June 4, 2016, 4:52 pm
The grind of the season and the pressure of the playoffs have brought us here; right back where we were a year ago. The route has been a little bit different, but we’re back. It’s at this point where we can get into some serious discussion of what works and what doesn’t when we try and predict the finals.
By now the teams are used to the scrutiny, especially when they’re seasoned squads like Golden State and Cleveland, but to suggest that it has only intensified now is an injustice to this season’s also-rans.
By the time the conference finals hit it’s a media circus for everyone. The spotlight is on every time you take the court and there’s plenty of time to analyze, overanalyze and second guess everything.
Given the time spent looking at Cleveland, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Toronto, it’s time to look at what’s next. What could, should and might the future hold for the league’s final four and where do they go from here?
The theme for Oklahoma City right now is probably disappointment, but as the distance grows between the present and their Game 7 loss it will look more and more like hope. They were expected to lose to San Antonio and while they gained some support following that upset, were still major underdogs against Golden State. In a way, losing this year shouldn’t be more disappointing than any other year.
Except that they were up 3-1. It fueled some fun discussions about Golden State’s sudden vulnerability and for a minute it looked like the overwhelming favorites would be tossed aside. But you know how it goes and how it eventually went; everything was okay for the Thunder until it wasn’t. The sentiment of ‘I don’t see how OKC loses three straight,’ was en vogue until they were beaten in three straight. And then their season was over.
‘Choke’ is an awful word. It gets thrown around frequently by people who live to jam narrative elements into every sporting event they can. Not every loss involves someone choking; sometimes it’s two good teams playing each other and one happens to be ahead at some arbitrary time limit. Sometimes one team just beats another. So now what?
Giving up a series lead like that will sting, but the Thunder might be ready to get over that hump next year under Billy Donovan. And no matter the expense, the road forward has to involve Kevin Durant. This is the team that’s best equipped to topple the Warriors in the coming years, with all due respect to everyone else. Truth be told, I’d rather the Thunder face the Warriors for seven more games than have Golden State take on the Cavs.
For Durant the likely step is to go back to OKC on a short deal with an opt out to maximize his earnings, which makes a ton of sense for both parties. The Thunder are close. Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and a developing Steven Adams make for the type of foundation that you should be trying to join, not one you leave for the uncertainty of another situation.
There are many out there who think all the big stars should head east because it’s an easier road to the Finals. Granted, that’s probably true. It was painfully obvious that the Raptors couldn’t hang with anyone else in the conference semis. But if you go do decide to go eastward, there’s still the LeBron problem. I think the only teams out east that could beat Cleveland by simply adding KD are Toronto and Miami, with Boston and Atlanta being within the realm of possibility. This ignores the fact that adding Durant means opening up holes elsewhere on your roster, as well as the fact that Durant controls his own future.
Their strong postseason shifted the mood in OKC from uncertainty to hunger. At the beginning of the year, it was looking like KD might bolt for greener pastures. Now it seems like his return is a foregone conclusion while the team is left to sift through the tape to see how they were bested; how they can make sure it won’t happen next year.
For the Raptors, in keeping with Toronto’s proud sporting traditions, the mood has to be one of cautious optimism with underlying anticipation for total failure.
We’ve chatted about what they’re looking to do following GM Masai Ujiri’s end of year presser as well as after Bismack Biyombo said he’d be open to a hometown discount. The Raptors should be proud of their showing, as they’ve established both team and personal bests across the board and have dragged the team and city back to relevance after some dark, listless, time-wasting years.
Toronto feels like the league’s little brother. They’re the outsiders who don’t get to hang with all the cool kids, an identity that’s galvanized a ferocious fanbase thanks to some deft marketing and honest-to-goodness success. The brother who gets clowned for having a goofy rapper show up courtside, the one whose fans can be easily provoked by a bad call or an online poll; any perceived slight is a call to arms because they’re used to the short straw.
In many ways, the Raptors are easy to make fun of and the spotty performances that dotted these playoffs don’t help their case. But much like an actual little brother, people around the league took a moment after the final Crying Jordan was tweeted and gave Toronto their due. This was a season to be proud of. One to build upon.
It’s a path with many forks, as Toronto will be looking to take the most difficult leap in going from good to great. The team has many options this summer, with DeMar DeRozan’s contract chief among them. Ujiri has spoken about his desire to get the band back together, something the fans and players would love to see happen. But is it the right call?
For all the fun and goodwill this season brought to Toronto, it’s imperative that Ujiri wade through the sentiment when he needs to so this team can keep getting better. There’s a non-zero chance that this is where the Raptors max out with Kyle Lowry and DeRozan driving the bus. What happens then? Can DeRozan learn to be effective if his shot doesn’t fall? What if Jonas Valanciunas is just a huge tease? What if Dwane Casey’s offense allows for goodness but not greatness?
So there’s hope, and rightfully so. But there’s also those lingering ‘what-ifs,’ because there are major questions unanswered and the fine folks of Toronto have been burned so many times before. Game 7 against Brooklyn. Last year against the Wizards. The 2013 Leafs. Even the bat flip led to Game 6 against the Royals. They fight the desire to go all in, until they finally cave and are immediately handed a crushing defeat. Toronto is on the path to success, but Ujiri and company need to be ready to change course if need be.
So what does the road ahead look like for our finalists?
April 24, 2019, 10:48 pmRudy Gobert - C - Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert missed on a double-double in Wednesday's 93-100 loss to the Rockets, finishing with nine points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocks.
Gobert was limited to just 11.2 points in the five-game series. Though he was able to stay on the floor unlike years past, his lack of offensive production highlighted Utah's dearth of players, who are not named Donovan Mitchell, who unable to get their own shot.
April 24, 2019, 10:41 pmRoyce O'Neale - F - Utah Jazz
Royce O'Neal was very effective in 33 minutes off the bench Wednesday, scoring 18 points to go with five rebounds, two assists and two 3-pointers.
O'Neal was a big factor for the Jazz staying competitive in this one, picking up the slack offensively for stretches of the game. The 25 year old forward saw his role increase in his second season in Utah, and figures to see more gradual increase in his next one with them.
April 24, 2019, 10:36 pmDonovan Mitchell - G - Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell has his worst shooting game of the series in Wednesday's closeout loss, scoring 12 points on 4-of-22 shooting to go with six rebounds and a steal.
Despite Mitchel''s struggles, the Jazz were able to stay in the game right up until the very end. While this series was revealing in the areas that Mitchell needs to improve, as well as flaws in Utah's offense in general, it also reveled how special of a talent he really is. He had an up and down season this year but the future is undoubtedly bright.
April 24, 2019, 10:29 pmRicky Rubio - G - Utah Jazz
Ricky Rubio scored 17 points (7-of-15 shooting) to go with 11 assists, two rebounds and three steals in Wednesday's Game 5 loss in Houston.
Rubio turned it up a notch over his last two games, double-doubling in both, but his efforts were not enough to extend the series past Game 5. The free-agent PG will now head into an off season where there will be questions abound about who the Jazz should pair with Donovan Mitchell for the long term.
April 24, 2019, 8:26 pmBlake Griffin - F - Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin (left knee) underwent successful arthroscopic knee surgery on Wednesday night.
Griffin's knee obviously dogged him during the final stretch of the regular season and throughout the Pistons' brief playoff run. The Pistons said that he isn't expected to miss any off season training and should be good to go for the start of the 2019-2020 season.
Source: Mark Stein on Twitter
April 24, 2019, 6:54 pmClint Capela - C - Houston Rockets
According to head coach Mike D'Antoni, Clint Capela (illness) is feeling much better ahead of Wednesday's matchup against the Jazz.
Clint Capela has been struggling ever since he came down with this virus. He seems to be close to 100% according to his head coach. If Capela can get close to his season averages of 16.6 points on 64.8% shooting while grabbing 12.7 rebounds and blocking 1.5 shots per game, then the Jazz will have an even tougher to task to take down the Rockets on Wednesday in order to force a Game 6 back in Utah.
Source: Tim MacMahon on Twitter
April 24, 2019, 3:24 pmJaMychal Green - F - Los Angeles Clippers
JaMychal Green will remain in the starting lineup in Game 5 on Wednesday.
Green logged 22 minutes in the same role in Game 4, though it's not surprising that the Clippers will stick with the same group considering Ivica Zubac's tough fit in this matchup and Montrezl Harrell's fit in his current role.
Source: Andrew Greif on Twitter
April 24, 2019, 2:11 pmNate Tibbets - Team - Trail Blazers
The Suns have been given permission to interview Blazers assistants Nate Tibbets and David Vanterpool for their vacant head coaching position.
The Cavs have already been connected to the duo from Portland, and Tibbets interviewed for the Hawks' gig last summer. The Suns reportedly fired Igor Kokoskov so they could make Philadelphia assistant Monty Williams their top target before the Lakers got too deep into talks, but Phoenix will be looking at multiple candidates. It's a nice roster to work with but we can't imagine anyone will be too eager to work with the team's ownership group.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter
April 24, 2019, 2:00 pmDraymond Green - F - Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green admitted that his right wrist has been hurt for "a while."
Green added that he got hit there in Game 4 and "it pissed it off" and said that he's going to play through any pain in the postseason. It's not like teams weren't sagging off Green on the perimeter already, but if his wrist continues to hamper him in any way we may see opponents get very aggressive in their defensive efforts on Golden State's other players. Green is going to have lots of open jumpers presented to him for the rest of the postseason.
Source: Anthony Slater on Twitter
April 24, 2019, 1:57 pmJarrett Allen - C - Brooklyn Nets
Jarrett Allen will work on extending his range to the 3-point line this summer.
Him and every other big man. Allen went 6-for-45 on 3-pointers this season, so he's got some work to do. He's a quality young player who can protect the rim, but Allen isn't quite strong enough to crash and bang with the league's true behemoths and not quite gifted enough offensively to be anything more than a threat on the roll. It's a great base from which to work, however, and it's good to know that Allen is going to be putting in the work to make himself more of a weapon as the Nets look to build on a nice campaign.
Source: Bryan Fonseca on Twitter