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.

D’Angelo Russell says it’s not easy being patient, waiting his turn behind Kobe

D'Angelo Russell Kobe Bryant
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TORONTO — For the rest of this season, the Los Angeles Lakers are Kobe Bryant‘s team.

Some Lakers’ fans have questioned why Byron Scott is still the coach despite an 11-44 record, and in part it’s because he gives deference to Kobe other coaches might not. Scott was brought in to help sell the Lakers’ history during the final years of Kobe’s career, he has done that. He lets the veteran Kobe do things he will not allow anyone else on the team to do.

Meanwhile, the next generation of Lakers are trying to wait patiently for their turn.

But when asked All-Star Weekend about playing with Kobe (who often has the ball in his hands), Lakers’ rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell didn’t sound patient.

“Honestly, it’s hard,” Russell said of playing with Kobe. “It’s not easy. He’s a guy that’s earned every shot he’s taken, earned every minute he’s given, so you feel like being a rookie, but you feel like you’ve worked to be in his position so early but you’ve just got to be patient.”

There are a couple ways you can look at this.

You can see it as a rookie hungry for minutes, for touches, for the chance to learn by doing. You should like that he has that drive, that confidence that he wants the rock. Russell has had the ball in his hands probably since fourth grade, being bumped down the pecking order — even for Kobe — is an adjustment.

Or, you can see this as a rookie who is a bit full of himself, a bit overconfident, someone who turns the ball over too much and needs to earn those touches. This is more Scott’s thinking.

I’d say a guy that is overconfident as a rookie and wants the ball in his hands sooner rather than later sounds a lot like Kobe.

 

DeMarcus Cousins has spent All-Star Weekend playing defense on trade, George Karl rumors

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 13: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings handles the ball during the Taco Bell Skills Challenge as part of NBA All-Star 2016 on February 13, 2016 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario Canada. 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.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
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TORONTO — DeMarcus Cousins is an All-Star and he just wants to enjoy it. Hang out with other elite players, take part in the Skills Competition, have dinner at Sotto Sotto, play in the ASG itself, chill with friends. Chill being the operative word considering the weather.

But for parts of the weekend, he has had to play defense, swatting away attempts to get him to slam coach George Karl or talk trade rumors that have him leaving Sacramento. Mention his friend Isaiah Thomas making it to All-Star Game and you get the gregarious Cousins, but when the other topics come up you can feel his frustration, and hear it in his clipped answers.

“First of all, I can’t control the trade (rumors) and I can’t control if I’m traded or not…” Cousins said. “But I do want to be in Sacramento, and I know everybody in Sacramento knows that.”

Cousins isn’t getting traded. Teams may call the Kings, but they get shot down quickly (then those teams leak the rumor they called, making them look good to their fan base for trying). For one, the Kings have a franchise cornerstone piece under a reasonable contract, that’s not someone you trade unless forced to. Second, owner Vivek Ranadive loves him. Third, and this is key, the Kings open a new arena in downtown Sacramento next season — you don’t trade your best and most popular player, the face of your marketing program in the city, while you’re trying to sell luxury boxes and sponsorships in a new arena.

Cousins has also batted down questions attempting to get him to slam George Karl.

“I can go long term with any coach, but that’s not my decision….” Cousins said. “He’s a free, open-minded coach, he lets his players play. I think every player appreciates that.”

He was more direct with deserving new basketball Hall of Fame journalist David Aldridge of NBA.com in a video (and he’s laughing more and in more of a joking mood in the video than how this quote reads):

“I’m tired of it. Stop trying to make a story out of it, we’re fine. Our only goal this season is to make the playoffs. That’s it. All the other stuff, just stop, it’s not necessary.”

Undoubtedly there is some tension in and around the organization with Karl, although he will be around through the end of the season. However, the one thing that was clear with this team going back to Summer League — when the core guys bonded on a plane trip together to Las Vegas (and doing the other things one might do in Vegas) — the locker room is pretty solid.

“Throughout all this, the one thing that’s been good about the whole situation is the guys in the locker room stay together,” Cousins said. “There hasn’t been any separation.”

It seems Karl has never found a way to reach and inspire that group.

Ask Cousins about the rest of the season and you get some variation of “just stay positive.” He admits that’s not been easy after some tough losses of late, but it’s what they need to do to make a run.

“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs over the season, but just find a way to remain positive and get over the hump,” he said. 

That may be easier said than done.

But, at least, Cousins will get the chance to enjoy All-Star weekend.

Can we just relive that epic Dunk Contest one more time? Here’s the mixtape.

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TORONTO — Talking to NBA people, fans, and media around Toronto Sunday it seems every conversation starts with some version of “last night’s Dunk Contest was INSANE!

Because it was.

Andre Drummond threw down an impressive two-hand power slam with an assist from soccer playing Steve Nash. Will Barton‘s first dunk might have won him the contest in some weaker years. And we’re not even talking about them because of the eye-popping show that Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine put on.

Before we move on and talk trade rumors or actual All-Star Game, or whatever is coming next, can we just bask in the joy of that dunk contest one more time? The fine folks at NBA.com put together this mixtape version of the Dunk Contest, I’m passing it along.

Savor this people, it doesn’t get any better than what we witnessed Saturday night.

Michael Jordan to Klay Thompson: “Go ahead and break” Bulls’ 72-win record

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 25:  Owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Michael Jordan, watches on during their game against the Washington Wizards at Time Warner Cable Arena on November 25, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NBA - 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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Barring a major injury, it seems almost inevitable at this point that the Warriors will surpass the 1996 Bulls’ record of 72 wins in a season and vault themselves into the conversation of the greatest NBA teams in history. All year, members of that ’96 Bulls team have weighed in comparing the teams, but one guy who hasn’t given his thoughts publicly is Michael Jordan.

Apparently, during All-Star Weekend in Toronto, Jordan gave Klay Thompson his blessing for the Warriors to go for 73. Via CSN’s Rosalyn Gold-Onwude:

Not that the Warriors need anybody’s permission to go after the record, obviously. But it had to be cool for Thompson to hear directly from Jordan that he respects what the Warriors are doing and wants them to break his own record. In all likelihood, they’ll do it.