NBA Playoffs, Lakers Thunder game 5: Kobe brings the tough defense and the Lakers bring the blowout


Bryant_Gasol.jpgKobe Bryant is too old. He’s too injured. He’s no longer explosive. He’s played to many minutes over too many years. He’s lost a couple steps. He’s not THAT Kobe Bryant anymore.

Don’t try to sell that to Thunder coach Scott Brooks.

“Kobe had an impact on the game the stat sheet doesn’t show,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “The guy was competing and set the tone defensively… He won the game with this toughness tonight.”

Kobe took on the job of stopping Russell Westbrook and sparked the Lakers best game of this season. It was over at half, frankly, but you have to play the full 48 so after extensive garbage time (like the entire fourth quarter) it ended 111-87 Lakers. Los Angeles now leads the series three games to two.

The Lakers have thrown a big punch, but not a knockout one — game six is Friday night back in the thunderous Ford Center. The Thunder will get up off the mat, the test goes to them to see how much fight they have left.

After film session on Monday Bryant asked Phil Jackson if he could guard Westbrook, the strong and speedy point guard that had torn up the Lakers defense for two games. Westbrook had triggered a Thunder fast break that ran past the Lakers and made them look old in tying up the series.

The switch changed the defensive attitude of the Lakers. After giving up 61 points at the rim in two games in Oklahoma City — largely on transition plays — the Lakers held the Thunder to 7 fast break points in this game. Another part of that was a strategy that had Fisher go in to rebound and Ron Artest rotate back to be on defense. But the Lakers as a team hustled back and were physical (something the referees were letting go).

“It was going to be contested,” Kobe said of the Lakers defensive tone. “They weren’t going to just get to drive the ball to the basket and get layups and dunks uncontested. They were going to have to make tough shots.”

In the half-court, shooting jumpers, the Thunder have struggled all series. Tuesday night was no different. The Lakers got the game they wanted and raced out to a 14-1 lead — and unlike the fast lead in game three in Oklahoma City, the Lakers never let the Thunder back in. In the first half, the Thunder were 6 of 21 on jump shots. Nothing would fall. Nothing would change. It was just one of those nights for Oklahoma City.

On offense, the Lakers had the best ball movement they have had in months. Swinging side-to-side opened up passing lanes inside. It also opened up driving lanes for Kobe, who fed his big men. Kobe added he was good with that.

“I’ll tell you what, if I didn’t have Pau, Andrew, the crew that I have, I’d score 45 and everybody’d say ‘he shoots too much’,” Bryant said. “I have a great crew, I don’t need to do that. I can pick my poison, so when I get in the paint teams have to make choices. If they play me I’ll pass to my guys and they’ll have a big night. If not I’ll have a big night. It’s as simple as that.”

The Thunder tried everything – even a zone defense for a while in the third — but nothing worked. Gasol had 25, Bynum had 21. This was the Lakers night. This was Kobe’s night.

Friday night… that remains to be seen. The Oklahoma City fans will come to play, and Kevin Durant admitted the team really feeds on that. The Lakers will throw another big punch and try to end this thing. What remains to be seen is if the young Thunder are good enough counterpunchers to extend the series to game seven.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant
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Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.

Celtics draft pick Marcus Thornton gets beer dumped on head during Australian game (video)

Marcus Thornton, Will Cherry

The Celtics drafted Marcus Thornton with No. 45 pick in the 2015 NBA draft. That essentially entitled him to the required tender – a one-year contract offer, surely unguaranteed at the minimum.

Thornton rejected that, which is almost always a mistake.

Rejecting the tender is a favor to the drafting team, which gets to keep the player’s exclusive rights for a year. If Thornton tries to join the NBA now, he’s stuck negotiating with only the Celtics.

By accepting the tender, the player typically gets one of two outcomes. He either plays on that contract and draws an NBA salary or he gets waived. But even getting waived is better than rejecting the tender, because at least the player becomes a free agent and can negotiate with any team.

Players who reject the tender go to another league and play for less money. In Thornton’s case, that mean Australia.

How’s that going?

(Almost) never reject the required tender as a second-round pick.