NBA Playoffs: Lakers lock down Durant, Thunder to win Game 1

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Bynum_Durant.jpgOn a superficial level, the Lakers and Thunder appear to be polar opposites in a lot of ways. The Lakers are the defending champions. The Thunder have never been to the playoffs before. The Lakers are the #1 seed. The Thunder are the #8 seed. The Lakers are a veteran team. The Thunder are the youngest team in the league. The Lakers play in Los Angeles. The Thunder play in Oklahoma City. On the court, however, the two teams are more the same than different. Both teams hung their hat on defense this year, struggled offensively at times, and have a transcendent scorer in their employ. 

The problem for the Thunder is that the Lakers, when healthy, are a great defensive team and above-average offensively; the Thunder are a very good defensive team and below-average offensively. On Sunday afternoon, the game that was billed as a Kobe-Durant showdown turned into a defensive battle, and the Lakers were able to take the win home by establishing some semblance of offensive production. The Thunder played their hearts out and challenged the Lakers at times, but in the end they couldn’t find enough ways to score to get over the hump. 

I was at the game, so here are my notes from the contest in chronological order:
-The pre-game introductions are sponsored by the upcoming film “The Losers,” which means the word “Losers” is prominently displayed beneath the Lakers’ starting lineup. This is the last time the Lakers would be called “Losers” all afternoon. 
-The Lakers go to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to start the game, and both of them score in the post. Bynum looks spry, and it looks like the Thunder may not have an answer for the Lakers if both of their 7-footers are on their game. 
-After three minutes of action, Nenad Kristic scores the first basket in Thunder postseason history on a put-back. 
-Durant misses his first two jumpers, and unsuccessfully attempts to draw a foul on Ron Artest with his patented “rip” move. He doesn’t get the whistle, and the shot misses badly. Not a good start for Durant. 
-The Lakers are using their size to punish the Thunder inside, while the Thunder are surviving by pushing off of turnovers and getting transition hoops. 
-Durant finally has some success against Artest when he nearly causes Artest to fall down with a crossover and uses the resulting space to drain a three. This looked like a glimmer of hope at the time, but it turned out to be Durant’s only made three of the night.
                                                                                                                
-Sefolosha and Green both do a good job on Bryant early, but Bryant immediately gets aggressive when James Harden is on him, taking him to the post and hitting a turnaround. 
-The Lakers absolutely dominate the first quarter, outscoring the Thunder by a margin of 27-13. They established their inside-out game perfectly, attacking the paint early in the quarter and hitting open threes when the defense started collapsing. Of the Lakers’ 27 points in the quarter, 23 came on shots in the paint or on shots from behind the arc.
-The Thunder get back into the game while Kobe sits, but the Lakers get back in the driver’s seat. Over the course of one critical sequence, Bryant hit a contested three, Durant got stripped not once but when he tried to answer, and Andrew Bynum got deep position on the ensuing semi-transition possession and threw down an absolutely crushing slam. The Lakers are now up 17, and the crowd is going insane. Big trouble for the Thunder. 
-Russell Westbrook prevents the game from becoming a blowout with his play in the second half of the quarter. The Thunder start to get out in transition, and Westbrook scores or assists on all of the Thunder’s 17 points in the last six minutes of the half. Even though Oklahoma City got convincingly outplayed for much of the half, they enter the locker room only down eight. 
-More Westbrook to start the 2nd half for the Thunder. Save for one technical free throw by Kevin Durant, all of the Thunder’s points were scored or assisted by Westbrook until the 2:29 mark of the third quarter. For those of you keeping score at home, Westbrook scored or assisted on all of the Thunder’s field goals for a 15-minute stretch of game time. That’s not going to get it done against the Lakers. 
-Fouth quarter. Durant, who’s continued to struggle against Artest, gets a rare opportunity to play while Artest sets. He looks to score, pulls up for a three…and air-balls it so badly it barely hits the floor. Not Kevin Durant’s night. 
-Durant did start to get to the line late in the game, and drew Artest’s fifth foul with 6:52 remaining in the game. With Artest in foul trouble and the Thunder only down seven, it looks like the Thunder might have a chance, but Kobe hits a cold-blooded three over Jeff Green to push the lead back to double digits. Durant answers with a sweet 19-footer, but Odom comes right back to hit a big three.
-Here was the backbreaking sequence for the Thunder. Down only six with 3:14 to play, Durant misses a 15-footer. With the Thunder needing a stop, they fail to get the rebound after a missed Artest three. Gasol goes back up with it, Westbrook blocks it from behind…and gets whistled for a foul. The block looked clean on replay, but he caught Gasol’s head with his follow-through and that’s a very tough call to make in the first place. After Gasol makes the free throws and Fisher hits a three a few possessions later, it’s all over but the crying. 
A few general notes:
-Artest was the difference in this game. Durant didn’t want to drive on him, and he was never able to lose him. The Thunder tried running him around the baseline, giving him staggered screens, using him on curls and pin-downs, everything. No matter what they tried, Artest stayed stuck to Durant, and Durant was never able to get to the rim in a half-court situation. With Durant shut down, the Thunder had no success with their half-court offense at all, and that was what gave the Lakers the win.                                                                                                                                                                           
-Bynum looked much healthier than I expected he would. A very scary sight for the rest of the league.
-The Thunder did a great job of defending Kobe Bryant and held him to 6-19 shooting from the field. If the Lakers and Thunder switched their supporting casts, it would be Sefolosha and Green getting the game ball instead of Artest, but alas. Also, how scary is it that the Lakers can win in fairly
convincing fashion with Bryant so far off his game. 
-I don’t see how the Thunder can win this series if they don’t drastically pick up the pace or Durant starts going off on Artest. The Lakers are just too big inside and too good on defense; Bynum coming back healthy gives them a whole new dimension. My only caveat is that if the Thunder do manage to steal one in LA, the impact of the OKC crowd during their team’s first home playoff games shouldn’t be underestimated.
Post-Game Quotes:
Thunder Coach Scott Brooks: “I thought our effort was really good this afternoon. Offensively, we just didn’t have anything going. The Lakers are a good defensive team. We allowed that…our offense didn’t really work tonight because we were holding the ball and standing around to much. I give the Lakers a lot of credit because they’re a long, athletic team and they do a good job of protecting the basket.”
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson on how the Lakers defended Durant: “I thought the team was much more alert as to where [Kevin Durant] was on the floor. I thought they helped out, keep their arms out of there so he couldn’t get the reach-in fouls and get to the line. He still got there 11 times, which is incredible. But his shooting was off today. I think he’ll shoot much better than he did today.”
Kevin Durant, on whether he thinks the Thunder can win the series if he continues to play like he did on Sunday: “No, I don’t think so. I make four or five more shots, maybe it could have been a different game. Like I said, I just have to keep improving, keep working. Gotta work. That’s what it’s all about, getting better. Hopefully come game 2 I’ll start knocking some of those shots down.” 
Phil Jackson has won the first game of a playoff series 44 times in his career. He’s gone on to win 44 of those series. The Thunder will need to find a way to get their best player going and establish some type of half-court offense if they don’t want to be #45. 
  

Paul George says he’s willing to play all 48 minutes in Game 6 against Raptors

Indiana Pacers' Paul George (13) drives to the basket as Toronto Raptors' DeMarre Carroll (5) defends during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA first-round playoff basketball series, Tuesday, April 26, 2016 in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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The on/off splits for Paul George in the Pacers-Raptors series, which Toronto leads 3-2, are jarring:

  • On: +26 in 189 minutes
  • Off: -29 in 51 minutes

Indiana’s problems without George came to a head in Game 5. In the 6:55 George sat, the Pacers shot 0-for-10 and got outscored 19-1. That was more than enough for the Raptors, who won by three when Solomon Hill‘s game-tying 3-pointer left his hand a fraction of a second too late.

How do the Pacers solve this problem?

Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Paul George said he is willing to play 48 minutes in Friday night’s Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors if needed.

“If that’s the direction that the game is going, I’m all for it,” George said after Thursday’s practice. “Whatever we got to do to win, I’m doing it.”‘

The only player to play a full this game was Rajon Rondo, who played 48 minutes in consecutive (!) Kings games in November. The last player to do it in a playoff game was Jimmy Butler, who played all 53 minutes of a Bulls’ overtime loss to the Wizards in 2014.

So, it can be done, and George is the type of athlete who can do it.

But can George sustain his elite production without a rest? That’s the main question, including how it’d affect him for a potential Game 7. With Indiana’s season on the line, it might be worth finding out.

There are also last drastic solutions. Frank Vogel used one lineup the entire time George sat in Game 5: Ty LawsonRodney StuckeyC.J. Miles-Solomon Hill-Ian Mahinmi.

Maybe don’t run the offense through Lawson, Stuckey and Miles at any point of a must-win game? Stagger minutes between George and Monta Ellis and maybe George Hill. Ellis is the type of player who can lead a bad team in scoring, but regularly bad would be a huge step up for the George-less Pacers. George Hill has also proven capable of handling the reins without George.

Vogel’s goal should be maximizing George’s minutes but also minimizing time Indiana spends without George, Ellis or George Hill.

Kevin Durant doesn’t regret Kawhi Leonard ‘system’ comments, praises Spurs forward now

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, right, defends as San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, left, looks for a shot in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. Oklahoma City won 112-106. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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Right after Kawhi Leonard won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, Kevin Durant sent these tweets favoring Paul George over Leonard:

With Durant’s Thunder set to face Leonard’s Spurs in the second round, how does Durant feel about Leonard now?

Durant, via Travis Singleton:

He’s definitely grown as a player. He’s not a system player. I know you guys like to throw that word, that term, around.

But he’s just grown so much as a player, a guy that can – I have to be locked in every play. He can shoot the mid-range. He can post up. He can shot the 3. He can dribble. He’s just grown so much as a player. Defensively, probably one of the best guys in the league.

So, it’s fun. It’s fun when you get that matchup at the small forward. There’s so many great guys, but he’s one of the guys that’s in the top tier.

Does Durant regret his 2014 tweets? Durant, via Singleton:

No I don’t. At the time, I didn’t even call him a system player. I just said Paul George was better. I like Paul George better as a player. I can be a fan of the game, too. And I thought Paul George – one of my guys was debating with me and said that he was better than Paul George at the time, and I didn’t think so.

I’m not taking back. I said the system is the reason he’s out there. Pop put him in great positions to be the player that he is. So, I don’t regret it at all.

He’s grown. It’s three years ago. If he hasn’t grown, that’s on him. But he’s grown as a player.

And, yeah, I don’t take it back.

Durant was wrong two years ago. Gregg Popovich certainly helped Leonard, and the coach would’ve helped George, too. But answering whether Leonard would’ve excelled with the Pacers with a flat “no” was ridiculous. Leonard was already awesome and would’ve been with any team.

Now, the Leonard-George debate – an interesting one in 2014 – has ended. As impressive as George has been in his return from injury, Leonard has passed him.

Durant recognizes that, and he’ll get to see first-hand starting tomorrow.

Dennis Schröder held back from Isaiah Thomas after Hawks-Celtics series ends (video)

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The final game of the Hawks’ 4-2 win over the Celtics included little drama – until it was ending.

Isaiah Thomas and Dennis Schröder got into it earlier in the series, and Thomas appeared to want more as he left Game 6. The Boston guard had toward Schröder on the Atlanta bench. After the buzzer, Schröder was held back from going the direction of Thomas.

Was Schröder definitely going after Thomas? No. Players were exchanging well wishes near center court, and Schroder might have just wanted to join. But with a series against the Cavaliers upcoming, the Hawks preferred not to take any chances.

Spirits of St. Louis owner Ozzie Silna, who made incredible deal in NBA-ABA merger, dies

FILE - In this May 23, 2006 file photo, Ozzie Silna poses for a photo at his home in Malibu, Calif. Ozzie Silna, who turned a fading American Basketball Association team into a four-decade cash cow worth nearly $800 million in NBA money, has died at age 83, Tuesday, April 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ozzie Silna, who turned a fading American Basketball Association franchise into a four-decade windfall of nearly $800 million from the NBA in what’s commonly called the greatest deal in sports history, has died at age 83.

Silna’s younger brother and Spirits of St. Louis co-owner Daniel Silna told The Associated Press that his brother’s funeral was held Thursday. Ozzie Silna died Tuesday at a Los Angeles hospital after a brief illness, his brother said.

The two brothers made their millions without having to pay players, build arenas or hire coaches. They only had to sit back and cash the checks.

Banking on an eventual ABA-NBA merger, they bought the failing Carolina Cougars of the ABA in 1974 for about $1 million and promptly moved it to St. Louis, then the biggest American city without a pro basketball team.

After the 1975-76 season the NBA agreed to a merger, accepting four of the six remaining teams into the league. The Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets and San Antonio Spurs got in. The Kentucky Colonels, and the Spirits, did not.

As part of a concept he and attorney Donald Schupak dreamed up months earlier, Ozzie Silna negotiated to receive four-sevenths of a share of the NBA’s annual TV revenue for as long as the NBA was around.

The agreement was drawn up to be as broadly defined and open-ended as possible. It worked.

At the time, it was worth about $300,000 a year. But as the NBA and its popularity grew, the annual checks grew into the tens of millions.

“You’ve got to be lucky in a lot of this stuff,” Ozzie Silna told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview. “But you’ve got to see the stuff, too. If it’s there, and you don’t see it, you don’t have a chance to get lucky.”

By 2014 the brothers had netted nearly $300 million from the deal. By that time the NBA was challenging the arrangement in court.

That year they settled with the league in a deal that paid them $500 million and kept a much smaller stream of money coming in, according to the New York Times, which reported Silna’s death Wednesday along with TMZ Sports.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement saying he was deeply saddened by Silna’s death.

“Ozzie and his brother Dan owned the St. Louis Spirits at a time when the ABA’s future was uncertain, but he loved the game and was determined to be part of professional basketball,” Silver’s statement said.

Born Uziel Silna in Israel in 1932, he moved to New Jersey when he was 7. He made his money in his family’s textile business before buying the Spirits.

In later years, he lived in Malibu, California, where he was a tenacious fighter for environmental causes.

In the ABA, the brothers accumulated an eclectic and unpredictable talent pool that was typical of the freewheeling league – Marvin Barnes, Moses Malone, Maurice Lucas. They also gave a young Bob Costas his first play-by-play job as their announcer.

Silna downplayed the brilliance of the deal he and Schupak drew up. In fact, Silna says, the basis for it came months earlier when only seven teams – the final six and the Virginia Squires – were left standing in the ABA.

League owners the figured six teams would be allowed in the NBA, and one would be left out. Silna wanted to be equitable to the owner who was excluded. He assumed it wouldn’t be him.

“That’s how we came up with the one-seventh” figure, he told the AP in the 2006 interview. “I thought that seventh team deserved the same benefit as the other six.”

But the Squires folded, and Silna and Schupak applied the parameters they’d set up for that team to themselves. One-seventh times four – four teams were admitted to the NBA – equals four-sevenths, which is the cut the Silnas got each year.

“Some people say it’s the best deal ever done,” Silna said. “I just looked at it as a way of being fair.”

AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this story.