NBA Playoffs: What the Thunder need to do to win in Los Angeles

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Durant_game3.jpgWith the Lakers stumbling a bit coming into the playoffs and the Thunder being anything but a typical eight-seed, many people believed that the Lakers-Thunder series would be a lot more competitive than #1-#8 matchups usually are. 
In game 1, things didn’t work out that way; the Thunder looked completely outmatched on both ends of the floor by the Lakers. The Lakers used Bynum and Gasol to punish the Thunder on the blocks. They made timely shots whenever Oklahoma tried to get within striking distance. The Lakers completely shut down the Thunder in the half-court, holding Durant to a 7-24 shooting night. Even though they only shot 41% from the field, the Lakers looked too big, too strong, and too talented for the Thunder to deal with on Sunday afternoon. 
What can the Thunder do to prevent a repeat performance on Tuesday night? Here are some adjustments that could help the Thunder steal a game on the road:
1. Get Kevin Durant Going

This is absolutely imperative for the Thunder. Durant is the Thunder’s franchise player, the league’s leading scorer, and Oklahoma City’s only consistent offensive weapon in the half-court. If Durant continues to shoot 29% from the field, the Thunder simply do not have enough firepower to score points against the Lakers. 
Durant seems extremely hesitant to take the ball at Ron Artest. He almost never drove on Artest when the Thunder played the Lakers in the regular season, and he didn’t take it to the rack against Artest in game one. Artest is a great man-to-man defender, but Durant is letting Artest take him out of his game and cause him to settle for jumpers. Durant is a good shooter, and he’ll make more of his jumpers on Tuesday night than he did on Sunday, but he’s got to get some points at the rim and trips to the free throw line. 
The Thunder also have to do a better job getting Durant some better catches. The baseline screens, pin-downs, and staggered screens the Thunder have used to try and get Durant free haven’t been getting him good looks. The Thunder need to try and use their other players moving with the ball to free up Durant on the weak side instead of continuing to give it to him on the strong side. 
2. Make an Effort To Push The Ball

Russell Westbrook did most of his damage in transition on Sunday and shot 10-16 from the field. The rest of the Thunder shot 19-56 from the field. The Thunder out-scored the Lakers 14-2 in fast-break points; if you take each team’s fast-break points away, the Lakers outscored Oklahoma City 85-65. Getting out in transition is always easier said than done, but the Thunder need to do their best to make it a full-court game. 
3. Do Everything They Can To Stop Bynum and Gasol

The Thunder played great perimeter defense against the Lakers on Sunday. In fact, Lakers not named Bynum or Gasol combined to shoot only 19-54 from the field while attempting a combined total of 14 free throws. The Thunder don’t have the size to play Bynum or Gasol straight-up, but they need to do whatever they can to front them, bring aggressive double-teams, and make the Laker perimeter players work for their points or try to win with outside shooting. The Lakers aren’t a good three-point shooting team, and more long rebounds mean more Westbrook in transition.
There’s always the chance Kobe could go off, but that can happen regardless of what kind of defense you play. The Thunder can’t allow Bynum and Gasol to run a Mikan drill if they want to have a chance. 
4. Get Some Production from their two-guard spot

In 37 minutes of play, Sefolosha and Harden combined for two points on 0-7 shooting from the field on Sunday. That’s not good. Sefolosha is in there for his defense, but he needs to make a few wide-open shots from time to time. Harden is a much better offensive player, but Kobe licked his chops and went right at Harden every time he saw him on Sunday. I’m not sure how long the Thunder can get away with keeping him on the floor for. 
5. Use the Bench to their advantage

The Lakers bench has been notoriously weak this season. The Thunder bring Nick Collison, Eric Manor, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden off their bench. On paper, the Thunder’s second unit should be able to get the Thunder some points, but the Lakers were actually +1 in the seven minutes Kobe sat on Sunday. If the Lakers play the Thunder even while Kobe sits, that’s a major win for them.
Well, that’s my list of adjustments. Oklahoma City definitely has their work cut out for them for the remainder of the series, but they’re 48 good minutes away from stealing a game at Staples and having all the momentum in the series. 

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.

UNLV following Kentucky’s lead with combine for NBA scouts

Goodluck Okonoboh, Patrick McCaw
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Kentucky held a two-day combine last season for NBA scouts.

Now, LSU and UNLV are following suit.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports:

The Runnin’ Rebels will hold their event on October 23rd and 24th at the Mendenhall Center, UNLV’s practice facility, sources told The expectation is that all 30 NBA teams will be in attendance.

LSU has potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and another first-round prospect in Tim Quarterman.

UNLV features lottery prospect Stephen Zimmerman.

This won’t replace scouts attending games and watching practices, but the fact that all 30 teams plan to attend shows how seriously the pro league takes these. No college team wanted John Calipari to have that competitive advantage in recruiting, so the smart ones are leveling the field with their own combines. Soon, more college teams will follow.

As the calendar gets packed, NBA teams might have to pick and choose which they attend. At that point, we might get little clues about which prospects they’re scouting hardest.