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.

Kanye West apologizes to Michael Jordan

performs at the 2015 iHeartRadio Music Festival at MGM Grand Garden Arena on September 18, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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Kanye West – when he isn’t tweeting to invalidate the claims of dozens of women on nothing more than his own suppositions – is tweeting to Michael Jordan

Mark Parker is CEO of Nike, a company that collaborated with West on the Air Yeezy before an unhappy West bolted for Adidas. Jordan, of course, is a Nike ally and known for the Jumpman logo on his brand.

That’s why Kanye rapped in “Facts:”

Yeezy, Yeezy, Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman

Yeezy, Yeezy, Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman

We bring you the important news.

(hat tip: Jovan Buha of Fox Sports)

Report: Kobe Bryant once wanted Lakers to trade him to defending champs or 60-win team

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 29:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket past Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs on May 29, 2008 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  The Lakers won 100-92.  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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant has taken plenty of criticism for his reported interest in signing with the Warriors.

Don’t chase a ring by just bolting for the best team. Build up your own team. Kobe Bryant would never do that.

Well…

Kobe Bryant requested a trade from the Lakers in 2007 – when the Cavaliers tried trading everyone but LeBron James for him – and the Bulls were Kobe’s top choice. Kobe had a no-trade clause, so he had some power to choose his next team. The rest of his list?

Kobe, via Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

It was Chicago, San Antonio (or) Phoenix.

The Spurs were reigning NBA champions, and the Suns were coming off a 61-win season. These teams were the class of the league.

They also had strong offensive identities – Gregg Popovich’s ball-movement-happy system in San Antonio and Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo attack in Phoenix. How would Kobe have fit? Now, that’s a great what-if – especially because both teams had the assets to create intriguing trade packages.

The Spurs could’ve built an offer around Tony Parker and/or Manu Ginobili, the Suns around Shawn Marion and/or Amar’e Stoudemire. Could you imagine Kobe and Tim Duncan or Kobe and Steve Nash in 2007? It wouldn’t have been anything like the over-the-hill version we saw in Los Angeles a few years later.

Of course, Kobe stuck with the Lakers, who traded for Pau Gasol and won a couple more titles. Kobe led them to those championships, and he deserves credit for staying the course.

But, no matter what Durant decides this summer, remember all players consider as many options as they have in front of them. There’s nothing wrong with someone leaving a job for a better one when he has the ability to do so.

Even Kobe – a self-declared “Laker for life” – tried to do it.

Report: Kevin Durant less likely to sign with Knicks after they fired Derek Fisher

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 15:  Kevin Durant #35 and Derek Fisher #6 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrate after defeating the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 15, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  The Thunder won 10-98 win the series four games to two.  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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Knicks reportedly believed hiring Derek Fisher made them a contender for Kevin Durant this summer.

If they were right, firing Fisher – a respected former teammate of Durant with the Thunder – certainly didn’t help New York’s ability to lure the superstar in free agency.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

New York faces long odds to land Durant to begin with. And their chances took a hit after Derek Fisher was fired, league sources say.

I suppose it was possible Durant would’ve picked the Knicks, because I don’t believe Durant has decided where he’ll sign. But their odds looked so slim, anyway.

If the Knicks believed Fisher wasn’t the best coach for them, they were right to move on. Keeping him for Durant would have been foolish.

Is there a way New York can gain credibility with Durant? What about hiring former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks?

Begley:

Brooks is a name to think about, for one reason: The Knicks have been informed that their chances of landing Kevin Durant this summer would be influenced by hiring Brooks, according to league sources.

Begley implies Brooks would help New York sign Durant, but his words don’t explicitly say that.

“Would be influenced.” Positively? Negatively? Won’t the coach of any team Durant considers influence his decision? Durant, while thanking Brooks, quickly and fully got on board with the Thunder’s decision to fire him.

And informed by whom? Do we trust the Knicks to properly assess whether the source of that information is credible?

It’s probably not worth exploring those questions, anyway. Brooks has neither Phil Jackson nor triangle ties, which seem to be perquisites.

At least New York can still use Carmelo Anthony to recruit Durant.

Report: Cavaliers tried trading entire team but LeBron James for Kobe Bryant in 2007

LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 12:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers wait for the ball to go into play on January 12, 2006 at Staples Center 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 Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Kobe Bryant requested a trade from the Lakers in 2007, and he later said he preferred to be dealt to the Bulls.

Though Kobe had a no-trade clause, the Lakers explored other options.

They talked with the Mavericks and even agreed to terms with the Pistons, but Kobe vetoed Detroit. The Lakers also spoke with the Cavaliers.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

According to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the event, the Lakers once contacted the Cavs to investigate whether Cleveland would make James available in a possible Bryant trade.

The Cavs said that James, indeed, was untouchable, sources said. Then they attempted to make the Lakers a different offer for Bryant, offering anyone else on their team in a package for him. The Lakers had no interest.

For Bryant, who had a no-trade clause in his contract, the answer was simple.

“I never would’ve approved it. Never. The trade to go to Cleveland? Never,” Bryant told Holmes.

This is just as the LeBron-Kobe arguments were kicking into gear. Regardless of which player was better at the time, LeBron – six years younger – was definitely more valuable than Kobe.

So, it’s unsurprising the Lakers asked and even less surprising the Cavaliers said no.

And even less surprising than that was the Lakers rejecting Cleveland’s counter offer. Here were the other Cavaliers during the 2006-07 season:

  • Larry Hughes
  • Zydrunas Ilgauskas
  • Drew Gooden
  • Sasha Pavlovic
  • Donyell Marshall
  • Anderson Varejao
  • Damon Jones
  • Daniel Gibson
  • Eric Snow
  • Shannon Brown
  • Ira Newble
  • David Wesley
  • Scot Pollard
  • Dwayne Jones

That scrap heap doesn’t come close to Kobe.

The what-if of a LeBron-for-Kobe or Kobe-for-other-Cavs swap is intriguing, but both ideas were non-starters for at least one side. None of that came close to happening.

But, nine years later, that barely makes the discussion less fun.