NBA Playoffs: Thunder to taste playoff experience, do the Lakers have too much of it?

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durant.jpgThe Lakers and the Thunder are a lot alike in some ways. Think about it this way:

Dominant superstar? Check. Second offensive option who is a borderline All-Star? Check. Long, lanky versatile forward? Check. Guys who can come in off the bench and change the game? Check.

But off the court these franchises are totally different. Night and day. The Los Angeles Lakers have 15 NBA championship banners hanging at one end of Staples Center. They won the title last year. Their coach has a ring for every finger. On both hands. They ooze experience to the point of boredom with everything before the playoffs (which could cost them).

The Oklahoma City Thunder are so excited to have made the playoffs the franchise is throwing a parade before the first game. A parade before the ball is thrown up in one playoff game.

All that gets to the real question at the heart of this series: Does the Lakers experience overcome their banged up bodies and sloppy play coming in? Can Oklahoma City have fun and not flinch under a new level of pressure? The stats will tell you this one is very close. But as Portland learned last year, the playoffs are a different kind and level of basketball. Does Oklahoma City have to learn how to win at this level, or can they walk out Sunday and say, “why not now?”

Of course, there are some fun matchups, starting with the ones at the top of the marquee.

There is Kevin Durant, the NBA’s newest superstar, a 6’10” guy with point guard skills, who can hit the three or drive he lane. Stopping him (or guys like him) is why the Lakers got Ron Artest, everyone’s favorite physical defender, blonde (today) and loose cannon. Artest will try to be physical with Durant, and if the refs allow him to be like Phil Jackson he wants he stands a chance of making Durant less efficient.

On the other end, Kobe Bryant is going to face Thabo Sefolosha, who has had success in this matchup — in the team’s last meeting that he held Kobe to 11 points and Kobe actually admitted Sefolosha bothered him. The Thunder are a good defensive team, too, and Sefolosha will get help.


The two key matchups, however, will be elsewhere. UCLA alumni Russell
Westbrook returns to LA to piss off his former fans. We all know the
Lakers have struggled to stop quick point guards for a couple seasons,
and there are few quicker than Westbrook. Here’s a little stat to tell
you how important Westbrook is — when the Thunder blew out the Lakers
last month, Westbrook was 10 of 13 shooting; but in the Lakers three
wins in this series this season, he shot 39 percent.

Derek Fisher is going to need help — and that’s where a healthy Andrew
Bynum comes a key. Westbrook is great in finishing at the rim, but if
Bynum can force him to shoot before that, well, Westbrook takes some of
the ugliest 8-foot shots in the NBA.

The Lakers advantage is Pau Gasol, who has beasted lately  — shooting 65
percent and scoring 26 points per game in the Lakers last five (before
the Clipper game Wednesday). The 7’0″ Gasol will be guarded by the 6’9″
Jeff Green, who is a quality player but cannot bother Gasol when he gets
the ball. The Lakers all to often inexplicably go away from Gasol, if
they do it here they play into the Thunder’s hands.

There is James Harden sparking the Thunder off the bench, versus the
Lamar Odom spark. There is Green trying to pull the Laker bigs away from
the basket. There are a lot of Xs and Os to watch.

Still, the question is how much does experience matter? The Lakers do
not tighten up under pressure; they tend to thrive in it. They don’t
always win but they seem to revel in it. They have won a title because
of it. Look at what Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told Mike Trudell of
Lakers.com in their series preview:

“At the end of the day, we’re not talking about an inexperienced roster
or coaching staff, he said. “This team, based on what they’ve
accomplished and not just recently deserves the chance to go into the
playoffs and make any adjustments that they feel necessary. We all know
that no matter what happened 10 days ago or three weeks ago, everybody
will be evaluated based on how the season ends.”

The Thunder run their sets but often seem of short-arm shots in the last
five minutes of a game. When the defensive pressure steps up, they seem
to get tight, and with Harden on the bench (in favor of Thabo’s
defense) they rely heavily on Durant to do everything. With more on the
line then their core has ever faced, how will the Thunder execute?
Carefree, like a team with nothing to lose? Or do they get tight?

Much of the nation, pretty tired of Kobe and the Lakers, will be pulling
for the upstarts. Oklahoma City will have America’s hearts. If they can
keep their heads, they have the talent to hang.

But would you really bet against the Lakers here? Neither would I.

Bulls: No decision yet on Rajon Rondo’s future with team

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CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Bulls are not ready to say whether veteran point guard Rajon Rondo will be back for a second season.

Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson says that “is still to be determined.” The Bulls can pay Rondo $13.4 million or buy him out for $3 million by Friday’s deadline.

Paxson spoke Tuesday during a news conference to introduce newcomers Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and rookie Lauri Markkanen, who were acquired from Minnesota for Jimmy Butler on draft night. The Bulls were planning to meet Tuesday with Rondo’s agent Bill Duffy, who represents LaVine.

Paxson also says a buyout on Dwyane Wade after he exercised his $23.8 million option “has not been broached.” Paxson says the Bulls, at least for now, assume Wade will play for Chicago.

Report: Chris Paul met with Clipper officials to talk future of franchise, himself

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Chris Paul is going to talk to a lot of teams this summer, but if you ask people around the league, most seem to think he will re-sign with the Clippers. The ultimate reason is money: As president of the players’ union he helped steer the new CBA negotiations, which included changing the “over 36 rule” — limiting max contracts to players who turn 36 during the time of the deal — into the “over 38 rule.” That meant 32-year-old Paul could sign one more five-year max contract.

Paul also wants to win, and it’s hard to see how the assembled team in Los Angeles — which is certainly a top 5-7 NBA team, maybe a little higher when healthy — picks up a ring. Especially with the Golden State juggernaut not going anywhere.

Paul has started talking to the Clippers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

I doubt that discussion was much about money — the Clippers will offer a five-year max contract. That’s not even up for debate.

The discussion was how to build the Clippers into a contender. Will Blake Griffin, also a free agent, be back and be part of that? What about J.J. Redick? Can the Clippers get the cap space to lure huge free agents in 2018? LeBron James reportedly wants to come to Los Angeles, although whether he wants to be a Clipper is another question. (For the record, I don’t buy the idea LeBron would “never” be a Clipper. While it may be highly unlikely, people I have spoken to around the league closer to LeBron’s thinking say he wants to keep every option open, play out next season, then see where things stand. He would not fully rule out playing with Chris Paul, who could still be in L.A.)

The Clippers have backed themselves into a corner by trading away picks for veterans, and not developing young players into guys who can contribute in the rotation. When was the last time the Clippers had their Patrick McCaw or Dewayne Dedmon? Without those young, affordable players, it becomes hard to put a good roster together and keep it together. It’s part of what Jerry West — with some help from GM Lawrence Frank — need to bring to Doc Rivers’ Clippers.

That’s likely part of the discussion, too.

There’s a lot for the sides to talk about.

Michael Jordan sent Russell Westbrook personal MVP congratulatory note

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Russell Westbrook is one of the biggest stars in the NBA, he’s now an MVP, and he wears Jordan Brand Nikes.

Still, it has to be a bit humbling to get a personal, signed note from Michael Jordan himself.

Which is exactly what he got on Tuesday, a congratulatory note from the GOAT.

The note said (in all caps):

Congrats Russell.

I got buy first MVP award before my first ring, too… keep going!

It was then signed by Jordan.

Westbrook could probably fill a second home with memorabilia from his career, but this is one he’s likely going to keep safe.

Report: At least seven teams will try to pick off free agent Andre Iguodala from Warriors

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Golden State has a lot of free agents to retain or replace this summer if they are going to keep their championship team together. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are the two biggest names, but both going to get massive paydays from the team and are not going anywhere. Then there are the role players teams could try to pick off: Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West, plus Matt Barnes.

However, Andre Iguodala is the free agent most teams are targeting. At least seven teams have Iguodala on their radar, reports Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Andre Iguodala has become the foremost target in an attempt to weaken the Golden State Warriors’ chokehold on the NBA, league sources have told ESPN.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs, LA Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz are among the teams interested in the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, sources tell ESPN. It is not yet known if Iguodala will take meetings.

Iguodala, who just finished a close second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting, still can hit threes and bring some buckets, but more importantly he brings defense, flexibility, and leadership. He’s crucial to the switching small-ball lineups the Warriors employ, and he stepped up his game last season when Durant was down. Losing Iguodala would be a blow to these Warriors.

Durant has said he will take a little less money and structure his deal so that the Warriors can retain Iguodala and Livingston, but both of them are unrestricted free agents with options.

Iguodala, 33, is coming off a four-year, $48 million deal and the Warriors would like to retain him in that ballpark of $12 million a year or a little less. The question is the years, Golden State may want to do two, Iguodala will want four, and the likely will settle at three, but that could change or have options.

For Iguodala the question becomes: what if another team comes in over the top, promising a few million more a year and a starting role? At this point in his career, does he want to stay with the Warriors and win, or would that tug on his pocketbook and ego be too much of a draw? Iguodala has said he and GM Bob Myers have been clear and up front with each other throughout the season and talked out scenarios.

Iguodala likely re-signs with the Warriors, but with a number of teams hunting him it may not be that simple a decision.