Sixers must start fast vs. vengeful Thunder

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Sixers must start fast vs. vengeful Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Sixers are not exactly catching the Thunder at an ideal time. The Northwest Division leaders had their 12-game home winning streak snapped two nights ago when Brooklyn beat them at Chesapeake Arena by 17. It was only their second opponent all season that shot 50 percent or better against them.

The Sixers know OKC will be looking to make amends.

They are going to want to come out here and bury us from the beginning, Jason Richardson said. We have to be ready for their first wave of attack. Those guys are going to be aggressive, because they are very tough here to beat. The fans here are great. They are loud. They are passionate about basketball, so it is going to be one of those games where we have to be mentally prepared and physically as well, because they are going to come out and hit us with the first punch.

The Thunder won just 23 games in their first season in Oklahoma City, 2008-09. But in the four seasons that followed, they've lost a combined 35 games on their home floor.

Oh, they are going to be ready," said Royal Ivey, who spent the last two seasons with the Thunder. "They dont lose two in a row at home, that doesnt happen. They are going to be ready because they are competitors. They are going to come with their hard hats and we have to be ready that first quarter, those first five minutes -- that is going to be key because this building is going to be on fire."

In Iveys tenure with the Thunder, the team never lost back-to-back home games. In fact, the Thunder have not done that since the 2009-10 season when they dropped consecutive home games twice before Christmas.

A great home court and a commitment to winning has made Oklahoma City a target destination for free agents, and that is in spite of the city being the 45th-largest market in the United States.

It is like a college environment, Ivey said. When new guys come in, like rookies, they are like freshmen. I was considered a senior. It is a college environment -- its like a family from top to bottom. First tier, the way they run their organization from the players to the front office to how they treat everybody. My time here was great.

Said Richardson: When free agents hear around the league that an organization is all about winning, taking care of their guys, a first class organization, guys are attracted to that. Because when you have that kind of atmosphere and commitment from the front office that is when you start talking about championships.

The Thunder have rubbed elbows with that championship feeling, losing in the NBA finals last spring to the Miami Heat in five games. Currently, they have the highest winning percentage in the NBA.

They have two of the top seven scorers in the NBA helping them average the second-most points per game at 106. In an earlier meeting this season, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to score 67 points in an overtime victory for the Thunder -- unsurprisingly, that duo is the top scoring tandem in the league.

Ivey vividly remembers battling Westbrook daily in practice. The practice court, he says, is where Westbrook became an All-Star.

He is definitely a competitor, Ivey said of Westbrook. He is fierce. Everybody downplays his attitude, but that makes him good. He is a competitor. He hates to lose. He hates when he turns over the ball. He is hard on himself and he brings it every day in practice and it shows on the court because in practice he is always competing, always trying to outdo somebody.

Ivey went from guarding Westbrook every day in practice to playing against another UCLA product daily: Jrue Holiday.

Jrue is similar, but he is just quiet, Ivey compared. Russell is more vocal and more animated. Jrue is more reserved, but Jrue has that same competitive nature and he gets after it. They are similar pit bulls -- one is a blue-nose, one is a red-nose pit bull.

Dog lovers know that blue-nosed or red, neither is better -- just different.

Holiday, who Wednesday had his second career triple-double, has a right groin strain but is expected to play.

E-mail Dei Lynam at dlynam@comcastsportsnet.com

The case for Kansas' Josh Jackson to the Sixers at No. 3

The case for Kansas' Josh Jackson to the Sixers at No. 3

Over the weeks leading up to the 2017 NBA draft, we'll be making cases for the Sixers to draft several prospects. Our series will kick off with options at No. 3 (or trade downs) followed by second-round possibilities. The 2017 NBA draft will take place on June 22 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Josh Jackson

Position: SF
School: Kansas
Height: 6-8
Weight: 203
Wingspan: 6-9¾

Jackson enjoyed an excellent season in his one year with the Jayhawks. Regarded as one of the top high school recruits in the country, Jackson didn't disappoint. The super athletic swingman averaged 16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and three assists per game.

Jackson is without a doubt the best two-way player in this draft. He can guard positions one through four. He averaged an impressive 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per 40 minutes, using his length and athleticism to disrupt passing lanes. He's also strong and physical, with the ability to body up ball handlers and cutters, and redirect them.

He's a bit underrated offensively. He struggled with his shot early on, but improved as the season went on. In his last 17 games, he shot 48 percent from three on over three attempts per game. As his three assists a night indicates, he's a good and willing passer. He's also a better ball handler than he gets credit for, with the ability to get to the rim using his left or his right. Oh, and he can finish.

The case for Jackson
He fits the Sixers as an elite wing defender who plays well off the ball. If his shot continues to improve, he could be a great complement to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. 

No, he's not an obvious fit, but he's way too talented at a position they really don't have. And talented wings aren't easy to find. Robert Covington has been a find for the Sixers and should definitely be given a contract extension, but Jackson simply brings more to the table on both ends of the court. The shot is a concern, but we've seen almost every player improve their shot with head coach Brett Brown and the Sixers' staff.

The case against Jackson
You can't just overlook the fact that he shot an abysmal 57 percent from the free throw line. That simply won't get it done. Free throw shooting can also be an indicator of whether a player can improve his stroke from the field. If the Sixers take Jackson, you have to hope that 57 percent is an aberration. 

Jackson also had some trouble off the court. There were two separate incidents. Both cases were recently resolved, but they both show a lack of maturity and, quite frankly, stupidity. 

One case involved Jackson backing up his car into another and then leaving the scene. He was given probation and forced to pay a $250 fine. In a more troubling incident, Jackson kicked the driver's side door and kicked out a tail light of a member of Kansas' women's basketball team after an argument. He reached a diversion agreement that requires him to attend anger management classes, write a letter of apology and refrain from using alcohol or recreational drugs for a year.

The Sixers will have to vet Jackson long and hard to determine if these incidents were out of a character or part of a troubling pattern.

Analysis
Washington guard Markelle Fultz is the No. 1 player on the board and will likely be picked by the Celtics. The consensus seems to be that the Lakers will take UCLA guard Lonzo Ball. With those two players off the board, Jackson is the clear-cut pick at No. 3.

At worst, you have an elite wing defender that can help slow down the likes of LeBron James, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference. He's also going to be a nightmare in the open court running the floor with Simmons. I'd bank on him having at least a modest improvement on his shot.

The off-the-court stuff is definitely a concern, but it's possible they're just dumb decisions by a young kid. He's so talented, you better be certain that there's an issue if you decide to pass on him at No. 3. If he stays out of trouble, he's absolutely worthy of the No. 3 pick.

NBA Playoffs: LeBron James makes history as Cavaliers roll into Finals

NBA Playoffs: LeBron James makes history as Cavaliers roll into Finals

BOX SCORE

BOSTON -- The NBA Finals has its first "three-match," courtesy of a King who passed His Airness.

LeBron James scored 35 points and passed Michael Jordan to become the NBA's all-time playoff scoring leader as the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics 135-102 on Thursday night to claim their third straight Eastern Conference title and another trip to the NBA Finals to meet the Golden State Warriors.

Kyrie Irving added 24 points and Kevin Love finished with 15 for the Cavs, who never trailed and led by as many as 39 points in one of their most dominating wins of the series. The Cavs set an NBA record by winning their 13th consecutive series closeout opportunity.

Cleveland's 4-1 series win gives it a 12-1 record this postseason and sets up a third consecutive matchup with Western Conference champion Golden State, the team it beat in the Finals last season to claim the franchise's first championship.

"I wear the number because of Mike," James said. "I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike, just because of what he was able to accomplish. When you're watching Michael Jordan it's almost like a god. So I didn't think I could be Mike."

It will mark the seventh straight trip to the Finals for James, who hit a 3-pointer late in in the third quarter to nudge past Jordan on the playoff scoring list. He quickly flashed one finger as he backpedaled down the court.

In the postgame trophy presentation backstage, James spent most of it lingering in the background as his teammates celebrated.

But there's no denying that his accolades are putting him in the orbit of Jordan, his boyhood idol.

"The biggest thing is I did it just being me, I don't have to score the ball to make an impact on the basketball game," James said. "That was my mindset. If I'm not scoring the ball, how can I still make an impact on the game?"

As much as this series was about James, Irving helped turn the tide of the series with a 42-point effort in Game 4. But he said both he and his teammates continue to be inspired by their leader.

"He's been the driving force, this entire playoff run, and all of us have just helped us along the way," Irving said.

Coach Tyronn Lue said they've gotten tighter this season.

"This team is a crazy team. They just stayed resilient all year, got to the playoffs, and we really stepped our game up," he said. "Now we can start focusing on Golden State to get ready. As of tonight, I'll get started."

Avery Bradley led Boston with 23 points.

The Cavaliers basically conceded the East's top seed to the Celtics at the end of the regular season by opting to rest their starters in advance of the playoffs. But they displayed their superiority over the final two games to wrap up the series.

After allowing the Celtics to seize the early momentum in Game 4, the Cavs barely gave them the chance in Game 5.

Led by its Big Three, Cleveland quickly built a 21-point lead in the first quarter, while getting lots of contributions from their teammates.

Love continued to knock down shots from the outside, Irving sliced his way into the lane to the rim and James got free for several of his one-handed, tomahawk dunks.

It was a very welcomed sight in Irving's case, after he rolled his left ankle in the third quarter of Cleveland's Game 4 win. He showed no signs of lingering issues, though, beating several defenders off the dribble and handing out seven assists.

Meanwhile, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver helped spread out Boston's defenders by connecting on several wide-open scoring opportunities.

Deron Williams, who had been quiet for most of the series, also got in on the act with a series-best 14 points for Cleveland.

Tip-ins
Cavaliers: James has scored 30 or more points in 11 of Cleveland's 13 games this postseason. ... Improved to 36-5 against Eastern Conference opponents in the playoffs since 2015. ... The 43 points Cleveland scored in the first quarter set a team postseason record for a quarter.

Celtics: Never led at home in the series. ... Finished the playoffs having made at least 10 3-pointers in 16 of their 18 games. ... Held a pregame moment of silence for the victims of the Manchester bombing.

Making progress
The Celtics did their best to keep up, but the consistent outside shooting, bench scoring and defense they relied on to stun Cleveland in Game 3 wasn't there Thursday night.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens said though he's disappointed with how the season ended, he's encouraged that no one in Boston's locker room is satisfied just making it to the conference finals.

"I told our guys: `We made a lot of great strides, but this pain is part of the path to what we ultimately want to be,'" he said.

Showing support
Injured Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas was in attendance Thursday night and gathered with his teammates in a huddle before they took the court for pregame warmups.

The two-time All-Star was sidelined in Game 2 after aggravating a hip injury.