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.

Called out by LeBron James, reporter Kenny Roda defends himself

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LeBron James reacted to the Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to the Celtics by jawing with a fan and saying he was glad Cleveland lost.

The peculiarities didn’t end there.

LeBron called out Kenny Roda of WHBC for asking a question.

For full context, the earlier times LeBron addressed his individual performance and both of Roda’s questions are included in the above video. So is the funny look LeBron shot someone (Roda?) after the press conference. Here’s the noteworthy exchange:

  • Roda: “For you, you said it was just your game. Couldn’t get into a rhythm tonight, is that what it was? Based on their defense or just not feeling it or or what?”
  • LeBron: “Nah, I was just pretty poor. I mean, what do you want me to say? It sees like you only ask questions when we lose. It’s a weird thing with you, Kenny. You always come around when we lose, I swear. Yeah, OK.”

Roda:

“You cover us only when we lose” is a too-common complaint in high school sports. It’s odd to see LeBron employ it, though saying Roda asks questions only when the Cavs lose is a wrinkle that adds plausibility to LeBron’s claim. Still, it’s tough to believe.

Even if LeBron is right that Roda asks questions only when Cleveland loses, so what? Asking a question isn’t a sign Roda is happy the team lost or is trying to rub it in. Players tend to be testier after losses (case in point), and asking question then can be more difficult. If Roda puts himself out there after only losses, kudos to him.

LeBron’s struggles were the dominant storyline in Game 3. Getting him to expand on what went wrong was a worthy goal. Roda’s question probably wasn’t distinctive enough to get more out of LeBron after his first two responses about his performance, but the inquiry was on the right path. Asking a vague question on a topic already covered vaguely is only a minor offense.

LeBron understands the media better than most. This was a weird time to pick a public battle, which makes me think this was more frustration than ploy.

Stephen Curry: Dewayne Dedmon’s screen was ‘dirty play’ (video)

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Late in the Warriors’ Game 3 win over the Spurs on Saturday, San Antonio center Dewayne Dedmon appeared to initiate knee-to-knee contact on a screen of Stephen Curry.

Curry, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“I know he’s not a dirty player. I’m not going to try to mess up his reputation, but I feel like that was a dirty play,” Curry responded to ESPN. “Luckily no one was hurt.”

Golden State is clearly trying to gain equal footing in the dirty debate after Zaza Pachulia injured Kawhi Leonard – and gain the moral high ground by not calling a player dirty and bringing the consequences that invites.

But this isn’t the same as Pachulia’s double-slide closeout under a fading shooter.

It’s much easier to assign intent when watching in slow motion. Innocuous actions tend to look deliberate when viewed at partial speed, because we subconsciously believe players process their movements at the same rate we process their movements – but slow motion gives us an advantage.

Dedmon’s screen was probably illegal, but dirty? I’m not sure. I don’t know his intent, but executing that move intending to injure Curry would require incredible precision. Maybe Dedmon tries that often, usually misses and just happened to strike here. But I don’t see enough to assume this was a dirty play

LeBron James on Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to Celtics: ‘I’m glad it kind of happened the way it did’

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After two dominant wins in Boston, the Cavaliers appeared on track to cruise into the NBA Finals.

Cleveland responded by getting upset by the Celtics at home in historic fashion.

LeBron James struggled in Game 3, and he even verbally sparred with a fan after the game. But he didn’t sound completely dismayed by the situation.

LeBron:

We’ve got to be a lot better. It’s the postseason. You win some, and you lose a couple maybe. But you want to – how can you be better from game to game? Like I said, they was better today than we were, and we have to figure out a way to be better than them in Game 4.

But we look forward to the challenge. I think it’s great. What happened, I mean, it hurts. It’s a loss in the postseason. But I’m glad it kind of happened the way it did. Let our foot off the gas a little, didn’t keep the pressure on them like we’ve been accustomed to.

But we have to play a lot better. We have to play a lot better in Game 4.

It’s odd to hear a player say he’s glad to lose, especially in the playoffs. But LeBron has a history of strange comments following postseason losses. This wasn’t a season-ender, but but he was so out of sorts last night.

He’s also probably right. It’s better for the Cavaliers, now 9-1 in the playoffs, to experience overcoming a postseason loss now rather than in the NBA Finals. Still up 2-1 on Boston and the better team, the Cavs have the luxury of learning lessons without significant fear they’ll lose the series.

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Markelle Fultz really worth the No. 1 pick?

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Markelle Fultz is the best prospect in the 2017 NBA Draft, which is not exactly something that you would’ve seen coming had you known him as a sophomore in high school.

That was the year that Fultz failed to make the varsity team at DeMatha (Md.), one of the nation’s best high school basketball programs. From there, he developed not only into a point guard, but into one of the nation’s best high school players, eventually landing in the postseason all-star games and on the Team USA U-18 roster that competed in the FIBA Americas event.

Fultz committed to Lorenzo Romar early in the process and maintained that commitment, even as he watched a Washington team that failed to make the NCAA tournament lose Andrew Andrews to graduation and Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray to the NBA Draft. As a result, and in spite of the fact that Fultz was putting up insane numbers, the Huskies couldn’t even crack 10 wins with Fultz at the helm, and it eventually cost Lorenzo Romar his job despite the fact that the favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Michael Porter Jr., had already signed to play for him.

How will NBA teams weigh that?

Fultz put up ridiculous numbers, but he did it on a team that was the laughing stock of the Pac-12 come February. Is that guy worth the pick?

Height: 6′4″
Weight: 185
Wingspan: 6′10″
2016-17 Stats: 23.2 points, 5.7 boards, 5.9 assists, 41.3% 3PT

STRENGTHS: Fultz is an unbelievably well-rounded offensive player. I’m not sure what there is that he can’t do on that end of the floor. He shot 41.3 percent from beyond the arc last year and better than 50 percent inside the arc. At 6-foot-4, he’s big enough — and physical enough — to take smaller defenders into the post and score in the paint or simply shoot over the top of them off the dribble, and he does so effectively. His 6-foot-10 wingspan, huge hands and explosion on the move means that he can finish in traffic, whether it be with a dunk over a defender — his extension in the lane is reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard — or a finish around the shot-blocker; Fultz has terrific body control, and when combined with his length, allows him to finish contested layups at weird angles.

He’s more than just a scorer, however, as he averaged 5.9 assists last season with a higher assist rate (35.4 vs. 31.4) and lower turnover rate (15.4 vs. 18.9) than Lonzo Ball. That’s startling efficiency considering that he played such a major role on a team with so few options around him. Since 2012, only six guards have bettered his usage rate and offensive rating: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Nate Wolters, Erick Green, Kay Felder and Jawun Evans.

Fultz is excellent leading the break in transition but may be even better operating in ball-screen actions — according to Synergy, more than 30 percent of his possessions came in the pick and roll last season, and he averaged 1.011 points-per-possession, which was in the 93rd percentile nationally. He is patient, he’s ruthless if you switch a bigger defender onto him and he has terrific vision, whether it’s driving and drawing a help defender, finding the screener rolling to the rim or popping for a jumper or spotting an open shooter on the weak side of the floor.

Ideally, that’s the role that Fultz would play in the NBA, as a ball-dominant lead guard in the mold of a James Harden or Russell Westbrook or John Wall.

But Fultz is also big enough and long enough to share a back court with a smaller guard — Isaiah Thomas? — because he will be able to defend shooting guards. He’s also a good enough shooter that he would be able to play off the ball offensively in that same scenario, meaning that he not only has the ceiling to be a new-age franchise lead guard in the NBA, he has the potential to be a multi-positional defender.

In theory, he’s everything NBA teams are looking for.

WEAKNESSES: The biggest concern with Fultz is on the defensive end of the floor. While he has the tools to be a plus-defender and has shown the ability to be a playmaker on that end — he averaged 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks, many of which were of the chasedown variety — but it was his half court defense that was a concern.

In a word, he was far too lackadaisical on that end of the floor. Whether it was being late on a rotation, getting beat on a close out because his feet were wrong, getting hung up on a screen, switching when he shouldn’t because he didn’t want to chase a player around a screen, failing to sit down in a defensive stance, etc., it’s not difficult to watch tape and find examples of the mistakes that Fultz made. How much of that was playing on a bad team for a coach that didn’t hold him accountable defensively, and how much of that is who Fultz is as a player?

To be frank, my gut says it was more of the former than the latter, but there also is a concern that Fultz’ approach to the game is too casual. He’s the kind of player that needs to grow into a game as opposed to being a guy that takes games over from the jump, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a guy who projects as a lead guard and a distributor.

The bigger issue with Fultz is that he lacks initial burst off the dribble and there are questions about whether or not he can turn the corner against NBA defenders. His game is awkward when you watch him, but that’s because he has this uncanny ability to get defenders off balance. Hesitation moves, hang-dribble pull-ups, splitting the pick-and-roll, euro-steps in traffic. Some might call it crafty or slippery, but the bottom-line is this: Fultz is able to get by defenders because he has them leaning the wrong direction, and once he gets a step on you, his length — both his strides and his extension — make it impossible to catch up.

But he’s not a Russell Westbrook or a John Wall in the sense that he’ll be able to get by any defender simply due to his explosiveness, and that is where the questions about his jumper come into play. If Fultz is going to consistently be able to get to the rim, that jumper is going to have to be a threat, because Fultz’s arsenal won’t be as effective if defenders can play off of him.

On the season, his shooting numbers were impressive, but those percentages took a dip against better competition and on possessions where he was guarded (1.020 PPP, 57th percentile) vs. unguarded (1.636 PPP, 94th percentile), although that may be a result of being on a team that had no other option for offense.

Put another way, Fultz is a tough-shot maker, and there is reason to wonder if he’ll be able to make those tough shots against NBA defenders.

Markelle Fultz is defended by Lonzo Ball (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

NBA COMPARISON: There really isn’t a perfect comparison for what Fultz could end up being as an NBA player. James Harden is probably the most apt considering that they are roughly the same size with the same physical dimensions, they both are ball-dominant scorers that can see the floor, they both likely needed a smaller guard in the back court with them because, despite their physical tools, they both lack that mean streak defensively.

But comparing any rookie to a guy that could end up being the NBA MVP after a season where he averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 boards is probably unfair. Perhaps D'Angelo Russell is more fitting, at least in the sense that it limits some of the expectations.

Whatever the case may be, if Fultz reaches his ceiling, he’ll be a franchise lead guard that has an entire offensive built around him. If he decides that he wants to play on the defensive end of the floor as well, he could one day be a top five player in the league.

OUTLOOK: Fultz has the potential to be the face of a franchise at the lead guard spot. His skill-set — the scoring, the ability to operate in pick-and-rolls, the efficiency — and ability makes it easy to picture him one day ending up playing a role similar to that of Harden or Westbrook or Wall. At the same time, I find it hard to envision a world where Fultz doesn’t one day end up averaging 20 points and six assists. It’s hard not to love a prospect where their floor is a bigger, more athletic D’angelo Russell.

When a player has the least risk and the highest ceiling of anyone in a draft class, it’s no wonder they end up being the consensus pick to go No. 1.