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


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. 

Byron Scott believes Lakers management still supports him

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Lakers coach Byron Scott has said plenty of ridiculous things lately:

Maybe Lakers fans ought to hope Scott is wrong about this, too.

Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

Scott said he still senses support from Kupchak and Lakers executive vice president of basketball personnel Jim Buss. Scott is in the second-year of a four-year contract worth $17 million, with a team option for the final season.

“We still understand that this is a process,” Scott said. “We have a lot of young guys on this team that we feel will be very good players. But it’s not going to happen in a month. It’s going to take some time. It might take a year or two.”

The Lakers are 2-12, better than only the 76ers. Scott has allowed Kobe to hijack and cripple the offense, and the defense might be even worse. Player development is suspect, at best.

Scott does not deserve job security, let alone multiple years of it.

So, what are Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss thinking?

There are a few possibilities:

1. Management isn’t as sold on Scott as he says they are.

2. Management is using Scott – with or without his knowledge – to tank to keep the Lakers’ top-three protected first-round pick.

3. Management is as lost as Scott appears to be.

Good luck sorting out which is the case.

Stephen Curry: “We talk about 33” wins in a row

Harrison Barnes, Stephen Curry
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Golden State has a ring, and that came with accolades about them ushering in a new era, a new style of basketball in the NBA. But if they are going to have a legacy as one of the game’s legendary teams, they need more than one ring. They need more accolades and accomplishments.

Such as starting the season with a record 16-game win streak.

But what about the all-time win streak mark of 33 (set by the 1972 Lakers)? Stephen Curry says they talk about it, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“We talk about 33,” Curry said in a conference call with international reporters. “I think I’ve probably talked about it more than anybody else on the team, just because I know about the history and just really how hard it is.

“We’ve had like two 16-game winning streaks the last two years, and those are pretty special feats. For us to have to double that output, I mean we’re going to play hard and hopefully close in on that record, but it won’t be a disappointing effort if we don’t get there. Because there are so many talented teams in this league and for us to just be playing at a high level right now, that’s what we’re worried about. And if we close in and get to 29, 30 games, we’ll talk about it a little bit more.”

Considering they are not even halfway there yet, talking about this outside the locker room seems premature (much like talking about 72 wins already). The Warriors have had some less than stellar outings of late (the Brooklyn Game, for example), and they have a seven-game road trip with a couple back-to-backs coming up. There are a lot of places to trip up.

What this shows is that the Warriors have a little vanity, they have concern for their legacy.

And I love the confidence — this team is going to be disappointed when they do eventually lose. They are on a mission this season; they have not lost their hunger. Which may be the most impressive thing about their start.

Sixers’ Jahlil Okafor said he’s “embarrassed,” called actions “dumb”


Sixers’ big man Jahlil Okafor isn’t going to face serious repercussions for getting involved in a fight outside a Boston nightclub on Wednesday. The police are not investigating, the team is not suspending him (he is playing Friday night against Houston) and the Sixers are supporting him.

But Okafor admits he should have walked away, and his actions were “dumb” and “embarrassing.” Here is the money quote (the full video interview is above):

“It was definitely dumb on my part. It’s something that I am embarrassed about, (we’re) still dealing with the league and the team. But I’m not happy about it at all.”

Of course, this has led to renewed criticism of people around the league who are not fans of GM Sam Hinkie’s pushing the “be bad to get good” boundaries to new levels. Like it or not, that system can work, and depending on how the next draft unfolds, the future of Joel Embiid, and when Dario Saric comes over, there could be some very nice young building blocks — some real franchise cornerstones — in Philly in a couple of years. The plan can work if Hinkie nails the draft.

But one criticism of their plan does ring true to me — a couple louder, veteran voices in the locker room could help the maturation process. Would it have kept Okafor from doing something stupid with a heckler in front of a club? Likely not. But it would speed up the learning process, it would instill professionalism rather than the more chaotic system now. Michael Lee summed it up well at Yahoo.

The 76ers haven’t had a player older than 25 step on the court this season…. Carl Landry is the team’s oldest player at 32 but he has yet to make his season debut, putting too much pressure on Brett Brown and his coaching staff to teach the kids what it takes to be professional.

Philadelphia hasn’t hidden its desire to lose big now to win big later, but it shouldn’t just view veterans as salary-cap holds or a means to acquire more second-round picks. The Minnesota Timberwolves finished with the league’s worst record last season but invested in expediting the development of No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins and fellow first-round pick Zach LaVine by bringing in aging vets Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller to help serve as examples on and off the court….

Through his one notable misstep thus far, Okafor might inspire the necessary change in Philadelphia. Having seasoned players around won’t prevent kids from making mistakes altogether, but the TMZ video should serve as a reminder that the long-term development of the 76ers might be enhanced if a chaperone or two were around to help the youngsters deal with getting their heads beat in.

Boston police say no investigation planned into Jahlil Okafor fight


BOSTON (AP) — Boston police say they do not plan to investigate an apparent nightclub scuffle involving Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor unless someone involved comes forward to say they were the victim of a crime.

Officer James Kenneally said Friday that police responded to reports of a fight outside the nightclub hours after the winless Sixers lost to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night. But Kenneally says the participants were gone by the time officers arrived and nobody was arrested or charged.

TMZ posted cellphone video of the altercation on Thursday, showing Okafor yelling and later shoving a man. The website reports that the confrontation started when someone taunted the 76ers. Philadelphia has 16 losses and is the only team in the NBA without a win.

An agent for the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft did not immediately return a message Friday seeking comment. The 76ers declined comment.

Philadelphia plays at Houston on Friday night.