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Morning shootaround — Aug. 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Thunder bolster frontcourt, add Lauvergne | Dellavedova hoping for playoff run in Milwaukee | Ibaka didn’t want to be dealt from OKC

No. 1: Thunder bolster frontcourt in trade with Nuggets — Since the start of the offseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder have refused to stand pat with the squad that reached the 2016 West finals. Although Kevin Durant’s departure via free agency necessitated some changes to the roster, OKC has nonetheless been active in the trade market. First, it dealt Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo and yesterday, the Thunder swung another deal, landing young big man Joffrey Lauvergne from the Denver Nuggets. Eric Horne of The Oklahoman provides insight on how the trade affects the Thunder:

In two NBA seasons, Lauvergne (6-foot-11, 220 pounds) has averaged 6.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game for Denver in 83 games. The 24-year-old is fresh off a summer representing France in the Olympics, where he was the team’s third-leading scorer at 9.8 points per game.

Lauvergne will make $1.7 million this upcoming season before becoming a restricted free agent in the summer of 2017.

By trading for Lauvergne now, the Thunder is utilizing its cap space before it’s absorbed by players brought in on training camp contracts. For Denver, the Nuggets are acquiring picks while creating more playing time for its current crop of bigs. The Nuggets were facing a logjam of young frontcourt talent with the budding Nikola Jokic and Jusef Nurkic.

The move further fortifies the Thunder’s long-term frontcourt depth. Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Mitch McGary, Domantas Sabonis and Lauvergne are all signed through the 2016-17 season and are each 24 or younger. The Thunder also still has 7-footer Dakari Johnson, 20, who could join the team next year after another season with the D-League Oklahoma City Blue or an overseas club.

In the wake of this summer’s signings of Alex Abrines and Ronnie Price, the Thunder now has 16 guaranteed contracts on its roster. It has until opening night (Oct. 26) to get back down to 15.

While it has parted with two picks in next summer’s draft in order to acquire Lauvergne, the Thunder still owns its first-round pick in 2017. The Thunder now has five players from the 2013 NBA Draft on its roster: Victor Oladipo (No. 2 overall), Adams (12), Andre Roberson (26), Abrines (32), and Lauvergne (55).

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Blogtable: Where do Thunder rank in West now?

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: Importance of keeping Westbrook? | What grade do you give OKC’s offseason? |
Where do Thunder rank in Western Conference now?


> In the loaded Western Conference, where do the Thunder rank going into this season?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Second-tier playoff team. I think the Clippers and the Trail Blazers bump up into the Nos. 3 and 4 spots in the West, with OKC now in the mix with the likes of Memphis, Utah, Houston and Minnesota for the remaining four spots. Not only has Westbrook been a terrific catalyst when playing without Durant, averaging about 30 points, nine assists and eight rebounds over the past two years in such games, but GM Sam Presti, coach Billy Donovan and the rest will be extra-motivated to demonstrate how good the Thunder still are and how well they can remodel a legit contender around Westbrook. They dare not slip into lottery land, at this point.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comWestbrook has already proven that he can anchor the team and lead it to a winning record (45-37) two seasons ago when Durant missed 55 games due to injury. While the Thunder are no longer a championship contender, they battle the Portland Trail Blazers for first place in the Northwest Division. If all goes very well, they’re fighting for the No. 4-5 spots in the Western Conference. If not, OKC is scrambling for the No. 7 or 8 holes. Either way, this is still a playoff team, though the young Minnesota Timberwolves under Tom Thibodeau are coming up fast. 

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comI always dislike August predictions, knowing rosters can still change before the opening of camp, but since you asked: They could still be a playoff team. Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson’s defense, Enes Kanter’s offense and rebounding — there are big holes at both forward spots, but that’s also a respectable starting point. To try and pinpoint it, I’ll say OKC is in the 8-9 conversation. I think they’re going to be very motivated and focused. They are not going away quietly, that’s for sure. Getting a boost from a second-year player (Cameron Payne) or rookie (Domantas Sabonis, Alex Abrines) would be a big help, especially since Sabonis can play power forward and Abrines small forward. It’s just tough to count on dependable play from newcomers, though.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Top 5. Russell Westbrook will have an MVP type season and he and Victor Oladipo will mesh in the backcourt.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThey still a good amount of talent, but their defense is going to take a big step backward with the departures of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. I would put them behind Golden State, San Antonio, LA Clippers and Memphis, in the mix for lower seed with Portland, Dallas, Utah, and Minnesota.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The top six is a realistic starting point. Scanning the list of contenders in a top-heavy Western Conference we have to start with that new-look crew at Golden State, followed by the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies and then the Thunder. I’m not sure what to make of the Dallas Mavericks and their revamped roster. And the Houston Rockets still have James Harden to lean on. The Thunder are in that same mix with the Mavericks and Rockets, without the benefit of knowing how all of the new pieces will fit on each of those teams.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The sure thing — health permitting — is that they’re going to make the playoffs. The top three contenders are going to be the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers, which leaves the No. 4 spot wide open. Who’s to say that the Thunder won’t be able to grab it — with the promise of a delicious Western Conference semifinals rematch vs. Golden State in which virtually everyone outside the Bay Area will be rooting for OKC.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogLet’s do this by process of elimination. Eliminating health concerns, I’d say as presently constructed, the very best teams in the Western Conference are the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers. I would place the Thunder within the next tier of teams, which includes (in no particular order) the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz, and maybe Minnesota Timberwolves. Can the Thunder make the playoffs? Even if everyone stays healthy, I think it may require Russ averaging 30 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. I don’t know if he can do that over an entire season, but it sure should be fun to watch.

All-Star Westbrook signs contract extension with Thunder

From NBA.com staff reports

The Oklahoma City Thunder and their superstar point guard, Russell Westbrook, will be together for a few more seasons.

Westbrook has signed a contract extension with the Thunder that will reportedly keep him in Oklahoma City for up to three more seasons.

“I am grateful to extend my contract with the Thunder and continue to play with the only organization that I have played for and have loved being a part of since I was drafted into the NBA,” Westbrook said in a statement released by the team. “I’m really excited about moving forward with this group of guys and continuing to play in front of the best fans in the world.”

“Russell has been an outstanding leader of this team since he was drafted by our organization eight years ago. His competitiveness, character, and unique athletic ability have propelled him to the forefront of the game,” said Thunder GM Sam Presti. “Russell personifies many of the traits that are synonymous with Oklahoma and Oklahomans. We are excited that Russell has chosen to continue to build the legacy of the Thunder with us as we move forward together.”

According to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who first broke the news overnight, Westbrook and OKC agreed on a 3-year, $85 million deal that will keep the All-Star guard from becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer. According to the report, Westbrook will hold a player option for the 2018-19 season.

Oklahoma City has undergone a series of roster changes since it lost in the Western Conference finals, starting with it trading Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic on Draft night (for Victor Oladipo and others) to seeing former NBA MVP Kevin Durant leave via free agency for the Golden State Warriors.

Wojnarowski has more on Westbrook’s new deal:

Oklahoma City Thunder star guard Russell Westbrook has agreed to a three-year, $85 million-plus maximum contract renegotiation, league sources told The Vertical.

Westbrook, a five-time All-Star, and his agent, Thad Foucher of Wasserman Media Group, are planning to fly to Oklahoma City on Thursday morning, sign the deal and likely hold a news conference with Thunder ownership and executives, league sources told The Vertical.

For the Thunder, the Westbrook commitment is a significant statement in the wake of star Kevin Durant’s departure for the Golden State Warriors. Westbrook is no longer a free agent in the summer of 2017, and Thunder GM Sam Presti and coach Billy Donovan have a longer window to continue improving the Thunder roster around Westbrook without the fear of losing him in free agency.

Westbrook will be under contract for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons and will hold a player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources said.

In the most likely scenario, Westbrook will become an unrestricted free agent in 2018 again.

In the wake of Durant’s departure, Westbrook new deal could be instrumental in recruiting another elite free agent to the Thunder’s talented core next summer. Oklahoma native Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers will be a serious target for the Thunder, league sources told The Vertical.

Westbrook is already fond of the returning core of talent in Oklahoma City, including center Steven Adams, guard Victor Oladipo and center Enes Kanter. Westbrook has been working out for the past several days in Los Angeles with Oladipo, with Donovan in the gymnasium, league sources said.

ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard and Ramona Shelburne also reported on the deal between Westbrook and the Thunder:

All-Star guard Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder have reached agreement in principle on a new three-year contract worth $85.7 million, league sources told ESPN.

Westbrook, 27, will sign the contract on Thursday in Oklahoma City, sources said.

Talks between the sides centered on the addition of two more years to Westbrook’s current deal, which expires after the 2016-17 season. The new deal calls for an $8.7 million increase in Westbrook’s salary for this season, from $17.8 million to the maximum $26.5 million. He would then earn the max the next two seasons.

Only one of those two seasons is guaranteed, though.

In the wake of former MVP Kevin Durant signing with the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder made locking up Westbrook to a long-term deal their primary offseason objective. Oklahoma City removed its qualifying offer to restricted free agent Dion Waiters to free up cap space to offer Westbrook a max extension. Waiters agreed to a deal with the Miami Heat last month.

Westbrook averaged 23.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 10.4 assists last season and finished fourth in the MVP voting.

The 27-year-old Westbrook is one of the top stars in the NBA and piled up 18 triple-doubles last season, tying Magic Johnson for the most in the last 30 years. He also notched seven triple-doubles in March, the most by an NBA player in a calendar month since Michael Jordan in April of 1989.

“On behalf of the Thunder organization and the entire State of Oklahoma I want to congratulate Russ and offer my sincere appreciation for not only his profound presence and skill as a player, but for his high character, personal integrity and extraordinary leadership,” said Clayton I. Bennett, Thunder chairman. “We are thrilled he will continue with us and we look forward to exciting days ahead for the Oklahoma City Thunder.”

The five-time All-Star averaged 23.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 10.4 assists last season as the Thunder reached the Western Conference finals, in which they lost in seven games to the Golden State Warriors after jumping to a 3-1 series lead.

For his entire career, Westbrook had been paired with a fellow superstar in Durant and together they turned Oklahoma City into a perennial NBA title contender. The Thunder have reached the conference finals in four of the past six seasons, but advanced to the NBA Finals only once, falling to the Miami Heat in 2012.

Even without Durant, the Thunder is hardly bereft of talent to go with Westbrook. Steven Adams showed during the playoffs that he rapidly is moving up the ranks of NBA centers, and another post player, Enes Kanter, finished third in voting for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award last season.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Blogtable: What’s next for Oklahoma City Thunder and for Kevin Durant?

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: What’s next for Durant, Thunder? | Warriors’ most impressive feat so far? |
Who wins The Finals and why?


> So what now for free agent Kevin Durant? And what now for the Thunder?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: You’d be crazy to guess at this point, but the trend lines seem to be going in Oklahoma City’s favor, at least for one more year. As detailed in the Morning Tip on Monday, if Durant signs a two-year deal this summer with the Thunder with a one-year out, he’d set himself up for a potential five-year contract with OKC in the summer of 2017 for more than $200 million. Now, money isn’t the only thing driving Durant’s decision making, of course (and especially given the $250-plus million he’s already banking from Nike), but that’s not a sum you dismiss out of hand. More importantly, OKC’s rapid development the second half of the season and in the playoffs surely gives the Thunder more than a fighting chance of keeping its superstar. Coach Billy Donovan was more than comfortable matching Xs and Os with top-shelf coaches. Steven Adams went Beast Mode on opponents. Andre Roberson carried his weight offensively against the San Antono Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. Serge Ibaka again asserted himself as a defensive force and Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter gave the Thunder one of the league’s best benches. And, oh yeah, Russell Westbrook was Russell Westbrook. So, if you’re Durant, and you already like living someplace where people basically leave you be, and your team showed itself a legit title contender…where can you go that’s better? The Los Angeles Clippers’ core is older and the Miami Heat’s future is uncertain with Chris Bosh‘s health concerns. The Spurs already have an All-Star small forward in Kawhi Leonard. OKC already had the power of incumbency. After its playoff run, I’d put its chances at retaining Durant at 3-1.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: If Kevin Durant is interested in pursuing a championship, he should stay right where he’s at. That team has the talent and depth to contend again next season, and the Thunder surely can find ways to complement Durant and Russell Westbrook‘s firepower in a more balanced attack. Durant won’t find a more committed organization or adoring fan base, either. Now if it’s lifestyle he’s seeking, then fine, go live and work where you want to, the way 99 percent of America’s workforce does it — or could, if people really looked at their options. I don’t think he can get much more famous or ever spend any difference in off-court income that a bigger market might provide, but that would be Durant’s choice. For theatre, it would be fun to see Durant land on one of about a dozen different rosters, just to feel the NBA landscape shift. But for sheer balling, OKC seems to suit Durant fine. And vice versa.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com The Thunder simply wait on Durant. They don’t campaign or twist his arm or send him love letters. They just wait for Durant to reach the conclusion — and he might already be there — that there is no better place for him than Oklahoma City, where he is appreciated, adored and, most importantly, has the pieces already on hand to come right back next season and make another championship run. Where does he find another Russell Westbrook to be his sidekick? Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Andre Roberson all are the real thing. And coach Billy Donovan showed he has the chops. Does Durant sign a long-term deal in July or take the LeBron James one-year option and cash in even bigger next season? That’s for him to figure out. But one way or another, I believe he stays in OKC. For good.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Nothing’s changed. Durant comes back for one season plus an option and goes through free agency for real in the summer of 2017. That has been my belief since before the playoff started, and nothing that happened in the postseason alters the opinion. There are a ton of reasons to stay in OKC well beyond 2016-17. He knows it and does not take the positives there for granted. What now for the Thunder? Respond to the ache of that elimination. How it changes them, if at all, will be one of the early storylines to watch for next season.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The Summer of Durant will fall flatter than OKC did late in Game 6 when Durant decides to return to OKC for at least another year. So much for drama. That’s the safe route, one that leaves him an out, if he so wishes to use it in 2017 when Russell Westbrook‘s deal is up. Meanwhile, OKC will be OK, provided the Thunder find a shooter (and he isn’t Dion Waiters, either). Folks need to calm down about this team. OKC beat a 67-win San Antonio Spurs team and took the 73-win Golden State Warriors to the brink. No shame in that, even if they were up 3-1.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comLogic says that he should sign a two-year deal with the Thunder that gives him the option to be a free agent again next summer, when the max salary is projected to be higher than it is this year. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he signs a long-term deal to remain in Oklahoma City. I would be surprised if he leaves after coming so close to a return to The Finals. The Thunder don’t need much to get over the hump. It would help to have a wing who can both shoot and defend at a high level.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Kevin Durant knew the day would come when he could no longer duck the free agency questions. Yet he still found a way to do so even in the moments after the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their collapse in the Western Conference finals. He insisted that he hadn’t given free agency a thought. Sure. Just go ahead and sign the two-year deal with the player option for the second season so we can get not to the free agents that might actually be in play for all of these teams with cap space to use up. The Thunder have no choice but to wait Durant out and see what his final decision will be. They’re clearly closer to championship level right now that many of us thought prior to their playoff run. So they should feel much better about a future that includes Durant.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Doesn’t Durant have to return for at least one more year? Midway through the conference finals he and Russell Westbrook were playing the best basketball of their careers. It makes no sense to give up on their longterm investment when it is so close to paying off.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogI’ve seen numerous people say that if Kevin Durant wants his best chance at winning a title, he would leave OKC and go to the Eastern Conference. Which I don’t think is correct. To get to The Finals in the East you have to go through LeBron James, and that is one heckuva roadblock. To me, as we just saw, as presently constructed the Thunder are nearly good enough to get to The Finals. So I think KD stays, at least for a year. Although, I feel like the Thunder are still one rotation player away, some sort of swingman type who can score when needed and reduce the land on KD/Westbrook. (An interesting name who might be motivated to make a fit work? How about Carmelo Anthony?) They just need one more contributor. For so long the Thunder had Derek Fisher as their off guard in crunch time, and this year they made a reach for Randy Foye who they couldn’t really use in crunch time. Making this an even tougher situation is that they don’t have time to develop a young player — this a team needs to win now. Good luck balancing all of that, Thunder GM Sam Presti.

Morning shootaround — May 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Raptors block Cleveland’s path to perfection | Toronto’s offense gets on track | Thunder look to get physical versus Warriors in Game 3 | Carmelo “looking forward” to playing under Hornacek

No. 1: Raptors block Cleveland’s path to perfection The Cleveland Cavaliers had romped through the NBA Playoffs, winning their first 10 consecutive games this postseason to take a 2-0 lead over the Raptors into Saturday night’s Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 in Toronto. But any hope the Cavs had of going undefeated on the road to a return trip to the NBA Finals came to an end in Canada, as the Raptors won 99-84. As our own Steve Aschburner writes, Toronto leaned not on All-Stars Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan, but instead got a huge performance from back-up big man Bismack Biyombo

Near the end of the Toronto Raptors’ resilient and necessary 99-84 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Biyombo batted a rebound to a teammate to cap a memorable night for both the Raptors and himself. Then he got batted back when Cavs forward Dahntay Jones hit him in, well, a nether region that had the high-revving Raptors center dropping to his knee, then going fetal on the floor as the final seconds ticked away.

Jones said later the hit was inadvertent, just accidental contact delivered down under when he tried to do something in garbage time — box out Biyombo — that no other Cleveland player had managed through the first 47 minutes and change.

Biyombo encouraged the honchos at the league office to be the judges of that when they go to the videotape for their standard review.

What they’ll see on pretty much every other play involving Toronto’s 6-foot-9 defensive dervish is a game-defining and series-slowing performance. Biyombo set a franchise record with 26 rebounds — not just a playoff record, a Raptors all-time high — and blocked four shots.

Not only did he channel the likes of Dikembe Mutombo, Dennis Rodman and Cleveland’s own Tristan Thompson, Biyombo swatted away any notions the Cavaliers, their fans or a bunch of experts around the league might have had that this would be done by Monday. Forget “fo’, fo’, fo’,” thanks to Biyombo’s “no, no, no!”

“He knows his role,” Toronto’s DeMarre Carroll said. “That’s the NBA. Everybody can’t be the Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry. You have to understand your role, your niche, and he understands it to a tee, and that’s a prime example of a true professional.”

Biyombo, 23, was reminiscent of several professionals Saturday, starting with Mutombo. Like the eight-time All-Star center who blocked 3,289 shots in 18 NBA seasons, Biyombo is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He gives up five inches to his famous countryman and NBA ambassador, is less than half his age and is 2,713 regular-season swats behind. Yet he has adopted the finger-wag that Mutombo used to such great effect on those blocks (second all-time since the league began counting them in 1973) and in that recent GEICO insurance commercial.

When did that start? “After I got the license from Mutombo,” Biyombo said. “He’s like my big brother, and I’ve had several conversations with him, especially defensively, how he was able to impact the game.” Though shorter, Biyombo has way more quick-twitch muscle going for him, getting higher off the ground than the former Georgetown star.

Then there’s Rodman, a comparison volunteered by Biyombo’s coach, Dwane Casey, when Casey wasn’t busy lobbying from the podium for a fairer shake from the officials. “He knows where the ball is coming off,” the Raptors coach said, of his guy’s Rodmanesque tendencies. “He’s an active player. He’s a guy who’s always moving, moving his feet… He understand angles.”

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No. 2: Toronto’s offense gets on track Toronto’s Game 3 win wasn’t only about the big night from Biyombo — the Raptors also finally seemed to crack a Cleveland defense that had mostly been airtight throughout the postseason. As our own John Schuhmann writes from Toronto, the Raptors looked like the terrific offense they’d been during the regular season, in large part thanks to the performance they got from Cory Joseph

The way the Toronto Raptors played in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, you would think they were a top-five offensive team this year.

Oh yeah, they were.

You wouldn’t have known it from the Raptors’ first 16 games in these playoffs, in which they had strong offensive stretches here and there, rarely got big games from both of their All-Stars on the same night, and had scored less than a point per possession. While the other three teams still playing have scored at a rate at, near, or better than their regular-season marks, the Raptors had scored 8.6 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs than they did in going 56-26.

Their first 14 games were against very good defensive teams that needed to make things ugly to win. With their incredibly potent offense, the Cleveland Cavaliers have no such need. But the Raptors couldn’t take advantage of Cleveland’s defense beyond strong first quarters in Games 1 and 2.

In Game 3 on Saturday, it was if the Raptors’ realized that Cleveland has no rim protection and a handful of sub-par defenders in its rotation. The result was a lot more attempts at the rim than they had in either of the first two games, their second-most efficient offensive performance of the playoffs (99 points on 85 possessions) and an end to the Cavs’ 17-game winning streak in playoff games within the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors’ defense was important. After allowing 56 points in the paint in Game 1 and another 50 in Game 2, they surrendered only 20 on Saturday and were good enough on the perimeter to keep from getting hit with the Cleveland 3-point onslaught. But they took control of this game with a huge offensive first half, scoring 60 points on 43 possessions before halftime.

DeMar DeRozan had his mid-range jumper going again, but didn’t settle. Kyle Lowry hit a few 3s and got his team into early offense. And the biggest key was Cory Joseph keeping things going when Lowry got into foul trouble.

In Game 1, Joseph got a quick hook in the second quarter from Raptors’ coach Dwane Casey and played a season-low 5:21 before halftime. The back-up point guard, who was a huge key to the Raptors’ success in the regular season, had been struggling since the start of the conference semifinals.

But Saturday brought a breakthrough for Joseph, who was a plus-10 in a little less than 18 first-half minutes, never leaving the game after entering for Lowry midway through the first quarter.

“He did a much better job tonight of controlling the game,” Casey said, “running the offense, keeping things under control, not letting the defense speed him up.”

Joseph’s minutes have proven to be critical for the Raptors, who are now 7-0 in the playoffs when he’s registered a non-negative plus-minus and 2-8 when they’ve been outscored with him on the floor.

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No. 3: Thunder look to get physical versus Warriors in Game 3 — The Oklahoma City Thunder threw their Western Conference Finals series against the mighty Golden State Warriors into chaos by waltzing into Oakland and winning Game 1. After the Warriors evened things by taking Game 2, the series shifts to Oklahoma City tonight for Game 3, where as our Fran Blinebury writes, Thunder forward Serge Ibaka says the Thunder need to stand strong and not let the Warriors push them around

The numbers told the story. The best rebounding team in the NBA was hammered on the backboards in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. The bigger, taller, stronger Thunder were pushed around, dominated even.

“Of course, you take it personally,” OKC power forward Serge Ibaka said following Saturday’s practice. “It makes us feel like we’re soft, we’re weak, you know what I’m saying? … We have to do a better job next game and be aggressive, make sure if they’re going to score those baskets, that’s hurting them. They have to work hard to get us.

“Yes. It’s kind of weird, yes. It’s kind of weird, especially for us, playing bigs. They’re small. It’s kind of weird. But give them a lot of credit, because they’re the best team in the game. … It’s not going to be easy.”

The Thunder are 9-2 in the playoffs when they’ve out-rebounded their opponents. They were especially effective in the previous series against San Antonio by using a big lineup that kept 7-foot Steven Adams and 6-11 Enes Kanter on the court together. Adams was able to play his role as defensive stopper at one end, Kanter scored at the other and together they helped get the Thunder a bundle of second-chance points. However in the Warriors’ 118-91 runaway win in Game 2, they were the ones able to come up with 15 offensive rebounds.

“They are playing tougher than us,” Ibaka said. “You know, they were more aggressive than us, so I think that’s why. It’s more a game. We have to do a better job of starting aggressive, and just play our basketball.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan wasn’t as quick to hang the “soft” label on his team.

“I don’t know if I would necessarily fully agree with that,” he said. “They did a great job on the backboard. They were really physical. They come up with loose basketballs. They made those plays, and in Game 1 I thought we did a better job. They did a great job raising their level of play, and you’ve got to give them credit. So I think maybe Serge’s point is that when you’re getting beat like that, to loose balls or rebounds, it can certainly make you look that way.

“I feel like we need to do a better job rebounding the basketball than we did. They were quicker on loose basketballs. They came in from different angles to rebound. They kept balls alive on the glass. We got caught into some rotations a couple times where we didn’t have our block-out assignments lined up.”

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No. 4: Carmelo “looking forward” to playing under Hornacek After what seemed to be an interesting journey, Knicks president Phil Jackson has apparently settled on Jeff Hornacek as the next coach for the New York Knicks. And yesterday the Knicks’ biggest star, Carmelo Anthony, said he’s excited to get moving as a part of Hornacek’s offensive attack…

“I played against him a couple of times when he was the head coach out there in Phoenix,” Anthony said in an interview Saturday with WNBC-TV. “Everybody knows he likes to play an up-tempo pace of game, likes to get out in transition, likes to speed the game up a lot. So from that standpoint, I’ll definitely be looking forward to that.”

Anthony’s comments suggest that team president Phil Jackson has given Hornacek the freedom to tweak the triangle offense, as several reports have indicated. The Knicks ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in pace the past two seasons, when they ran the triangle. Hornacek ran a faster-paced offense with the Suns, who ranked in the top 10 in pace in each of his three seasons as coach.

Perhaps more importantly, Anthony said Saturday that he believes Hornacek gives the Knicks a chance to turn things around. The club has missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.

“It sets the stage for us to do that,” Anthony said. “[It’s a] new opportunity, something new to play with, something fresh, a clean plate. So hopefully we can build off of this momentum.”

Hornacek was offered the Knicks’ job by Jackson and general manager Steve Mills earlier this week, and negotiations on a contract with the club have begun, league sources said.

Interestingly, Anthony said he didn’t share his opinion on the coaching search with Jackson before Hornacek was offered the job.

“Whatever Phil did, he did on his own,” Anthony said.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Toronto coach Dwane Casey had a lot of thoughts about the officiating in not just Game 3, but the entire series against Cleveland … Former Cavs coach David Blatt says he will coach somewhere next seasonBrian Shaw is close to a deal to join Luke Walton‘s staff with the Lakers … The Houston Rockets will reportedly interview Spurs assistant James Borrego for their head coaching gig, as well as longtime assistant coach Adrian Griffin … The Nets continue adding to their staffPaul Pierce got his daughter a llama for her birthday …

Ibaka: Thunder ‘soft, weak’ in Game 2

OKLAHOMA CITY — The numbers told the story. The best rebounding team in the NBA was hammered on the backboards in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. The bigger, taller, stronger Thunder were pushed around, dominated even.

“Of course, you take it personally,” OKC power forward Serge Ibaka said following Saturday’s practice. “It makes us feel like we’re soft, we’re weak, you know what I’m saying? … We have to do a better job next game and be aggressive, make sure if they’re going to score those baskets, that’s hurting them. They have to work hard to get us.

“Yes. It’s kind of weird, yes. It’s kind of weird, especially for us, playing bigs. They’re small. It’s kind of weird. But give them a lot of credit, because they’re the best team in the game. … It’s not going to be easy.”

The Thunder are 9-2 in the playoffs when they’ve out-rebounded their opponents. They were especially effective in the previous series against San Antonio by using a big lineup that kept 7-foot Steven Adams and 6-11 Enes Kanter on the court together. Adams was able to play his role as defensive stopper at one end, Kanter scored at the other and together they helped get the Thunder a bundle of second-chance points. However in the Warriors’ 118-91 runaway win in Game 2, they were the ones able to come up with 15 offensive rebounds.

“They are playing tougher than us,” Ibaka said. “You know, they were more aggressive than us, so I think that’s why. It’s more a game. We have to do a better job of starting aggressive, and just play our basketball.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan wasn’t as quick to hang the “soft” label on his team.

“I don’t know if I would necessarily fully agree with that,” he said. “They did a great job on the backboard. They were really physical. They come up with loose basketballs. They made those plays, and in Game 1 I thought we did a better job. They did a great job raising their level of play, and you’ve got to give them credit. So I think maybe Serge’s point is that when you’re getting beat like that, to loose balls or rebounds, it can certainly make you look that way.

“I feel like we need to do a better job rebounding the basketball than we did. They were quicker on loose basketballs. They came in from different angles to rebound. They kept balls alive on the glass. We got caught into some rotations a couple times where we didn’t have our block-out assignments lined up.”

Point guard Russell Westbrook is one who has rarely, if ever, been accused of putting his game on cruise control or having anything less than a hard edge and was more political with his description of OKC’s play.

“I wouldn’t say that (soft), but probably just didn’t play hard enough,” Westbrook said. “Yeah, you try to find ways to help each other out, help yourself out, find ways to not let the guy in front of you beat you to the ball, box out, do things that can change the game.”

Westbrook doesn’t feel he’s ever outplayed or out-worked.

“No, not on a night-by- night basis,” he said.

But he understands how it can happen to others.

“Definitely. As a player, I don’t think everybody plays the same way,” Westbrook said. “Some guys do other things better than other guys. So everybody shouldn’t be thinking the way I’m thinking or I should think the way they think. But my job is to be able to help those guys and those guys will be able to help me out.”

Blogtable: Which teams will win in the conference finals?

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: Key player in West finals? | Key player in East finals? |
Which teams will reach The Finals?


> Your prediction for the Western Conference finals and the Eastern Conference finals? Who will win and why?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Warriors in seven. This is going to be one great series, with star power coming out of its pores. It’s taken a long time, but OKC finally got strong play from its supporting cast in toppling San Antonio, and the thought here is that guys like Steven Adams, Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter should be able to continue that stretch against the Warriors, who enter the series banged up. If Andrew Bogut‘s adductor is an issue throughout the series, OKC’s size will have an even greater impact. The reasons for sticking with GSW are these: 1) Klay Thompson does as good a job as anyone I’ve seen guarding Russell Westbrook. He doesn’t stop him, of course, but he makes it as hard as possible, not allowing Russ to break him down off the dribble. 2) Haven’t seen anyone slow down the Lineup of Death all season, and I don’t see the Thunder having the solution to it, either. 3) One team has the MVP, who makes shots no one else would even contemplate taking, and makes them. The other doesn’t. Fin.

In the East, it’s Cavaliers in six. So glad for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who faced down their playoff demons from past years (and the Indiana series in this year’s first round) to take their team somewhere it’s never been. But it ends against a Cleveland team that just has too many players clicking on too many cylinders. Yes, the Raps won the regular season series. But that Cavs team is buried somewhere near the old Richfield Coliseum. This one has been hyper-hot behind the three-point line, and even if that cools off a bit, Cleveland’s found chemistry that it lacked for long stretches of the regular season. A healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have made a huge difference, and LeBron James has gotten a week’s rest. Too many weapons, too much motivation to return to The Finals.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comI’m already on record in our series preview as picking Cleveland in 5. The Cavaliers’ 3-point tsunami, even if it’s not quite what it was against Atlanta, still is going to be too much for Toronto, which has trouble scoring even against less potent opponents.

Out West, give me Golden State in 6. Greater depth, the Warriors’ counters to OKC’s bigs and the defending champs’ gang tactics against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will decide this one. Then we get a repeat – but entirely different version – of last year’s Finals matchup.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comThe Cavaliers in five in the East. Let’s not underestimate the job coach Tyronn Lue has done in getting LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to feel comfortable within themselves and with each other. The Cavs went to The Finals a year ago despite slogging through injuries and battling self-doubt. Now they’re healthy, confident and have added the 3-ball to their arsenal. They’re ready and capable to get back to June and finish the job.

The Warriors in six in the West. The Thunder are now playing with tremendous confidence that borders on cockiness. They’ve been getting solid contributions up and down the roster. That’s enough to make the series interesting. But the Warriors are still the best team in basketball, won the regular season series 3-0 and are on a mission to show all the critics of last year’s championship what they’ve been missing about depth and drive.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comWarriors in 6. I could see it going 7. The Thunder will not go quietly, but Golden State beats opponents from too many directions. The Dubs’ health is obviously a big factor.

Cavaliers in 5. This is the Cleveland team a lot of people thought possible all season but has not spotted until recently.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comIn the West, I’m going with the Warriors in a seven-game classic. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should enjoy a tremendous series, and their support help was a bit better than expected through two rounds of the playoffs. And yet: Golden State is a better defensive team, makes fewer mistakes, has Steph Curry and too many additional weapons that will ultimately wear down OKC in a long series.

In the East, folks are sleeping on the Raptors, who are battle tested after a pair of punishing series against the formidable Pacers and Heat, which they survived even after losing Jonas Valenciunas for good. Therefore, I suspect they’ll push the Cavs to four games.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Raptors needed seven games to beat the offensive anemic Indiana Pacers and the score-in-the-paint-or-don’t-score-at-all Miami Heat. The Cavs are more potent than both of those teams combined, but I’ll give Toronto a game because Game 7 on Sunday was the best they’ve looked in the postseason. Cavs in 5.

The Thunder have two of the most dangerous offensive players in the world and can slow down the Warriors by beating them up on the glass. But Golden State has the defenders to make Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook work hard for their buckets, as well as the league’s No. 1 offense, which never goes stagnant. Warriors in 5.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I’ve gone with the Warriors all season and will not change my mind now, even with the Thunder looking like they are capable of beating anyone they face right now. The Warriors won 73 games for a reason. Golden State will need six games to finish off the Thunder and get back to The Finals for a chance to repeat.

Cleveland has been resting nicely after two sweeps in their first two playoff series. If they play half as well as they did against the Pistons and Hawks, they advance without much of a scare. I’m sure the Cavs would love to make it three straight sweeps, but the Raptors win one up North as the Cavaliers win it in five.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comThe Cavaliers in 5. They’re at at full strength and playing their best basketball of the season.

In the West I’m going to with the Warriors in seven games, because for two years they’ve been the NBA’s most competitive team. Golden State was the hungriest contender in the league all season, which is an amazing achievement for the defending champs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are talented enough to prevail, but can they summon the intensity and focus necessary to upset Golden State? I’m not saying they can’t; I’m just pointing out that no one has done so for a long time.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogCleveland will win in 4. They are focused and playing so well right now, and Toronto will be tired and are still dealing with injuries.

On the other side of the country, as I predicted on last week’s Hang Time Podcast, I think the Oklahoma City Thunder will win in seven games. I know, my Twitter mentions are going to go crazy, but the Thunder are white hot right now, and Westbrook and Durant are playing at the peak of their powers. Every year, some team gets hot in the postseason. And right now it’s the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Blogtable: Key player to watch in Western Conference finals?

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: Key player in West finals? | Key player in East finals? |
Which teams will reach The Finals?


> A key player in the Western Conference Finals – a player who needs to come up big — in order for his team to advance to the NBA Finals?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Andre Roberson. No secret the Warriors will likely put Steph Curry on him on defense to give the MVP an “easy” assignment and let him rest, saving energy for the other end of the floor, while Klay Thompson takes on Russell Westbrook. Roberson’s offensive output in Game 6 against the Spurs — 14 points on 5 of 8 shooting, along with seven rebounds and solid defense against Kawhi Leonard (23 shots to score 22 points) — was key in OKC’s series-ending rout. Roberson shouldn’t be expected to be a go-to guy every night, but anything he can do to make Curry move and expend energy will help the Thunder in the long run.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com Sounds like we’re looking for someone from the underdog team, so I’ll go with Enes Kanter for Oklahoma City. I voted for Kanter as my Kia Sixth Man choice and that’s the guy the Thunder needs against Golden State, coming onto the floor (and staying out there) to wreak havoc with his scoring and work on the offensive glass. The Warriors aren’t a bigs-friendly foe, which makes the challenge even greater.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: I’m going to assume here that Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will all be big and all have their shining moments. So I’m going to reach off the marquee and say that OKC’s Steven Adams must repeat his solid performance at both ends of the floor and step into the spotlight against the Spurs. The Warriors will play small to try to take him out of the game. But if Adams can catch the ball at the rim as he did in the last round, he can punish Golden State and together with fellow big man Enes Kanter could make this series, very, very interesting.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Enes Kanter. I might have picked him anyway, but now, with Andrew Bogut hurting and questionable for Game 1, OKC especially needs to exploit its size advantage inside. If the Thunder can hurt the Warriors on the boards, a possibility, it could take minutes away from Golden State’s small-ball Death Lineup. Maybe not — Bogut’s health could prompt Steve Kerr to go small sooner and more often. If sixth man Kanter can make the Warriors pay with his offense and rebounding, and not get exploited too much on defense, that would be an important step in the OKC upset bid.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: OKC needs something every game from Enes Adams. Or is it Steven Kanter? You get the idea. The big man combo of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams is the ace card for the Thunder. The center position is where they have the decided edge over the Warriors. Sure, the Warriors will combat by going small ball, but why should OKC play them at their game? Golden State is bringing a limping Andrew Bogut and, while Festus Ezeli had moments throughout the playoffs, he’s not as skilled as Kanter/Adams. Kanter came up big in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks and Adams was the same in the Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. You sense a pattern, where both might loom large this round?

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Thunder starting lineup was the best high-usage lineup in the league and was a plus-23 in 32 minutes against the Warriors this season. But Billy Donovan was hesitant to use it late in games, because Andre Roberson‘s inability to shoot made it easier for opponents to defend OKC’s offense. If Roberson can make a few shots (like he did in Game 6 vs. San Antonio) and make the Warriors respect him somewhat on the perimeter (or via off-ball cuts), Donovan won’t have to use Dion Waiters as much, the Thunder will play more minutes with their best lineup on the floor, and they’ll have a better chance of upsetting the champs.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: There are so many obvious names to choose from, but we always expect the stars to rise to the magnitude of the moment. My pick, though, is the two-man big man tandem of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter for the Thunder. They showed up in a major way as the Thunder eliminated the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals and will need to do the same if the Thunder have any chance of upsetting the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder’s ability to go big and force the issue on the inside on both ends could be the winning difference, if they are indeed to spring that upset.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Russell Westbrook is going to be crucial at both ends, beginning with his defense against Steph Curry and/or Klay Thompson. Can he neutralize them to some extent? And can he attack efficiently enough to occupy the Warriors’ defense and enable Durant and others to score from the perimeter? OKC’s hopes of creating an upset will revolve around Westbrook’s aggressive leadership.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: There are some obvious answers to this question – Russell Westbrook, for one – but I’m going to give you a deep cut here: The guy who I think the Thunder could really use a strong series from is Dion Waiters. For so long the Thunder have tried to find an off-guard to pair with Westbrook, particularly in fourth quarters – from Derek Fisher to trading for Randy Foye this season. Waiters was really good against the Spurs, understanding his role offensively and playing tough defense. The Warriors have the best backcourt in the NBA. The Thunder are going to have to at least attempt to slow them down.

Morning Shootaround — May 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Clash of styles for Warriors-Thunder | Kyle Lowry’s star shines in Game 7 | Nothing but difficult choices ahead for Heat | King opens up about failures in Brooklyn

No. 1:   Clash of styles for Warriors-Thunder — The most devastating small-ball lineup in basketball against the most dynamic, big-boy lineup in basketball. That’s the clash of styles that will be on display when the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder square off in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals tonight at Oracle Arena (9 p.m. ET, TNT). There are stars all over the place on both sides (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for the Warriors and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for the Thunder), and yet the style of play and the work of support players will likely be the determining factor in the series. Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman has more:

NBA fans remember the Stephen Curry 37-foot rainbow that won it in overtime. Thunder fans remember the Kevin Durant desperation turnover and foul that sent it to that extra session. But five minutes before, the Warriors trailed by 11 points when Steve Kerr made his last substitution of regulation.

Klay Thompson entered, joining Curry, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. It’s a five-man group nicknamed the Death Lineup, a small-ball mix of versatile shooters, defenders and playmakers that demolished opponents this season. Including that February night in OKC.

They outscored the Thunder by 11 in the final 4:50 but also dictated the style of play. Coach Billy Donovan took Steven Adams out, played a group of wings and tried to match small with small. It didn’t work.

Three months later, the teams meet again, this time with a spot in the NBA Finals on the line. The rosters remain the same, but the Thunder’s identity has morphed, creating a potentially intriguing contrast of styles should OKC stay big when the Warriors unleash their speed.

“Is that the word on the street?” Steven Adams said when told of OKC’s bruising reputation. “Yeah, I’ll take it then. That’s good. I’ll stick with that.”

In beating up the Spurs on the interior — often with a twin tower frontline of Adams and Enes Kanter — OKC embraced its size. The Thunder has maybe the world’s best possible small-ball power forward — Durant — but the rest of its roster doesn’t form around him in that way.

Donovan continues to laud his team’s versatility publicly, saying they can and likely will play varying styles. But the trade-off is simple — should Donovan go small, he’ll be dipping into his thin bag of wings at the expense of his loaded set of big men. More minutes for Kyle Singler, Randy Foye or Anthony Morrow means less for Kanter, Adams or Serge Ibaka.

“Second half of Game 6 against the Spurs, they went small,” Durant said. “I thought Coach made a great adjustment staying big and not panicking.”

The Warriors, of course, are a different beast, both lethal and experienced playing that way. Curry is the star. But Green is the key.

***

(more…)

Morning shootaround — May 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Thunder KO Spurs in Game 6 | Carroll, Deng questionable for Game 6 | Warriors’ Green says ankle improvingWho do Magic turn to next?

No. 1: Thunder become Spurs-like in Game 6 clincher  It may be hard to remember now, but the Oklahoma City Thunder hardly looked like they’d give the San Antonio Spurs a series after Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series. The Spurs won that game by 32 points and looked dominant in every way, shape and form. Yet here we are this morning with the Thunder having ousted the Spurs in Game 6 on Thursday night in a fashion that was more Spurs-like than San Antonio could muster, writes Berry Trammel of The Oklahoman:

The Thunder blasted the Spurs 113-99 Thursday night at Chesapeake Arena to win this Western Conference semifinal series that started with a blowout one way and ended with the same the other way.

And what came in between was even more remarkable. The Thunder became the Spurs. The Spurs became the Thunder.

In winning four of the final five games, OKC went San Antonio-style.

Ferocious defense. Superior passing. Spreading the offensive wealth. Big boosts off the bench.

Those are San Antonio calling cards. But by series’ end, the Spurs were hard-pressed to slow the Thunder, San Antonio’s offense had become isolation-heavy with overreliance on its stars and the bench difference was mighty in OKC’s favor, thanks to the superior play of Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters.

Iso ball? That’s been the knock on the Thunder for years. But after the Game 1 blowout, the Thunder out-assisted the Spurs 92-88, including 12-5 in the first half Thursday.

The Spurs’ best offense was isolation with Kawhi Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge. They are great players, but not as great one-on-one as Durant or Westbrook. The Spurs’ “beautiful game” of passing went by the wayside.

No Spur other than Leonard, Aldridge or Tim Duncan even scored the first 16 minutes.

Bench? By series’ end, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was trying all kinds of combinations, including 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic, ex-Thunder Kevin Martin and 40-year-old Andre Miller, none of whom had played in the series since mopup duty in the Game 1 blowout.

Meanwhile, Billy Donovan shortened his bench and got the same quality play he’s been getting from Waiters and Kanter.

It all was a stunning turnaround from Game 1, when the Thunder seemed outclassed. By series end, the Spurs seemed old and tired. All they had left was their pride.

Pride they had. The Spurs trailed by 26 points after three quarters but didn’t give up. Even cut the lead to 11 late in the game.

But it wasn’t enough. Victory was secure. The transformation was complete.


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