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.

Mike Malone on people in Sacramento that wanted him fired: “You were wrong”

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Mike Malone spoke to reporters before the Denver Nuggets took on the DeMarcus Cousins-less Sacramento Kings on Thursday, and was candid about his dismissal from Northern California.

Malone remarked that there were some within the Kings organization that thought his style of play and defensive nature as a coach was holding back the team.

Now the coach in Denver, Malone has the Nuggets 7th in pace and 6th in offensive efficiency. So perhaps it wasn’t all Malone’s fault?

Via Twitter:

I can’t remember all the things that were said when I was fired because there was so much being said. I know one of the things that was being said was style of play. There were people that were not in my corner that used that as a way to get me fired. Now we’re one of the highest-scoring teams in the NBA. I look at you people, you were wrong.

While Sacramento wasn’t good during Malone’s tenure, they were always in the top half of the league in terms of pace. There was and is a lot wrong with how the Kings are run, so certainly it can’t all be Malone’s doing.

In any case, it’s fun to see Malone being candid.

Draymond Green trash talks Paul Pierce for “farewell tour” with Clippers (VIDEO)

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 23:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors looks on during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on January 23, 2017 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Draymond Green is known as a trash talker, and that reputation help up in Golden State on Thursday night. The Warriors forward was active early in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers, going hard at … Paul Pierce?

Yes, that Paul Pierce.

Green, while standing during a free throw, could be heard on isolated audio spitting at Pierce about going on a farewell tour.

If you can’t make it out, Green says (in part), “Chasing that farewell tour. They don’t love you like that … You thought you was Kobe.”

That hurts.

But not as bad as getting kicked by Draymond Green, which Blake Griffin unfortunately had to endure on Thursday.

Three Things We Learned Thursday: DeMarcus Cousins puts up numbers, but will Pelicans keep up pace?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 23:  DeMarcus Cousins #0 and Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans react during the first half of a game against the Houston Rockets at the Smoothie King Center on February 23, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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The NBA got back to work on the court Thursday night after all the drama of the trade deadline day, but if you missed out on it because you were breaking down Donald Trump’s “clasp and yank” handshake we have you covered with the big takeaways from the day.

1) DeMarcus Cousins puts up 27 and 14 but Rockets expose question in rout of Pelicans. DeMarcus Cousins tried to give the people what they paid to see Thursday night — he got deep position and sealed his man inside for buckets, he showed his shooting range near the top of the key, and on the other end he blocked four shots. Cousins put up 27 points and 14 rebounds in his Pelicans debut.

However, the Houston Rockets ran the Pelicans out of the building in a 30-point win, a game where most of the second half was garbage time. The game made Chris Herring at fivethirtyeight.com look prescient — Cousins’ Pelicans couldn’t handle the pace of the Rockets. That’s maybe not a shock in the sense that the Rockets play at one of the fastest paces in the league and have played faster and faster as the season has worn on (fastest in the NBA in the past 10 games). What’s not as well known is the Pelicans play at a top 10 pace for the season. However, Cousins likes to hold the ball and has been having a career-best season in one of the NBA’s slower offenses. He can get out and run, he can play and play well in an uptempo offense, but it’s not where he’s at his best. How is Alvin Gentry going to find a balance between these competing forces?

Thursday night was not going to answer every question, particularly on a night when Jrue Holiday plays poorly at the point and turns the ball over against a team that thrives on live-ball turnovers. But how fast the Pelicans play with Cousins, and how much coach Alvin Gentry staggers Cousins and Anthony Davis, will be things to watch in the coming weeks.

As for the Rockets, just acquired Lou Williams had a team-high 27 points. He’s going to fit in just fine, thank you very much.

2) Who won the deadline day trades? Dallas. If you talk about which teams had the best last couple weeks in the run-up to the trade deadline, then the Pelicans (despite the loss Thursday) and Toronto Raptors are the clear winners.

However, who had the best Thursday? Who had the best trade deadline day itself? The Dallas Mavericks.

We’ve all watched them try to find their next center for a while, complete with the DeAndre Jordan drama and Blake Griffin barricading the door (not really). Now the Mavs got their guy — Nerlens Noel. He’s athletic, he rolls to the rim and finishes strong in the paint, and he’s just 22. Sure there are questions — Noel has a worrying injury history and a limited offensive game (but he stays in his lane) — but he was going to be a highly sought after restricted free agent this summer and the Mavericks just got his rights and now can match any offer. Which will likely be expensive ($100 million?), but he could anchor the Mavs inside for a decade.

The real reason this is a win for Dallas is all they gave up was Justin Anderson (a potentially nice “3&D” player), Andrew Bogut (who the Sixers will waive), and what was billed as a first-round pick but is top 18 protected this year so it will revert to two second rounders. That’s almost nothing.

3) Watch Kemba Walker and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope put on a show and force OT in eventual Pistons win. If you want the most entertaining game of Thursday night, it was the Hornets and the Pistons going to overtime as Walker and Caldwell-Pope exchanged buckets. Don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.

Walker finished the night with 34 points, but Caldwell-Pope had 33 and his Pistons got the 114-108 win at home.

Kyrie Irving, LeBron James lead Cavaliers past Knicks, 119-104

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers stands on the court during their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) LeBron James recorded his 48th career triple-double and Kyrie Irving scored 23 points, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 119-104 victory over the New York Knicks, who hung on to superstar Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose at Thursday’s trade deadline.

James scored 18 points and had 13 rebounds with 15 assists for his sixth triple-double of the season.

Anthony, the subject of trade rumors because of a strained relationship with Knicks President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson, scored 20 points, going 9 of 25 from the field.

Kyle Korver scored 20 points for Cleveland, which is 8-1 in February and has beaten New York 10 straight times.

Courtney Lee had 25 points for New York, which has lost six of seven and is 12th in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, the team’s second-leading scorer, left the game with a sprained right ankle in the second quarter and didn’t return.

New York took an early lead in the first game since the All-Star break for both teams, but the Cavaliers closed the first half on a 25-8 run. Cleveland built the lead to 72-51, but Anthony scored eight points in the third quarter and kept New York in the game.

The Knicks trailed 87-79 entering the fourth, but the Cavaliers quickly regained control. James scored on two layups while Korver and Channing Frye each hit two 3-pointers, pushing the lead to 110-91.

James, who had eight assists in the fourth, also turned in two outstanding defensive plays. He swatted Rose’s layup attempt into the courtside seats in the second quarter and pinned Lee’s breakaway drive against the backboard in the fourth.

Rose, another subject of trade rumors as the deadline approached, scored 13 points.

TIP-INS

Knicks: C Joakim Noah (sore left hamstring) traveled with the team to Cleveland, but coach Jeff Hornacek said no timetable has been set for his return to action. . Lee has been battling an illness, but has stayed in the lineup despite not being fully healthy.

Cavaliers: James’ missed layup earlier in the quarter fooled the arena PA announcer, who began calling the four-time MVP’s name as the ball spun out. …. Irving missed a free throw in the second quarter, snapping a streak of 29 made foul shots in a row.

OAKLEY RETURNS

Former Knicks forward Charles Oakley watched his former team in his hometown. Oakley sat next to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in a front row seat adjacent to Cleveland’s bench.

Oakley attended his first Knicks game since being arrested after getting into an altercation with security guards at Madison Square Garden earlier this month.

UP NEXT

Knicks: Host Philadelphia on Saturday night.

Cavaliers: Host Chicago on Saturday night.