NBA Playoffs, Lakers Thunder game 6: The Thunder learn some hard lessons, are eliminated by Lakers

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Gasol_celebrate.jpgChin up, Oklahoma City. Sure, losing sucks, we get that. But you have to learn how to win in the NBA playoffs — people remember Michael Jordan the champion, not the guy who lost to the Detroit Pistons three straight years on the playoffs.

Enjoy the ride, you have a fun team, a special team. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are captivating to watch. The Thunder have become what the Phoenix Suns were five years ago — everybody’s second favorite team. They took a big first step.

But for the Lakers this was just another step, albeit one they had to fight for. LA won the game 95-94, and the series 4-2. Next up for the Lakers is the Utah Jazz, starting Sunday at Staples Center.

The Lakers taught the Thunder some hard lessons.  LA’s star Kobe Bryant saved his best game for an elimination game, Kevin Durant did not. Pau Gasol knew how to time a sneak inside for a game-winning putback, Serge Ibaka did not box him out, he lost track of fundamentals in the clutch. Derek Fisher knew how to step up and hit big threes, Russell Westbrook did not.

It will not be that way in a couple years. It was tonight.

The Lakers largely did what they had done in game four — they controlled the tempo and took away a lot of the Thunders’ easy baskets. The Thunder had just 13 fast break points, and forced into the halfcourt they shot just 36.5 percent, 26.3 percent from three.

The Lakers, however, were lighting it up from three. The last two games the Lakers did much better about setting up angles for entry passes to the post, or getting the ball inside off penetration, and that led to kick-outs and good look threes for LA. They hit 12 of 24 from three in this one, and shot 46.8 percent overall.
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But the Thunder never went away. That is not who they are, they fight.  A few turnovers and fast breaks off misses — flashes of the transition game they thrive on — and Lakers leads would disappear in an instant.

The difference was the Lakers big names know how to step it up in the clutch.  Kobe in 16 in the third when the Lakers looked like they might pull away, hitting some just pull up threes that were the kind he missed in game three.

Late in the game the Lakers got good shots from Artest (and up and under move on the perimeter and it works?), but their offense became a lot of isolation. So did the Thunder, as has been their pattern. And it worked for a while, they went a 10-0 run late to take the lead.

However, the Kobe Bryant underbite came out – so did a stupid running shot over two defenders that barely moved the net going through with less than a minute left. Sick. Kobe was making plays all night.

The Thunder were up one with 15 seconds when Westbrook had a clean look at the jumper from 10 feet baseline. Oh, the midrange game continues to be his challenge. On the season from the right side baseline there Westbrook was shooting just 25.7% (thank you NBA Hot Spots). He missed.

On the final play I loved the Thunder choosing not to double Kobe, showing confidence in Thabo Sefolosha to shut him down. The rest of his team got caught ball watching. When Kobe made his move and started to go up Nenade Kristic and Durant were under the basket wrestling with Artest, while Serge Ibaka was watching the ball, not bodying his man. Gasol stepped inside Ibaka, got the tip in and that was that.

Thunder fans get it – they stayed late to applaud their young team. They know to savor it in a way that jaded Lakers fans often cannot. Fans from both teams should soak up this series, it was a fun one and about as good as one could ever hope for in the first round.

The time Kobe Bryant tried to recruit Dirk Nowitzki to the Lakers

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 05:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks greets Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers after a game at American Airlines Center on November 5, 2013 in Dallas, Texas.   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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — Kobe Bryant has been loyal to the Lakers for 20 seasons (if you ignore some “trade me” tantrums along the way). He’s also been über competitive.

Those same qualities are what he most appreciates about Dirk Nowitzki.

Kobe talked a little Dirk during his All-Star media availability Friday.

“Dirk and I have always had a great relationship because we’re both extremely competitive. Also both extremely loyal to our teams,” Bryant said.

“I’ll tell you a story about Dirk. He was up for free agency, and I knew what his response was going to be. But out of respect, everybody’s looking around at all these free agents, I felt I’d shoot you a text, if you want to come to L.A. He goes, ‘I would love to play with you, but Dallas is my home. This is my team. I’m not leaving here.’ So he and I think a lot alike in that regard.”

Nowitzki’s last couple free agencies have been mere formalities, nobody around the league thought he would leave Mark Cuban or Dallas. The only questions were money and years — in 2014 the Lakers reportedly offered the max to Nowitzki, who took three-years, $25 million from Dallas so the Mavs could rebuild their roster. It’s all part of that loyalty — and it’s worked out, Nowitzki and Cuban have a ring.

Kobe’s respect for Nowitzki was clear when Dirk nailed a game winner against the Lakers this season, Kobe just nodded his approval from the bench.

One of the best things the past couple seasons about Kobe, and especially this season with just about to retire Kobe, is that he is giving honest answers. He doesn’t care what people think. That leads to honest moments and great stories.

Watch Kristaps Porzingis drop 30 at Rising Stars Challenge (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Knicks’ fans were in full throat at the Air Canada Centre Friday night. Kristaps Porzingis was the second most popular player in the Rising Stars Challenge (behind Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins).

Porzingis didn’t disappoint, dropping 30 and sparking a World Team comeback against the USA that just fell just short, with the USA winning 157-154.

“Not great defense, but it’s about having fun, I guess” Porzingis said. “And I think we had fun out there. In the second half we got more competitive, as both teams wanted to get the win, and we fell a little short.”

Kobe Bryant basks in All-Star spotlight one final time

Kobe Bryant All-Star
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TORONTO — Kobe Bryant is the center of attention one last time.

To get to his final All-Star Game in his final season in the NBA, Kobe received more fan votes than Stephen Curry or LeBron James or any other player. Now that he’s at the 2016 All-Star Game, more people want a piece of his time. More media were crowded around him on Friday than any other player at the NBA’s equivalent of media day. Even the other All-Stars could count on getting peppered with Kobe questions (to their annoyance at times).

Kobe is at peace with his decision to walk away from the game. This weekend he wants to savor being in the All-Star spotlight one final time.

“I’m happy,” Kobe said. “This is pretty cool. I’m looking around the room and seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were like four during my first All-Star Game. It’s true. I mean, how many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It’s not sad at all. I mean, I’m really happy and honored to be here and see this.”

Does that mean Kobe has plans to chase the All-Star MVP one last time?

“Zero…” Kobe said. “But, no, I’m really just enjoying this whole thing, being around these players and talking to them one more time, going out and practicing and enjoying that moment in the game and enjoying that moment. So competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something or prove something, that’s gone.”

What is Kobe’s best All-Star memory?

“My first one in Cleveland was pretty special because you had all the top 50 players,” Bryant said. “I think in ’98 (it was), it was pretty special too, being in my first All-Star Game and being in the locker room with greats, like [John] Stockton and [Clyde] Drexler and all those guys, that was pretty cool too.”

Kobe has a hectic schedule for his final weekend, but much as he has since he announced his retirement he is trying to soak in and fully enjoy this last go around in the NBA. He understands that the life he has known for two decades is about to change. He hasn’t given much thought to his first day of retirement.

“I’ll probably wake up and have some coffee and go back to sleep,” Bryant said.

I don’t think he understands why you drink coffee, but he’s got all of his retirement to figure that out. For now, he just wants to bask in the spotlight one last time.

Zach LaVine wins MVP, Kristaps Porzingis puts on show in Rising Stars Challenge

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TORONTO — Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins was the rock star of the night. “An-drew-Wi-gins” chants broke out in the Air Canada Center as Canada’s native son put on a show with 29 points (and a few dunks) leading a World Team comeback against the USA in the Rising Stars Challenge.

“An-drew-Wi-gins” chants broke out in the Air Canada Center as Canada’s native son put on a show with 29 points (and a few huge dunks), sparking a World Team comeback against the USA in the Rising Stars Challenge.

His Minnesota teammate Karl-Anthony Towns was going to have none of that.

“I gotta see Andrew Wiggins for a long time and I want to rub this in,” Towns said.

He got his wish, the USA beat the World Team 157-154.

It was a glorified pickup game for three quarters, and the level of defensive intensity will make Sunday’s All-Star game look like Tom Thibodeau teams are playing. That led to a lot of high scorers.

Zach LaVine — the other teammate of Wiggins and Towns — led the USA with 30 points and was named the game’s MVP, and said he wanted to steal Wiggins’ thunder at home.

“That’s what I was going for,” LaVine said.

Also from the USA, Jordan Clarkson (Lakers) had 25, Devon Booker (Suns) had 23 and was 5-of-8 from three, D'Angelo Russell (Lakers) had 22, and Towns chipped in 18 points and 7 boards.

Knicks sensation Kristaps Porzingis was the second most popular player in the building, and he had 30 for the World team.

“Not great defense, but it’s about having fun, I guess,” Porzingis said. “And I think we had fun out there. In the second half we got more competitive, as both teams wanted to get the win, and we fell a little short.”

Also for the World Emmanuel Mudiay (Nuggets) had 30 points, Wiggins had 29, and Mario Hezonja (Magic) had 19.

The intensity and defense did pick up in the end, although one wouldn’t call it a thing of beauty. What matters is the crowd in the Air Canada Centre enjoyed it, even if their team didn’t win. It’s an exhibition, and they got a show.