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.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.