NBA Playoffs: Is Kevin Durant really a Kobe stopper? Or was Kobe the Kobe stopper?

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Bryant_Durant.jpgKevin Durant is being treated like basketball royalty today — he stepped up like a superstar should. With the game on the line, he asked to cover the other team’s best player. He went mano a mano with Kobe Bryant. That takes stones. He deserves the praise.

And the Thunder won. That is ultimately how we measure success. We see these things as black and white that way.

“It was a matchup that caught me by surprise. I think he did a great job,” Bryant said in his post-game press conference.

But what exactly did Durant do? Thanks to our friends at Synergy I rewatched every Kobe Bryant shot with Durant on him in the fourth. And as it always, things are not black-and-white so much as shades of grey. Durant deserves credit, but Kobe was passive and has hit many of those shots.

Durant didn’t take on Kobe until just more than nine minutes left in the game (Kobe’s first three shots of the fourth were against James Harden, where he was 1 of 3 but had looks he normally drains). What follows is a breakdown of the seven Bryant fourth quarter attempts where Durant was on him.

1. Kobe is isolated on the weakside wing, gets the ball then tries to drive Durant to the left to the middle of the court, the free throw line, then spins back to the elbow for a quick shot. Most defenders are nowhere near this and Kobe gets an unobstructed look, but Durant’s length makes it a shot he can contest. Kobe hits the back rim. Kobe’s shot was long all night, particularly in the fourth.

2. Kobe gets the handoff on the left wing then kind of dribbles until he gets a clear out, makes a couple of more dribbles like he’s going to make a move then goes the quick-release pull-up three. Durant contests and the shot misses. Not a great look, no motion in the Lakers offense, but Kobe has hit those.

3. The Lakers actually got the ball to Pau Gasol on the low block, he goes to the middle and draws three defenders so he kicks out to Fisher in the corner, who hesitated just enough for a defensive recovery. Fisher needs a bailout so he throws to Kobe on the high left wing, who launches a catch-and-shoot three from three feet behind the arc. Back rim again. Not a good shot for that possession again.

4. Just 5:30 and left and Kobe really tries to take him here — and Durant does his best defensive job of the night. From the top of the key Kobe drives left, then quickly comes behind his back to the right — and Durant is right with him, cutting off the lane. So Kobe steps back and goes to more of a power-drive left where once he gets to the baseline 12 feet out he tries a fade away, but Durant is not only there he blocks it. That was great defense from Durant.

5. Next possession and the Lakers offense is stagnant, they can’t get the ball inside with a post pass (it’s amazing how bad the Lakers guards are at that) and nobody creates a shot outside, so it is kicked to Kobe and he goes with another catch-and-shoot long three with Durant contesting, Flat and a miss.

6. The Lakers went away from Kobe for the next four minutes, and are now down four with less than a minute to go. This time after nothing develops for the Lakers on the strong side it becomes a weakside isolation for Kobe, again a couple steps beyond the arc. He takes one hard step to get Durant to step back then goes for the pull-up three. Contested and back rim.

7. Westbrook misses and Kobe gets the rebound and just races in transition. Durant is back and tries to pick him up a the free throw line but Kobe is going too fast with a full head of steam, gets by and lays it in, the block is just late.

So what did Durant do? He has quick enough feet to take away easy driving angles, and the Lakers not once came out and set a high pick for Kobe to come off of so he could get an angle. It was isolations. Durant’s length meant he could at least get a hand up on all these shots, sometimes making Kobe adjust. Durant did as well as could be done on Kobe late game.

But Kobe has also hit some of those shots before, we’ve all seen him drain those long threes. But he (and all the Lakers) were passive, settling for jumpers. It’s not good offense, but it works often enough for them. The Thunder would rather have the Lakers shooting those jumpers rather than getting the ball inside. But be careful what you wish for, the Lakers can hit those shots. It will be interesting to see if they do next game.

Pistons-Kings game delayed for smoke over court (video)

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DeMarcus Cousins, in his eternal battle with referees (and everyone else), retroactively won every argument he’s ever had when he had to alert the officials in last night’s Pistons-Kings game to the large cloud of smoke coming toward the court. It was only then that the refs stopped play.

But the best reaction to the mistimed fog machine was Sacramento coach Dave Joerger:

LeBron James tweets: I’m not mad at Cavaliers GM David Griffin

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers rallies his teammates in the huddle during player introductions prior to the game Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on December 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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After tearing into the Cavaliers’ roster construction last night, LeBron James said he’d tweet even more thoughts.

LeBron delivered, softening the point everyone amplified (that he wants roster improvements) and emphasizing the point that got overlooked (that he’s on board with Cleveland general manager David Griffin):

I’m guessing LeBron saw how his comments went over and wanted to quiet the storm he created. What he said sounds so much more resentful. These tweets read as much more constructive.

But the underlying point remains: LeBron is unsatisfied with the roster.

He won’t be a free agent until 2018, but remember, dissatisfaction with the Heat’s roster contributed to him bolting Miami.

Wizards wearing all black to Celtics game for a figurative funeral

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The Celtics and Wizards have a little rivalry brewing:

The latest chapter comes for tonight’s game, with the Wizards – imitating a commonly used fashion for closeout playoff games – wearing all black to the arena.

Kelly Oubre Jr.:

We’re wearing all black to the game. So you know where we’re going with that.

Round three. Let’s get it.

Wall (as Beal yells encouragement in the background):

All black everything. A funeral.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

When Jae Crowder was asked about the Wizards all-black gear, his initial response…“That’s cute!”

Isaiah Thomas, via Blakely:

“This is definitely not Game 7 or the playoffs,” said Isaiah Thomas. “But if they want to take it that serious, they can.”

Gotta agree with the Celtics here. This is an absurd level of motivational showmanship for a January game.

But I also love it! These petty feuds are fantastic and spice up a long regular season.

My favorite part of the Wizards’ funeral motif: Even if they “bury” Boston tonight, these teams meet again in March.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top 10 to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?