Kansas Basketball: Jayhawks Need a Go-to Scorer to Step Up Before Big 12 Play

The University of Kansas Jayhawks keep finding a way to pull out victories in close games against high-quality opponents. 

However, the luck of the Jayhawks is bound to run out sometime soon if they don’t identify a go-to scorer before Big 12 play begins January 7 at Baylor. 

In the closing stages of the 63-60 win over a talented No. 13 Utah squad, Kansas had to rely on six clutch free throws and two solid defensive possessions to leave the Sprint Center with its eighth victory of the season. 

The good news for the Jayhawks is they have no problem sinking foul shots, which is keeping them afloat at the moment. Brannen Greene is automatic from the charity stripe, and the team, as a whole, went 21-of-23 from the line against Utah. 

That is the one attribute about this particular Kansas team that remains consistent. But it is the other inconsistent qualities of the Jayhawks that will eventually do them in. 

As the player with the most experience on the roster, Perry Ellis is expected to step up in key situations. But the junior forward scored a single basket in the final 10 minutes of Saturday’s victory. 

In the close win over Georgetown Wednesday, Ellis was also nowhere to be found in the scoring department during the final 10 minutes, as he made one field goal and two free throws. 

Ellis is a reliable player on the defensive end of the court, but he has to be willing to step up and sink baskets during crucial stretches of key games. 

In the tremendous second half against Florida, Wayne Selden Jr. was the star with 21 points in front of the home crowd at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks also saw freshman Cliff Alexander show up in major fashion with a commanding double-double against a weakened Florida frontcourt. 

In the two games following the massive come-from-behind win at home, Selden and Alexander have combined to score just 23 points. The regression in scoring typifies the season Kansas is having so far. Once the Jayhawks take one step forward, they end up taking two steps back. 

The young age of the team can be blamed partly for those struggles. But when you have an experienced player like Ellis on the floor, you would expect him to inspire the young guys with a few clutch performances. 

Right now, the Jayhawks do not have any standout individuals on the roster. They are winning games as a team, but that will only get them so far against the likes of Texas and Iowa State in conference play. 

With four nonconference games left against Lafayette, Temple, Kent State and UNLV, someone has to put the team on their back and prove to Bill Self he can trust someone in the final five minutes of a close game. 

We saw some signs of life from Kelly Oubre Jr. in the first half against Utah, but he ended with nine points in just 17 minutes. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk also has the potential to develop into the go-to guy, but he only received 10 minutes of playing time after a cold spell over the last few games. 

All of the statistics suggest everyone on the Kansas roster from Ellis and Jamari Traylor in the frontcourt to the shooters in the backcourt are having trouble with consistency this season. 

The same stats also lead us to believe Self has little faith in keeping his players on the court for long spells. When Self finally gave Traylor an expanded role against Utah, he rewarded his coach with 13 points in 26 minutes. 

The junior forward also helped clog the paint on defense during most of the game, which is likely to lead to more minutes over the next few games. 

Instead of displaying a short leash with his players, Self should let his guys work out the growing pains on the court. Maybe what Self needs is someone like Traylor to prove success can be had without working under the short leash. 

The best thing for the younger players like Oubre, Alexander and Mykhailiuk to do to fix their inconsistent numbers is to play more. Sitting on the bench will not help the progression of these players one bit. 

By failing to give his freshmen a consistent amount of minutes, Self is hurting himself and the team. A consistent clutch performer doesn’t just pop up out of the blue in one game. 

For now, Self will have to rely on the team’s consistent approach at the line and some periods of solid defense. 

If the Jayhawks are going to continue their streak of consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles, one of the young stars must accept the role of finisher. 

Who that player is remains to be seen. And based off what we have seen so far, the absent go-to scorer may not show up for quite some time. 

 

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All stats obtained from ESPN.com.

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Grading the Bulls: Jimmy Butler Takes Next Step as Best 2-Guard in the East

The Chicago Bulls have dealt with injuries better than most teams, as key starters and role players are missing games yet they are still maintaining pace with the rest of the East. 

Has Derrick Rose played enough to live up to expectations? How significant has Jimmy Butler’s breakout season been for Chicago? Can Pau Gasol keep up his consistent play? 

Watch as Stephen Nelson is joined by Jason Goff, who provides his quarter-season grades for the Chicago Bulls in the video above. 

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Kansas Basketball: Jayhawks Must Get Freshmen More Involved to Take Next Step

Sometimes you just have to let the kids play.

Kansas earned an impressive come-from-behind win over Florida after being down 15 at halftime, and it was mainly the underclassmen who fueled the rally. If Bill Self learned anything from this, it’s that the younger players on the roster have to be allowed to play their game.

Sophomore Wayne Selden was the true star of the day, totaling 21 points while showing the aggressiveness the team needs on the offensive end. However, freshmen Cliff Alexander and Devonte Graham were huge as well, especially in the second half.

Add these two young stars to Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Kelly Oubre, and this class can be a game-changer. The key for the Jayhawks this year will be to actually take advantage of the talent in front of them.

To the surprise of many, the freshman averaging the most minutes so far this season is Mykhailiuk, the 17-year-old Ukrainian who wasn’t even rated as a recruit on ESPN.com. While he is raw on the court and arguably too passive at times, he generally avoids mistakes, which is likely what allows him to stay in the game.

However, it’s important to remember that mistakes in November and December are not as bad as ones in March. Freshmen are going to have their problems both physically and mentally, but this is the time to learn from them.

Through the first seven games, the highly touted group of players has had an incredibly short leash, and it is limiting what the Jayhawks can do.

Self even admitted he considered benching Alexander against Florida due to poor play early.

“We were not very pleased with Cliff the first half,” the head coach explained after the game. “I thought about…I said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll play him the second half.’ It’s as upset as I was with (his) alertness and focus. The second half, he was great. We try hard, but our focus is not good at all.”

The forward finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double, aggressively going to the rim and earning trips to the free-throw line. 

This same strategy was seen in Graham, who totaled nine points on one field-goal attempt. The guard went 9-of-10 from the charity stripe and also helped out with three assists and three steals.

Bleacher Report’s C.J. Moore was impressed by the effort, saying, ”KU getting big minutes from Devonte‘ Graham. Hustling his ass off. Making smart plays.”

In past games, this duo has been a bit invisible on the offensive end while also making mental errors on defense. While there were still a few lapses on various possessions, the second half featured players competing with more confidence and intelligence.

They showed that they are capable of great things if given the opportunity.

Sam Vecenie of CBS Sports called for this strategy going into the second half Friday night and turned out to be right:

Even if the Jayhawks weren’t able to complete their comeback, a loss at this stage of the season would’ve been worth getting these types of performances from their young players if it leads to more success in the future.

This brings us to Oubre, who was once again limited with two points in eight minutes against the Gators. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman (subscription required) recently examined the wing’s lack of production and discovered he has seen the fewest minutes of any top-10 recruit in the past decade.

Although this unfortunately doesn’t seem likely to be changing anytime soon, Self recently admitted the freshman has performed well in practice:

If this is the case, he has to be given a chance to really show what he can do in a game, and that doesn’t mean two-minute bursts before being benched. He needs the freedom to compete and eventually gain some confidence and learn how to be productive.

Anyone who has ever seen Oubre plays knows he is capable of big things. At 6’7″, he can use his size and athleticism to finish at or above the rim while also having the ability to launch threes with a smooth stroke. At his best, he could be an almost unguardable offensive player at this level.

The problem is he won’t reach his potential when the only thing he’s currently guarding is the water cooler.

Obviously, Kansas has been involved in a number of close games against top competition, and the coaching staff wants to use players it can trust. However, things do not get too much easier for the rest of the year, especially in the ridiculously deep Big 12.

Like the other youngsters, Oubre has to be given a chance to show what he can do on the court in order for the Jayhawks to reach their expectations. Regardless of age, these are some of the most talented players in the nation, and they are the ones capable of carrying the squad to a conference title and beyond.

Graham and Alexander already rank first and second on the team, respectively, in overall offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com (subscription required). More involvement would likely only be a good thing.

Duke and Kentucky have already embraced the idea of using freshmen as go-to options, just as Kansas did a year ago with Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. The current class might be less polished, but that comes with time.

The second half against Florida showed how good this team can be when things are going well. In reality, the group is just scratching the surface of its potential.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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Has Kyrie Irving finally taken that next step?

In the depths of section 201 sits a Cavs fan whom everyone knows. You’ve heard him if you’ve been inside of Quicken Loans Arena during a game. You’ve heard him if you’ve listened closely to your television. You’ve read tweets about him. You’ve wondered what the hell he could be thinking. He’s the guy who, when Kyrie Irving steps to the free throw line and the arena turns dead silent, belts chants of “MVP” at a lung-exploding volume. And it’s not just once or twice; it’s every…single…time.
The tongue-in-cheek nature of this gentleman’s otherwise obnoxious exploits. After all, this isn’t an action specific to this season, and chanting MVP while any member of the rank and file hoist free throws has become the new ironic humor amongst NBA fans. (Because it’s funny when MVP chants rain down upon the Luke Harangodys of the world.) The catch is, this time around, at least for these last few weeks, despite Irving being second banana in Cleveland, said gentleman may not have been too

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Why the Toronto Raptors will take the next step?

May 4th, 2014. All the memories still so vivid in my mind.  It was the 4th quarter, Game 7, and 8.8 seconds left. Terrence Ross had just picked off an inbounds pass and knocked it off Paul Pierce to give the Toronto Raptors possession.  Maple Leaf Square, or more appropriately at the time, “Jurassic Park,” and the entire Air Canada Centre was sent into a frenzy.  Being there first hand, the scene was one of the wildest things I have ever experienced.  The Raptors had a chance to win only their second playoff series in franchise history.  It felt like destiny.  Then, it all went wrong.
Grievis Vasquez was walking towards the left sideline before being re-directed by the officials to the opposite side.  Oh no. Coach Dwayne Casey had made a rookie mistake and drawn up a play on the wrong side of the court.  The inbounds play carried on as planned despite being drawn up on the wrong side of the court and it was an absolute mess. Kyle Lowry received the ball on the ensuing play and was swarmed by the B

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Has LeBron James Lost a Step in His Return to the Cavs? History Says It’s Likely

LeBron James was going home eventually. Most everyone around the NBA expected him to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers at some point before his career ended; after all, he’d never fully severed ties with the area and being viewed as a traitor where he grew up didn’t seem like something James wanted to face for the rest of his life. However much his skin thickened from the fallout of leaving, being loved by those who came up as he did still clearly matters to LeBron.

The only question was whether or not he’d come back while he was still at the height of his powers, or at least with a ready enough reserve to drive the franchise to a championship. That’s why, when he decided last summer to return, the howl of joy from northern Ohio was so unbridled. LeBron James wasn’t coming home as a battle-scarred veteran of skirmishes waged elsewhere—he was coming home as a warrior in his prime, ready to singlehandedly, if need be, deliver the chalice for which Clevelanders have thirsted for so long.

Or did he?

By the calendar, James, at 30, should have at least three solid seasons left to ply his do-everything talents. Michael Jordan, the measuring stick for every modern-day championship-contending superstar, played three more full seasons and won three more rings after the age of 30. Why couldn’t James duplicate that feat or even go beyond it? His listed height and weight (6’8″, 250 pounds) suggests he’s merely added 10 pounds since his rookie year and one before-and-after comparison will tell you how far from reality that is; but by any measure he has several inches and pounds on Jordan (last listed as 6’6″ and 216) and big men are generally able to squeeze out a few more quality years.

NBA teams, though, know better than to base where a player is in his career on his age; seasons and minutes played are a far better barometer. Looking at that metric, James didn’t return to Cleveland at the point Jordan began his pursuit of a second three-peathe returns with nearly the same mileage Jordan had on him when he retired from the Bulls for good at age 34.

Two teams at the forefront of the analytics movement told B/R they have tried to determine the tipping point at which career minutes played take something irretrievable from an NBA player. Both teams said they’ve yet to find it because there are too many variablesbody composition, style of play, role, concentration of minutes and ratio of regular-season to postseason minutes being only a few. That leaves us merely with anecdotal evidence, not only in terms of when a player realizes the NBA grind has diminished his physical ability for good, but also of the impact of multiple deep playoff runs. Every player will tell you the stress and heightened level of play in the postseason extracts something even greater than regular-season games and that the shortened offseason doubles down on the damage because their bodies have less time to recover.

“It takes a lot out of you that you can’t get back,” says Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who went to two consecutive NBA Finals (2002, ’03) with the New Jersey Nets. “Just the mental grind takes time to recover from. And then if you’re handling the ball 50 percent of the time? Look at every guy who has had to do that and gone to multiple finals in a rowthey’ve all broken down in some way. LeBron is the only one I can think of who hasn’t.”

Kidd turned 29 a few months before the 2003 Finals. Minutes played, regular season and playoffs combined at that point: 29,085.

A year later, he underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee. One of the most explosive and athletic point guards ever had to transform himself from a one-man fast break into a walk-it-up technician and three-point specialist. He did all that after returning to his original team, the Dallas Mavericks, and eventually earned himself another trip to the Finals and the ring he’d missed out on with the Nets. But where he was the driving force – literally and figuratively – nine years earlier, he was now merely a cog. An invaluable, important cog, but a cog nonetheless.

Mark Jackson is 33rd on the all-time minutes played list with 39,121 plus another 3,776 from the postseason, despite only going to one NBA Finals. He doubts he’d logged any of them if he hadn’t learned early on to do what Kidd did in his return to Dallas.

“I was never a phenomenal athlete,” he said. “It didn’t slow down for me because it was already slow. If I’d had speed I’m not sure I would’ve made [it in] the league because it forced me to understand angles and timing right from the start.”

Even Jackson, though, recognized a change around the 20,000-minute mark. “I played against Allen Iverson his rookie year,” he said. “He shot the gap and steals the ball. There was a time when I could’ve fouled him or at least made him change direction. But I couldn’t even catch him. I realized then the clock was ticking.”

Kidd retired third on the all-time list of regular-season minutes played with 50,111. Microfracture surgery allowed him to extend his career and for a time he still felt he could hold his own athletically, but he believes the 40,000-minute mark was another turning point. He had to rely on his vision, strength and hands to compensate for what his legs no longer could do.

He’s noticed Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, among others, hit the same physical plateau around the same time.

James not only has Kidd beat 4-2 in consecutive Finals reached, and Finals’ appearances overall, 5-3, but the number of postseason minutes logged each time is not close. Kidd crossed the 850-minute playoff threshold once, logging 803, 852 and 744 minutes in his three longest playoff runs. James crossed the 950-minute threshold twice, logging 893, 922, 983, 960 and 763 minutes in his longest runs.

Jordan? He played more than 900 minutes in one postseason just once, in 1992.

His overall minutes in his two three-peats were fairly comparable (2,409 in the second vs. 2,392 in the first) but keep in mind that he played a different role capturing the second trifecta. He still closed games, but facilitating the offense and taking on the toughest defensive assignments fell far more often to his younger sidekick, Scottie Pippen.

Jordan bowed out after 35,887 regular-season minutes and 7,474 posteason minutes played. Three years later, he’d return one last time and add a little over 5,000 minutes to his regular-season total with the Wizards.

James, entering this season, already was closing in on Jordan’s Chicago totals with 33,276 regular-season and 6,717 postseason minutes. Cramps? Yeah, the man has earned the right to cramp up.

It’s actually remarkable that back spasms and leg cramps are the extent of James’ physical issues, considering how much he already has played. Sure, the variables also include a different level of physicality in today’s game vs. Jordan and Jackson and Kidd’s (early) eras. James hasn’t had to endure anywhere near the same body-to-body punishment that any of them did and it’s hard to know exactly how that fits into the equation.

The point? If James looks tired, he has a right to be. If he has lost a step, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. And if he isn’t up to the task of doing all that he did in Miami for the last four years, there’s a very good reason. This might not just be about “the process,” as James likes to say, of learning how to win championships.

This might just be about the price.

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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Ohio State Basketball: Shannon Scott Proving Ready to Step Up and Lead Buckeyes

The 2014-15 Ohio State basketball team is only two games into its new season, but it may have a case of no Aaron Craft, no problem if Shannon Scott’s early performances are any indication.

Scott controlled the pace of the entire 74-63 victory over Marquette on Tuesday night and finished with eight points on 4-of-7 shooting, an astounding 14 assists, two rebounds and two steals.

That game was only just the beginning for the senior leader on a team that is loaded with young contributors. It is his fourth year on campus, and he finally looks fully comfortable in his role.

This is his team.

While the 4-of-7 shooting was certainly noteworthy, Scott’s 14 assists are what turned heads. Eleven Warriors pointed out that it has been a two-game pattern already, while Lori Schmidt of 97.1 The Fan passed along the rather amusing reaction from Scott’s teammates when they found out how close he was to a school record:

Scott not only led the way in the victory, but he also caught the eye of the national media along the way. Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports gave the Buckeyes point guard some praise, while ESPN commentator Dan Dakich said on the broadcast that Scott is actually one of the toughest guards to defend in the Big Ten this season.

Dakich’s comments may be a bit hyperbolic in the aftermath of an excellent game, but it was crystal-clear that Scott is ready to step into the national spotlight as a senior distributor.

Perhaps the best part of Tuesday’s game for the Buckeyes is that all 10 players who saw action on the court scored. It will be just as much Scott’s job to keep everyone involved in this group that can go 10 deep as head coach Thad Matta’s. Matta will be the one tasked with keeping the legs fresh before the tournament, while Scott will be the one asked to keep everyone happy and involved with his precise passing.

Against Marquette, Kam Williams scored 15 points, Sam Thompson had 10, Marc Loving added 10 and the team as a whole made eight of 15 three-pointers. Amir Williams, who has been inconsistent at best his entire Ohio State career, scored 12 points and made all six of his field-goal attempts.

That’s not even mentioning freshman D’Angelo Russell, who may just be the most talented player on this entire team.

Scott can work with Amir Williams, Anthony Lee and even Trey McDonald on pick-and-rolls or set up athletes like Russell, Sam Thompson, Kam Williams, Loving, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate in transition as slashers toward the rim or when they are spotting up from downtown.

On the defensive side, Scott spearheads the different zone looks that Matta has utilized in the early going. Ohio State even mixed in some 1-3-1 on Tuesday.

We already know from Scott’s track record playing alongside Craft that he is capable of being a lethal defender. He was an All-Big Ten defender the last two seasons who forced turnovers (two steals a game last year and 1.7 a game in 2012-13) and got out in transition afterward.

There is no reason to expect the defensive results to change in Scott’s senior season.

There are so many young players on this roster that someone needs to take the initiative on the defensive end. It may be less glamorous than scoring, but it has also been the key to victory ever since Matta took over at Ohio State.

As the senior leader and point guard who takes pride in his defense, Scott will do this all season.

We know what Scott is capable of on the defensive side, and we saw a glimpse of his offensive abilities on Tuesday against Marquette. The reason this is so encouraging for Buckeyes fans is that Scott has wasted little time breaking out this season after playing under Craft’s shadow his entire career.

The talent has always been there for Scott since he was a highly touted recruit, but Craft was the one who caught the attention of the fanbase (and opposing fanbases) and commentators across the country. It was for good reason too, considering Craft was the Defensive Player of the Year last season.

Scott undoubtedly learned from playing with Craft for three seasons, but he may actually be the better offensive player. Neither is a deadeye jump-shooter, but Scott is more than willing to distribute and get everyone involved. He is faster in the open court than Craft ever was, which is critical for this year’s team that is loaded with wing players and shooters who are ready to get out in transition.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing of all is that Scott understands this is his team and is embracing his role as a senior leader, which was evident in his preseason comments, via Tim Shoemaker of Eleven Warriors:

It’s not really a different feeling because I’ve had a lot of these guys around me for the last three years so I kind of understand what they like to do on the court, but I understand that I’ve gotta be very aggressive this year. I can’t look to Aaron to help me on the court, I’ve really gotta pick it up and keep going by myself in getting everyone where they need to be. 

If Scott continues to get everyone involved like he did on Tuesday, the Buckeyes will be playing deep into March.

 

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Is 2014-15 the Year Oklahoma City Thunder Finally Take a Step Back?

The Oklahoma City Thunder can do everything in their power to fight against the odds, but they are battling a numbers game nearly impossible to win.

Championship hopes are rarely dashed in early November, but Oklahoma City’s may be an exception to the rule. With barely enough bodies left to play an NBA game—let alone win one—the Thunder are running out of gas at a time most teams have yet to even rev up their engines.

Oklahoma City’s chances of building on a three-year run with winning percentages above .700 are already extinguished. This is no longer a matter of whether the Thunder will regress in 2014-15, but rather a question of just how far the mighty will fall.

 

Decimated By Injury

The Thunder’s first sign of trouble this season should have hit the basketball world with the force of a head-on collision. Reigning MVP Kevin Durant suffered a fracture in his right foot, putting the perennial contenders into an obviously precarious situation.

But the injury was never viewed through that lens. Rather, it was seen as an opportunity for the team to grow without him, ideally fortifying the ranks around him before his eventual return.

Even Durant himself saw the potential perks of temporarily being missing in action.

“I’m looking at the positive side of it,” he said, per ESPN.com’s Royce Young. “It’s a win-win, basically, because I’m learning a lot while I’m out about the game, and my teammates are getting lots of opportunities because there are a lot of minutes out there to help the team.”

There was only one problem with the plan—the injury bug didn’t stop at Durant. Instead, it tore through OKC‘s ranks like a swarm of starving grasshoppers wreaking havoc on a garden.

At this point, it’s easier to keep track of the dwindling number of Thunder players who have avoided the injury report, as Young noted:

Missing Durant, Russell Westbrook (hand fracture), 2014 first-rounder Mitch McGary (foot fracture), Anthony Morrow (sprained MCL), Jeremy Lamb (back), Grant Jarrett (ankle) and Andre Roberson (sprained foot), the Thunder entered Tuesday’s game against the Toronto Raptors with eight available bodies. More concerning, OKC had just one win to show for in its first four contests.

One of those numbers changed during the game, and it was not the one Thunder fans would have liked. In the midst of their 100-88 loss to the Raptors, they lost yet another player to injury.

This time it was Perry Jones, a third-year forward who had seemed on the verge of a breakout after totaling 71 points on 53.2 percent shooting over his last three outings. A third-quarter collision with Raptors forward Patrick Patterson left Jones sprawled out on the floor, clutching his right knee.

“The team is calling it a right knee contusion, which would suggest he’s day to day, but at this point, who even knows,” Young wrote. “Hope for the best, expect the worst, and all that stuff.”

As scoring guard Reggie Jackson observed after the game, per The Oklahoman‘s Darnell Mayberry, OKC‘s worst-case scenario start keeps finding ways to get even worse:

“Every year there is one team that the basketball gods just hammer with injuries,” CBS Sports’ Matt Moore wrote. “…The Thunder have been pounded so far into the ground you can’t even see them anymore.”

At the very least, what one can see is almost impossible to recognize.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks has been forced to play cards he never even knew were in his hand. Of his team’s seven healthy-ish players—Jackson has battled a wrist problem and is clearly not 100 percent—two are point guards (Jackson and Sebastian Telfair) and the other five are bigs (Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Lance Thomas, Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins).

That has led OKC to some interesting lineups and hardly any production. The Thunder currently sit 26th in offensive efficiency and 24th at the opposite side. Their .200 winning percentage is the second-lowest in the Western Conference.

As incredibly talented as Durant and Westbrook are, there will only be so much they can do whenever they return to the floor. If OKC digs too deep a hole without them, this season could be lost without ever really getting started.

 

Frightening Depth Out West

When Durant dropped out of the equation, ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton (subscription required) projected the MVP’s absence would cost the Thunder two or three wins.

That may not sound like much, but it’s enough to hold major implications in this congested conference. Last season, three wins separated the third-seeded Los Angeles Clippers from the fifth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. The same gap stood between the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors and the ninth-seeded Phoenix Suns, who missed the playoffs despite rattling off 48 wins during the regular season.

So, yes, three wins can have a significant impact on postseason positioning. And the Thunder are at serious risk of losing much more ground than that with so many players having since joined Durant on the sideline.

When (if?) OKC gets back to full strength, it could be holding a record that stomps out any dream of a miraculous turnaround.

“It’s not hard to imagine it at something like 8-17 when the stars come back,” Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote of OKC‘s record. “The math from there is daunting. Oklahoma City would have to go 41-16 just to reach the 49 wins it took to snag the No. 8 spot last season. And that 8-17 record, as bad as it looks, might be optimistic.”

The West will not wait for the Thunder to recover.

The conference boasts each of the league’s final three undefeated teams: Warriors, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies. It’s also home to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who are riding a ridiculous run of 15 consecutive 50-win seasons.

The Spurs brought back all parts of their banner-raising roster, and the other three teams made impactful additions over the offseason.

The Warriors strengthened their bench with Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Brandon Rush. The Rockets found a perimeter stopper in Trevor Ariza, who may be a better fit for this roster than the offensive-minded Chandler Parsons was. The Grizzlies added some needed offensive punch in the form of veteran Vince Carter.

Then there’s the Los Angeles Clippers, a team with two MVP candidates (Blake Griffin and Chris Paul), one of the best coaches in the business (Doc Rivers) and an incredibly enthusiastic new owner (Steve Ballmer). And the Dallas Mavericks, who are blending some familiar faces from their 2011 championship team with new, explosive offensive weapons.

The Blazers won 54 games last season, then added some reserve relief with Chris Kaman, Steve Blake and a healthy C.J. McCollum. The Suns terrorized with two point guards before (Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic) and have since added a third to their potent mix (Isaiah Thomas).

“It seems like everyone in the West got better,” Warriors center Andrew Bogut said, per Bay Area News Group’s Diamond Leung. “… There are so many good teams. Fifty wins might give you eighth (place), barely.”

As scary as that sounds, it’s absolutely true. The other seven playoff teams from last season seem ready to reclaim their spots, and a number of clubs are angling to take OKC’s postseason seat.

The West can make stumbles seem like free-falls.

If the Thunder cannot right the ship sooner than later, they could be in serious jeopardy of never leaving the dock.

 

Weighing Hope Against Reality

A team with Durant and Westbrook on its roster will never fall completely out of the championship chase. If the Thunder can find a way to snag a playoff spot, they could still be a force regardless of their seed—though a daunting climb through the Western Conference would become even more difficult on the road.

But OKC‘s injury issues have backed this team into a corner. And if there is an escape route, it’s one that involves the type of fortune the Thunder cannot seem to find.

The challenge isn’t simply getting Durant and Westbrook back in action. It’s also having the young pieces on this roster healthy enough to take advantage of this opportunity to hasten their development.

The Thunder know what to expect from their two superstars and, to a lesser extent, from Ibaka. What they’re still finding out, though, is how heavy a load their prospects can carry.

If Jones finds his way to consistent production, he could give Oklahoma City some intriguing small-ball options. Lamb could add another scoring threat on the perimeter. Adams can elevate the interior with more offense and better shot-blocking than Perkins has to offer. And Jackson could alleviate some of the scoring and play-making pressures Durant and Westbrook are used to shouldering on their own.

But there are no guarantees that these young guns can make those leaps. Just like there is no way of knowing when Durant and Westbrook will come back or how much time they will need to find their rhythm.

The reality is the Thunder are in a terrible spot. It’s not totally devoid of hope, but the challenges facing this team are real, and they are immense.

If they can somehow stop this skid before it costs them a playoff berth, they still have a shot at working some postseason magic. But for now, the Thunder feel further from a title than they have in years.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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Toronto Raptors Looking to Use Familiar Formula in Order to Take the Next Step

MIAMI — If you were inside the Air Canada Centre on the fourth day of May, your ears took a beating from which it may have taken considerable time to recover. If you were on the floor for that Game 7, wearing Toronto Raptors colors, facing the Brooklyn Nets, your body and psyche took beatings, too.

Dwane Casey believes his kiddie corps has recovered quite nicely from that painful experience, with the entire starting lineup returning, with greater recognition of the focus and force that sort of competition requires, and with a couple of reinforcements in Lou Williams and James Johnson.

In the NBA, continuity, confidence and awareness can be an empowering trio of assets, and the Raptors are convinced they now possess all three. And while they haven’t fully realized a fourth, maturity, Casey believes they’re closer than they were last May, better understanding everything from the precious nature of each possession to the value of spacing to the best ways to handle a bully. 

“Now you get in a tough situation, a team that’s trying to be physical with you and beat you up, that will be nothing compared to what Brooklyn did to us, in Game 7,” the Raptors coach told Bleacher Report, prior to Sunday’s 107-102 loss to the Heat. “(Kevin) Garnett beat the s—t out of us. Joe Johnson beat us. Paul Pierce…”

And yet, they lost by only one, as Pierce swatted Kyle Lowry’s last-ditch fling at the hoop. 

“You can do this,” Casey said, of what his team took. “It did give us something. But again, each and every night, you still have to go out there and get it done. And that’s what we’re learning right now, doing it through adversity, bad calls, missed shots…”

Doing it on the defensive end.

That’s why Sunday’s struggle against Miami, while not definitive, was instructive, in terms of emphasizing how difficult this next step, from good to great, can be.

At one point Sunday, the Heat had connected upon a comical 31 of 49 shots from the field, continuing the exceptional ball movement that they’d also surprisingly shown in the season’s first two games and causing Casey to later lament that “we’ve just got to decide collectively to guard people; I didn’t think they felt us all night.”

The Heat recorded 22 assists to the Raptors’ 11 and generally looked like the team counting on its continuity—that word again—to propel it to early and sustainable success this season.

And they’re not, not with eight new players and three new starters; Chris Bosh admitted before the game that the Heat are “trying to catch up with everybody, but I think we can continue to grind and figure it out until we get on even grounds.” The Cleveland Cavaliers have four new players in their nine-man rotation and, even though LeBron James and Kevin Love are two of them, they’d even spoke of the need for increased reps together.

The Raptors, rather, are supremely positioned to start quick, and then, as Bosh put it, for that quick start to remind them of what worked so well for them during their 42-22 run to the postseason.

That’s the way that continuity can count.

“We hope it does,” Casey said. “I think it does help us. Continuity with terminology, continuity with schemes, continuity with play calls, continuity with the familiarity with each other. They know some things are non-negotiable offensively, some things are non-negotiable defensively. That helps. Anytime you can keep teams together.”

Amir Johnson, whose ankle-related absence was felt Sunday, said prior to sitting that “the best thing we have is chemistry, because we have players who have been together for a couple of years now.”

“It goes a long way, honestly,” DeMar DeRozan added. “Everybody knows everybody’s game. Everybody knows where they like the ball. It’s just second nature now. Sometimes. chemistry can beat talent. A lot of nights. I think we have that chemistry. We’ve been through a lot of struggles.

“Especially last year, with a lot of us learning on the go, from playing in the playoffs. It was just a lot that we took from it, that we’ve grown from. And the work that we put in this summer on top of the motivation we had from all last season, it definitely gives us the hunger to want more.”

How did that hunger manifest itself in the offseason?

Casey spoke of DeRozan specifically, as being “stronger with the basketball now,” whereas “in the past, that’s been an issue with him.” The 25-year-old just made his first All-Star team, and he’s impressed enough of his peers that Dwyane Wade, prior to Sunday’s game, asserted that “the only reason you don’t hear more about him is he’s playing in Toronto.”

He’s still a suspect long-range shooter (30.5 percent last season), so it’s critical that he be dynamic (eight free throws per game last season), but also responsible, as a ball-handler and attacker in order to produce efficient overall offensive numbers.

“We’re stronger with the ball, more confident with the ball,” Casey said of the collective. “I think that’s a product of getting a taste of playoff basketball last year. Before, I think you breathe on us a little bit, we’d cough it up. But now, we’re stronger with it, creating contact and finishing plays. That’s just a point of maturity. The same people, but worked hard this summer in the weight room, with the pads.”

That has shown in all three of their games. In their first two, victories against Atlanta and Orlando, they shot a total of 81 free throws. Sunday, they shot 39 more, with Lowry and DeRozan taking 25 of them but missing 11 of them together. Such misses could prove fatal in a postseason series, a series that, as the Raptors know too well, you can lose by a single point.

“I missed too many tonight and we just didn’t play our game,” Lowry said afterward.

That game, when they get to it, should be good enough to win the Atlantic Division, which may be the league’s weakest, with Boston and Philadelphia rebuilding, and the Knicks and Nets middling. That may even allow them to rack up enough wins to secure the No. 3 seed, with Central Division inhabitants Chicago and Cleveland the preseason conference favorites. But that alone won’t get them celebrating, not if they again fail to take their season past the first week of May.

“Honestly, we felt like we haven’t done anything,” DeRozan said. “I mean, cool, we made the playoffs, but everybody on this team definitely wants more than that. I think the work we put in this summer showed that. But, honestly, we’re just not satisfied with anything we did last year.”

That’s an attitude that Luol Deng can appreciate. The Heat forward was part of a team in Chicago that appeared to be surging into serious contention (improving from 41 to 49 wins in 2006-07) before falling back to 33 the next season and getting its coach, Scott Skiles, fired. Then, after two 41-win seasons, the Bulls made the major leap to 62 in 2010-11.

What’s the key to a carry-over?

“I think it’s just not getting comfortable,” Deng said. “Last year, Toronto could have creeped up on some people and stole some games, and it took people a while to realize, ‘Wow, they’re for real.’ And now, after last year, Toronto is one of the teams you’ve got to show up for. They’ve earned that respect. When you’re in the NBA, you want that respect.

“And soon we’re gonna get the same thing. Beginning of the year, the Miami Heat, Se don’t know what they’re gonna be. Now you win a few games, now the next team you play, we got Houston next, I guarantee they’re gonna be up for that one.”

Especially now that the Heat are 3-0.

The Raptors are 2-1.

Both teams can, and must, get much better to have a real chance to compete for an Eastern Conference championship, considering the depth of talent on Cleveland and Chicago.

The Heat, so far, have nicely regrouped from the departure of the planet’s premier player.

The Raptors have been granted an opportunity that the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers (following a surprising run to the second round) and the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets (following a surprising run to the third seed) were not.

They have returned with roughly the same team and—to differentiate from those Nuggets—exactly the same coach, albeit one on more solid ground than at the start of last season, before the Raptors traded Rudy Gay and stunningly stormed the league.

That coach, Casey, won’t let his players forget that “we haven’t done anything yet,” and “the moment you think you’ve arrived is the moment that somebody’s gonna step up and knock you upside the head.”

He does have some recent models in his head (Miami and San Antonio as consistent franchises, Oklahoma City as an example of steady growth, even the Indiana core that advanced an additional step for three straight seasons before stalling in 2014).

But Casey isn’t thinking much about a victory total.

“Everybody is talking about you know, 50 wins, no, no, no,” Casey said. “Our core guys, DeRozan, [Jonas] Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are still young. They still have a lot of room to grow. That’s something they accomplished last year, was them growing and then us winning at the same time. That’s why I don’t want to put a number on anything, just continue to grow and the wins will take care of themselves.”

He has two. Two in three.

Defend better than they did Sunday, and there soon may be many more, maybe even much later in May.

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LeBron, Cavs take ‘a huge step’ with win vs. Bulls

If this was a prelude to a playoff matchup, we’re in for a treat in June.

      
 

 

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