Russell Westbrook, Matt Barnes

“New” Lakers still not as good as same ol’ Thunder

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This was supposed to be a statement game for the “new” Lakers — new coach, new system, new emphasis on defense and now a new point guard to organize it all. The Thunder, they didn’t change much of anything from last year.

Well, the game was a statement all right — the Thunder are much better right now. If you have any doubt that Oklahoma City is the team to beat in the West, you just need to watch them when they are clicking.

Oklahoma City was a step ahead of the Lakers starting with an 11-0 run to open the second half and they went on to a comfortable 102-93 win.

Oklahoma City was literally a step ahead — on top of its pregame white board in the locker room was the instruction to get out and run on the Lakers. Get points in transition. They did some in the first half but in the third quarter Russell Westbrook took the message to heart and changed the game.

“You’ve got to give a guy like Russell Westbrook credit,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said. “In the third quarter, he just came out, put his head down and went one on four and either scored or got fouled every time he came down the floor in that third quarter.”

Westbrook had six field goals in the third quarter — which was one more than the Lakers scored as a team. Lakers guard Ramon Sessions said the plan was to go under the pick-and-roll with Westbrook and make him shoot the jumper. Which he did — he’d use the space to make a little drive to the elbow then shoot and knock it down on his way to 36 points for the game.

After the game the Lakers tried to find solace in a first half where they were more physical and used their length to jump out to a 30-18 lead after one quarter. They tried to see a new Laker team that can compete with the Thunder when they play the right way. Andrew Bynum was very aggressive (particularly early) and had 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting, plus 13 rebounds. Kobe Bryant had 23 points but needed 25 shots to get there, with Thabo Sefolosha doing a good job forcing him off his spots.

But the old Lakers had Lamar Odom coming off the bench and the new Lakers have nobody who can change the game that way. When the Thunder bench entered in the second quarter they quickly cut the Lakers early lead in half. Derek Fisher did part of that damage with 7 points on drives and jumpers — he was in revenge mode and it made him play maybe the best he has all season.

At the half the Lakers were up 5, but the big three for the Thunder — Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden — were a combined 10-for-37. You knew things were going to change.

You knew the Thunder’s statement was coming. They made it with hustle, getting 19 offensive rebounds and seemingly every offensive rebound.

One game in March does not a potential playoff series determine, but the statements from this game are the statements we have seen these teams for a while now. The Lakers are good but they don’t seem to have all the pieces of a contender — consistent defense, weak transition defense, good bench depth at the two and four, and they still struggle to shoot consistently from the outside.

The Thunder are deeper, more athletic, more complete. And they have an energy that helps them overcome their flaws. And when all else fails they can just put their head down and run past the Lakers.

Larry Sanders considering making NBA comeback soon

Larry Sanders
Associated Press
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It was one year ago that Larry Sanders came to terms for a mutual parting of the ways with the Bucks, a buyout of his contract that let him get away from basketball. He had personal demons to deal with. Sanders had played just 50 games the previous two seasons for the Bucks, had been a nightclub brawl left him with an injured thumb in need of surgery, been charged with animal cruelty, had been suspended a couple of times by the league for marijuana use, and the list went on. It was best for both sides to walk away.

Sanders checked himself into a hospital program for anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. At the time, he wrote he still loved basketball, but he needed better coping skills to handle the pressure and lifestyle.

“If I get to a point where I feel I’m capable of playing basketball again, I will.”

We may be reaching that time. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports:

After accepting a buyout from the Milwaukee Bucks to step away from the NBA last season, Larry Sanders told The Vertical he plans to pursue a return to the NBA once his off-court ventures stabilize.

“Once my art, music and passions off the court feel stable, I will look into coming back,” Sanders told The Vertical. “I still love basketball. I want stability around me, and part of my mindset to leave was not to put all my eggs in one basket.

“I feel highly valuable on any team. There aren’t a lot of people who can bring my game to a team. I still play basketball all the time, staying in shape. I will need to make sure the situation is right for me.”

Sanders would draw interest from teams (he already has this season), there aren’t a lot of athletic 6’11” defenders in the league. In the 2013 season, before he signed his contract extension, Sanders averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game. Teams would be willing to roll the dice.

Sanders is now working on his music, plus running a management company for artists. His buyout from the Bucks will give him $1.9 million a season until 2022, so a return to the league is not necessarily about the cash.

If he does come back, I hope for his sake his head is in the right space and can handle it. He needs to take care of himself first.

Will Phil Jackson ultimately leave Knicks to run Lakers?

Phil Jackson Jeanie Buss
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Phil Jackson has been thrust back into the New York spotlight with the firing of Derek Fisher for not being ready to be an NBA coach — who could have seen that coming? — and speculation about what moves he’ll make next. While you can point to misfires as the guy with the hammer in the Knicks organization, he nailed the Kristaps Porzingis pick and no doubt this Knicks roster is in far better shape than the one he took over. Plus, he’s kept owner James Dolan out of the basketball decision-making process, which is a huge step forward.

But if/when he gets the chance, will he bolt New York to team up with fiancée Jeanie Buss and run the Lakers?

Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports writes there is a “strong belief” in some quarters that it will happen.

Golden State assistant Luke Walton is closest to a legitimately coveted candidate with ties to Jackson and the triangle – and he’s still largely unproven, too. Walton intrigues Jackson, but truth be told: Why would Walton come East without an assurance Jackson is committed to the long run in New York? There’s still a strong belief Jackson will eventually find his way to his fiancée Jeanie Buss and the Los Angeles Lakers. Walton will be competing with Thibodeau for the Lakers job in the spring, and who knows: Jackson and Walton could be reunited there.

Would Jackson leave the Knicks? The better question is, did anyone think he would stay the entire five years of his contract? Not many around the league did. Knicks fans should be legitimately concerned about who is next.

Lakers fans would welcome Jackson’s return because it means no Jim Buss. Fairly or not, Buss has become a scapegoat for a healthy segment of the fan base.

But this would be far from simple.

Jim Buss is in charge of the basketball side of the Lakers’ operation as empowered by the complex trust his father Jerry Buss used to leave the team to his six children. They all have roles, they all have pieces of the team, and truth be told they all have big aspirations. It sets up like a Shakespearean drama. Jeanie Buss is the ultimate power and the person the league recognizes as the owner for official votes of the board of governors, but this is not like other ownership situations where she has ultimate power and can fire whomever she wants and replace them — she can’t just ax family members and sideline them. Again, it’s a complex trust with shared power and responsibilities.

Jim has said if the Lakers are not a contender by 2017 he would step aside, although how he defines that time (the end of the summer of 2017, at the earliest) and how Jeanie defines it (more like early 2017, before that loaded free agency summer) differ. Nothing that happens with the Lakers will be clean and bloodless.

But if Jim steps aside and lets Jeanie bring in her own basketball people, Phil Jackson could well return to L.A.

Then we can have a discussion if that’s really best for the Lakers’ brand.

Add Kobe Bryant to don’t change hack-a-player crowd

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant gestures after hitting a three point shot during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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LeBron James is already there. So is Kevin Durant. Same with a lot of other old-school GMs and coaches around the league.

Their response to the rapid rise in hack-a-player (shouldn’t it always be hack-a-Shaq?) instances is “tell the guy to hit the free throws.”

Add Kobe Bryant to their ranks, reports Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.

Personally, I hate the “won’t somebody please think of the children” argument — plenty of people have said emulating Kobe’s penchant for isolation basketball and contested jumpers was bad for children growing up playing the game.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is starting to feel differently. He realizes he runs an entertainment business and a parade of guys to the free throw line because of a non-basketball play — you can’t begin to tell me fouling a guy 50 feet from the ball is a basketball play in the spirit of the rules — is bad for business. It is unwatchable. And while every coach in the NBA  says “I hate to do it” they all do it with increasing frequency. There will be more than twice as many instances this season of hack-a-player fouls as there were a year ago, with more and more players involved. Because it works, and because those coaches are paid to win, not play beautiful basketball.

Change is coming. Old-school types always bemoan change, and that’s not just a basketball thing. But the rest of the world has rules in place to stop this because they realize it’s not basketball, it’s gaming the system. And it needs to change.

Timofey Mozgov with maybe “best” missed dunk of the season (VIDEO)

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On this play the Sacramento Kings played defense like only they can — and you wonder why George Karl’s job is in danger — and gave Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgov a wide-open lane right down the middle for an easy dunk.

Ooof.

LeBron James had a triple-double (the 40th of his career) and the Cavaliers got a needed easy win, but this is the play you’ll remember.