Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers

New season, same old Thunder. That’s not enough in L.A.

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Meet the new Thunder, same as the old Thunder.

Which is a pretty good thing, those old Thunder captured the imagination of the NBA fans nationwide last season. They were athletic, they got and ran, they were just fresh and fun.

Thunder players talk openly of wanting to get rings with this group, there is a real chemistry there. That’s one reason before the season started a lot of people thought the Oklahoma City would take another step forward and could be the one team that would take a ring off the fingers of the Lakers out West. There was patience in the front office — Oklahoma City stuck with the players they had rather than trying to make a big splash in free agency. They were going to grow.

When they finally got a chance to match up on the Lakers again Monday night and measure themselves…

It looked almost exactly like the NBA playoffs last season. Right down to the Lakers winning, 101-94.

It’s still about the Lakers length up front and how that can clog the paint and turn the Thunder into jump shooters. Despite what some predicted it is not about Derek Fisher being older than the Terra Cotta Warriors. It’s not about Kobe’s knee, which looked just fine as Bryant threw it down like he was 25 again at one point.

It’s about the Lakers length, big men who can move and defend on the pick-and-roll. Big men who can protect the rim like Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. That trio finished with 47 points and 24 boards.

The Lakers didn’t defend much of anything in the first half as Russell Westbrook carved them up. Westbrook was stunning all night (he finished with 32 points and 12 assists). He would explode off the pick and roll, or get out in transition where the Lakers still do not have the athletes to deal with him. It was that fun, athletic Thunder team everybody fell in love with.

For a while.

In the first half, the Thunder had an offensive efficiency of 117 (points per 100 possessions). In the second half that fell to 88.6. Because the Lakers took away the easy baskets.

Kobe was energetic and was barking out defensive calls — getting on his big men — and it worked. The Thunder couldn’t find room to get inside consistently so they started to settle for jumpers. Gone were the transition buckets. The Thunder started falling in love with the three even through they couldn’t make them (2-of-22 on the night). Kevin Durant again couldn’t get going with Ron Artest being physical and dogging him (Luke Walton also played some pretty good defense on him for a stretch, a sentence we never thought we’d type). Durant finished with 24 points but needed 24 shots to get there.

One other key was the Lakers were not fouling (well, except for Bynum). The Thunder get to the line on a higher percentage of field goal attempts than any team in the league. Put it this way — they take an average of 30.7 free throws a game and hit 83 percent of them. But they got to the line just 22 times against the Lakers, just another way Los Angeles took away easy points away from the Thunder.

While the Lakers looked good it’s hard to read much into them — frankly we know what they can do. They can look like this, they can look every bit the champion and team to be feared. Then next game, who knows? They could be a disaster. What we know is that come the playoffs — so long as everyone is healthy — we will see a lot more of these Lakers.

With the Thunder… what can they do? They could use a steadier offensive and rebounding post presence (a Kevin Love like guy). They need a three-point shooter or for someone to develop that shot. They need to find a way to execute when the game slows down, as it inevitably does in the playoffs.

They didn’t do any of that Monday, they looked like the same old Thunder. Which is very good and very entertaining. But it’s not getting anyone fitted for a ring.

Wall has to work for recognition among top NBA point guards

Washington Wizards guard John Wall dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Fresh off scoring 51 points against the Washington Wizards, reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry praised John Wall, who dropped a quiet 41 against the Warriors.

“He’s a top-tier point guard,” Curry said, “and it’s like that – not his caliber every night – but obviously at the point guard position you’re going to have some talent on the other side of the ball most nights.”

Wall has never played better in what is now a point-guard league.

It doesn’t stop with Curry. The talent pool includes Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul, to name a few.

“I think I’m having a career year,” Wall said. “I can say I’m playing my best basketball, but not the way I want to play because it’s not equaling up to wins.”

Wall is an All-Star for the third time but gets lost in the packed field of “top-tier” point guards. His 20.1 points a game are sixth at the position, while his 9.9 assists are third behind only Sacramento’s Rajon Rondo and Westbrook.

But some nights there is just no denying his talents.

Like Tuesday at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Wall had 28 points and 17 assists to lead Washington past the Knicks. It was another showcase performance during a season that hasn’t gone the way he or the Wizards have wanted.

The Wizards will be a sub-.500 team and outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture at the All-Star break. Injuries to sidekick Bradley Beal and many others have hampered Washington this season.

But Wall is holding up his end and is playing like a top-five point guard.

He has an all-around game – the ability to beat defenders off the dribble, to spot up, pass, use his court vision and rebound. As Celtics coach Brad Stevens said recently, “you have to pick your poison” when defending Wall.

“Being able to shoot the ball off the pick and roll with great consistency – that’s what makes defenses choose what to do next,” Stevens said. “He’s been a great passer off the pick and roll.”

There’s no shortage of admiration around the league for Wall, who Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown deemed “the fastest guard in the NBA.” Brown compared Wall to a Maserati sports car and said the 25-year-old has improved because “you learn how to drive your Maserati better.”

Much of Wall’s game has improved in his six pro seasons since he was the first overall pick out of Kentucky in 2010.

“His speed is probably second to none in the NBA. … He’s a one-man fast break and it’s crazy because he logs so many minutes,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “His midrange jumper is also so much improved. You can tell he’s been working on his game a lot, and you like to see that from guys.”

Wall doesn’t get the headlines like Curry, Irving or even Thomas, of late. He has only scored the most points in a game he’s played in eight times this season, but Wall is the kind of player that teams have to game-plan against.

“You’ve got to build a wall against Wall,” Cavaliers star LeBron James said. “You let him play in open court one-on-one, he’s too fast, he’s too strong. He’s going to put your defense at bay.”

Opponents have tried to close off Wall’s drives to the basket and force him to take jump shots. At times, it has worked, like when the Trail Blazers limited him to 4 of 17 shooting in a victory last month.

“When you’re playing against an All-Star-caliber player like him, you work as hard as you can, you try and contain his penetration and hope he misses some jumpers,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

More often than not, Wall makes the most of his time and space. Even so, Washington coach Randy Wittman believes Curry should get more recognition than Wall because of team results.

“John’s body of work has been pretty good; he’s been recognized with that,” Wittman said. “You’ve got to go out and play, you’ve got to go out and win. Those are the two things in our league. You want recognition? Be a winner and play your butt off. That’s how you get recognition, and John’s gotten it.”

NBA writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.

Report: “Al Horford is a legitimate possibility for the Celtics”

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The Boston Celtics have assets, a collection of good role players but lacking the true stars, the alpha, the No. 1 option that any team needs to really win in the NBA.

How about Al Horford?

The Hawks are testing the waters for Horford, and as you can see in the video above, Chirs Mannix of Comcast Sportsnet New England (as well as The Vertical at Yahoo Sports) sees a fit.

“I think Boston, Al Horford is a legitimate possibility for the Celtics. I think that is one of the guys across the league that Danny Ainge is the most excited about. He is a four man that would fit right into what Boston is trying to do. It would cost a lot of money to re-sign him in the offseason, but I think Boston is willing to play it, because they haven’t paid a lot of money for players in recent years.”

The question here, of course, is the cost going back. All sources around the league right now say the Hawks are asking for the moon (as Mannix mentions). The givens in this kind of deal would be David Lee‘s expiring contract (for salary reasons), and the Nets unprotected pick. But it’s going to take more. Jae Crowder? Marcus Smart? Avery Bradley? Kelly Olynyk? Isaiah Thomas? It’s going to take a couple of those guys on top of Lee and the pick.

But if you’re the Celtics, that’s the move — you have put together all these assets, now you need to consolidate them into a couple of stars. Horford’s good-at-everything will fit beautifully in Brad Stevens’s system.

Just something to keep your eyes on. Unless the Hawks decide not to move Horford at all. Which is still a possibility, they may not break this thing up.

Damian Lillard added to Team USA Olympic roster pool

Damian Lillard
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If you’re looking for a point guard who can flat-out score the rock, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many better than Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers’ guard is averaging 24.2 points and 7.3 assists per game, with an above-average true shooting percentage of 54.6 percent, and a very high usage rate of 30.9.

He’s the kind of guy who might have a place on the Team USA Roster.

Which is why USA Basketball has added him to the pool to be considered for the Rio Olympics summer. The reason for the change is both Lillard’s level of play this season, and the fact he called USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo to ask for a spot, as reported by Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

Lillard deserves consideration, but there are two key reasons he likely doesn’t make the team:

1) He is still a terrible defender.

2) The list of guards for the USA Roster is ridiculous: Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Klay Thompson, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook. And now Lillard. That’s 10 guys for likely five spots. It’s hard to see Lillard making that cut.

But he deserves consideration.

Kings co-owner Shaq: Vivek Ranadivé told me George Karl would coach rest of season

Shaquille O'Neal
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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Kings general manager Vlade Divac said keeping George Karl as coach was right move “for now.”

How long is “for now”?

Shaquille O’Neal, a Kings minority owner, shares insight.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

This would mean a little more if Vivek Ranadivé weren’t prone to wild swings. Remember, the Kings said Tyrone Corbin would finish last season as coach before firing him for Karl.

Divac also said in November that Karl would coach the rest of the season, and that came up for debate fewer than three months later.

Shaq’s revelation is as likely to embarrass the Kings in a few weeks as it is to signal Karl’s job security.