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.

Watch Lonzo Ball dodge relentless stream of LeBron James questions (video)

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Shortly before the draft, Lonzo Ball was asked in a televised interview to pitch LeBron James on joining the Lakers – and did.

A couple months and a tampering investigation into the Lakers later, Ball learned his lesson.

Sports Illustrated:

Rohan Nadkarni’s questions were all in good fun, and he couldn’t trick Ball into tampering, anyway. The NBA has essentially decided it won’t punish players for tampering with each other.

Ask Ball an honest LeBron question, and he’ll give an honest answer.

Report: People close to LeBron James ‘fairly confident’ Dwyane Wade will join Cavaliers

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Will the Bulls and Dwyane Wade reach a buyout?

Apparently, not only do people close to LeBron James believe it’ll happen, they have a read on Wade’s destination.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

As of right now, people close to James are fairly confident that, at some point this year, Dwyane Wade is going to end up on the Cavs.

Earlier in the podcast, Vardon even listed the only five people he believes reports should source as close to LeBron:

  • LeBron
  • Rich Paul
  • Maverick Carter
  • Savanah James
  • Adam Mendelsohn

So, that something about the proximity of this information to LeBron. Given Wade’s friendship with LeBron, Vardon’s sources could have inside information on Wade’s plan.

But hold your horses on Wade to Cleveland.

Though they could buy him out sooner, the Bulls are incentivized to keep Wade past the trade deadline. His $23.8 million expiring contract could prove useful in a trade. If no trade comes up and Chicago is out of the playoff race, as expected, a buyout would make far more sense. Now, eliminating that trade chip and sticking a large amount of dead salary on the books would be problematic for the Bulls – unless Wade cuts them a big discount. He doesn’t sound inclined to do that.

Even if Wade gets bought out, he has been rumored to follow LeBron to Cleveland for years. It obviously hasn’t happened yet. Wade’s friendship with LeBron is the primary lure – but it also might push Wade to signal a desire to team up while he can’t commit then go a different direction when push comes to shove. It can be hard to tell friends no.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Wade ends up with the Cavaliers. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if this is just wishful thinking by people close to LeBron.

Clippers’ Jerry West: ‘I did not want to leave’ Warriors

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A report emerged last spring that Jerry West was nearing a deal to stay with the Warriors as a consultant. Instead, he took the same job with the Clippers.

West, via Tim Kawakami of The Athletic, via NBC Sports Bay Area:

“Frankly it was very sad, OK? It really was. A place where I thought that if I was going to work another year or if somebody wanted me to work another year, I thought I could contribute; I did not want to leave. I did not want to leave. I was very happy there.

But those things happen sometimes. Obviously to be around a bunch of players that were as together as any I’ve seen and I think more importantly the talent that was on that team and to see the joy. There’s a lot of joy there. I think those are the kind of environments where people really prosper.”

“It was time for me to leave. I’m in Los Angeles again. For me, I’ll have a chance to go in the office a little bit and watch some of the people that have been hired, to watch our coaches coach. I’ve often said I’ve done some crazy things in my life because of the timing and maybe the timing was right.”

The Clippers’ appeal appeared to be their salary offer – reportedly $4 million-$5 million annually. And maybe that factored.

But it sure sounds as if there’s more to the story.

With Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum, Celtics continue ascent – just not as steeply as hoped

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Celtics landed the No. 1 pick and signed the top free agent to change teams.

Given that, it feels like their offseason should have gone better.

Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward are nice, and I won’t lose sight of that here. But…

Boston traded down from the top pick to No. 3 to draft Tatum. Count me among those who believed there was a significant drop from Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball to the next tier – and the tier after that.

The extra first-rounder the Celtics acquired has also only lost value since the trade.

It’d convey from the Lakers if they pick 2-5 next year. But they added two players, Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, better than they were expected to get. Los Angeles looks less likely to stumble into a top-five pick – especially without incentive to tank.

If not the Lakers’ pick this season, Boston will get the higher of Sacramento’s and Philadelphia’s 2019 first-rounders (or lower if one is No. 1). The Kings signed a couple veterans, George Hill and Zach Randolph, to help them in 2018-19. Sacramento’s young players will be more developed by then, and mirroring the Lakers this year, there’s no incentive to tank. (Philadelphia is also on the rise, but the Celtics probably already knew that.)

There’s still a chance Boston winds up with a high pick – or even wins the trade with a middling additional selection. Tatum, as the Celtics have claimed, might be a better prospect than Fultz outright.

I originally thought the trade was about fair. Developments swing the pendulum away from Boston, though perhaps I’m overly colored by my relatively dim evaluation of Tatum. (I expected the Celtics to draft Josh Jackson when the trade was made.)

Boston’s next big move, signing Hayward, also comes with a major caveat. To get Hayward, the Celtics had to downgrade from Avery Bradley to Marcus Morris.

The reasons are clear: Bradley is earning $8,808,989 in the final season of his contract. Morris is locked up for two more seasons at $5 million and $5,375,000.

Not only was that salary difference essential for clearing max cap space now, Bradley will enter unrestricted free agency with Isaiah Thomas next summer. The raises necessary to re-sign both likely would’ve pushed the Celtics higher into the luxury tax than they’re willing to go. Thomas and Morris should be affordable.

Morris is a fine player, but it looks like he’s caught between better combo forwards (Hayward and Jae Crowder) and higher-upside/younger combo forwards (Jaylen Brown and Tatum). How much will Morris matter in Boston?

Bradley certainly did plenty, defending the better opposing guard so the undersized Thomas didn’t have to. Marcus Smart can handle some of that responsibility, but that cuts into the time he can play in relief of Thomas at point guard and the time he can defend forwards.

Getting Aron Baynes for the room exception was solid. He might even start for the Celtics, eating up minutes against big starting centers. I suspect Al Horford will play center in most pivotal minutes, though.

Signing Baynes was one of Boston’s several respectable moves – drafting Semi Ojeleye in the second round, signing 2016 first-rounders Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic and paying to take a flier on Shane Larkin.

But the real needle-movers were signing Hayward, a 27-year-old versatile star, and adding a highly touted talent in Tatum. Even in the less-flattering greater context, those are huge additions.

Offseason grade: A-