NBA Playoffs, Lakers v. Suns Game 1: Everything's coming up Lakers

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kobe-wcf-game1.pngGame 1 of the Western Conference Finals made one thing abundantly clear: unless the Suns are able to come up with some truly remarkable performances, the Lakers will win this series. L.A. is so talented and so long that they’ll receive the benefit of the doubt in almost every regard, and barring a transcendent performance from Steve Nash or Amar’e Stoudemire, Phoenix will lose.

Call it cheap analysis if you will, but the Lakers are better. They are not going to melt down in this series, which puts the onus on the Suns. It’s up to Phoenix to somehow stop the unstoppable force in purple and gold and manage to see the sky through the trees.

I wouldn’t say Game 1 was necessarily par for the course (the Lakers’ offense scored at a rate of 139.1 points per 100 possessions, a truly scorching level of efficiency) but L.A.’s dominance in their 128-107 victory was not unfounded.

Los Angeles has a much better shot at stopping Phoenix’s offense than vice versa, and the Lakers exposed that painful truth in their complete dissection of the Suns’ vaunted, improved defense. Kobe’s 40 has to be the centerpiece, and his 21-point third quarter was the type of noteworthy performance that so frequently gets lost in the playoff shuffle. If the Lakers go on to win the championship, few will remember Bryant’s 21-point Q on a mid-May night, no matter how it demoralized the Suns’ defenders.

That said, we may not see a more singularly dominant stretch of basketball from any Laker this postseason, and for that Kobe deserves to be recognized. Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, and Jason Richardson all did their best to defend Bryant. They fought for position, tried to deny, and challenged shots. It didn’t matter, because Kobe is so, so good at what he does. When Bryant is in that special place, the bucket is less a possible outcome and more an inevitability. That’s what the Suns were charged with stopping tonight, and it’s what the Jazz failed to stop at times in their four-game out in the previous round.

I’d love to say that Kobe is destined for a fall back to earth at some point, but the guy has scored 30+ in every game he’s played since April 27th. He’s done it with plenty of time off and just a day off, at home and away, by shooting 45% from the field or better, against three different opponents, and with one notable constant: winning. Kobe is putting up impressive totals and guiding the Lakers to the promised land, two results that have not always coincided. During this playoff run however, they seem almost inextricable, with just two of the Lakers’ nine wins coming in sub-30-point performances for Bryant.

As always seems to be the case with these Lakers, he wasn’t alone. Lamar Odom (19 points, 19 rebounds) was ridiculously effective, and looked right at home working against Amar’e Stoudemire. Pau Gasol wasn’t nearly as good on the boards (or rather, didn’t have to be as good on the boards), but had 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting.

Those two players best exemplified the problems with the Suns’ defense; Hill et al’s defense on Bryant may have been an exercise in futility, but the Suns’ D on Odom and Gasol was more of a demonstration of their ineptitude. Even if you buy the argument that the Suns are improved on defense this season, those improvements amounted to nothing against players as skilled, as versatile, and as big as Gasol and Odom.

Throw in some beautiful discretion from Ron Artest, better-than-expected defense from Derek Fisher, and solid play from the Lakers’ bench, and it would be a wonder if the Lakers didn’t win in a walk.

Los Angeles wasn’t exactly perfect on defense, though, even if they did manage to prevent Phoenix from scoring at maximum efficiency. The Suns benefited from a balanced offensive performance, featuring six double-digit scorers who were able to attack the Lakers’ D in a variety of ways. However, the Lakers’ true battle was fought — and won — against the Suns’ pick-and-roll.

Robin Lopez (14 points 6-7 FG, six rebounds) looked great rolling to the rim and working the offensive glass, but even his impressive playoff debut wasn’t enough to overcome the Lakers’ smothering of Steve Nash and assault on the passing lanes. Phoenix found ways to move the ball, but the great looks the Suns are accustomed to getting were merely good ones, and considering Phoenix’s considerable defensive troubles, that was more than enough to drop Game 1 into L.A.’s lap.

As I mentioned before, Steve Nash (13 points, 13 assists, four turnovers) and Amar’e Stoudemire (23 points, just three boards) can’t just show up and play. They have to seriously perform if Phoenix is going to have any shot in this series. They’ll need to execute tirelessly on the offensive end, not only to provide the bulk of the offense, but to open up the game for the Suns’ shooters. In a sense, you have a situation in Phoenix similar to that in Orlando, only instead of relying on Dwight Howard’s interior dominance as an offensive foundation, this team relies on the Nash-Stoudemire tandem.

Without that regular offensive threat, the Suns shooters were blanketed on the perimeter, as evidenced by the team’s 22.7% shooting from beyond the arc. That’s more than just a cold night, even if every miss from the perimeter can’t be attributed to L.A.’s close-outs. Jared Dudley (1-5 3FG) and Channing Frye (1-7 3FG) were forced into some contested looks and were out of rhythm when they finally found the space to fire unimpeded.

If you’re looking for one side of the ball to attribute blame, the offense wasn’t it for Phoenix. The Suns’ offensive efficiency in this game (116.3 points per 100 possessions) was actually higher than their season average. As I mentioned before though, the Suns will have to be good enough on offense to make up for their major defensive flaws, and until we see even a spark of that in this series, the games will continue to default Lakers.

Fans to vote on “Best Dunk,” “Best Assist,” other categories handed out at NBA Awards show

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Fans are going to get their say at the NBA Awards Show, coming June 26 on TNT. Drake will be the host, and we to come up with an under/over on the number of players Drake gives a bro hug to during the ceremony.

That’s the night the NBA will hand out its Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and every other major postseason award — except for All-NBA Team, which has to come earlier. The media have already cast their votes for these awards.

Where the fans get to come in is the fun awards, categories created just for this event:

• Dunk of the Year
• Best Style
• Block of the Year
• Assist of the Year
• Game Winner of the Year
• Top Performance of the Year

The NBA already narrowed down the list of choices for each category to three, and voting opens tonight. Just go to  www.nba.com/nbaawards and cast your ballot, or on Twitter or Facebook just post the #AwardName and First/Last Name of their winner (for example, #DunkOfTheYear  Larry Nance).

These awards should add some energy — and good highlights — to what has the potential to be a stuffy event. It’s a bunch of NBA players in suits in a ballroom in New York, this is going to feel like a branding event at times. The NBA is hoping the fans can liven it up.

Here are the categories, with the hashtags for voting:

#DunkOfTheYear
• Los Angeles Lakers’ Larry Nance, Jr. vs. Brooklyn

• Minnesota’s Zach LaVine vs. Phoenix

• Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo vs. Atlanta

#BestStyle
• Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert
• Chicago’s Dwyane Wade
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook

#BlockOfTheYear
• San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard vs. Houston
• New York’s Kristaps Porzingis vs. Brooklyn
• Miami’s Hassan Whiteside vs. Toronto

#GameWinnerOfTheYear
• Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving vs. Golden State
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook vs. Denver
• Phoenix’s Tyler Ulis vs. Boston

#TopPerformanceOfTheYear
• Phoenix’s Devin Booker 70-point game vs. Boston
• Houston’s James Harden nets 53-16-17 triple double vs. New York
• Golden State’s Klay Thompson scores 60 in three quarters vs. Indiana
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook with most points in a triple-double, 57-13-11, vs. Orlando

#AssistOfTheYear
• Golden State’s Draymond Green to Stephen Curry to Kevin Durant
• Denver’s Nikola Jokic with no-look pass
• LA Clippers’ Chris Paul with wraparound pass

Report: USC’s Elijah Stewart intended to declare for NBA draft, forgot

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Declaring for the NBA draft is like declaring bankruptcy: You can’t just bellow it and expect it to take effect. You actually have to fill out the paperwork.

That’s why USC’s Elijah Stewart wasn’t among the 192 early entrants to the 2017 NBA draft.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

Stewart:

Givony’s report will do little but embarrass Stewart. It’s unlikely Stewart would’ve been drafted, and he likely would have withdrawn to return to USC for his senior season. Perhaps, he would’ve gotten helpful feedback from the NBA before that point, but that’s minimal.

The real problem, though, isn’t Stewart’s inattentiveness, to whatever extent is exists. It’s that the NCAA won’t allow players to maintain eligibility while having an agent.

If Stewart had proper representation, there’d be no questioning whether he intended to declare for the draft. His agent would’ve handled it, one way or the other.

If the NCAA were truly about educating players, it’d allow them to have guidance from experienced professional agents. Agents don’t have to conflict with amateurism (not that amateurism is a worthy goal, anyway).

But teaching players is not the NCAA’s true goal. The NCAA prioritizes keeping its cartel in tact and money flowing to coaches and administrators.

Agents might steer players from that corrupt system entirely or at least help them leverage their immense power to gain better compensation than a wage-fixed scholarship.

This incident should spark discussion about the unseemly lengths the NCAA goes to to protect its money-makers from its revenue-generators. Instead, it’s much easier to make Stewart a punchline.

Kevin Durant gets a hoot out of meme with Draymond Green

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You’ve seen the Draymond GreenKevin Durant meme, right?

Here’s the video with my favorite caption:

In the latest episode of “Still KD,” Durant watches the meme, reads other captions and calls it “hilarious.”

Russell Westbrook: ‘Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be’

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The Thunder want to sign Russell Westbrook to a contract extension that projects to be worth about $207 million over five years.

But does he want to sign it?

Westbrook, via Royce Young of ESPN:

“That’s something, like I said, I haven’t thought about anything, obviously,” Westbrook said. “Everybody knows that I like Oklahoma City and I love being here and I love everybody here. But I haven’t even thought about that. Obviously, Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be.”

Westbrook noted that his wife is expecting their first child in May, and that’s where his focus is right now. Asked whether there’s a timetable on his decision about a potential extension, Westbrook lightheartedly jabbed back.

“No. What did I just say? Like you don’t care about my baby?” he said. “You must not. You didn’t hear that part, huh?”

Though it was painted as Westbrook showing his loyalty to the Thunder in stark contrast to the departed Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s renegotiation-and-extension last summer was also his way of receiving the highest-possible salary.

This is a different case.*

*So, it seems. It’s unclear whether the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow Oklahoma City to renegotiate Westbrook’s 2017-18 salary up to the designated-veteran-player rate, but I’m presuming not.

Westbrook will have 10 years of experience when an extension would kick in. A typical advantage of a designated-veteran-player contract is allowing a player with eight or nine years experience, who’s typically limited to a starting salary of 30% of the salary cap, to receive a starting salary of 35% of the salary cap. But Westbrook will be eligible for 35% of the salary by then simply due to his years of service.

In other words, an extension signed this summer would pay Westbrook the exact same amount he could receive as a free agent in 2018.

So, would Westbrook sign that extension? It’d guarantee him a huge salary and protect him in the event of injury or decline. But Westbrook is so good, he’s extremely likely to get the max in 2018-19 no matter what. With only minimal risk, maybe he’d rather maintain flexibility.

Westbrook appeared to embrace leading the team, and he truly seems happy in Oklahoma City in a way I didn’t expect when he signed last summer. His image is so tied to loyalty to the Thunder, it’d be tough to spin an exit.

But Oklahoma City is relatively locked into a roster that will have a hard time winning multiple playoff series. Westbrook wants to win.

I don’t know whether he’ll accept an extension this summer rather than delaying a year, but if he won’t ink a deal this year, that should be a concerning indicator to the Thunder about their chances of re-signing him in 2018.