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.

Three Things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo spoils Boston home opener

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, especially on this, the real opening night of the NBA with 22 teams in action. Every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Tonight, that includes a few historic numbers… good and bad.

1) Brad Stevens, Celtics have no answer on how to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo either. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re getting mentioned in the record books with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you’re doing something very right. Monday night, the Greek Freak was rolling to the rim and finishing alley-oops over defenders, hitting floaters and leaners in the lane, and generally using his length to get any shot he wanted against the Celtics on his way to a 37-point, 13 rebound night in Boston. The only other Buck to have an opening night of at least 35 and 10? Yup, one Mr. Abdul-Jabbar.

Put a smaller defender on Antetokounmpo and he shoots right over them. Put a bigger defender on him and he goes around them — or just over them too. Brad Stevens tried a lot of things on defense, and while Al Horford had a little first-half success slowing him nobody did all game as 59.1 percent on his way to dropping 37.

Notice all those shots are close to the rim. Antetokounmpo was a ridiculous 10-of-12 at the rim and 12-of-18 in the paint overall, but just 1-of-4 outside the key. It’s easy to say “make him a jump shooter” but good luck finding anyone who can stay in front of him, or that he can’t just finish over. The man was dunking over Aron Baynes, how do you get anyone much bigger in front of him?

Boston was up four points entering the fourth quarter when the second night of a back-to-back seemed to hit them, they scored just 20 points on 8-of-25 shooting in the final frame, 4-of-21 outside the restricted area. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo went off for 16 in the fourth as he ramped up his aggressiveness and Brad Stevens and the Celtics had no answer. Marcus Smart was fiery and got into it with Matthew Dellavedova, that may have exemplified Boston’s spirit, but Celtics looked physically and emotionally worn down by the end. Hard to blame them.

Rough start to the season for Boston, who lost Gordon Hayward just minutes into the opener (he’s out for the season), they fell to the Celtics Tuesday night and now are off to an 0-2 start. They will bounce back, but just now how the team with all these new players thought things would start.

2) Jeremy Lin injures knee and there is “tremendous” concern it is serious. Midway through the fourth quarter against the Pacers, Jeremy Lin drove the lane and finished a layup at the rim that looked ordinary — except when he landed he went to the ground grabbing his knee and did not get back up.

This isn’t good. Neither were the reports during and after the play.

Brooklyn was counting on Lin to help stabilize the point guard position and the backcourt with D'Angelo Russell (who had 30 on the night in a losing effort). If Lin is done for all or most of the season, it’s a huge setback for a team that, while bad, was expected to be a little better than in previous seasons. Remember, the Cavaliers have Brooklyn’s first-round pick this season unprotected (part of the Kyrie Irving trade from Boston).

• While we’re on the injury front, Boston’s Gordon Hayward underwent surgery on his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia on Wednesday, and according to his agent he is “unlikely” to return this season. Hayward did send a video message to Celtics fans thanking them. Boston will try to move on, but it’s been a difficult and emotional start to the season for the Celtics.

3) Suns’ season opening performance wasn’t just bad, it was the worst ever. The record for worst opening night loss in NBA history belonged to the 1987 Los Angeles Clippers coached by Gene Shue, who were blown out by Denver by 46 points.

No more. That record now belongs to the Phoenix Suns, who fell at home to the Portland Trail Blazers 124-76 — a 48 point loss. The Suns shot 31.5 percent as a team — Devin Booker was 6-of-17 and didn’t hit a three, Eric Bledsoe was sloppy and reckless all night and finished 5-of-18 with five turnovers and three assists, while Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss combined to go 1-of-10 off the bench. The Phoenix offense was about as in synch as the left shark, and many possessions ended with a terrible shot being jacked up because, well, somebody had to shoot it.

I’d like to say this was a good omen for the Trail Blazers’ defense, but really it’s impossible to judge how good it was against this offense. It was still a win the Blazers will gladly take, Damian Lillard had 24 points while Pat Connaughton came off the bench for 22.

PBT Extra: Bobby Portis punch adds to challenges for Bulls this season

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Nikola Mirotic will be out 4-6 weeks due to his concussion and fractured jaw.

Bobby Portis has been suspended for the first eight games of the season for causing those injuries to Mirotic with a punch at practice.

What does this mean for a Bulls locker room that was already going to have to deal with the weight of losing a lot of games.  I get into all these questions in this latest PBT Extra.

It’s going to be a long season in Chicago.

Gordon Hayward’s agent says return this season unlikely

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Wednesday night in Boston Gordon Hayward underwent surgery to repair his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia suffered just five minutes into the season-opening game, a gruesome injury that put a pall over the rest of the night.

There had been hope from some Celtics fans that Hayward could return this season, likely for the playoffs, but now that the surgery is complete Hayward’s agent told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN not to expect him back until next season.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who saw the injury. Hayward is in the first year of a four-year deal with the Celtics, they were always going to choose a cautious path rather than rush him back. Under Danny Ainge Boston has always taken the long view, even with all their moves this summer — specifically bringing in Hayward and Kyrie Irving — the target was to be the team set up for next as LeBron James and the Cavaliers faded. That plan does not change now.

Earlier in the day, Hayward had sent a video message out to Celtics fans thanking them for their support in the past 24 hours.

Without Hayward, the Celtics now will focus more on smaller lineups, rookie Jayson Tatum will get more run, as will Marcus Smart in his contract year. Jaylen Brown will be thrust into a more significant role. Also, Kyrie Irving will be asked to do more as the team’s second-best playmaker is now out for the season.

The Celtics will take a step back this season without Hayward, who was going to be crucial for them on both ends of the floor. That’s evidenced by their 0-2 start, falling to the Cavaliers and Bucks on the first couple nights of the season. Boston should still be a team well above .500 and in the playoffs, but they will not be quite the same this season.

Trail Blazers beat Suns by 48, biggest season-opening rout in NBA history

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Any controversy over C.J. McCollum‘s suspension for the season-opener should be put to rest. The Trail Blazers fared fine without him.

More than fine.

Portland beat the Suns, 124-76, Wednesday. The 48-point margin is the largest ever in a season opener, even as the Trail Blazers let a 58-point fourth-quarter lead dwindle.

Here are the most lopsided season-openers in NBA history (openers for both teams appearing twice):

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The 48-point defeat is also the Suns’ worst lost in franchise history, topping a 44-point loss to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1988. It could be a long year in Phoenix.