NBA Playoffs: Ron Artest was too strong, too smart for Durant, Thunder

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artest_durant.jpgIn a year, maybe two, teams are not going to be able to do this to Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant. Then he will be stronger; the team will be more experienced. But right now they can, and Ron Artest and the Lakers did.

Los Angeles simply out-muscled, out-hustled and out-thought the best player Oklahoma City has got. With Ron Artest on him, Kevin Durant was just 4 of 18 shooting on the night (7-24 overall). Durant usually still makes some of those well-covered shots, he will as the series goes on, but Scott Brooks and his team need to come up with other actions to get Durant open, or things will not get a lot better.

After rewatching the game and focusing on the Artest/Durant battle, it was clear the Lakers did several things to shut him down.

The first was keeping the game in the half-court. In an uptempo game, the young and athletic Thunder would steamroll the Lakers, and Durant would get easy points filling a lane on the break. His confidence would grow. The Lakers held the game to 87 possessions, six fewer than the Thunder averaged this season  — and about six less than the Lakers, it’s just that LA is better able to adjust their game.

Part two of the plan was what everybody is talking about — Ron Artest.

Artest is a pit bull of a defender. First off, he is relentless, he never quits, never gives up. Second, he is physical and strong, and knows how to use it. The Oklahoma City team — not just Durant but also the team — were not prepared for this.

Artest tried to deny Durant the ball in any spot on the floor he likes. That’s always his modus operandi. And he is too strong for Durant to hold his position on his own. Artest tries to do the same things to players like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony but has less success because they are strong enough to hold him off and get some angles they want. Durant needs more muscle on the frame to do that.

To help Durant out, the Thunder ran some simple plays right out of every NBA playbook — some cross screens, some pindowns — trying to free Durant up on the strong side. Artest just blew those up and was in Durant’s grill the whole time. Two reasons for that. First, Artest has been seeing those since he entered the league. Artest is a smart player, a savvy one. If he knows it’s coming, you’re not going to succeed with it very often. You have to do better than the basics to catch him off guard.

Second, there isn’t a player strong enough on the Thunder to set a pick Artest can’t run through, especially on the screen-and-roll. Much like Durant himself, this is a young and lanky team. That serves them well in transition, not as well in a game of physical half-court sets.

The Lakers bigs also defended the picks well, they showed out on Durant enough until Artest arrived, which was not long. The Lakers were well prepared for this part of the Thunder playbook.

Brooks and his staff have to figure out ways to get Durant free. That may be better putting Durant on the weakside then using quick ball rotation to get him the ball in isolation. They can’t keep running basic sets and keep Durant on the strong side.

They have to do something different. The Thunder need Durant to win in this series, and Artest and his somewhat creepy blond hair are not going away.

J.R. Smith replacing Dwyane Wade as Cavaliers’ starting shooting guard

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The Cavaliers are 2-1, but their starting lineups have been outscored by 19 points in 32 minutes. Dwyane Wade has been so bad as the starting shooting guard, his struggles have overshadowed J.R. Smith‘s miserable play as the backup.

But at least Wade volunteered a solution to this predictable problem.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Dwyane Wade is headed for the Cavaliers’ bench at his own request and J.R. Smith is returning to the starting lineup.

Wade, 35, a 12-time All-Star who struggled in his first three games with Cleveland, asked coach Tyronn Lue to make the change, Lue said. But this wasn’t exactly Wade’s idea, either.

Lue told him when he signed with the Cavs Sept. 27 that the second unit may be the best fit for him.

“I just decided, earlier than later, just to get to the unit where I’d be more comfortable in and can probably better with this team in that lineup,” Wade said. “Why wait? Three games in, why wait? Wanted to get in there with those guys.”

Cleveland’s starting lineup needs more shooting and defense around LeBron James – especially with Derrick Rose starting over an injured Isaiah Thomas (though Rose is out a couple games with his own ankle injury). Smith provides that.

Bench-heavy units need more playmaking. Wade provides that.

This was a tricky situation given Wade’s status as a future Hall of Famer and friendship with LeBron. Whether Wade simply suggested the change or Lue is trying to give Wade public credit after coaxing it behind the scenes, the result is the same.

The Cavs can now use their most logical rotation, and they should be better for it.

Suns GM Ryan McDonough: Eric Bledsoe hair-salon claim about tweet was unbelievable

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Eric Bledsoe reportedly requested a trade from the Suns before the season then tweeted yesterday:

Clear message?

Apparently not.

After sending home Bledsoe today, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough explained his rationale:

The hair salon! What a wonderful excuse.

Is it true? I’m not going to call Bledsoe a liar. It might be.

It’s also probably true that Bledsoe isn’t long for Phoenix.

Report: Suns send Eric Bledsoe home, expect to trade him

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In a shocking twist, the Suns firing Earl Watson did not end the dysfunction in Phoenix.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Bledsoe:

That is a first-rate tweet by Bledsoe. It’s great that he’s having fun with the wild situation, because the rest of us sure are amused peering in.

This was always going to be a long season in Phoenix, but things got out of hand in a hurry. The 0-3 Suns have been outscored by 92 – the worst three-game start in NBA history by 16 points. Now, comes the fallout.

At 27, Bledsoe was getting to be a little too old for a rebuild centered on Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and T.J. Warren. The Suns could have dealt Bledsoe in the offseason. Now, they’re negotiating from a position of weakness.

Bledsoe is a good starting point guard when healthy. He’s earning a reasonable $14.5 million this season and due $15 million in the final year of his contract next season. There should be suitors, and Phoenix can gain long-term assets while stepping up its tank.

But this sure seems like a crisis-control move more than anything else.

Willy Hernangomez ‘mad’ about falling from Knicks rotation

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Knicks president Steve Mills started his second tenure talking about rebuilding and listed Willy Hernangomez as a core piece.

But Hernangomez, coming off an All-Rookie first-team season, barely played in New York’s season-opening loss to the Thunder– drawing scrutiny.

Then, he didn’t play at all in a loss to the Pistons – eliciting a strong reaction from Hernangomez himself.

Hernangomez, via Fred Kerber of the New York Post:

“The same. I’m still mad,” Hernangomez said. “I cannot help the team win if I’m sitting on the bench. Two games in a row. It’s tough. I have to wait my moment. I cannot say nothing more.”

The Knicks are moving in different directions. Management is talking about building for the future. Coach Jeff Hornacek, who was hired by previous president Phil Jackson, is trying to win now.

There’s a fine line between developing Hernangomez through playing time and making him earn his minutes. Enes Kanter and Kyle O'Quinn might be better right now.

But being marginally better this season won’t get the Knicks anywhere meaningful except lower in the lottery. On the other hand, even on rebuilding teams, winning is most important to a coach’s job security. Earl Watson implemented the Suns’ tanking scheme, and look where that got him.

Hornacek is backed into a corner, and now one of the team’s most important young players is publicly expressing his displeasure. It’s the latest troubling sign in a locker room already suspicious of Hornacek.