, so I wanted to put myself in a position around other class A players, put myself in a position to at least compete for a championship.”

Stoudemire played four and a half seasons with the Knicks, and his time overlapped with former fan favorite Lin. Although he did not mention any names, Stoudemire said not every Knick was thrilled with Lin’s exploding popularity back then.

“If he stayed, it would’ve been cool,” Stoudemire said of Lin, who played one season in New York from 2011-12. “But everyone wasn’t a fan of him being the new star, so he didn’t stay long. But Jeremy was a great, great guy. Great teammate. He worked hard. He put the work in, and we’re proud of him to have his moment.

“A lot of times, you gotta enjoy someone’s success,” he continued. “And that wasn’t the case for us during that stretch. … You got to enjoy that. You got to let that player enjoy himself and cherish those moments. He was becoming a star, and I don’t think everybody was pleased with that.”

Anthony did not think Stoudemire was talking about him when it came to being less than receptive to Lin’s brief success in New York.

“Still?” Anthony asked when told that Lin came up when reporters talked to Stoudemire. “That was [four] years ago? I don’t know. I don’t have no comment about that. If [Lin] was becoming a star, we should embrace that. I don’t know. We didn’t embrace it? Was that the word?”

“S—, if that was the case then I’d be upset right now with KP [rookie fan favorite Kristaps Porzingis], if he’s talking about me. I doubt if [Stoudemire is] talking about me. I doubt that. I highly doubt that.”

***

No. 4: Thunder had no answer for Warriors’ death lineup — The Oklahoma City were the one team most pundits thought to be built to deal with the Golden State Warriors’ vaunted death lineup, a small-ball group that has shredded all comers this season. But in the final minutes of Saturday night’s instant classic, that lineup flummoxed the Thunder as well. Thunder coach Billy Donovan and his staff have until Thursday night (when they meet agains, on TNT) to come up with a fix for what went wrong. Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman provides the details:

But lost amidst this hardwood classic was a dilemma that should concern the Thunder in the present. Curry’s impossible accuracy won it. But the Warriors got back into the game with their small-ball death lineup, which completely dictated the final 10 minutes.

With 4:37 left in regulation, Andre Iguodala subbed in for Shaun Livingston, joining Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. The Warriors were down 11. In fewer than five minutes, they forced overtime. Then in five overtime minutes, they outscored the Thunder by three.

So in a little under 10 total minutes, that nightmarish Golden State unit beat the Thunder 36-22. Curry played hero. Green was a defensive menace. The other three chipped in. But of greater consequence, the versatility of that Warriors five-man grouping forced Billy Donovan’s hand, shrinking OKC’s depth.

Breaking news: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the Thunder’s two best players. They’re always on the court in crunch time, barring a foul-out…which we’ll get to.

Beyond them, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams are the team’s third and fourth most balanced, important talents. You want both on the court in crucial moments.

Which is where the problem lies. When the Warriors slide Green to center and pepper two-way wings all over the court, they challenge you to take one off the floor or risk some uncomfortable mismatches.

After an 8-point, 3-rebound, 0-block disappearance in Oakland, Ibaka was great on Saturday night. The Thunder demolished Golden State 62-32 in rebounds and Ibaka was the key. He had a season-high 20 rebounds, along with 15 points, two blocks and countless other contested and altered shots. He played a team-high 41 minutes. His presence was required.

Which meant Adams was the odd man out. Of late, Adams has been great, providing a sturdy defensive back-line while finishing layups and dunks with more consistency. He had 10 points and nine rebounds in his 28 minutes on Saturday. But in his final 136 seconds, Adams was out of his element.

From the 4:37 mark of the fourth to the 2:21 mark, Donovan kept Adams and Ibaka in together against that small-ball unit. The Warriors quickly blasted off a 7-0 run to get back in the game. Adams was assigned Iguodala. The Warriors recognized it and attacked Adams with Curry and Iguodala in a pick-and-roll. Curry got the big man on a switch and hit the ninth of his 12 3s.

Right after, Donovan subbed in Dion Waiters for Adams, going small and ceding to the Warriors style.

Then as the game navigated through overtime, Adams sat all but nine seconds. Donovan put him in to win the tip at the start of overtime, which he did, and then pulled him at the first whistle, reinserting Waiters.

Durant fouled out 38 seconds later, a crippling blow, presenting Donovan with another choice. Go back big with Adams or stay small? He remained small, choosing Kyle Singler to replace Durant.

And this is the conundrum the Thunder faces against the Warriors. While many believe OKC’s talent could give Golden State its biggest postseason challenge, the Warriors versatile options exposes the Thunder’s roster imbalance. OKC is deep in the frontcourt but thin on the wing. The Warriors small-ball strategy can nullify frontcourt players and force you to dip deep into your bag of wings.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Atlanta Hawks missed on Joe Johnson, who chose Miami, but rebound by getting Kris Humphries off the waiver wire … Johnson, by the way, chose the Heat because of his connection with players already on the roster … A sprained right ankle will cost Danilo Gallinari all of the Nuggets’ upcoming homestand … Folks in Sacramento are celebrating Vivek Ranadive for the new arena but blaming him for the team that can’t get it rightDamian Lillard and the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers are keeping it rolling on their Eastern Conference road trip

Morning shootaround — Feb. 28


VIDEO: The Fast Break: February 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Steph Curry is a baaad man! | Durant’s lapses costly to OKC | Pelicans’ Davis sits down again | Carmelo’s dwindling NY days

No. 1: Steph Curry is a baaad man! — Not all late-February, NBA regular-season games are created equal. That was readily apparent to anyone who attended, tuned into, listened to or heard about Golden State’s remarkable comeback overtime victory at Oklahoma City on Saturday night. This was one – from Andre Iguodala‘s too-cool-for-school sinking of two late free throws to force the OT to Steph Curry‘s audacious game-winner from 35 feet – that seared itself into basketball fans’ memories. Some behind-the-scenes Warriors drama was the focal point of the postgame story from ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss. Meanwhile, our man Fran Blinebury of NBA.com painting some vivid imagery of the night that’s worth recalling in the light of day:

Ice water has Steph Curry running through its veins. Penguins look at him and shiver. The other side of the pillow thinks he’s cooler.

This isn’t funny anymore. Because the basketball world is going to pull all of its collective muscles reaching for newer, bigger, grander descriptions.

The official play-by-play sheet called it simply a 32-foot pull-up jump shot.

And Everest is just a mountain.

When Russell Westbrook missed the jumper near the end of overtime, Andre Iguodala grabbed the rebound and shoveled it ahead to Curry, nobody inside Chesapeake Energy Arena or the rest of the TV-watching, tongue-swallowing world could imagine what would happen next.

Curry didn’t run, he walked. More than walked, he strolled. A casual, carefree dribble or two across the mid-court line and then a look, maybe just a glance, a motion as nonchalant as flicking a speck of dust off your shoulder.

From there?

That 3-point rainbow that gave the Warriors a stunning 121-118 win over the Thunder Saturday night was probably the flat-out coolest thing since Shaft. Can’t you hear Isaac Hayes and the theme music?

“He’s one bad …

“Shut your mouth.

“We’re talkin’ ’bout Steph!”

It was his 12th trey of the night and he became the first player in NBA history to make at least 10 from the behind the arc in back-to-back games. It gave him 288 3-pointers on the year, breaking his own league record with six weeks still left in the season. His 46 points gave him a scoring average of 43.6 for the week.

“Obviously what Steph did was — what’s the expression? — from the ridiculous to the sublime,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “That’s where we are at this point.”

The Thunder were just in a scramble to get themselves back down the floor to guard against a last shot, but not that kind. Not one from the Texas border. Andre Roberson was lost in transition and can be seen in the replays for eternity making a desperate and frantic run when he realized it was happening.

“Honestly, I don’t know exactly where I am,” Curry said. “It’s not like I’m calibrating it in my head: ‘All right, 38 feet, 37, 36. … It’s just literally you’ve got a sense that you’ve shot the shot plenty of times. You’re coming across half court and you’re timing up your dribbles and want to shoot before the defense closes in. That was pretty much my only thought.

“When I got the ball, I knew coach had said if we got a stop and a clean rebound, push it. I looked up. … There was about five or six seconds left and the way they had shuffled around in transition, I was kinda just go at my own pace and rise up. I got my feet set and watched it go in.”

The shot went in and allowed the Warriors to become the first NBA team to clinch a playoff berth in February since the 1987-88 Lakers. It was a franchise record 29th road win of the season.

Now, with 17 of Golden State’s last 24 games of the season home at Oracle, the 72-win NBA record of the 1995-96 Bulls is not only possible, but likely. Why not 73? Or 75? Over even running the table to 77?

***

 No. 2: Durant’s lapses costly to OKC — There’s a flip side to every incredible comeback story. Whether it’s a moment of panic, a detail left unattended, an inch too far this way rather than that or a timeout not called by a rookie NBA head coach, there are always several – sometimes dozens – bits of alternate realities that could have dramatically changed the outcome. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman looks at Golden State’s stirring overtime triumph from the perspective of what went wrong for the Thunder:

Minutes before Stephen Curry dropped a 35-foot moonshot dagger straight through the heart of Oklahoma City, the Thunder controlled the clock, the ball and the game. As the final seconds of regulation ticked down, Kevin Durant secured a crucial inbounds pass, up two, and anticipated the foul that would set up potential game-clinching free throws.

But it never came.

The Warriors trapped and waited. Durant seemed to panic. And what resulted was the most crippling play in the Thunder’s heartbreaking 121-118 overtime loss to the Warriors.

Everyone will remember the incredible Curry shot. But what set it up was Durant’s turnover at the end of regulation, the worst of the Thunder’s 23 giveaways.

Down 103-99, Klay Thompson hit a layup to cut OKC’s lead to two with 11 seconds left. Russell Westbrook snared it right out of the hoop, raced to the baseline and immediately inbounded to an open Durant. Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala converged in the corner, right in front of the Thunder bench, and trapped.

OKC still had a timeout. So why didn’t Billy Donovan call it?

“I just basically told the guys, you have one timeout and if you can’t get it in quickly, go ahead and take it,” Donovan explained. “I probably should’ve helped Kevin there when he came inbounds. I think maybe he was waiting for a foul and maybe I could’ve jumped in and helped him.”


WATCH: Curry vs. Durant Duel In Oklahoma City

***

No. 3:  Pelicans’ Davis sits down again — The New Orleans Pelicans’ 2015-16 season has been littered with injuries like discarded beads and shattered hurricane glasses strewn about Bourbon Street after a weekend of revelry. The latest was frequent injured-list denizen Anthony Davis – the Pelicans’ brilliant young big man sprained a toe during warmups for Saturday’s game against Minnesota and was held out as a precaution from what became New Orleans’ 112-110 loss to the Timberwolves. John Reid of the New Orleans Times Picayune chronicled the Pelicans’ latest tale of ailment and woe, this one linked to Wolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns‘ and Minnesota’s dominance in the paint (50 points scored from there) owing to Davis’ injury:

While Eric Gordon made his return on Saturday night after missing 16 games with a fractured right ring finger, Pelicans star Anthony Davis returned on the injured list.

Davis sprained his right big toe during pregame warmups and was held out from playing in Saturday night’s 112-110 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Without Davis, the Pelicans gave up 50 points in the paint and couldn’t hold a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.

It was Davis’ seventh game he has missed this season due to injury. In all, 12 players have combined to miss a total of 162 games since opening night loss to Golden State in October.

”It’s crazy,” Gordon said about Pelicans’ persistent problem with injuries. ”You know A.D., he can do different things. He’s a dominant force inside and you definitely need that towards the end of the game.”

Gordon was called for a blocking foul on Andrew Wiggins with 3.6 seconds when the score was tied at 110. Wiggins made both free throws to seal the win for the Timberwolves.

”I tried to make sure my feet was out of the restricted circle, so it’s tough,” Gordon said. ”You definitely don’t want to get to that point where it gets toward the end of the game. Tonight, we mostly beat ourselves.”

In the fourth quarter, the Timberwolves outscored the Pelicans 18-4 on points scored in the paint. Minnesota also made 60 percent of their shots (14 of 23) and guard Zach LaVine, who won the dunk contest during All-Star Weekend earlier this month, scored 11 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter.

***

No. 4: Carmelo’s dwindling NY daysCarmelo Anthony remains out of sync with the New York Knicks and vice versa. When the irrepressible scorer has been at the peak of his powers, the Knicks generally haven’t been ready to win. And by the time they are, frequently enough to contend for a playoff berth, a high seed and more, Anthony will be past his prime. That’s the dilemma Harvey Araton explored in his column for the New York Times Sunday:

… Anthony is as polarizing a figure to Knicks fans as any politician. That smile in Indiana undoubtedly fueled critics’ claim that he cares more about his brand than his much-discussed chances of winning a championship.

Amateur psychological evaluations aside, nobody knows what is in Anthony’s head, or heart.

However relative Anthony’s personal or team aspirations are at any given moment, he can only talk himself into believing he can attain both during his remaining contractual years in New York with the most optimistic of arguments.

Clearly, Anthony wants to stay in New York, but come July, he will be watching to see if [Phil] Jackson can land an impact free agent — not the best bet in a limited class and with impending cap space everywhere.

Miami, the Knicks’ opponent Sunday, could be the kind of team Anthony would consider waiving his no-trade clause for, although Chris Bosh’s health uncertainty could complicate the matter. Either way, Pat Riley — Jackson’s Heat counterpart, fellow septuagenarian and rival — will be more invested in retooling, not rebuilding.

Riley would probably at least be able to promise Anthony a return to the playoffs, something Jackson, in all likelihood, could not. Rebuilding is a process, not a proclamation. Consider teams like Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans — well ahead of the Knicks on the trail of developing talent yet still straining for mediocrity.

If Jackson can procure a young asset and a draft pick in a trade, Anthony will have pardoned himself for the original sin of forcing the Knicks to unload a bundle of resources on Denver when he might have signed as a free agent for the following season and cost the Knicks nothing.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The opportunity to add greybeard Andre Miller will mean the waiver wire for guard Ray McCallum. … Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams will remain on indefinite leave while dealing with the tragic death of his wife Ingrid in a Feb. 10 car accident, OKC head coach Billy Donovan said. … Lot of frustrated Bucks fans will disagree, but a case can be made that big-ticket free agent Greg Monroe has been neither the solution nor the problem for Milwaukee this season. … Golden State is ahead of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ pace for setting the NBA mark for most victories in the regular season. … ICYMI: LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and other NBA stars took to Twitter in the aftermath of Curry’s logic-defying, back-breaking game-winner at OKC. …

Numbers notes: The stagger question


VIDEO: Thunder hang on to top Knicks

ALSO THIS WEEK: Raptors bench stands out in East | When you can beat the Warriors

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Oklahoma City Thunder almost left New York without a win. They lost to the 11-33 Nets in Brooklyn on Sunday and were in trouble against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.

The Thunder trailed the Knicks by three after the third quarter and, with both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the bench, the Knicks’ lead went from three points to 11 in the first 2:29 of the fourth.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan took a timeout and got Westbrook back in the game. It wasn’t too late, the Thunder erased the 11-point deficit by the end of regulation, and won in overtime.

But the situation brought to the surface the question about whether the Thunder have to play any minutes with neither Durant nor Westbrook on the floor. The pair average 70 minutes per game between them and Donovan could stagger their playing time so that he never has to play a full bench unit.

He does stagger their minutes a little bit. Westbrook usually gets replaced with 2-3 minutes left in the first quarter and third quarters, while Durant stays on the floor for the remainder of the period. Then Westbrook returns a little earlier in the second and fourth quarters than Durant does. Over the last eight games, the Thunder have averaged about seven minutes per game with one of the two (but not the other) on the floor.

But stretches like they had in New York could be avoided if Westbrook sat earlier in the first and third quarters, returning to start the second and fourth.

Earlier in the season, I looked at the same issue with the Clippers, who don’t have as good a bench as the Thunder do and who don’t really have to answer the question with Blake Griffin out for another 4-6 weeks.

Donovan answered the question after the OT win in New York, and he’s willing to see his bench sink or swim with his two stars off the floor.

“Kevin, I think, for his rhythm, what he likes is playing that whole first quarter,” the coach said Tuesday. “He likes the rhythm of that. He feels like he gets in the flow of the game. So there’s going to be some times those guys are not going to be on the floor. I’ve said this from the beginning of the year, I got confidence in the guys coming off the bench. I got confidence in other guys. Other guys need to step up. And our bench has been playing pretty well.

“If 40 minutes are going to be played with one of those two guys on the court, we got to be able to play for that [other] six or eight minutes.”

Durant and Westbrook will obviously see a minutes increase in the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if Donovan also staggers their playing time more as well in the postseason. In fact, the night after the game in New York, Donovan staggered his stars’ minutes even less. In Minnesota on Wednesday, he had one of the two stars on the floor for just three total minutes. But the Thunder were a plus-2 in the 10 minutes that both were on the bench in another close win against a bad team.

Best bench in the East


VIDEO: The Association: Toronto Raptors

One team that has staggered the minutes of its stars is the Toronto Raptors, who have kept either Kyle Lowry (who sits at the end of the first and third quarters) or DeMar DeRozan (who sits at the start of the second and fourth) on the floor at all (non-garbage) times.

That’s one reason for the Raptors’ success with reserves on the floor, which was the topic of this week’s stats video…


VIDEO: GameTime: Schu’s Advanced Stats – Raptors bench

Against the Knicks on Thursday, the Raptors’ starting lineup was outscored by nine points in 13.4 minutes, but they still won by 10. Through 46 games, their starting lineups are a minus-23 and they’ve been the fourth worst team, getting outscored by 9.3 points per 100 possessions, in the first six minutes of the first quarter. Only the Suns (minus-11.8), Sixers (minus-14.3) and Lakers (minus-21.9) have been worse.

But the Raps are about even in first quarters overall, because they’ve outscored their opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions in the last six minutes of the period, when the reserves start taking the floor. A lineup of DeRozan and their top four subs (Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo) is a plus-14 in 126 minutes this season.

The second quarter, though, is when the Raptors have really been separating themselves. A lineup of Lowry and those same reserves has outscored opponents 279-194 in 127 minutes. Lowry (plus-255) has the best plus-minus on the team, and he’s followed by Patterson (plus-213), Joseph (plus-185) and Ross (plus-164). The Raptors rank second, behind only the San Antonio Spurs, in aggregate bench plus-minus.

20160129_tor_bench_2

The Raptors have won 10 straight games, with a top-5 offense and a top-5 defense in that time, taking a strong hold on second place in the Eastern Conference. It’s not only the third straight season that they’re heading for the playoffs. It’s also the third straight season that they’ve been at their best with reserves on the floor.

When you can beat the Warriors

The Warriors are kind of the opposite of the Raptors, in that the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters are when they’re at their worst. In their two meetings, the Raptors outscored the Warriors 53-40 in the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters.

Like Oklahoma City and Toronto, the champs have two elite players, and they’ve subbed them in and out more like the Thunder than the Raps. Golden State has outscored its opponents by an amazing 25.1 points per 100 possessions in 1,331 minutes with both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green on the floor. And in 361 minutes with one of the two on the floor, they’re a plus-8.1 per 100 possessions.

But in the 536 minutes that both Curry and Green have been off the floor, the Warriors have been outscored by 10.5 points per 100 possessions, a point differential worse than that of the Sixers this season.

Some of that is garbage time. But if you look at just the first three quarters and fourth quarter minutes where the score is within 10 points, the Warriors still have been outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions in 308 minutes with neither Curry nor Green on the floor.

The champs have been ridiculously good with their two best players on the floor. No kidding. But the Warriors’ bench hasn’t been able to hold onto leads with Curry and Green off the floor as well as they did last season.

Through Thursday, Curry and Green lead the league on on-off-court NetRtg differential. The Warriors have been an amazing 29.8 points per 100 possessions better with the MVP on the floor than they’ve been with him on the bench. That number is 10 points per 100 possessions higher than that of last season’s leader (Chris Paul, 19.8) and almost 13 points per 100 possessions higher than Curry’s mark last season (17.1).

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Morning shootaround — Jan. 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

How Divac nearly upended Kobe trade | Curry, Barnes back in mix for Warriors | Thunder fall apart vs. Kings | Scott says Randle needs to ‘grow up’

No. 1: Divac nearly cancelled Kobe trade to Lakers — Today, Vlade Divac is the Sacramento Kings’ general manager after a 16-year NBA playing career from 1989-2005. In early-to mid-1990s, Divac was a solid young center on the Los Angeles Lakers who was a part of one Finals team with Magic Johnson (1991) and a key cog in a youthful Lakers group (including Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and others) that seemed primed for big things out West. Yet come the night of the 1996 Draft, Divac was dealt to the Charlotte Hornets for the rights to rookie (and future franchise icon) Kobe Bryant. As Divac explains to Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears, though, he wanted nothing to do with the trade and nearly axed the deal by retiring rather than play in Charlotte:

“My feelings were that I play basketball for fun. This is not fun,” Divac recently told Yahoo Sports about the 1996 draft-day deal that sent him to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Bryant, who is expected to play his final game in Sacramento on Thursday. “If somebody asked before, ‘Vlade, are you going to play basketball over there [in Charlotte]?’ It’s not going to happen. I talked to my wife and told her, ‘Look, I’m going to retire.’

“It would have been so bad. I would have been the most hated guy in L.A.”

The Serbian quickly fell in love with Los Angeles and was in even deeper love playing for the Lakers, averaging 12.2 points and 8.5 rebounds primarily as a starter from 1989-1996.

But before the 1996 draft, then-Lakers general manager Jerry West became infatuated with Bryant, the high school kid from Philadelphia who was destined to become a superstar. West worked out a deal to send Divac to Charlotte for the 13th pick in the draft, which the Hornets used to select Bryant for the Lakers. By trading Divac, who was set to make $4.7 million in the 1996-97 season, the Lakers would clear the needed salary-cap space to make a lucrative offer to Shaquille O’Neal in free agency.

Divac was in Europe and was stunned when his agent told him about the trade. Days later, Divac said he informed the Lakers he planned to retire, which would have prevented the team from trading him for Bryant.

“It felt like someone from behind hit me with a hammer,” Divac told Yahoo Sports. “It was the first time in my career that something happened in a way I didn’t plan. I was devastated. I was thinking, ‘I play basketball for fun.’ My father said when I brought my first [basketball paycheck] back home, ‘Who gave this to you? Are they crazy? Do they know you would play basketball even if they don’t pay you?’

“I am not going to play basketball because I have to play. I am going to play for fun. I was 28. I am not going to go somewhere and be forced to play basketball. I told my agent that I am not going to Charlotte. I loved L.A. I loved the Lakers. For every kid that played basketball, it was basketball heaven being with Magic and the other guys.”

Within 10 days after the draft, Divac said he returned to Los Angeles ready to retire, yet he agreed to meet with West. After an “emotional meeting” with West, Divac changed his mind and agreed to the trade.

“Jerry called me and I flew back to L.A. and we had lunch,” Divac said. “The trade happened [in principle], but I was holding it up. … It was a great conversation. He said, ‘Why don’t you go over there and explore and see if you like it or not?’

“Me and Jerry had a very good relationship. He was the guy who was waiting for me at the airport [after being drafted in 1989]. It was an emotional meeting for both of us. And I trust him so much. He is the best basketball mind in the world. When Jerry tells you something, you believe it.”

Divac decided to have his wife and children stay in Los Angeles for stability while he played the next two seasons with Charlotte. Despite initial struggles, he averaged 11.7 points and 8.6 rebounds with the Hornets in two seasons from 1996-98.

“We played sellout basketball in front of 24,000 people who love basketball in North Carolina,” Divac told Yahoo Sports. “Each year we had 50-plus wins, and when you win it’s fun. But my first 10 games, I was awful. I can’t explain it. I was fumbling the ball. The funny thing was one of my first games was against the Lakers. I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’

“I felt like I started playing basketball two days ago. There was still mental stuff. I was thinking negative stuff like, ‘Why did they trade me? Was it worth it [coming here]?’ Then I said to myself, ‘Come on, Vlade, it’s just a game.’ I knew that after two years I would come out West and move closer to my family.”

Divac signed as a free agent with the Kings in 1998 with his family and a return to the West Coast in mind. Divac and the Kings pushed the Lakers to brink of elimination entering Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, but the Lakers would win the next two games to stop Sacramento from making its first Finals appearance.

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