SHOTS, ROYCE. But seriously, what is going on in Oklahoma? I did a little bit of YouTube spelunking and found these clips of money-grabbing half-court shots by OKC fans. In April 2013, you had this guy …
Man, this has been a weird little season so far. Everybody looks terrible on the second night of back-to-backs, and back-to-backs are happening all the time. Miami looks human, Indy looks unbeatable, Brooklyn looks old, J.R. Smith hates Brandon Jennings, and the tank division — Phoenix, Charlotte, Philly, Orlando, and Boston — is actually pretty good. I was getting a little confused by it all. Then, on Thursday night, the Thunder visited the Warriors. All night, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka battled David Lee and the Splash Brothers in front of one of those electric Golden State crowds that make most gyms look like mortuaries.
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is back to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.
Kirk Goldsberry: Bulls-Pacers games are always slow and plodding affairs, but that doesn't mean they aren't good; they always are. Both teams feature great coaches and balanced rosters. And both are trying to unseat Miami as the best team in the Eastern Conference. But last night the game wasn’t close and there’s a pretty obvious reason why. Like most of the league right now, the Bulls had no answer for Roy Hibbert, a.k.a. the Sheriff of the Restricted Area. Hibbert was plus-31 last night; his All-Star counterpart, Joakim Noah, was minus-30. WOWZERS.
Russell Westbrook is a human with a cell phone so I sent him some text messages.
Me: Russy, what’s up? Shea here. Russell: Russy? Me: People don’t call you Russy? Russell: No. Me: Oh. Can I? Russell: No. Me: Hustle Westbrook? Because you play so hard. Russell: No. Me: Muscle Westbrook? Because you have muscles. Russell: No. Me: Russell Bestbrook? Because you’re the best. Russell: No. Me: Tussle Westbrook? Because you’re a fighter. Russell: No. Me: Russell Blessedbrook? Because God loves you. Russell: No. Me: Russell Stressedbrook? Because your knee. Russell: No. Me: Russell Vestbrook? Because your style stuff. Russell: No. Me: Dude, I’m running out of words that rhyme with Russell. Russell: Good. Me: Is “spussle” a word? Russell: No. Me: Russell Cardiopulmonary Arrestbrook? Because you make my heart stop. Russell: Stop. Me: Are you ever even going to respond with more than one word? Russell: No. Me: This hasn’t been that great of a time for me. Russell: Good. Me: Jesus Christ. Bye, Russell. Russell: Bye.
Yesterday we looked at ShotScore, a new method to identify the NBA’s best scorers. You can read the full piece here, but in a nutshell, the method compares the actual point yield of an individual NBA shooter against an estimated tally of what an average NBA shooter would accrue from that exact same set of shots. This is a useful way to evaluate shooting because unlike field goal percentage, it accounts for where on the floor the shooter is most active and factors that in to the analysis. Midrange shooters are compared against the NBA’s average midrange production, etc.
Players like Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Jose Calderon, and Kyle Korver immediately rose to the top; these players consistently outperform league averages from their most active shooting zones. But, it’s also instructive to identify the players who make shots at rates much lower than league averages, the guys that regularly underperform relative to their shooting cohort. Here is the bottom five:
I’m normally not a big “gut feeling” guy, but I randomly mentioned to the Grantland bosses last week in L.A. that the Thunder just “felt due” for some unexpected move. They didn’t have enough financial flexibility to add even one meaningful NBA player in free agency, perhaps leaving them (and their rivals) to wonder whom they might have lured had the league kept Kevin Durant’s max salary at its original level. They’ve watched the Western Conference get stronger around them. The Spurs are the Spurs, the Grizzlies tweaked around the edges (including signing Mike Miller, one of several wing shooters the Thunder could have used), the Clippers reinvented themselves, the Warriors are good and young, and the Rockets annual candy budget is probably near the $185,000 or so Andre Roberson lost when the Thunder hardballed him.
But this wasn’t, and still isn’t, a sob story. The Thunder are contenders, even with Kevin Martin gone and no veteran in his place. And that’s sort of the point: The window is still open, even with the rocky offseason, only there are more Western Conference teams strong enough to shove it closed. A team in that position — a contender, but a wounded one with hunters stalking it — cannot afford to stand still, or to wait for next July.
That portrait gets more interesting now that Russell Westbrook will miss something like 20 games after doctors discovered complications from an earlier surgery to repair his torn meniscus. The obvious way to jolt a franchise is via trade, but the Thunder’s salary structure makes a game-changing deal difficult. Kendrick Perkins is the only highly paid player the Thunder might be willing to move unless they find a blockbuster involving Serge Ibaka, and the rest of the trade chips earn so little money as to make salary-matching a challenge in a big-time deal. There are interesting trade options at lower prices, and the Thunder could sign a minimum-salaried ball handler — Roddy Beaubois, Daniel Gibson, Chris Duhon, et al. — without going into the luxury tax, provided they waive one of the Hasheem Thabeet/Daniel Orton/Ryan Gomes trio. The Thunder have some interesting young pieces, a few appealing international guys, and a Mavs pick that could become unprotected in 2018. You could make a deal for a semi-unwanted mid-priced wing — Lou Williams? John Salmons? Courtney Lee? Evan Turner? — with that kind of treasure chest. (The Thunder have two significant trade exceptions, including a $6.5 million bad boy leftover from the Kevin Martin sign-and-trade, but using either would take them over the tax line.)
In case yinz were busy getting to Pittsburgh to wait, yinz? Who the hell are yinz? Anyway, here's what you may have missed in sports on Tuesday:
Oh my goodness, hockey's back? Hockey's back! And with it came a barrage of goals from defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago, which beat Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, 6-4, in its season opener. "Ten goals?" yelled 58-year-old Blackhawks fan Gary Habermeyer. "What the hell is this garbage? Polo? What happened to hockey?" When his son-in-law Dan Nielson tried to explain that there were a number of offseason rule changes put in place by the NHL to increase scoring, Habermeyer slammed down the legs of his Barcalounger and shoved a finger in Nielson's face. "I'll tell you what the problem is," Habermeyer shot back. "It's your generation. A bunch of showboaters. No one willing to do the hard work. No one willing to play defense. Patrick Kane? That's just a child wearing skates carrying around a big stick. When things get hard he'll just shut down the government. Not like Bobby Hull. Now there was a real man. Don't look at your phone when we're having a heart-to heart conversation!" But Nielson didn't look up from his phone, as he was texting his wife, Bridget, to say that she owed him more than one for spending the evening bonding with her father, and also to ask what Patrick Kane had to do with the government shutdown.
Pittsburgh's battery of Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin made sure the Pirates' first postseason trip in 21 years would not be a one-game affair, as they topped the Cincinnati Reds, 6-2, in the NL wild-card playoff. "I just keep thinking, What could I have done differently?" said Reds manager Dusty Baker after the game. Baker then took a moment to think back over the events of the game, during which he managed to use seven pitchers without deploying superstar closer Aroldis Chapman, before adding, "And the answer is nothing."
What's that? You were wondering exactly how many days until the start of the NBA season? Well, you're in luck! The Triangle is counting down the days for all of us.
By now you've probably heard about the Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant feud, but let's review exactly what happened and why it's so wonderful. First ...
How did the Durant and Wade feud start?
Durant did a video interview with something called Cinesport, and they read him a list of Sports Illustrated's top 10 players in the NBA. "I think you're missing James Harden," Durant said. They asked who he'd take off the list.
James Harden and Kevin Durant talk to Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose about how close they were before the trade, how they keep in touch, and how it is like they got divorced and Durant got to keep Russell Westbrook.
It's mid-July, the offseason is two weeks old, the second (or third?) Dwightmare is officially over, and we have at least three teams who vaulted themselves into the title contender conversation. This summer's especially fun because teams who were good last year (Nets, Rockets, Warriors, Clippers) have gotten much better, and then you have a separate group of teams who are going into scorched-earth tanking mode already. In a normal year, you're not technically tanking until you bench your best players for the final three months of the season, but what the Sixers just did has gotta qualify. Ditto for the Suns, Magic, and especially the Jazz, who let Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk and then replaced them with Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson. INSPIRED.
The offseason is always great, but this one's been especially fun as two sides of the league do everything they can to either contend for a title or gut their roster and lose 50 games. In the middle we have the Lakers, reloading with Chris Kaman and Jordan Farmar and Nick Young as Kobe's wingmen for next year. Again, the offseason is GREAT.
Anyway, to celebrate the season, let's check out a handful of teams and hand out grades for what's happened thus far. We begin with the trade that kicked everything off back on draft night …
OK, let's acknowledge this up front: When Russell Westbrook got hurt, everyone agreed it almost certainly killed OKC's title chances. They probably wouldn't even make it to the conference finals, we thought. Fast-forward two weeks, they go down in the Western semis, and suddenly people are criticizing Kevin Durant, second-guessing Sam Presti, and calling for Scott Brooks's job. It's ridiculous, yes.
And yet ... Even if the title window isn't closing as long as Durant and Westbrook are there, shouldn't it matter that the best young team we've seen since the Kobe-Shaq Lakers blew the doors off the West and went to the NBA Finals last year, and then came back and got worse? That happened, right? Even with Westbrook, this Grizzlies team would've given Oklahoma City problems, ditto for the Spurs, and the Heat would've destroyed them if they had gotten that far. Their regular-season numbers were great, but I tend to be on Team Marc Stein here: "The regular season didn't expose OKC but the playoffs would have."
If the first two games were any indication, the second-round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies is going to be decided by the slimmest of margins. A mere eight points is all that has separated the two squads as they head to the River City, and between two evenly matched sides, any advantage, no matter how minuscule, could prove to be the deciding factor. It’s with this in mind that a four-minute stretch from Game 2’s second quarter might say a lot about Oklahoma City’s chances.
In the absence of Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City can no longer overcome its role players’ offensive deficiencies with the sheer firepower of two superstars. To come anywhere close to the incredibly efficient offense they were in the regular season, the Thunder now need space and shooters around Kevin Durant. Against Houston, a team with exactly one effective big man (Omer Asik), this was easily accomplished without exposing the Thunder to mismatch problems inside.
The Grizzlies duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bring a different challenge. They make it much more difficult for the Thunder to both field these smaller lineups and match up with the Memphis front line. In two games, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has chosen to match the Grizzlies behemoths with his own, but this has meant giving a staggering number of minutes to two players, Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet, who should be relative afterthoughts.
Making adjustments in the playoffs is like any art form, in that inspiration is derived from experience. As coaches navigate the gauntlet of playoff basketball, they rely heavily on the situations they’ve already seen. When a coach makes a brilliant, calculated gamble or keenly alters his team’s tactics on the fly, it’s not a moment of virtuosity taking place on a higher plane. It’s a product of tapping into years of scenarios he’s already come across. Perhaps no coach is better at reflecting on that process than Stan Van Gundy. Widely recognized as one of the best at his craft, Van Gundy has experienced almost everything the NBA postseason has to offer — from the highs of coaching in the NBA Finals to the lows of an untimely first-round exit.
But one element of in-game and game-to-game adjustments that remains steady no matter the scenario, Van Gundy says, is that they’re never all that drastic.
“Barring injuries, it’s just going to stay to the core of who you are,” Van Gundy said. “You’re not going to play the way Denver does during the year and then back up your defense and play from the 3-point line and not get in the passing lanes and stuff. I don’t see those kinds of adjustments from people. It’s much more subtle.”
That first qualifier is one that’s come up several times already in these playoffs. As we’ve seen in Oklahoma City’s recent struggles, an injury to a star player can throw an entire team out of whack. Though a lot changes for those teams, the adjustment doesn’t necessarily have to be widespread. When talking about the Thunder, Van Gundy mentions that while things will no doubt be different, they likely won’t be new. Instead, OKC will have to rely on using previously less-emphasized concepts more frequently.
The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and as the amazing continues to happen, the Grantland crew wants to help you buff up on some of the lesser-known faces who are populating basketball's second season.
Who Is He? Patrick Beverley.
Where Is He From? Arkansas.
Years Played: Rookie.
What’s His Salary? $298,092.
His Game in 25 Words or Fewer: Athletic point guard who can get to (and finish) at the rim, as well as shoot from 3. A willing and effective on-ball defender.
The first thought is one of genuine sadness, just as it has been with Derrick Rose, Danilo Gallinari, David Lee, Andrew Bynum, Rajon Rondo, Danny Granger, Kobe Bryant, and every other important player on a playoff team who has suffered a season-ending injury over the last calendar year. This is a truly unprecedented run of star injuries. But with apologies to those players, plus Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert, and so many others, the sadness here is a little bit deeper in a big-picture sense.
My personal fear about the NBA this season, and about these NBA playoffs, was that they constituted an overlong non-drama with a predictable ending. The Heat are 35-1 in the last 36 games in which LeBron James has played. That is very nearly half an NBA season, with one loss. To review: NBA rules dictate that one team must defeat another team four times in seven games in order to eliminate said team and advance to the next round. Four losses, seven games. Miami is 35-1 in the last 36 games featuring the world’s best player. The math it is not good.