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.

Report: Other league executives don’t expect DeMarcus Cousins to stay in Sacramento

SACRAMENTO, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings stands on the court during their game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Sleep Train Arena on February 26, 2016 in Sacramento, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The vultures have been circling.

Other teams have called Sacramento GM Vlade Divac since the day he took office to inquire about the availability of DeMarcus Cousins — however, only George Karl took those calls and tried to run with it. The Kings know they have a franchise player, the best traditional center in the game right now, in Cousins and that is hard to come by. While it may not be easy — Cousins has always been demanding of those around him — they need to make it work.

Enter coach Dave Joerger, the guy who had success with difficult personalities in Memphis and got that team to the conference finals a couple of times.

Cousins has this season and next on his deal, and around the league the conventional wisdom is he bolts when this contract is up (hence the trade calls). Here is what one executive told Zach Harper of CBSSports.com.

“They’re fooling themselves if they think he’s sticking around,” said one league executive. “The good news for them is his value will always be high. There isn’t a point of no return in which you’re not getting high value for him. Teams will bid against each other in the trade market. Maybe [Cousins] doesn’t go for the biggest money in free agency but you’d love to have that card to play.”

The Kings aren’t giving up on being able to keep Cousins. They hope Joerger, the Olympics experience, some winning, a new building, and a trip to the playoffs will have Cousins thinking Sacramento is his home, where he wants to stay and build something.

I’d be surprised if the Kings seriously considered any move before next summer. But if Divac and company get the sense after this contract that they may not be able to keep Cousins — and let’s be clear, up to this point the organization has given him little reason to put his faith in them, Cousins is not unreasonable here — they have to make a move. This is not Oklahoma City where they can just turn the team over to Russell Westbrook, if Cousins goes it’s a rebuild in Sacramento (for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade).

Celtics fans (and the rest of you convinced Cousins is coming your way), you need to wait it out. This is not going to be some quick move this summer.

But the vultures are circling.

Harrison Barnes says Mavericks are Nowitzki’s team, he has to prove himself to German

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors shoots the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Harrison Barnes is the new gun in Dallas — a four years, $94 million contract says so. Dallas is betting the No. 4 option in the Warriors attack is ready to blossom as the No. 1 option with the Mavericks.

But make no mistake, the Mavs are still Dirk Nowitzki‘s team.

Barnes knows it and told Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News he has to prove himself.

“Out of respect, this is Dirk’s team,” Barnes said. “He’s put in the years and won a championship. But I have to go out and earn that. People assume that just because you get paid a lot of money and have a lot of attention that all of the sudden you’re guaranteed this many shots. I have to prove that every day in practice. I have to prove that to the coaching staff, and ultimately, if I’m going to be the guy taking shots, I’ve got to prove it to Dirk.

“You have to have that balance of scoring and playmaking, and learn how to be a closer. I think that’s the beauty of it, that I get to learn from one of the best to ever do it in Dirk Nowitzki. You talk about guys closing games, he’s got to be top-five all time. I’m just looking forward to learning from that guy.”

That’s exactly what he’s supposed to say. Well done by Barnes.

There is going to be an adjustment period in Dallas. Barnes may be able to handle being a No. 1 option — don’t let his rough Finals or riding the bench in the Olympics cloud your judgement — but we will have a better sense of that in February and March rather than November. He needs time to grow.

By the way, good on Mark Cuban for using the cap space he had to make Nowitzki the highest paid player on the team at $25 million — reward the guy who has been loyal to you.

Two men charged in fatal shooting of Nykea Aldridge, Dwyane Wade’s cousin

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 29:  General manager Gar Forman of the Chicago Bulls (L) listens as Dwyane Wade speaks during an introductory press conference at the Advocate Center on July 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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It is a heartbreaking story. Nykea Aldridge, a mother of four, was pushing her stroller down the street in Chicago when she was caught in the crossfire of a couple of men, and she was shot in the head and arm and died. Aldridge happens to be the cousin of Dwyane Wade, which brought this to national attention.

Two men have been arrested for the shooting, reports NBCChicago.com.

Two adult brothers have been charged with the murder of 32-year-old Nykea Aldridge on Friday, Chicago police said Sunday morning…. Derren Sorrells… is a documented gang member and was on parole for motor vehicle theft and for escaping custody, police said….

Darwin Sorrells… was a co-conspirator in the crime, police said, and was also on parole for a gun charge. He was sentenced to six years in prison in January 2013 and released early in February 2016, according to police….

Johnson said the Sorrells brothers approached another man nearby and opened fire, targeting an individual who “was driving females from a suburb to Chicago in a fair exchange program.”

Wade tweeted this on Saturday, referring to the violence in his home city.

DeMarcus Cousins says as of right now he wants to play in 2020 Tokyo Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 17:  Demarcus Cousins #12 of United States reacts in the first half while taking on Argentina during the Men's Quarterfinal match on Day 12 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Four years in the NBA is a couple of lifetimes away. GMs get paid to try and plan that far out, but the constantly shifting sands of the NBA — injuries, player improvement, new talents coming into the league, players changing teams, not to mention front office/ownership changes — make that a nearly impossible task. Nothing is set in stone that far out.

But if four years, DeMarcus Cousins wants to be playing for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics. Here is what he told Gary Washburn at the Boston Globe.

“I’m open to [coming back for Tokyo 2020]. I’ll be older then, so it depends on how my body feels. As of right now, where I’m at, absolutely, I’m open to it,” he said. “I think people don’t understand [how hard this winning is]. They see the guys on the roster and they think automatically, they’re supposed to win. This [international game] isn’t our game. This isn’t the way we play. This is an adjustment for every guy on the roster.

“No matter how much time there is, if guys can come together and mesh and play with some type of chemistry, you’re going to win games. It’s been proven in the past. We’ve had some of the most talented teams in the past and we didn’t win, so it’s not as easy as people think it is.”

I’m sure everyone on that team, save for Carmelo Anthony, is saying the same thing about returning for the next Olympics right now. We’ll see how things play out. C0usins certainly struggled to adjust to what is a foul in international ball (not to mention the inconsistent officiating) and spent much of Rio in foul trouble, but he was a monster in the gold medal game.

On another note, Cousins is right, the USA players face unreasonable expectations. They are unquestionably the most talented team in the Games, but with that and the history of USA Basketball they are expected to do more than win, they are expected to dominate. The 2016 team in Rio went undefeated and won gold, but because they had three tough games won by 10 or less — good Australian, French, and Serbian teams —, there was a lot of “what is wrong with Team USA?” talk.

The 2020 team will likely be even more talented — Cousins and Kevin Durant could well be joined by guys who skipped Rio such as Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis. However, the challenges will be the same: The rest of the world is getting better (watch out for Canada) and the USA will still be throwing a team together and trying to build chemistry on the fly.

But we still expect Gold.