Posts Tagged ‘Caron Butler’

More than ever, shooting at a premium


VIDEO: Pistons: Augustin And Butler Introduction

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In today’s NBA, if you want to win, you have to be able to shoot. There are lots of factors that go into good offense and good defense, but the most important are how well you shoot and how well you defend shots.

Over the last two seasons, 3-point shooting has taken a big jump. From 2007-08 to 2011-12, the league took from 22.2 to 22.6 percent of its shots from 3-point range. Then in 2012-13, that number jumped to 24.3 percent. And last season, it jumped again to 25.9 percent.

The correlation between 3-point shooting and offensive efficiency is strong. And shooting a lot of threes is almost as important as shooting them well.

Ten of the top 15 offenses in the league were above average in terms of 3-point percentage and the percentage of their total shots that were threes. Four of the other five were in the top 10 in one or the other. And teams that didn’t shot threes well or often were generally bad offensive teams.

3-point shooting and offensive efficiency, 2013-14

Team 3PM 3PA 3PT% Rank %FGA Rank OffRtg Rank
L.A. Clippers 693 1,966 35.2% 22 29.1% 9 109.4 1
Miami 665 1,829 36.4% 12 29.2% 6 109.0 2
Dallas 721 1,877 38.4% 2 27.4% 13 109.0 3
Houston 779 2,179 35.8% 16 33.0% 1 108.6 4
Portland 770 2,071 37.2% 10 29.0% 10 108.3 5
San Antonio 698 1,757 39.7% 1 25.7% 16 108.2 6
Oklahoma City 664 1,839 36.1% 14 27.1% 14 108.1 7
Phoenix 765 2,055 37.2% 8 30.0% 5 107.1 8
Toronto 713 1,917 37.2% 9 28.5% 11 105.8 9
Minnesota 600 1,757 34.1% 26 24.5% 19 105.6 10
New York 759 2,038 37.2% 7 30.2% 3 105.4 11
Golden State 774 2,037 38.0% 4 29.1% 8 105.3 12
New Orleans 486 1,303 37.3% 6 19.3% 29 104.7 13
Brooklyn 709 1,922 36.9% 11 30.1% 4 104.4 14
Atlanta 768 2,116 36.3% 13 31.6% 2 103.4 15
Memphis 405 1,147 35.3% 19 17.1% 30 103.3 16
Denver 702 1,959 35.8% 15 27.8% 12 103.3 17
Washington 647 1,704 38.0% 5 24.6% 18 103.3 18
Detroit 507 1,580 32.1% 29 22.2% 26 102.9 19
Sacramento 491 1,475 33.3% 27 21.8% 28 102.9 20
L.A. Lakers 774 2,032 38.1% 3 29.1% 7 101.9 21
Indiana 550 1,542 35.7% 17 23.5% 23 101.5 22
Cleveland 584 1,640 35.6% 18 23.6% 21 101.3 23
Charlotte 516 1,471 35.1% 23 21.9% 27 101.2 24
Utah 543 1,577 34.4% 25 23.7% 20 100.6 25
Milwaukee 548 1,553 35.3% 20 23.1% 24 100.2 26
Boston 575 1,729 33.3% 28 25.1% 17 99.7 27
Chicago 508 1,459 34.8% 24 22.2% 25 99.7 28
Orlando 563 1,596 35.3% 21 23.5% 22 99.3 29
Philadelphia 577 1,847 31.2% 30 25.8% 15 96.8 30
TOTAL 19,054 52,974 36.0% 25.9% 104.0

 

Top 5 3P% Top 5 %FGA Top 5 OffRtg
6-10 3P% 6-10 %FGA 6-10 OffRtg
Above-avg 3P% Above-avg %FGA Above-avg OffRtg

%FGA = Percentage of total FGA
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

There were a couple of exceptions to the rule. Minnesota had a top-10 offense without shooting threes well or often. They made up for it by not turning the ball over, getting to the free throw line often, and grabbing lots of offensive rebounds.

The Lakers, meanwhile, were top 10 in both 3-point percentage and percentage of shots that were threes, but were a bottom 10 offense overall, because they didn’t get to the line much and were the worst offensive rebounding team in the league.

Threes aren’t everything, but three is greater than two. And if you have shooting threats on the perimeter, other guys have more space to operate inside. The teams near the bottom of the table above know that to win more games, they have to score more efficiently. And to do that, they need more shooting in their rotation.

Here’s how some of them addressed their lack of shooting…

Detroit Pistons

OffRtg: 102.9 (19), 3PT%: 32.1% (29), 3PA%: 22.2% (26)
If the Sixers hadn’t played conscious-less offense at the league’s fastest pace, the Pistons would have ranked dead last in 3-point percentage. Josh Smith took 265 threes at a 26 percent clip, partly because Joe Dumars thought he could play small forward and partly because he lacks self-awareness. Of 315 players in NBA history who have attempted at least 1,000 threes, Smith ranks 314th (ahead of only Charles Barkley) in 3-point percentage.

So priority No. 1 for Stan Van Gundy is to get Smith to stop shooting threes, or get him to shoot threes for some other team. If we don’t consider Smith a small forward (and we shouldn’t), Detroit would have a frontcourt log-jam if Greg Monroe (a restricted free agent) is brought back. Though it’s not completely up to Van Gundy (he would need a trade partner), a choice between Monroe and Smith needs to be made.

Either way, the Pistons didn’t have many other options from beyond the arc last season. So Van Gundy added four shooters in free agency, signing Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler and Cartier Martin to contracts that will pay them about $15 million this year. Of the 70 available free agents who attempted at least 100 threes last season, those four ranked 11th, 12th, 15th and 18th respectively in 3-point percentage, all shooting better than 39 percent.

There’s still a question of how much of that shooting can be on the floor at one time. If Smith is traded, then the Pistons can play a decent amount of minutes with Butler or Luigi Datome playing stretch four. But in that scenario, their defense (which was already awful last season) would suffer.

Chicago Bulls

OffRtg: 99.7 (28), 3PT%: 34.8% (24), 3PA%: 22.2% (25)
The Pistons grabbed the Bulls’ best 3-point shooter from last season (Augustin), who will be replaced by Derrick Rose. Rose has never been a very good shooter, but obviously creates a lot more open shots for the guys around him than Augustin or Kirk Hinrich.

That will benefit Jimmy Butler (who regressed from distance last season), Mike Dunleavy (who took a smaller step back), Tony Snell (who was pretty shaky as a rookie) and rookie Doug McDermott.

In his four seasons in Chicago, Tom Thibodeau has never had a big man who can step out beyond the arc. But the Bulls’ other rotation rookie – Nikola Miroticshot 39 percent from 3-point range over the last three seasons for Real Madrid. So he gives the Bulls the ability to space the floor more than they ever have in this system.

The Bulls also added Aaron Brooks, who, at 38.7 percent, ranked 20th among available free agents who attempted at least 100 threes last season. But if Brooks is playing a lot, it would mean that there’s another issue with Rose.

Charlotte Hornets

OffRtg: 101.2 (24), 3PT%: 35.1% (23), 3PA%: 21.9% (27)
Josh McRoberts (36.1 percent) and Marvin Williams (35.9 percent) shot about the same from 3-point range last season. But that was the first time McRoberts was a high-volume shooter from distance, while Williams has had a more consistent history.

And he should get more open shots playing off of Kemba Walker, Lance Stephenson and Al Jefferson than he did in Utah. But neither Walker nor Stephenson is a very good 3-point shooter themselves and the Hornets lost their best 3-point shooter from last season – Anthony Tolliver – in free agency.

The hope is that, with Stephenson taking some of the ball-handling burden away, Walker can improve as a shooter. Gerald Henderson‘s 3-point percentage has improved every season, and a healthy Jeffery Taylor could help. Still, without any much proven shooting on the roster, the Hornets’ offense has a ceiling.

Cleveland Cavaliers

OffRtg: 101.3 (23), 3PT%: 35.6% (18), 3PA%: 23.6% (21)
LeBron James changes everything. And the biggest beneficiary could be Dion Waiters, who shot 41.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season. With James attacking the basket and drawing multiple defenders, Waiters will get a ton of open looks.

James himself shot a ridiculous 48.8 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, so he should be able to play off Kyrie Irving pretty well and make the Cavs a more potent team from deep. Mike Miller (45.9 percent) will obviously do the same.

It’s Irving who will have to adjust to playing off the ball. He shot just 32.1 on catch-and-shoot threes last season. And at this point, the Cavs don’t have a second forward that can both shoot threes and defend the four (the Shane Battier role). Anthony Bennett could develop into that role and Kevin Love would obviously be that guy if the Cavs pull of a trade with Minnesota.

Indiana Pacers

OffRtg: 101.5 (22), 3PT%: 35.7% (17), 3PA%: 23.5% (23)
There was a lot of bad shooting (and bad offense, in general) in the Central Division last season. The Pacers poached C.J. Miles (39 percent on threes over the last two seasons) from Cleveland and added a stretch big in Damjan Rudez, but lost Stephenson’s playmaking.

So there’s a ton of pressure on Paul George to create open shots for everybody else. Unless another shake-up is in store, it’s hard to see the Pacers escaping the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency.

Memphis Grizzlies

OffRtg: 103.3 (16), 3PT%: 35.3% (19), 3PA%: 17.1% (30)
The Grizzlies replaced Mike Miller (44.4 percent from three over the last three seasons) with Vince Carter (39.2 percent). That’s a slight downgrade from beyond the arc, but Carter brings more playmaking to take some of the load off of Mike Conley.

Still, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince remain integral parts of the Grizzlies’ rotation. So unless Jon Leuer emerges as a reliable stretch four off the bench, they lack the ability to put more than two (and occasionally three) shooters on the floor at once. They’ve ranked last in made 3-pointers for two straight seasons and could definitely make it three in a row.

New Orleans Pelicans

OffRtg: 104.7 (17), 3PT%: 37.3% (6), 3PA%: 19.3% (29)
Those are some strange numbers. Great shooting, but only the Grizzlies attempted fewer threes.

The absences of Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday over the last 50 games of the season was a huge issue. Another was that two of the Pelicans’ best 3-point shooters – Eric Gordon and Anthony Morrow – played the same position and spent just 192 minutes on the floor together, while Tyreke Evans and Al-Farouq Aminu – two perimeter guys who can’t shoot a lick – ranked third and fourth on the team in minutes played.

Evans still takes a starting perimeter position (and $11 million of salary) without supplying a reliable jumper. And replacing Jason Smith with Omer Asik also hurts floor spacing. But the Pels were ridiculously good offensively (and awful defensively) in limited minutes with Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson and Anthony Davis on the floor last season, Aminu has been replaced by John Salmons, and better health will go a long way.

Additional notes

  • As noted above, the Pistons added four guys who ranked in the top 20 in 3-point percentage (minimum 100 attempts) among available free agents. The only other team that added (not re-signed) more than one was the Clippers, who added Jordan Farmar (3rd) and Spencer Hawes (5th). The Mavericks added Richard Jefferson (7th) and re-signed Dirk Nowitzki (13th), the Suns added Anthony Tolliver (6th) and re-signed P.J. Tucker (19th), and the Spurs re-signed both Patty Mills (4th) and Boris Diaw (10th).
  • The Cavs (Hawes and Miles) and Lakers (Farmar and Meeks) were the two teams that lost two of the top 20.
  • Of those 70 free agents who attempted at least 100 threes last season, only three shot above the league average (36.0 percent) and are still available. Those three are Chris Douglas-Roberts (38.6 percent), Ray Allen (37.5 percent) and Mo Williams (36.9 percent).

2014 Free Agency — Still Going …

From NBA.com staff reports

Just because LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol and so many other high-profile free agent targets have already made their decisions doesn’t mean this summer’s free agent party is over. The center of the basketball universe is in Las Vegas for Summer League, that’s where the games are being played and the movers and shakers are stationed right now. But the grind of free agency continues all over the place. We’re not done yet …

Update, 1:17 a.m. — Take some quiet time, Pau

After a long day of team decision-making and contract-negotiating, Pau Gasol is ready to ponder his vacation and his future … quietly, of course.

Update, 11:42 p.m. — Rio still feeling the Heat

Another original “Heatles” member is getting closer to being back in the fold, with Mario Chalmers getting a couple more years in Miami.

Update, 11:33 p.m. — Three more years!

Looks like Pau Gasol is ready for the (semi) long haul in bringing a title to Chicago, working on a three-year deal for reasonable price.

Update, 9:48 p.m. — More shooting for SVG

The Detroit Pistons ranked 29th in 3-point percentage last season. And it’s been obvious from the start of free agency that priority No. 1 for new president and coach Stan Van Gundy is improving that mark. He started by adding Jodie Meeks (40.1 percent from three last season) and Cartier Martin (39.1 percent). Now, he’s adding more shooting with the additions of D.J. Augustin (40.1 percent) and Caron Butler (39.4 percent)...

None of these four guys can make a huge impact individually. But collectively, they will space the floor for Detroit’s bigs. And none of them break the bank, with contracts that can easily be worked into trades.

Of course, Greg Monroe remains unsigned as a restricted free agent. Butler probably shouldn’t be a starting small forward anymore, but he could definitely make Josh Smith more of a permanent four than he was last season.

One more note: The Augustin addition is bad news for second-year point guard Peyton Siva, whose contract would become guaranteed on July 20 if he’s not waived by then. Siva must not have made enough of an impression on Van Gundy in Summer League.

Update, 8:40 p.m. — Birdman back

LeBron James is gone, but the rest of the Heat’s rotation is quickly coming back together. Earlier Sunday, Miami reached an agreement with Mario Chalmers on a new contract. And now, it’s the Birdman who has re-upped.

Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and James Jones are still free agents, but the Heat are reportedly working things out with Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem.

Update, 7:02 p.m. — Three-way deal for Ariza

Before the Draft, the Houston Rockets agreed to send Omer Asik to New Orleans. On Saturday, they agreed to sign Trevor Ariza to a four-year contract. And on Sunday, those two deals came together in the form of a three-team sign-and-trade transaction.

Update, 6:30 p.m. — Mirotic is on his way

Pau Gasol isn’t the only international big man that the Chicago Bulls are adding this summer. Nikola Mirotic, a first-round pick in 2011 from Montenegro, announced that he’s on his way as well.

Update, 6:06 p.m. — His name is Rio

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade may have lost Superfriend LeBron James, but they will still have Mario Chalmers to yell at …

Update, 5:58 p.m. — Rockets pass on Parsons

In a bit of a surprise, the Houston Rockets will let Chandler Parsons head to their division rivals, who have made some upgrades (Parsons and Tyson Chandler) this summer …

At one point, we thought the Rockets were going to have a lineup of Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Parsons, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard. As it turns out, they’ve dealt away their depth (Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin), swapped Parsons for Trevor Ariza, and helped three fellow Western Conference teams (Lakers, Mavs and Pelicans) improve. They’re also giving the Washington Wizards an asset…

Update, 5:16 p.m. — Champs in tact

Fourteen different Spurs logged at least one minute in the playoffs. We know now that at least 13 of the 14 will be back in silver and black (Aron Baynes remains a restricted free agent) …

Update, 5:07 p.m. — Together Forever

Kirk Hinrich once played for a couple of teams other than the Chicago Bulls. Really. But he won’t be leaving Chicago again, at least not this summer …

Update, 4:32 p.m. — Mavs get at least one SF today

The Dallas Mavericks are still awaiting word from the Houston Rockets on their offer sheet for Chandler Parsons, but that isn’t stopping them from signing a back-up plan. If you need size on the wings, you could do worse than Richard Jefferson, who has shot 41 percent or better from 3-point range in three of his last four seasons

Update, 4:20 p.m. — Hinrich will be a Bull forever

The Charlotte Hornets were in the market for Kirk Hinrich, but with their agreement to sign back-up point guard Brian Roberts, it appears that Kirk Hinrich will be back in Chicago for more years of being Derrick Rose‘s back-up and/or fill-in …

Update, 3:48 p.m. — Kemba’s new back-up

Much to the chagrin of Hang Time’s Sekou Smith, Luke Ridnour‘s services are no longer needed in Charlotte, because Brian Roberts is a Hornet once again. He’ll be the first guy to play for the Charlotte version after playing for the New Orleans version …

Update, 3:24 p.m. — Deng had choices

Joining Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra in sunny South Florida is a pretty good move, but Luol Deng had other options on Sunday…

Update, 2:30 p.m. — Filling LeBron’s shoes

LeBron James took Luol Deng‘s job in Cleveland. And now the Miami Heat have replaced James with Deng. Bosh, Deng and Wade isn’t a bad core to build around …

https://twitter.com/WojYahooNBA/status/488390123893960706

Update, 2:05 p.m. — Show Luol the money

There are a few teams still looking for a small forward who can play both ends of the floor. Luol Deng knows that and knows he can take advantage of the market …

Update, 1:55 p.m. — Trying to get (most of) the band back together

The Heat will have Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh back, but there are still some more roster spots to fill, and some guys they can bring back. The Birdman is one of them …

Update, 1:50 p.m. – Who?

The Bulls are moving on without that guy who scores 27 points a game …

Update, 1:30 p.m. – Wolves draw a line in the sand

The Timberwolves aren’t selling Kevin Love for pennies on the dollar …

Update, 12:35 p.m. — Melo’s City, Melo’s Heart

It’s not the most original concept, but you see the trend here …

Update, 12:21 p.m. — Still waiting on Rockets

Tick, Tock!

Update, 11:56 a.m. — Heat still a 50-win outfit?

Jeff Van Gundy says yes.

Update, 11:50 a.m. — LeBron Jersey of The Day

Welcome home!

Update, 11:26 a.m. — Evan Turner smiling through free agency

Jay and Bey don’t care about free agency!

Update, 11:09 a.m. — Gilbert explains how he and LeBron cleared the air

The greatest rebound of Dan Gilbert‘s professional career has to be coming back from his dreaded letter after “The Decision.” Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press weighs after talking with Gilbert, who took Albom through his reconciliation process with LeBron:

He pondered that as the plane descended into Florida. He and James hadn’t spoken since that night. Four years. They’d seen each other a few times. “I’d sit on the baseline when he came back to play in Cleveland. He’d look at me from the free-throw line. Not good. Not bad. Just look.”

Now he was scheduled to meet James, in secret, to discuss what seemed impossible just days earlier — a return to the Cavs. The whole world was hanging on the news. But as Gilbert glanced out the window, for a moment he wasn’t a billionaire Detroit businessman or an NBA owner. He was every guy seeing his ex-wife after the divorce, every teen guitarist seeing a former friend who broke up the band.

“I had told LeBron’s guys, whether he comes back or not, I really want to clear the air. It shouldn’t be like this.”

He hoped that part would go smoothly. Then someone on board yelled the media had discovered his plane was en route, and a new airport had to be quickly found.

Gilbert realized nothing was going to be easy.

The moment of truth

But then, saying you’re sorry never is. You do it anyway. Long after the basketball smoke clears from this story, that’s the human part we ought to remember.

You shouldn’t be known for the worst thing you ever did. Gilbert entered that private home meeting by himself, no assistants, and sat down at a dining-room table across from James and a few associates.

“First thing I said to him was, ‘LeBron, you know this is true. We had five good years and one bad night. Like a marriage that’s good and then one bad thing happens and you never talk to each other again.

“ ‘I’m just glad we’re here, whether you come or not, LeBron. This has been hanging over my head.’ ”

To his surprise, he soon heard James saying the same thing. The superstar said he regretted the infamous “The Decision” broadcast. He said he didn’t think it out properly. In short, many of the things Gilbert was thinking about his own actions.

“I apologized and we talked and it took maybe 15 or 20 minutes. That’s it. Then I said, ‘Is that enough about the past?’ And we started talking about the future.”

Update, 10:40 a.m. — Wizards replace perfect fit with a Hall of Famer

Even swap?

Update, 10:38 a.m. — Mavericks-Rockets rivalry extends off the court

Never let business get personal.

Update, 10:20 a.m. — Rockets on the clock for Parsons

This is going to be a long day in both Houston and Dallas as the Rockets consider their options on Chandler Parsons. The countdown clock is ticking for Daryl Morey and Co. Do they match the Mavericks’ offer sheet to Parsons now that Trevor Ariza is in the fold?

They have until 11:59 p.m. to decide.

Update, 9:50 a.m. — The ultimate power

The power of LeBron!

Update, 9:40 a.m. — Deng, Heat far apart

The Heat can close the gap and stay relevant in the Eastern Conference chase with Deng in the fold.

OKC shopping should start with Carter

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

The aging Vince Carter still has enough in his tank to put a contender over.

The aging Vince Carter has enough in his tank to give a title contender a significant boost.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As the free agency clock ticks down, the spotlight is shining brightest on Miami’s Big Three, on Carmelo Anthony‘s decision and on the Lakers’ wishful pursuit of a superstar (or two).

And then there’s that little ole team on the Oklahoma prairie that no one’s talking about. The one with the league MVP, the All-Star point guard and the game’s fiercest shot blocker. The one that’s played in three Western Conference finals in the last four years and if not for key injuries in these last two postseasons might have built upon its lone NBA Finals appearance in 2012.

The one that’s missing one final piece.

Oklahoma City Thunder enter free agency, not as big spenders and not needing much, but with a silver bullet in-hand (the full mid-level exception worth $5.3 million) and a specific target: A hired gun.

Signing a veteran knock-down 3-point shooter is crucial for this franchise on the doorstep. A Big Three of sorts that specializes in the long ball is set to hit the open market at the stroke of midnight: Vince Carter, Mike Miller and Mo Williams.

The 37-year-old Carter arguably stands as the most intriguing of the three, a reformed skywalker as he beats back Father Time and now a dead-eye 3-point shooter who has been called the league’s best bargain and most underpaid player during his three seasons with Dallas.

Carter, who has hit 40 percent of his 3s in the last two seasons with Dallas, and averaged 11.9 ppg last season, has stated his desire to remain with the Mavs, and Dallas wants him back. But Carter will also be pursued by a handful of contenders and teams on the verge of contending. A league source indicated that Oklahoma City, Miami, Toronto and Portland will give Dallas competition for Carter’s services.

Any one of those three free agents would be a boon to the Thunder’s second unit and each could play a key role spacing the floor and splashing open 3s while on the floor with league MVP Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, who was headed to a fourth consecutive All-Star berth until another knee surgery forced him out just after Christmas.

The Thunder’s core — Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — is obviously set and they rely heavily on drafting and player development to fill key roles. Reggie Jackson has emerged as a terrific reserve point guard. Shooting guard Jeremy Lamb could potentially move into the starting lineup next season. The Kendrick Perkins problem was lessened last season with the emergence of 7-foot rookie center Steven Adams.

However, the 3-point shooting issue remains. Thabo Sefolosha lost his touch from the deep all season and specifically in the postseason. The Thunder’s defensive-minded starter the last five seasons is now a free agent, and will likely move on. Veteran small forward Caron Butler, an early March addition, shot poorly in the postseason and he, too, will likely be headed elsewhere. Jackson, although an improving 3-point shooter, was still just 33.9 percent last season. And Lamb, at 35.6 percent, struggled in the season’s second half and lost his job to Butler.

OKC does believe it could find in-house help from second-year stretch-4 Grant Jerrett, a 2013 second-round draft pick, who shot 36.4 percent from deep for the Thunder’s D-League affiliate in Tulsa, Okla. But the 6-foot-10 project out of Arizona didn’t play a minute for the big club once he was signed in April.

The 6-foot-8 Miller almost signed with OKC last summer after Miami used the amnesty clause to set him free, but he ultimately returned to Memphis, which finished last in the league in 3-point attempts per game. So he might relish a chance to play with two superstars in an offense that will guarantee him more looks.

Williams, who opted out of his final year in Portland at $2.8 million, is a terrific shooter and can switch between the 1 and 2. He lacks the size of the other two, but was a big part of the Portland’s surge last season.

Other free-agent candidates include Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, P.J. Tucker, Josh McRoberts and C.J. Miles.

Here’s a look at my top three:

 

Vince Carter 

Age: 37 (Jan. 26)

2013-14 salary: $3.18 million

2013-14 stats: 81 games; 24.4 mpg; 11.9 ppg; 3.5 rpg; 2.6 apg; 40.7 FG%; 39.4 3FG%

Pros: Has adjusted his game with his age to become a knock-down 3-point shooter — and he can still get to the rim more often than expected; a solid locker-room leader for a young team that probably grew up watching him in dunk contests; and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has consistently lauded his defensive effort.

Cons: He’s prone to forcing too many contested jumpers; at some point the body is going to give out and Carter, although extremely well-conditioned, does turn 38 during the season.

 

Mike Miller

Age: 34 (Feb. 19)

2013-14 salary: $884,293 million (owed $12.8 million by Heat for 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons)

2013-14 stats: 82 games; 20.8 mpg; 7.1 ppg; 2.5 rpg; 1.6 apg; 48.1 FG%; 45.9 3FG%

Pros: Still a deadly 3-point shooter as Thunder fans can attest during the first round as they gasped in fear every time he lined up from the top of the arc; Just being on the floor would space it better than with any combination OKC put on the court last season.

Cons: He’s been susceptible to back issues, but he stayed healthy last season and played in all 82 games while still logging 20 minutes a game. He’s risky, but as just a threat to make 3s, is worth it.

 

Mo Williams

Age: 31 (Dec. 19)

2013-14 salary: $2.8 million

2013-14 stats: 74 games; 24.8 mpg; 9.7 ppg; 2.1 rpg; 4.3 apg; 41.7 FG%; 36.9 3FG%

Pros: He’s acknowledged he’s on the back portion of his career, so he knows his rightful place is coming off the bench and sparking a team with instant offense — exactly what the Thunder needs; can play the 1 and 2, and is a good passer.

Cons: His size could be a detriment since the Thunder are likely to let the 6-foot-5 Sefolosha walk in free agency and already have the 6-foot-3 Jackson likely coming off the bench. If Lamb proves he’s not ready to be a starter, OKC could prefer a two-guard with more size.

Lamb, OKC’s rare 1st-rounder it didn’t select, needs to shine

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Jeremy Lamb addresses the media during his exit interview

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Oklahoma City Thunder have built a reputation as smart talent evaluators, having built a perennial contender on both lottery and late first-round draft picks. For now they hold onto the No. 21 and No. 29 picks in tonight’s NBA Draft.

That could change as the day progresses as plenty of teams without first-round picks want in on this deep and talented pool of players.

For the Thunder, the first-round pick they’re eager to see succeed is the rare one they didn’t select. Jeremy Lamb, the lanky, 6-foot-5 shooting guard with the sleepy eyes, was taken 12th overall in 2012 by the Houston Rockets. He came to OKC before he ever put on Rockets red as part of the James Harden trade prior to the 2012-13 season.

Now Lamb, 22, has the opportunity to be a significant, if not transformational, player for a Thunder team that desperately needs a strong perimeter shooter.

On a team-friendly deal for the next three seasons, Lamb has the size, speed and length to be a nuisance defensively, although last season he was largely a liability on that end. He got off to a solid start offensively (he shot 35.6 percent from beyond the arc), but his production started to tail off in the second half of the season and once the Thunder acquired veteran small forward Caron Butler off waivers in early March, Lamb lost his spot in the rotation.

Butler, 34, will be seeking employment elsewhere next week, and so could free-agent-to-be Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder’s defensive-minded starting shooting guard for the last five seasons. But as Sefolosha lost his ability to can corner 3s in the postseason, he was benched in the first round against Memphis and in the West finals against the Spurs. He was not a part of the rotation in OKC’s final four West finals games.

There have also been persistent rumors since last season’s trade deadline that OKC is interested in trading for 6-foot-5 New York Knicks shooting guard Iman Shumpert.

The cost-conscious Thunder are never big players in free agency. With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka locked into eight-figure contracts, there simply isn’t space to squeeze in an impactful free agent, and the cost-conscious franchise has no plans to venture into the luxury tax.

It puts the onus on player development, an area OKC prides itself, and rightly so. Players such as Durant (2nd overall), Westbrook (4th), Ibaka (24th), Harden (3rd), Reggie Jackson (24th) and Steven Adams (12th) all made significant strides after being drafted by the Thunder.

They believe Lamb, entering his third season, can also make a significant leap — whether that means winning a starting job or coming off the bench as the seventh man.

“He didn’t play much at all his first year; he had a pretty good second year,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said during the team’s exit interviews following the West finals. “We’re going to challenge him to continue to get better. He has the ability to be a really terrific offensive player. Defensively we’re going to have to continue to develop that part of his game. As he puts work into his body to get stronger, he’s going to be able to be a much better player.”

Jackson, a 6-foot-3 point guard, assumed the starting shooting guard spot upon Sefolosha’s West finals benching. While the Thunder had success with the lineup, both Brooks and Westbrook seemed only lukewarm when asked if a Westbrook-Jackson starting backcourt is optimal for next season. Coming off the bench, Jackson could compete for Sixth Man of the Year honors.

OKC also has Andre Roberson heading into his second season. He started 16 games as a rookie during Westbrook’s injury absence. He’s a solid defender, but lacks a jump shot. Lamb has the shot, but must improve defensively.

“It’s a player I feel confident going forward with,” Brooks said of Lamb. “I like what he does. His future is very bright with the work that he puts in.”

Durant must answer call with authority

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s Dennis Scott talks about what the Thunder must do in Game 3

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – With or without miracle healer, if not yet miracle worker Serge Ibaka, the 2014 Oklahoma City Thunder’s postseason, sink or swim, will be owned by Kevin Durant.

The regular-season MVP and scoring champion has yet to sustain such a consistent level of brilliance in these playoffs, shooting just 45.4 percent from the floor despite a league playoff-best 30.1-point scoring average.

He acknowledged that fact the morning of Game 2: “I have another level I have to go to in order for us to get this thing done.”

And then the Thunder got thumped by 35 points, 20 more than Durant scored. Danny Green dropped more 3-pointers (seven) than Durant had field goals (six). Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were both plus-32 in 29 minutes. Durant was minus-26 in 29 minutes.

Allow those numbers to sink in.

As badly as Durant needs Thabo Sefolosha to can a jumper, and Caron Butler to come through with more than one 3-pointer since Game 3 against the Clippers, and for Russell Westbrook to stay in control when momentum swings against them, the second-best player on the planet has to show up as such.

LeBron James yielded the MVP to Durant this season, but the Miami Heat’s leader remains No. 1 in grabbing his team by the boot straps. With a squad thinner and more vulnerable than the past two championship versions, with Dwyane Wade playing mostly unspectacularly through the first two rounds and Chris Bosh averaging a pedestrian 13.5 ppg and 5.3 rpg, James has raised his scoring average in the postseason (28.8 ppg) while still shooting a remarkable 56.3 percent from the floor.

He’s increased his free-throw attempts by two a game compared to the regular season and improved his accuracy. He has the Heat now 9-2 in the playoffs, yes, against inferior Eastern competition compared to OKC’s playoff opponents. The Thunder stand 8-7 heading into Sunday night’s massively important Game 3 on their home floor (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

While Ibaka’s two-game absence (so far) has eliminated a lethal pick-and-pop game and robbed OKC of its third-leading scorer and fiercest two-way player against the most dangerous opponent, Durant has struggled with his shot throughout the playoffs. His 3-point percentage of 35.0 percent (39.1 percent in the regular season) has slowly trended up, although he’s 4-for-11 against San Antonio after an 0-for-4 night in Game 2.

After shooting 40 free throws in the last three games against the Clippers, Durant’s managed just nine in two games against the Spurs, and a total of one beyond the first quarter. During the rest of the playoffs, as well as the regular season, he’s averaged more than nine a game.

He’s continually denied that his league-leading 3,121 regular-season minutes (Dallas’ Monta Ellis was second with 3,022) and a playoff-high 648 more (Indiana’s Paul George is second with 619, also in 15 games) has worn him down or flattened his shot.

Game 3 will demand Durant be at his sharpest, both shooting it and play-making to involve and potentially ignite a cast, that when involved, propels an offense that has sagged in Games 1 and 2 to 94.0 points per 100 possessions against a Spurs defense it burned for 110.2 points per 100 possessions in going 4-0 during the regular season.

If Durant, 25, can’t summon that “next level” against the longest-standing Big Three of them all, he’ll swallowed by pre-championship-level LeBron scrutiny.

Durant got an initial dose of it last year, mostly unfairly, when the Thunder’s title hopes were dashed by Westbrook’s first-round knee injury. Durant was bottled up by Memphis in crunch time and he couldn’t get OKC out of the second round.

At each stage of this postseason, Durant has been tested mentally and physically. He showed frustration early against the defense of Tony Allen and the Grizzlies. When the Thunder went down 3-2 to Memphis with Durant going 10-for-24 in Game 5, the “Mr. Unreliable” headline made its appearance the next morning. Durant answered it with consecutive stellar games to move on.

Following three fourth-quarter turnovers in the Game 4 meltdown against the Clippers, Durant responded with a late surge after a rough three quarters in Game 5 to propel an unlikely comeback that prevented a 3-2 deficit heading back to L.A. In the series-clinching Game 6, Durant recovered from another slow start to overwhelm the Clippers and earn a third West finals berth in four seasons.

The Spurs are a near-perfect machine with essentially one flaw that had worked in the Thunder’s favor so often before — difficultly keeping up with super-athletic lineups. Before this series, before Ibaka strained his calf, the Thunder were 10-2 in their previous 12 games against the Spurs.

If Ibaka is capable of playing in Game 3, it will certainly give the Thunder a psychological boost and shore up defensive holes from the first two games in which the Spurs totaled 120 points in the paint.

Game 2 was stunningly lost after Durant checked back in with 6:18 left in the first half. Tim Duncan was at the free-throw line and gave the Spurs a 37-36 lead. A sudden San Antonio surge, which sparked words between Westbrook and Durant heading into a timeout, and the Spurs were up 58-44 going into halftime.

For the Thunder to reverse course in this series as they did in the 2012 West finals when the Spurs also jumped out to a 2-0 lead on their home floor, Durant must answer this call with authority.

Thunder’s star duo under more pressure

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook address the media after the Game 2 loss

SAN ANTONIO – The game suddenly and irrepressibly slipping away under a second-quarter Spurs blitz that melted the Thunder into a pool of mistakes and frustration, Russell Westbrook glared at co-star Kevin Durant as they labored to a timeout.

Durant had lost his man on the previous play and Westbrook was simultaneously jabbing his index fingers at either side of his head, a motion unmistakably meant to coerce league MVP Durantto “Think!” or “wake up!”

The interaction was inevitably perceived as the first sign of fissure for a team whose championship dreams are breaking apart.

“I was just getting on Kevin about some stuff and he got on me right back,” Westbrook said after the 112-77 Game 2 loss, the Thunder’s second consecutive blowout in San Antonio’s that puts them in an 0-2 West finals hole.

“That’s what teammates do, that’s what leaders do, we get on each other, we come back and we talk about it and then we come out like nothing ever happened.”

Nothing more happened for the Thunder. Midway through the third quarter, the Spurs’ approached 30 points. It’s become clear how badly OKC misses Serge Ibaka, its 6-foot-10 shot-blocker and mid-range jumpshooter. Without him, the Thunder have shrunk from title contender to not even belonging on the same floor as the well-oiled Spurs.

“It hurts us, it hurts us without him, there’s no question,” said veteran forward Nick Collison, who has just two points and five rebounds in the two games while starting in Ibaka’s spot. “But a lot of the breakdowns are basic [coverages] you start on the first day of training camp.”

The Thunder have three days to simmer and come up with a plan. It’s less about X’s and O’s and more about will. At Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Durant said he has another level he can achieve, but that did not happen in Game 2. The Spurs, with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, have made him work hard for his offense.

Durant was 6-for-16 for just 15 points in 28 minutes. He missed all four 3-point attempts and got to the free throw line just five times, all coming in the first quarter. That mirrored Game 1 when he made three trips to the foul line in the first quarter and then just once after that.

Westbrook took 24 shots in 29 minutes and also finished with 15 points. He fell into funks of rushing shots and wasting possessions that helped fuel a Spurs roll that reached 43-14 during a stretch from the second quarter to third.

He has arguably been the Thunder’s best player this postseason, but with the Spurs able to key their defensive approach almost exclusively on Westbrook and Durant, there’s been little room to operate with no one stepping up to reduce that pressure.

Both superstars say they’re not overcompensating for the loss of Ibaka. But they’re getting so little help that it’d be impossible to blame them if they feel they must, if they think superhuman efforts are their only hope.

Durant was asked why he and Westbrook lost faith in their teammates as reasoning for combining for 40 shots in the less than three quarters.

“We didn’t stop trusting,” Durant said.

Then why did you stop moving the ball, he was asked.

“We didn’t,” Durant said.

Then how do you explain so many shots during the period in which the Spurs broke it open?

“Because we’re the focal point of the offense,” Durant said.

Thabo Sefolosha has been lost, going scoreless in both games. He could be benched for Game 3 in favor of Caron Butler — which was the lineup change OKC made in Games 6 and 7 of the first round. Collison has been ineffective. Reggie Jackson, who averaged 21 points and shot 68 percent in four regular-season wins against San Antonio, has 22 total points in the two games. He attempted only seven shots in 26 minutes in Game 2.

“We’re just going to play the way we play, man, regardless of what happens,” Westbrook said. “We’re going to play the way we play, man, regardless of miss or make shots. We’re going to live by it. That’s how we won all season. We’re not about to change now. We’re going to continue to trust our teammates, continue to play our game, and continue to compete.”

At this point, there’s little else they can do.

Mavs’ switch means Spurs don’t have to

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Tony Parker speaks at practice ahead of Game 2

SAN ANTONIO — Assist to Dallas. That first round series took a lot longer than the Spurs would have liked. Being put into that Game 7 situation so early was a precarious situation they would rather have avoided.

But with all the switching on pick-and-rolls done by the Mavs’ defense, it did have the Spurs comfortable to face the Thunder to open the Western Conference finals.

“We are very prepared for switching because first round, Dallas, that’s all they did,” said point guard Tony Parker. “And it took us a lot of games to adjust to that. And Portland tried to do that, too, the last two games. So I think we are prepared and we know what we have to do to keep the ball moving and to continue to play our style even if they switch.”

The Spurs’ goal is always to keep the ball moving quickly and get it to the open spots in the defense and they are probably the best in the NBA at doing it. Now as OKC plays without Serge Ibaka as a defensive anchor in the middle of the lineup, it’s a way to exploit the Thunder badly.

“That’s the goal,” Parker said. “We try to be patient and go to the best matchup. We try to move the ball and, if it’s Timmy, we try to give it to Timmy (Duncan). At some point in the fourth quarter, it was for Boris (Diaw). So, I think it’s very important for me or Manu (Ginobili) to stay aggressive. At the same time, look at the match-ups. Kawhi (Leonard) has a lot of match-ups, too.”

Diaw was particularly effective when Thunder coach Scott Brooks went with his small lineup and was able to take Caron Butler down into the low post. Twice in the space of three possessions, when the Spurs were regaining control in the fourth quarter, Diaw simply overpowered Butler to score.

“I think when they did that, Boris was very good in the paint,” Ginobili said. “When we play teams that are small, it’s great to have him, because he can guard (smalls more) and post up in those situations. So, he really helped us. But we have done it against OKC. We know they can do it. Hopefully, we attack the seams well, and if somebody helps, hopefully, we find open teammates. But probably the Dallas series helped us.”

 

Can Sefolosha get his corner 3 back?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: What must OKC change in Game 2?

SAN ANTONIO – This is a contract season for Thabo Sefolosha, but you wouldn’t know it from his statistics. The veteran shooting guard is a defensive specialist, but he’s also been a dangerous and necessary corner 3-point shooter for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Only his accuracy has mostly gone MIA this season.

He shot just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc after consecutive seasons of shooting better than 40 percent. His slide has continued into the postseason — 28.6 percent — and it’s led to erratic minutes and even sitting out the entirety of Games 6 and 7 in the first round against the Memphis Grizzlies when coach Scott Brooks instead inserted Caron Butler in the starting lineup to help space the floor.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and the San Antonio Spurs, Sefolosha played just 16 minutes and after missing his first three jumpers and being yanked midway through the first quarter, he sat for the remainder of the first half.

Sefolosha expressed frustration with his limited playing time after the game. On Tuesday he took a less opinionated tact.

“I don’t really want to talk on it. It’s coach’s decision,” Sefolosha said. “When I’m on court I’m going to play and when I’m not I’m going to cheer for the guys. You know, it’s part of the game.”

The Thunder need Sefolosha’s offense more now than ever with third-leading scorer Serge Ibaka shelved presumably for the remainder of the playoffs with a calf injury. With Nick Collison replacing Ibaka, the Thunder suddenly start three low-scoring offensive players in Sefolosha, Collison and center Kendrick Perkins.

In Game 1, those three combined to go 2-for-10 from the floor for five points, all scored by Perkins. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant accounted for 53 of 58 points scored by the starting lineup.

Sefolosha’s corner 3s have always come off kickouts from Westbrook and Durant penetrations as defenses collapse. The benefit to the Thunder’s offense when Sefolosha hits 40 percent from the arc is obvious. During the regular season, 56 percent of Sefolosha’s 3-point attempt came from the corners as did 60 percent of his makes.

He’s just 3-for-9 from the corners in the playoffs.

The Spurs forced Sefolosha off the 3-point arc altogether. He ducked under defenders following a shot fake and badly missed on this first three mid-range in the first quarter. Nearly 44 percent of Sefolosha’s shot attempts this postseason have been 3s, but he managed just one on four shot attempts in Game 1.

“If the 3 is open, I definitely would rather take the 3,” Sefolosha said. “But they did a decent job getting us off the line.”

Ibaka’s absence brings ‘fluid’ lineups

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

SAN ANTONIO – The Oklahoma City Thunder are doing their best sales job to suggest life without Serge Ibaka has to be business as usual. In basketball parlance, it’s simply next man up.

But, with 11:09 left in the second quarter of Monday’s Western Conference finals Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder pulled out their most unusual lineup, especially for this juncture of the playoffs. Jeremy Lamb checked in for Kevin Durant, but the the little-used, second-year shooting guard getting such early run wasn’t the exceptional part. It was who he was running with: Derek Fisher, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler and Steven Adams.

Kevin Durant will need some help in Game 2 (Wednesday, 9 p.m.)(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Kevin Durant will need some help in Wednesday’s Game 2 (9 p.m., TNT)(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

“Our lineups can be very fluid and we have flexibility all year long to have done that,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said before Game 1. “We played small a lot and with Serge out, obviously we have more opportunities to play small.”

OKC climbed back from a 20-9 hole to 33-30 when Lamb came in for Durant. Exactly three minutes later, Lamb, whose head seemed to be on a swivel defensively as Spurs players raced by him to the bucket, checked out for Russell Westbrook and the Thunder trailed 45-37.

A small lineup that found success late in the second quarter was the unit of Westbrook, Jackson, Lamb, Durant and Kendrick Perkins. That group came together with 1:58 to go and OKC in big trouble, trailing 65-51. An 8-2 run trimmed the halftime deficit to a reasonable eight points, 67-59.

It’s a bad time of year to have to experiment with lineups. After the game, Brooks said he’s going to “have to find lineups that work.”

The Thunder’s best lineups are the ones in which Durant and Westbrook are on the floor together or, at least, with one of them in the lineup. And that’s mostly been the case. Durant logged 40 minutes in Game 1, the 13th time in 14 games this postseason in which he’s played at least 40 minutes, and the sixth in a row.

Brooks has to balance giving each of his stars some rest so they’re not totally gassed in the fourth quarter, but doing so while not putting the team at a severe disadvantage — which the Fisher-Jackson-Lamb-Butler-Adams group did.

There’s little choice for Brooks in deciding a starting lineup. Nick Collison is the only logical choice to fill in for Ibaka at power forward. Collison is a steadier player than the one that showed up Monday night and threw up three horribly off-target shots and was mostly poor defensively. A frontcourt of Perkins and Adams together doesn’t make much sense and Brooks clearly has little faith in 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet to contribute as a rim protector.

Although Brooks harped on defense after the game, his best bet might be to employ waves of small lineups that include Durant or Westbrook, or both, with Reggie Jackson and simply try to out-run and outscore the machine-like Spurs.

“I have faith in all of our guys to step in and do the job,” Brooks said. “No matter who we put on the floor, they have to be able to compete against this team. They have five guys that can score on the floor at the same time. You don’t have a possession off. Not one. We can’t hide anybody.”

Spurs dare Thunder to stop them

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Spurs score 66 points in the paint en route to a Game 1 win over OKC

SAN ANTONIO — A year ago, it was Russell Westbrook being taken down after a contentious run-in with Patrick Beverley that resulted in torn knee cartilage. A player who had never missed a game in five seasons was zapped from the lineup.

This time around, it’s Serge Ibaka lost for the rest of the playoffs after his legs tangled with Chris Paul in the Game 6 close-out against the Clippers. Another ironman, Ibaka had sat out only three games due to injury over the past four seasons.

Somebody, it seems, keeps holding that door wide open for the Spurs to get their crack at a fifth championship in franchise history.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, playing the role of ushers was the Thunder, who did everything but lay down a trail of rose petals to lead the Spurs to the basket and a 122-105 victory.

Sometimes things turn out exactly the way you expect them. The sun comes up in the East, gravity works when you step out of bed in the morning, water is wet and the Thunder are a vastly different defensive team without their top jumping-jack, shot-blocker and rim protector.

So the Spurs simply went through OKC’s interior like it was an all-you-can-eat buffet line and did everything but stuff a few desserts in their pockets on the way out the door.

If it wasn’t layups, it was dunks. If it wasn’t running floaters through the lane, it was little pull-up jumpers.

The night after a hologram of the late Michael Jackson sang and danced at the Billboard Music Awards, it was 38-year-old Tim Duncan turning back the clock to give everyone a reminder of his greatest hits.

Tony Parker did what he always does — whatever is necessary. Kawhi Leonard ran like a one-man stampede. Boris Diaw made himself right at home in the low post. Even Tiago Splitter at one point simply reached out and ripped the ball out of the grasp of OKC’s Nick Collison, then turned and rammed it through the hoop.

What are you going to do about it?

That was question the Spurs might as well have been asking the Thunder after they rolled to a dominant 66 points in the paint.

And without the long arms and hungry appetite of Ibaka to roam the middle and protect the rim, it was a damn good one.

There is, after all, only so much even the prolific Kevin Durant and Westbrook can do.

The Thunder might not be totally exposed without Ibaka, but let’s just say they might as well be showing up at the prom wearing only a necktie.

“Sometimes it’s hard to focus on something like that and you’re going to do that or you’re going to shoot 3s tonight or you’re going to go in the paint tonight or you’re going to do this,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “You take what’s given, play the game, respect the game and whatever’s there, try to take advantage of that. It just worked out that way.”

Funny how that happens a lot with the Spurs, who play almost every game like it’s part of a coaching clinic, moving the ball from side to side, making the extra pass, finding the cracks in the defense and running through them like water.

In the previous round of the playoffs, the Trail Blazers wouldn’t double-team Parker, dared him to shoot from medium range to beat them and so he did, only stopping to score when his arm got tired.

The Thunder turned an 0-2 deficit to the Spurs into four straight playoff wins and a Western Conference title in 2012 by coming hard at Parker on the pick-and-roll, forcing him to give up the ball and limiting his ability to make plays.

They used the same approach this time around, but were only successful in the first half of the strategy. When Parker gave up the ball, it was to whomever he wanted, wherever and whenever he wanted.

“I don’t know if it was that easy, but we were taking what we were given,” said Duncan, who hit 6 of 7 shots in the first quarter for a dozen of his 27 points. “We knew getting into the middle and being able to attack a little more than we have, that’s kind of what’s been there historically against them and we were just able to make some shots tonight.”

They were able to make those shots because Collison, for all his dogged determination and want-to, is simply not the kind of intimidating force and athlete as Ibaka. Collison and center Kendrick Perkins create a huge deficit on the OKC front line in terms of scoring. When the Thunder went to a small lineup with three guards and two small forwards to boost their offense, the Spurs matched them and then one-upped them with Diaw taking Caron Butler down low and tying him into pretzel knots.

“That’s really what we were focusing on, knowing that Serge Ibaka was not there,” Diaw said. “A team that’s not in the paint is a lot different than a team that focuses on securing the paint.

“Right away, we went to Tim and we did a great job. We scored some baskets…We had a great passing game all night…We scored 120 points tonight. We know it is going to be a better game on Wednesday…We know it is going to be a different game.”

Or will it?

The sun comes up, gravity works, Ibaka is gone, the gaping hole yawns in the middle and that door is wide open for the Spurs.

Sometimes things turn out exactly the way you expect.