Breaking down the Artest-Durant matchup

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NBA_artest.jpgWhen the Lakers have the ball in their upcoming series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the matchup to watch will be the battle on the perimeter between Kobe Bryant and Thabo Sefolosha. When the Thunder have the ball, the matchup to watch will be the one between Kevin Durant and Ron Artest, and it should be a good one.

With his lanky frame, incredible ball-skills, and silky-smooth stroke, Durant’s offensive game is often compared to Kobe Bryant’s. In practice, however, Durant’s scoring game is much more similar to LeBron’s than it is to Kobe’s. Despite the fact that he couldn’t lift the bar once at the NBA draft combine, Durant is as good as any player in the league at getting to the rim and finishing. Durant averages 5.3 shot attempts per game at the rim, and converts 69.8% of his shots from there. He also has one of the best pull-up games in the league from inside of 15 feet; Durant averages 4.9 jumpers from inside of 15 feet per game, and makes an impressive 47% of them. And of course, Durant gets to the line more than any other player in the league.

Despite his gorgeous shooting stroke, Durant isn’t nearly as effective when forced to take deep jumpers as he is when he goes to the hole. Durant takes six deep twos a game, but only makes 37% of them. Durant is a good three-point shooter, but most of his threes come after one or two dribbles in isolation or off a catch-and-shoot situation. He rarely punishes the defender for going under the screen on the pick-and-roll; Durant has been the ballhandler on a pick-and-roll that ended in a shot attempt, free throws, or a turnover 189 this season, and he’s only 2-15 from three in those 189 possessions.

Durant doesn’t have the kind of ability to hit deep jumpers from any angle that Kobe does. (In the interest of fairness, the same could perhaps be said about any other player in the league.) If you can keep Durant from getting into the teeth of the defense off the dribble in ISO situaions, his only recourse is launching a three from two or three feet beyond the arc or taking a deep two that he’s not very comfortable making. One thing that makes Durant so dangerous is that he’s just as comfortable spotting up or coming off a screen as he is getting the ball in an ISO situation. Since opposing players shoot 30% against Ron Artest in ISO situations, you have to imagine that Oklahoma City will attempt to keep Durant on the move and find ways to get him points without making him battle Artest.

There’s the matchup on paper. How has Durant fared against Artest in the Thunder’s four meetings with the Lakers this season? Let’s take a look:

Game 1:

This was a tough game for Durant, who shot 10-24 from the field and turned the ball over seven times. He only had one ISO possession in the entire game, and that was an end-of-quarter possession. The Thunder tried to remove Durant from Artest by giving him screens and putting him on the weak-side, but Artest stayed attached all night. Of Durant’s four baskets in the paint, two came off offensive rebounds, one came courtesy of a nice James Harden dime in transition, and one came when Artest gambled for a steal attempt while Durant was going backdoor.

Durant never got enough space during the Thunder’s first meeting with the Lakers. When he tried to catch and shoot, Artest bothered his shot and forced the miss. When he tried to put the ball on the floor and turn the corner, he went right into the waiting Laker defense and turned it over. If the Lakers play defense like this come playoff time, Durant and co. are going to be in for a very long series.

Game 2:

This was another tough game for Durant, who finished 8-20 from the field and only shot one free throw. The Lakers went up big early in this game and never relinquished the lead, and that seemed to have discouraged Durant. He didn’t have one recorded ISO possession that led to points, and he spent most of the game jacking up quick catch-and-shoot attempts, most of which missed their mark. Of his four makes in the paint, two were in transition and one came when he put his own miss back in.

Game 3:

The Thunder fell to the Lakers again in this game, but Durant looked worlds better. He was making much better and harder cuts to free himself up, looked much more confident attacking off the dribble, and the Thunder did a good job mixing up how they got him the ball. Durant was able to get past Artest a number of times in a variety of fashions on his way to an 11-18 shooting night.

Game 4:

This was the game the Thunder blew the Lakers out in Oklahoma City, but Durant actually didn’t do anything all that terribly different. He did go ISO a few times, but missed a quick-trigger jumper every time he did. He had his greatest success when he cut hard to the basket or attacked off the pick-and-roll, getting layups or easy pull-up jumpers a few times by moving without the ball.

After watching all of Durant’s possessions against the Lakers this season, here’s what pops out at me: the most important part of the possession has come before Durant catches the ball. When Durant catches it out on the perimeter with Artest in his vicinity, he hasn’t been able to do much. When he gets it on the move or catches the Laker defense scrambling, he’s been deadly. The Thunder will need to find ways to free up Durant for good looks, and Durant is going to have to commit himself to being aggressive with his movement and cuts off the ball. When the playoffs start, the most interesting battles between Durant and Artest may happen when nobody is watching them.

Report: Knicks would like to trade for pick in 2016 draft

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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The rebuilding New York Knicks are without one of the key pieces needed to rebuild in today’s NBA — a draft pick. The Knicks have zero in this year’s draft. None. Nada. Zip. You get the idea. This sis not the fault of current team president Phil Jackson, he inherited a situation where this year’s picks were in the wind (the first rounder gone as part of the Andrea Bargnani trade).

Jackson would like to find a way back into this draft, reports Ian Begley at ESPN.

The Knicks plan to acquire a pick in June’s draft. The best-case scenario would probably be a late first-round pick but second-round is more likely. The club has shown interest in several players in recent weeks, including Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell, who has a workout scheduled with the club next month. New York also interviewed Kansas guard Wayne Selden at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago and has expressed interest in him as the draft approaches, according to league sources. Selden, a 6-6 guard, would fit the mold of the big guards Phil Jackson used in his Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Laker teams.

Of course he would like to trade into the draft. He’s also like to lure Kevin Durant to the Knicks. Snagging a draft pick is far, far more likely, but the question remains who does he have on the roster to trade that teams would be willing to give up a pick for? Jose Calderon? Getting into the draft requires assets and — as has been the challenge for Jackson since he agreed to the job — the previous regime stripped this team of assets.

Still, expect Jackson to come up with something. But it’s not going to be a game changer; he’s going to have to win in free agency to get that.

Report: Sixers to explore trades for Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Jahlil Okafor #8 and Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers play in the game against the Utah Jazz on October 30, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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The Sixers are on schedule to have 7-foot Joel Embiid suited up for them next season at center. They may have 6’10” Dario Saric in from overseas (if not next season, the one after). They are about to draft 6’10 forward Ben Simmons with the No. 1 overall pick.

Where does that leave the two guys who were the core of the Sixers’ front line last season, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel?

Possibly on the trade block, according to Chad Ford and Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Philadelphia 76ers will explore trading Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel in the buildup to the NBA draft on June 23, according to league sources.

Sources told ESPN that the Sixers are determined to gauge the trade market for both Okafor and Noel and are increasingly likely to move at least one of them in conjunction with the draft, in which Philadelphia holds the No. 1 overall selection for the first time since selecting Allen Iverson in 1996.

Ford said more on a 97.3 ESPN Philadephia radio interview, via the 700 Club at CSNPhilly.com.

“I think that they’ll gauge the interest of both players. I think that there might be a slight preference for Noel, to keep him around with the Sixers, and I think you might be right, there might be a slight, better value for Okafor out on the market, but I think everyone agrees that that combination of those two players doesn’t necessarily work. The Sixers needs to pick up assets, especially if they’re gonna go ahead and do a Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram with the first pick in the draft. Then they’re gonna need those assets to start to fill out their backcourt, because the 24th pick and [the 26th pick], you’re not finding starters.”

I doubt they would move either for another pick. Remember that “the process” is dead in Philly — the Sixers want to start winning more now under the Colangelos. How far they are willing to go down that road — and what pieces they may be willing to sacrifice — remains to be seen, but here is what GM Bryant Colangelo told NBC Sports after finding out his team got the No. 1 pick.

“I’ve been quoted as saying you can only have so many developing players in your fold,” Colangelo said. “There’s a lot to consider to finding a balance… I think there needs to be a blend of young talent and veterans on your roster, there needs to be a balance.”

Okafor is what he is — he can score in the paint, he can rebound, he will get you some buckets, but he’s not much of a defender and he’s not an explosive athlete. He has a real place, a real value in the NBA, particularly while still on his rookie contract. The question is will the Sixers get good enough offers to make a swap.

Kevin Love sparked by Channing Frye phone call

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: J.R. Smith #5, Matthew Dellavedova #8, Kevin Love #0, Channing Frye #9, LeBron James #23 and Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers look on from the bench late in the game against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) As the shots dropped, the score widened and the head-banging Cleveland crowd screamed louder, threatening to rip off the arena’s roof, Kevin Love raised his arms and gestured for fans to do more.

Usually, it’s the other way around.

Shaking off two miserable games in Toronto, Love, whose two seasons with the Cavaliers have ebbed and flowed like Lake Erie’s tides, scored 25 points in just three quarters of Game 5. Cleveland pummeled the Raptors 116-78 on Wednesday night to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

Love’s performance, which began with him knocking down a turnaround hook in the lane and finished with him going 8 of 10 from the field, restored his confidence, quieted detractors and showed his teammates he can deliver when needed. It also prevented the Cavs from facing a win-or-else situation in Game 6 on Friday night in Toronto, where they are 0-4 this season.

“Just a bounce-back for him,” said LeBron James. “He knew he didn’t play his style of basketball or how he wanted to play to help us win in Toronto. He wanted to make a different outcome of it, and he did that. He’s a true professional.”

This was Love in peak form, an inside-outside threat and completely opposite from the player who made just 5 of 23 shots and was benched in the fourth quarter of Game 4 for Channing Frye. This is the Love the Cavs will need to finish off the Raptors and make a second straight appearance in the NBA Finals.

This is also the Love who along with James and Kyrie Irving completes Cleveland’s Big 3, a trio dependent on each third doing its part.

Love returned from Canada in a shooting slump and personal funk. He felt as if he had let his teammates down in Games 3 and 4. Love’s body language, the subject of constant speculation since he arrived from Minnesota in 2014, appeared that of a bruised, if not beaten, man.

His spirits were dragging. His teammates picked them up.

Love spoke to coach Tyronn Lue and then received a phone call Tuesday night from Frye, the savvy, 11-year veteran who has provided both points and perspective for his younger teammates.

“He basically just told me that no one’s immune to the NBA playoffs,” Love said of his pep talk from Frye. “These types of things happen and you have to keep fighting through it in order for us to win. He said I needed to be aggressive, and I give him a lot of credit for staying on me and staying vocal.”

Love was in attack mode from the outset in Game 5. He demanded the ball, taking advantage of a mismatch against Raptors forward Luis Scola. Love scored Cleveland’s first basket and nine of the first 17 points. And after knocking down a 3-pointer – he made his first six shots – to give Cleveland a 27-16 lead, he summoned Cavs fans to bring the noise.

The game plan was to get Love some early touches near the basket and let his game expand.

“We always run plays to start the game for Kevin, hope he draws fouls or makes an easy shot down low in the paint,” Lue said. “That kind of frees it up for him. When he starts inside-out, he’s able to do more on the floor.”

Lue said the support – OK, the love – that Love felt from his teammates since Game 4 made a difference. They know what he means to their title hopes, and weren’t going to abandon him.

Love, too, didn’t want to lose his teammates’ trust. So he pushed himself.

“He works hard every day, sometimes too hard,” Lue said. “But he’s constantly in the weight room. He’s constantly doing conditioning, constantly working and shooting. That’s why when he misses a couple shots, it doesn’t bother me because he puts the time and puts the work in. Some nights he’s just not going to make shots.”

Love didn’t want to make too much of his Game 5 turnaround. But considering the stakes, it was colossal for the Cavs.

“More than anything, I just wanted to respond,” he said, “just wanted to help us win in any way that I could. I don’t care if I went 0 for 30 and we got a win. Any way that we can win and I can help, I’m going to do it.”

Report: Pat Riley ‘quietly detests’ Dwyane Wade-LeBron James friendship

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 14:  U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with National Basketball Association 2012-2013 champion Miami Heat player LeBron James after welcoming the team -- including President Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade and others -- during an event at the White House January 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. This is the second year in a row the team won the championship and made a trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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LeBron James and Dwyane Wade share a very close friendship.

LeBron and Pat Riley – who signed LeBron and Wade to the Heat in 2010 – have a much more complicated relationship.

Riley seemingly challenged LeBron entering the 2014 offseason, and LeBron left Miami to return to the Cavs. Then, Riley couldn’t stop telling everyone how surprised he was LeBron left. After LeBron departed, Riley noted how the Heat had “no more smiling faces with hidden agendas.”

So, about the intersection of the LeBron-Wade friendship and Riley-LeBron relationship…

Pablo Torre of ESPN:

On-court effort, after all, isn’t really why Heat president Pat Riley quietly detests the Wade-James friendship.

as coach of the Heat, Riley kept the spirit of the ’80s alive by reportedly instituting a $1,500 fine for any player who helped an opponent up off the floor.

Riley wasn’t complaining when LeBron’s friendship with Wade helped lure the star forward to Miami. Riley wasn’t complaining when LeBron led the Heat to two championships, either.

But I at least understand where Riley is coming from. His old-school sensibilities don’t allow for friendships across teams, and there are legitimate reasons to draw a line.

Wade addressed this well with Torre in a feature on the LeBron-Wade friendship that’s well worth reading in full. Wade:

“You’re talking about two guys who went to the Finals together, four years in a row,” Wade says. “My job and his job was to get as close as possible, to know everything about each other and get on the same page as two leaders on the team. And then he goes elsewhere and you ask us to hate each other! It’s ridiculous.”