NBA Playoffs: Bryant, Lakers hold on against Oklahoma City

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The Lakers-Thunder series promised a showdown between two of the best defensive teams in the Western Conference and two of the best scorers in the league. When Durant and Kobe struggled on Sunday, the game became an ugly, grind-it out affair. On Tuesday night, both Durant and Kobe showed up. The result was one of the best first-round games so far. 
Before the game, Phil Jackson talked about how he wanted to establish the Lakers’ inside game and had become concerned about Kobe Bryant’s number of shot attempts. Naturally, Kobe came out gunning, and the Lakers didn’t even make their first entry pass into the post until four minutes had gone by in the quarter. 
Kobe made a contested jumper on the Lakers’ first possession of the game, and was clearly looking to get himself going early. He had mixed results in the first half, going 6-16 from the field, but his confidence ended up paying major dividends late. 

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant was out to remind the viewing public that he didn’t win the scoring title by accident. He made a big adjustment in his offensive game, getting his catches backing down Artest in the mid-post area and rising over him for 15-20 foot jumpers rather than relying on off-ball movement and screens to free him up with good looks on the perimeter. When I asked him about this after the game, Durant said that “I was trying to mix it up a little bit. Artest is so strong, it’s hard to post him up. But I was able to use my length a little bit to shoot over him. It’s about playing physical, and I think I did a better job of that on both ends of the ball tonight.
Durant still wasn’t able to have success at the rim in game two, going 2-6 on shots at the rim and only shooting six free throws all night. In fact, Durant had serious problems whenever he put the ball on the floor, as he turned it over eight times. Just by virtue of taking his mid-range shots closer to the basket and getting set up with some catch-and-shoot threes, Durant was able to drop 32 on the Lakers. If he can have this kind of success from the perimeter and find a way to get to the rim, he could explode. 
Both the Thunder and the Lakers played great interior defensive. The Thunder only shot 10/22 from the paint, and the Lakers got blocked 17 times on their way to an 18/45 performance from inside the painted area. Seven Thunder players recorded a block on Tuesday, Kevin Durant had four, and rookie Serge Ibaka introduced himself to a national audience with seven blocks. And believe me, each of the seven were memorable. Ibaka’s been a fan favorite on Oklahoma City all year, and now a much wider audience has been introduced to Ibaka’s shot-blocking prowess. 
The 17 blocks were somewhat of a two-edged sword for the Thunder. Thanks to the Lakers’ length advantage and the Thunder’s eagerness to go for the block, the Lakers absolutely dominated the Thunder on the boards. They had 19 offensive rebounds to the Thunder’s seven, and gave the Lakers second chances in crucial situations down the stretch. 
There were other key mistakes by the Thunder that look bad in what turned out to be a one-possession game. Durant flubbed a wide-open fast-break slam in the first half. The Thunder turned it over with a chance to run out the clock at the end of Q1, allowing the Lakers to score. Russell Westbrook sent himself to the bench by tripping Derek Fisher with one second left on the shot clock and picking up his third foul. There were a few plays like throughout the game, all of which will likely cost Scott Brooks some sleep tonight. 
As soon as Kobe Bryant came out to play the second half, he had that look in his eye. He started the quarter off with two deep, flat-footed threes from the left wing. He absolutely embarrassed Thabo Sefolosha with a gorgeous mid-post spin halfway through the quarter. When he re-entered the game with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter, he ripped off five points in 50 seconds to put the Lakers up four. Bryant ended up with 15 points in the fourth quarter. While Durant was holding his own trying to match Bryant’s production, the former MVP got the better of the 21-year old on Tuesday night. 
After Bryant hit a contested jumper and a pair of free throws to push the Laker lead to four with 1:31 remaining, missed free throws by the Lakers left the door open for the Thunder. Shannon Brown split a pair, and Russell Westbrook came back down to draw a foul and make both free throws. After an OKC stop and a Jeff Green leaner in the lane, Kobe was intentionally fouled and split the pair to give the Thunder a chance to go for the tie or the win down two with 15 seconds to play. Scott Brooks elected to go for the win, and Durant missed a three-point attempt off a screen that would have given the Thunder the lead. After Pau Gasol split yet another pair of free throws, the Thunder had no timeouts and seven seconds to get a three. They set Jeff Green up with a good look behind a back-screen, but no dice. Lakers lead the series 2-0. 
There are some problems with this Laker team. They can neglect to use their bigs and exploit their size advantage inside. Artest and Fisher will take things off the table offensively. The bench is paper-thin. Even Kobe isn’t quite as dominant on a night-in, night-out basis as he once was. 
But this Laker team manages to find ways to win as well as any team I can ever remember seeing. When they miss a big shot, they come up with the offensive rebound. When they need a stop, they get one. Artest, Fisher, and even Odom aren’t great three-point shooters, but they’re all capable of delivering a dagger three at the worst possible time for their opponents. And Kobe Bryant is pretty good when the game is on the line. The Lakers aren’t a juggernaut like they were last year or the year before, but somehow they keep winning basketball games. They did it in the regular season, and now they’ve done it in the playoffs. Call it luck, call it experience, call it skill. Whatever it is, the Lakers need to do it fourteen more times to repeat as NBA champions.   

Kyrie Irving sticks water-bottle challenge before Cavaliers-Knicks buzzer (video)

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The Cavaliers were trying the water-bottle challenge on the bench late in their 126-94 win over the Knicks last night, but the national telecast showed Cleveland players only failing to flip a water bottle and have it land upright on the floor – including an erratic attempt from LeBron James that bounced onto the court.

Thankfully, the local post-game show had an angle of Kyrie Irving nailing the bottle flip just before the game ended, his toss just leaving his hands before the final buzzer. Count it!

Nicolas Batum zips pass between Tobias Harris’ legs to assist Frank Kaminsky (video)

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Listen up, defenses: Nicolas Batum will throw passes between your legs.

Three things we learned Wednesday: Warriors, Cavaliers try to make statements in December

Golden State Warriors forward Kevon Looney, left, and Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford reach for a rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Warriors won 115-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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ESPN thought they had a great double header on Wednesday, but those games were decided by a combined 49 points, you should have flipped over to Hairspray Live. Anyway, here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.

1) You can’t have a statement game in December. But if you could Cleveland, Golden State made them. Can we just skip ahead to Christmas when these two teams finally play each other? Plus by then my shopping will be done, and I’m dreading doing it. We’ve said before the Cavaliers and Warriors have established themselves as the best in their conferences and they made that point with authority on Wednesday.

Cleveland did it thrashing the Knicks 126-94. To be fair, the Knicks were on the second night of a back-to-back and were without Derrick Rose. But that is a small part of the disparity here. First, Phil Jackson may want to not try to piss off the best player on the planet. Just a suggestion. Beyond that, the Knicks have had a good season (12-10), but they match up poorly with Cleveland. They don’t have a good defender for Kyrie Irving. Nobody has a good one for LeBron (well, maybe the Spurs). Kristaps Porzingis struggles to defend in space, and Kevin Love can exploit that. I can go on, but you get the picture. Between beating Toronto Monday and this, the Cavs are back to exploiting their advantages out East.

Golden State made its statement by blowing out a Clippers team that had been the second-best team in the West to this point. The Warriors did it with defense first — Los Angeles shot 39.6 percent as a team. Stephen Curry did a respectable job on Chris Paul (15 points on 14 shots), Klay Thompson blanketed J.J. Redick (just four shots), and Draymond was built to guard Blake Griffin (12 points on 20 shots, with seven turnovers). The Warriors anticipated the Clippers skip passes and turned those into transition chances (Golden State won the fast break points battle 27-11). The Warriors didn’t even have a great night on offense — Curry was 0-of-8 from three — and won 115-98 (and it wasn’t that close). Still, the Warriors ball movement was there.

Marreese Speights is in a unique position — the Clippers backup big was with the Warriors the past few seasons, and he was honest and harsh in his assessment of the differences between these teams.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo got a triple-double on an off night. He’s that good. Portland is not a good defensive team. Improved with Al-Farouq Aminu healthy and back on the court, but still not good. However, their defensive strategy of having their bigs play back and not press high off picks works against Giannis Antetokounmpo because you want to make him a jump shooter anyway — and the Greek Freak was notably frustrated at times Wednesday night.

And he still had a triple double of 15 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. He’s playing that well. Look at it this way, in a Westbrook/Harden world Antetokounmpo is the only NBA player averaging more than 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals a game this season.

The real story for the Bucks was the 27 from Jabari Parker, that’s the reason Milwaukee beat Portland 115-107.

3) Kemba Walker needs to be an All-Star, he got Hornets a win over Pistons. Charlotte shot 34.1 percent Wednesday night, no way they should get a win in that situation. But alas, there was Kemba Walker, who had 14 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter sparking a Charlotte win, 87-77. Walker is averaging 23.6 shots per game, is shooting a career-best 41.4 percent from three, has a true shooting percentage of 58.2 percent (well above the league average), and is the everything for the Hornet’s offense.

The man deserves to be playing in New Orleans in the All-Star Game this year. I know the East is loaded with quality point guards — Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall — but Kemba has earned the recognition this year.

Warriors rout Clippers 115-98 for 7th straight win over LA

Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, left, tries to go up for a shot as Los Angeles Clippers guard Alan Anderson defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Warriors won 115-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Klay Thompson scored 24 points, Draymond Green added 22 points and the Golden State Warriors routed the Clippers 115-98 on Wednesday night for their seventh straight win over Los Angeles.

Stephen Curry had 19 points for Golden State, and Kevin Durant, who came averaging a team-best 27.0 points, was held to 16 on 5-of-17 shooting.

Curry failed to make a 3-pointer for just the second time this season, going 0 of 8. The Warriors were 7 of 30 from long range.

Jamal Crawford scored 21 points for the Clippers, who have lost five of seven. Four of their seven overall losses have come at home.