NBA Playoffs, Lakers v. Suns Game 2: Showcasing the impressive, empowered, and balanced Laker offense

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bryant.pngAfter the Lakers’ dominant performance in Game 1, Alvin Gentry wisely noted that “[the Suns] can survive a Kobe game, but [they] can’t survive a Lamar game, and
then Pau playing extremely well, and then Jordan Farmar really coming
in and having a solid game and then Artest playing the way he is.”

He was right, in a sense. Gentry’s statement deserves clarification, though: the Suns can survive a big scoring game from Kobe, but not necessarily a big game from Kobe. Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals could be Bryant’s best performance of the postseason so far, and he only scored 21 points on 8-of-18 shooting. The real gem in Kobe’s stat line was his 13-assist mark, and it was Bryant’s facilitation of a brilliant Laker offense that brought L.A. their eighth consecutive win.

Kobe’s 13 assists not only set a personal best for his playoff career, but according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic, it was the highest assist total by any Laker since Magic Johnson matched the mark in 1997.

Of course, the immediate relevance of Kobe’s terrific performance is far more pressing than its historical context. It’s nice to know how this one game stacks up in comparison to Kobe’s other playoff performances and those of his fellow Lakers, but it’s far more crucial at this stage to understand and embrace just how much he helped his team to take a commanding 2-0 series lead last night.

The Suns are not a strong defensive team, regardless of their current reputation. That said, the most prominent story coming out of Game 2 should not be how Phoenix lost the game, but how Los Angeles won it. Stories of failure make for far more compelling theater, but in this case the Suns’ poor defense was only the catalyst for the loss. The Lakers, fueled by ball movement that was epitomized but not limited to Bryant’s assists, played like the elite offensive outfit that they are.

It’s a bit unfair that Bryant’s performance stole the show, especially considering how ridiculously effective Pau Gasol (29 points, nine rebounds, five assists) was in the fourth quarter. Gasol was a go-to option for the Lakers down the stretch, and though the Suns were within striking distance at points in the fourth, it was Pau’s scoring — not Bryant’s — that pushed Los Angeles over the top.

I think what makes Kobe’s night stand out amongst that of his teammates was how unique his playmaking was. A number of Lakers were productive scorers — Ron Artest finished with 18 points, Lamar Odom with 17, Andrew Bynum with 13, and Jordan Farmar with 11 — and all of them willing passers as well, but none of those contributors are in a position to defer.

Gasol was fantastic. He was put in a situation to succeed due to his skills, match-up, and circumstances, and he came through in flying colors. He’s still the second fiddle on this team though, and his dominance was by design. The Lakers (or more appropriately, Kobe) worked through Gasol with the game on the line, and he produced.

I know this all may seem like undue lavishing of an oft-praised star, but Kobe will always lie at the crux of what the Lakers hope to accomplish. In Game 2, he faced pressure but did anything but struggle. There will obviously be times between now and the end of the Lakers’ season where L.A. will need more than 21 points from Bryant to win, but his scoring in those situations is no more important than his willing deference in others.

That’s when Gasol will truly shine. It’s when Odom will go from from invisible to ever-present, and when Artest will command defensive attention. As the Celtics continue their quest to upset the Magic in the East, keep these Lakers at the back of your mind. They’re out for blood, championship-ready, and clicking both mentally and physically.

Report: Raptors would’ve fired Dwane Casey if they lost in first round

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 23:  Dwane Casey the head coach of the Toronto Raptors disagrees with an offical's call in the game against the Indiana Pacers during game four of the 2016 NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 23, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.   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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri on Dwane Casey before the playoffs, via Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

If we don’t go past the first round, what’s going to happen? Coach Casey deserves to be the coach. He deserves to be our coach in the future.

Casey was coming off an impressive regular season. Toronto won a franchise-record 56 games, and Casey finished fifth in Coach of the Year voting.

But would the Raptors really keep him if they lost in the first round as the higher seed for the third straight year?

I know what Ujiri said. But it’s one thing to like Casey as a coach – I do – and another to watch another first-round upset unfold in front of your eyes. The experience of seeing four losses to the Pacers can change someone’s mind – and reportedly would’ve changed Ujiri’s.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Toronto might have been one gaffe by Pacers coach Frank Vogel in Game 5 away from bowing out in the first round again, a crusher that would have cost Casey his job, per several league sources.

Of course, the Raptors beat Indiana in seven games, slipped past the Heat in seven games and have beaten the Cavaliers twice in the Eastern Conference finals. That ought to preserve Casey’s job, even if Toronto is eliminated in Game 6 tonight.

The Raptors are at the point where they need a quality playoff coach. For the better part of three straight postseasons, Casey didn’t look like one. He still hasn’t come close to answering all the questions about him, but he has created enough doubt about his postseason proficiency.

Casey has done quality work transforming the Raptors. Unless they’re more certain he can’t get the deeper in the playoffs, they should keep him and give him a chance to try.

Billy Donovan: Warriors’ free-throw advantage over Thunder was ‘the difference in the game’

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 26:  Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Why did the Warriors beat the Thunder in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals last night?

Andrew Bogut‘s rim protection? Kevin Durant‘s and Russell Westbrook‘s teammates not doing enough? Stephen Curry‘s late defense?

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan:

The difference in the game was the fact that they went to the free-throw line 34 times.

The discrepancy tonight for free throws, for whatever reason, that was really, to me, the difference in the game.

Yes, Golden State shot 34 free throws to the Thunder’s 24 – and made 31 to the Thunder’s 20 – in a 120-111 win.

But nine of the Warriors’ attempts and makes came in the final 1:02, beginning with a curiously timed Donovan technical foul and then Oklahoma City intentionally fouling. The Thunder also hacked Bogut earlier in the fourth quarter, and he went 1-for-2 at the line. Remove those, and the free-throw attempts are 25-24.

It was a little surprising when Oklahoma City intentionally fouled Klay Thompson down nine with 55 seconds left. Trailing teams should generally begin fouling sooner than they do to increase variance, but most don’t. They usually defend in those situations, which makes me wonder about a deeper motivation.

Did Donovan, realizing the Thunder were going to lose anyway, get a technical foul then order intentional fouling sooner than usual so he could complain about the free-throw disparity and lobby for more favorable calls in Game 6?

Too much Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Game 5 against Warriors

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 26:  Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrate after a play against the Golden State Warriors during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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In the last 33 years, as far back as Basketball-Reference.com records go back, teammates have each scored at least 30 points while shooting less than 40% in a game three times:

  • Kevin Durant (40 points on 12-of-31 shooting) and Russell Westbrook (31 points on 11-of-28 shooting) in a Western Conference finals loss to the Warriors last night
  • Durant (30 points on 10-of-27 shooting) and Westbrook (30 points on 9-of-26 shooting) in a first-round loss to the Grizzlies in 2014
  • Durant (37 points on 7-of-20 shooting) and Westbrook (36 points on 10-of-26 shooting) in a regular-season loss to the Nuggets in 2013

Yes, every time it has happened, it has been Durant and Westbrook. And each time, the Thunder have lost.

Oklahoma City reverted back to this losing formula against Golden State in Game 5. The Thunder’s offense turned stale, the ball sticking with Durant and Westbrook as it had so many times in years prior – years that all ended short of a championship and with questions swirling about offensive creativity.

Simply, Thunder looked like the same old Thunder.

Durant and Westbrook scored 64% of Oklahoma City’s points, a mark they hadn’t hit since the season’s second game – a double-overtime win over the Magic in which Durant and Westbrook scored 18 of the Thunder’s 22 overtime points and were the only Oklahoma City players to play all of both extra periods.

Here are the percentage of the Thunder’s points scored by Durant and Westbrook in each playoff game:

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The Thunder have shown this isn’t a winning game plan for them. They’re 2-4 when Durant and Westbrook score at least 59% of their points, 6-7 when it’s between 54% and 59% and and 58-21 otherwise.

This is not to blame Durant and Westbrook. Though they might have hunted their own shot a little too often in Game 5, their teammates didn’t do nearly enough.

Oklahoma City’s other players scored a series-low 40 points – and 10 of those came on 4-of-4 shooting from Anthony Morrow, who had been out of the rotation. Dion Waiters – who, I believe, had been the biggest key for the Thunder going from very good in the regular season to elite in the playoffs – scored no points on 0-of-4 shooting in 27 minutes after averaging 10 points per game in the series’ first four contest. Enes Kanter, who had been an offensive positive, was an effective no-show, scoring one point in just six minutes because his defense made him mostly unplayable.

Durant and Westbrook are playing better than ever, but their supporting cast’s rise had been huge in these playoffs. The crew had been amazing relative to previous postseasons. Serge Ibaka, Andre Roberson and the rest just didn’t sustain it in Game 5.

The second-lowest scoring output by the Thunder’s other players in this series came in Game 2, which Oklahoma City also lost. Here are the points by Durant’s and Westbrook’s teammates in each game of the Western Conference finals, Thunder wins in blue and losses in orange:

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Durant, via James Ham of CSN Bay Area:

“No,” Durant said emphatically when asked if he and Westbrook sometimes forget about the players around them. “That’s who we are, we’ve got to be aggressive. When they’re going in, you won’t say anything.”

“But we happened to miss some tonight,” Durant continued. “But we were aggressive. We were right there. We had an opportunity to win the basketball game. That’s what we we do. That’s how we play, like it or not.”

Durant and Westbrook should be aggressive, but it’s on their teammates to limit the stars’ attempts – to provide outlets when the defense hones in on Durant and Westbrook. The Thunder’s other players didn’t do that last night, so Durant and Westbrook forced shots.

This gives credence to the theory that role players don’t travel well. Perhaps, this will instantly change for Game 6 Saturday in Oklahoma City.

As great as Durant and Westbrook are, they need help. They’ll justifiably take the offensive burden when no other option presents itself, and it’s the lesser of two evils. But when games go that direction, there’s an inevitable conclusion: The Thunder usually lose.

Watch Stephen Curry’s late lockdown defense (video)

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Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant might not think much of Stephen Curry‘s defense – Durant gave a great and tremendously honest answer – but Curry was at his defensive best late in the Warriors’ Game 5 win over the Thunder last night.

Curry locked up Durant multiple times. Also included in that clip: Curry’s rebound in traffic, because rebounding is a key part of defense.