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NBA Playoffs: Oklahoma City plays like veterans and the Lakers fold under pressure, just like we expected

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Westbrook_Dunk.jpgEveryone expected this to be a series of close games, of exciting finishes. In the end, it would be the team with the calm demeanor, the team that played like they seen pressure like this a thousand times and knew how to handle it that was going to win.

Oklahoma City, of course.

Thursday — in a rockin’ loud building that had the volume of a 1984 Van Halen concert at key points — it was the young Oklahoma Thunder that executed their game plan. It was their star Kevin Durant that out dueled Kobe Bryant. It was the Thunder role players that made plays.

This time it was the Thunder with the win, 101-96. The Lakers still lead the series 2-1 but Oklahoma City can tie it up on Saturday.

It was the first NBA playoff game ever for Oklahoma City and the fans were ready — everyone in the crowd put on the Smurf-blue shirts and screamed like Jamie Lee Curtis in a slasher film. It was a refreshing bit of passion, a contrast to the seemingly jaded Lakers fans. But early on the Lakers just ignored it and played like they are the defending champions. Los Angeles opened the game on a 10-0 run fueled by Thunder missed shots, which stunned the Smurfs crowd and quieted the Ford Center. The Lakers started out hitting their first seven shots, including previously cold Derek Fisher and Ron Artest. They started out playing with the poise defending NBA champions.

But these Thunder are relentless. They fought back to stay in the game, to stay close. They made runs throughout the game, turning a couple Lakers misses or turnovers into fast points and getting within four, only to have the Lakers brush it aside by pounding the ball inside to their great advantage in the paint. Suddenly the lead would be 10 again.

And so it went. Then the Thunder made a 10-1 run to close out the third quarter — a Russell Westbrook dunk, a James Harden three, a Durant three — and trailed by only one. As it had been in game two — as it was expected to be all series — it was now about the team that could execute under pressure. And most expected that to be the Lakers, what with the banners ad the rings and the coach and Kobe and Fisher.

Not Thursday night. This was Oklahoma City’s big night.

Durant flat out beat Bryant. The Thunder switched Durant on to defending him and Kobe went 2 for 10 and settled for jump shots with the long arm of Durant in his face (Kobe was 1 of 9 on jumpers in the quarter). When the Lakers won a close game at home on Tuesday he was 4 of 7 in the fourth, and those 7 shots were closer (more at the elbow, fewer beyond the three point line. Durant changed that, and at the same time got hot on offense and poured in 12 fourth-quarter points.

As a team the Thunder pressured and the Lakers gladly settled. That’s how the Lakers ended up taking 31 threes (making 10).  In the fourth, Los Angeles went 5 for 15 on shots from 15 feet or more out. Meanwhile Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol had just four shots total. The Lakers went away from their advantage inside to shoot jumpers. Ones they missed.

It was Oklahoma City’s night.

The Thunder are growing right before our eyes. You can see a smart young team soaking in the lessons of the playoffs, and Thursday night applying them. That’s what makes game four interesting. The Thunder and their fans will swarm like piranha sensing blood in the water. They will be able to taste a tied series. But these Lakers play better when challenged. They have the experience if they choose to call on it. Phil Jackson knows how to make adjustments and get the team to feed the big men inside. Kobe Bryant isn’t going to go 2 for 10 in the clutch twice. Is he?

Maybe, with the long arm of Durant in his face.What we have now is a real playoff series.

Jimmy Butler won’t pick LeBron over Durant as toughest matchup in NBA, and for good reason

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler is a smart dude. He’s spent years of offseason work turning himself into a max-level player, and that shows he knows not only how to work but how to attack the game of basketball.

He’s also smart enough to know he shouldn’t go poking the bear when it comes to two future Hall of Fame players in LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

When asked whether the Cleveland Cavaliers star or the Golden State Warriors scorer was the toughest matchup in the NBA, Butler made sure he wasn’t adding any kind of blackboard material to rile up either player.

Via Twitter:

The best way to defend LeBron or Durant: don’t make them angry.

Smart move, Jimmy.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

Rajon Rondo is hilarious (photo)

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Is Rajon Rondo stubborn? Yes.

Is he petty? Yes.

Is he harsh? Yes.

But the Bulls point guard is also hilarious in his own way.

 

Sean Highkin of The Athletic:

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