NBA Playoffs: Tonight is OKC and Durant's time to shine

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Thumbnail image for Durant_game3.jpgThe Thunder are outmatched. Make no mistake about it. They’re in over their heads, a young team of athletic defenders facing arguably the most talented juggernaut in the league. They don’t have the depth inside to dominate the Lakers, though their block efforts in Game 2 helped. They don’t have the star power to draw calls like the whisper fouls Kobe Bryant got off his and-ones, nor the power to avoid such calls like the one whistled on their star player when a 7 foot Spaniard, known for his acting chops was felled as if he was struck by a hammer. They are out-manned, out-starred, and though they have the Coach of the Year, likely outwitted by the 10-ring-fingered man across the scorer’s table.

And none of that matters.

Because tonight, the Oklahoma City Thunder can announce to the world that they are a major league sports town, and that their star is as worthy as anyone’s.

Kevin Durant shook off the stab-him-if-you-have-to defense of Ron Artest in Game 1 to finish with an incomplete, but still impressive performance in Game 2. While Artest was still able to body, beleaguer, and bother Durant quite a bit, the young man they call Durantula still got his, seeming to get better and more confident as the game went along, and came within a hair of knocking down the shot to win it, under the bright lights and taco-chanting masses of Staples.

All year the Thunder have impressed with how even-handed they’ve been. They don’t get up or down; they seem to possess a wisdom far beyond their handful of years in the league. But in front of a crowd that’s welcomed them, a small town community that they’ve made their home in and which the team has been very honest about genuinely loving, you can expect the emotions to run high. Oklahoma City fans are new to the sport, still finding their way, still learning about the salary cap and superstar calls and the rest. But the one thing I can tell you as Midwest native is that these people will be there, and they will be loud. There will be no getting to the arena late because of traffic, no gawking at starlets who couldn’t tell a fast break from fast food, no excitement over the Jack-In-The-Box. They’ll be out for blood. And the roars for their star, Kevin Durant, will be deafening.

Durant has an opportunity to make a statement tonight, to everyone who thought he was an inefficient scorer, that his offensive prowess was a detriment to the club, who doesn’t think he’s on the level with Bryant, LeBron, Wade, and the rest, despite the fact that he led the National Basketball Association in scoring this season. He can put himself onto another level, rise up, fire, and let the world know that the Thunder are not a part of the future, they are a part of the present, and they are to be feared.

Which isn’t to say they’ll win, of course. It would take a nearly flawless combination of the emotion, execution, level-headed communication on defense, and probably a stroke of good fortune for the Thunder to pull out a win tonight. The Lakers simply have too much length. Too much power, too much Kobe, as inefficient as he may be right now. But the Thunder have exposed cracks in Camelot’s facade. Fisher can’t stay in front of Westbrook. Durant is figuring out Artest like a Rubix cube, and Artest’s due for an outburst. Serge I-BLOCK-A Ibaka has become a force inside, sending the Lakers back from whence they came. And Jeff Green won’t be quieted for four games.

The Lakers know a jugular stab tonight ends the series. There will be a game four in function but not in spirit if they should quiet the “commoner” crowd  in OKC. But this Laker team also has a rare penchant for failing when things are going their way, for lacking the focus to close teams out, and to routinely get shoved around if the opponent shows enough fire.

There may be Thunder in the sky  tonight, but there will be fire in the stands.

Key Matchup: Ron Artest v. Kevin Durant
The Thunder did a much better job in Game Two of freeing up Durant, sending him off screens for catch and shoot opportunities and Durant simply out-willed Artest, though Artest always had an arm up. Going to the high elbow post could be especially good for Durant, keeping the ball away from Artest’s swiping arms. For his part, Crazy Pills needs to maintain the same ball-denial-or-die-trying approach he’s worked in this series, side fronting Durant on the wing, where he usually receives his passes. He needs to avoid getting caught up in a confrontation, because I’d bet one of the Thunder are going to level him on a screen tonight.

Key Matchup 2: Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar v. Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor
Why isn’t Derek Fisher listed here? Because Derek Fisher has a better chance of chasing down a unicorn and riding it to “MyPullUpJumpersAreStillAGoodIdeaLand” than keeping Westbrook in front of him. But what the Lakers have done is let Westbrook get his while the team focuses on keeping Green and Durant semi-cool, then putting in the more athletic Farm and Brown for an up-tempo counter on Westbrook late. Eric Maynor could be a huge swing factor tonight, as his ability to get to the rim for floaters could mean more rest for Westbrook heading into crunch time and allow him to counter Phil Jackson’s point guard rope-a-dope.

Gordon Hayward dunks on Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker (videos)

Gordon Hayward (20), del Jazz de Utah, intenta un enceste ante Thon Maker (7) y Michael Beasley (9), de los Bucks de Milwaukee, en el duelo del viernes 24 de febrero de 2017, en Milwaukee. (AP Foto/Benny Sieu)
AP Foto/Benny Sieu
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Are we obligated to call Gordon Hayward “deceptively athletic”?

The Bucks have something special in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they think they have something special in Thon Maker.

But Hayward jammed all over those two in the Jazz’s 109-95 win last night.

First, he got Antetokounmpo:

Then, he got Maker:

Report: Lakers working toward buyout with Jose Calderon; Warriors, Rockets interested

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18:  Jose Calderon #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to a called foul during the second half of a game against the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center on November 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. 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 Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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The Lakers took on the salary of Jose Calderon this year so they could get a couple second-round picks from the Bulls (Chicago got him from New York in the Derrick Rose trade), but even with the previous regime in Los Angeles the aging point guard was never part of the future.

As was expected, the Lakers are now talking about buying out the Spanish national and letting him head to a playoff team for a stretch run, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Sources told ESPN that it’s not yet a certainty Calderon will secure his release from the Lakers in the coming days, but the sides are indeed discussing the options as Wednesday’s playoff eligibility deadline nears….

Sources say that Calderon, if he winds up hitting the open market, would instantly become a target for both the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets.

Cleveland may also have interest if their plan to land Deron Williams when he is bought out by Dallas goes awry.

Calderon, 35, was not part of the Lakers’ regular rotation, playing in just 24 games. He can still knock down a shot if he has space and can set his feet, and he still has a high hoops IQ and can see the floor, but his athleticism has faded, and that can leave him exposed. Particularly on defense.

Players are being waived now so they clear in time for teams to sign them by March 1, after that said players are not eligible for playoff rosters.

There are better players to hit the waiver wire in the coming days — D-Will, Andrew Bogut, Matt Barnes — but Calderon is going to land somewhere. He’d be a solid third point guard and veteran presence for a playoff run.

Marquese Chriss blocks Bobby Portis, who gets testy (video)

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Bobby Portis didn’t enjoy getting blocked by Marquese Chriss. And Portis sure didn’t appreciate how Chriss fell on him.

But it was all worth it (for me, at least) just to see the Bulls forward make a face that reminded me of this:

Dwyane Wade with dagger dunk to seal Bulls win vs. Suns (VIDEO)

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The time off during the All-Star break did Dwyane Wade some good.

The Bulls guard turned back the clock on Friday night, leading the Bulls with 23 points and topping it off with this dunk that proved to be the dagger, sealing a Chicago win. The Suns were convinced Wade was going to run the shot clock way down before making his move and they lollygagged into position — so he just blew past everyone for the poster slam.

The Bulls won 128-121. Devin Booker led the Suns with 27.