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.

Joakim Noah skips Knicks dinner with West Point cadets due to anti-war stance

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Professional Basketball Player Joakim Noah (C) attends the DKNY Women fashion show during New York Fashion Week: The Shows September 2016 at High Line on September 12, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for New York Fashion Week)
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The Knicks have held training camp at West Point the last few years, and last night, the team dined with Army cadets:

But Joakim Noah didn’t participate.

Noah, via Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“It’s hard for me a little bit – I have a lot of respect for the kids here fighting — but it’s hard for me to understand why we go to war and why kids have to kill kids all around the world,’’ Noah said. “I have mixed feeling about being here. I’m very proud of this country. I love America. I don’t understand kids killing kids around the world.’’

Noah received permission from Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek to skip the team function. He was the only member of the team not in attendance. Noah said his decision to skip the dinner and speech was not intended as a form of protest.

“It’s not my way of saying anything – I was not comfortable,’’ Noah said.

Noah has dual citizenship in the United States and France, the home of his father, Yannick Noah, the former tennis star. Noah admitted he’s “not very patriotic,’’ believing people should respect people more than “flags.’’

Noah’s view will be unpopular, but he has every right to hold it. There’s a growing current of people asking for more athlete activism, but people better realize: You might not always like the stance players take. For those who claim to value politically minded players, this is part of what you get.

Personally, I disagree with Noah. The Revolutionary War helped him secure the right to speak out on this. World War II kept his beloved France from being run by a tyrannical Nazi regime. Just because some wars are unjust doesn’t make all wars unjust. I also believe in honoring American soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms.

But I also respect Noah’s right to seek a comfortable situation for himself. Some people can be anti-war and easily separate the soldiers as individuals. For others, apparently including Noah, all war machinery is intertwined.

Keep in mind, Noah didn’t actively disparage any soldiers. He’s not seeking supporters for a cause. He just chose not participate in an event he never asked to be apart of.

LeBron James on Cavaliers negotiations: ‘I just hate to deal with this s— again,’ J.R. Smith ‘did his part’

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22:  Kyrie Irving #2, LeBron James #23 and J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers look on during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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LeBron James has implicitly loomed over contract negotiations between the Cavaliers and J.R. Smith. LeBron shares an agent – Rich Paul, whose clientele (including Tristan Thompson) LeBron considers to be family – with Smith.

Now, LeBron is getting more explicit.

Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports:

LeBron has frequently praised Smith, including this offseason. If the Cavs haven’t gotten the message by now, it ought to be clear: LeBron values Smith and winning and believes the former will help the latter.

This doesn’t mean LeBron will leave in free agency in 2018, but with a rumor that LeBron believes delivering a title to Cleveland frees him to bolt if he so chooses, do the Cavaliers really want to test him? Do they really want to restrain a team capable of defending its championship?

I respect the Cavs’ desire to sign Smith to a sensible contract, and LeBron is well within his rights to advocate for a fellow player (and himself getting a better supporting cast). These negotiations are all about leverage – and LeBron is using his.

Byron Scott: I have no relationship now with D’Angelo Russell

Kobe Bryant, D'Angelo Russell, Byron Scott
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As D'Angelo Russell heaps praise on new Lakers coach Luke Walton, it’s difficult not to interpret the comments as an implicit slam of Byron Scott.

How does the previous Lakers coach, who frequently clashed with Russell, feel about that?

Scott – who coached Jason Kidd with the Nets, Chris Paul with the Hornets and Kyrie Irving with the Cavaliers – via TMZ:

It doesn’t bother me at all. My track record with guards speaks for itself. So, I don’t pay, really, no attention.

It don’t have a relationship with D’Angelo.

Russell might find that familiar.

Kendrick Perkins: Kevin Durant didn’t properly respect Russell Westbrook with or while leaving Thunder

MEMPHIS, TN - MAY 13:  Kevin Durant #35 reacts with Kendrick Perkins #5 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Perkins' basket and a foul against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum on May 13, 2011 in Memphis, Tennessee.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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On one hand, there’s the Kevin Durant who professed his deep friendship with Russell Westbrook, had Westbrook’s back at every turn and even preemptively stuck up for Westbrook.

On the other hand, there’s the Durant who reportedly had problems with Westbrook’s playing style, distanced himself from Westbrook during free agency, signed with the Warriors, texted Westbrook about his departure and, according to Westbrook, hasn’t talked to Westbrook.

How do you square all that?

Kendrick Perkins, who played with the two stars on the Thunder, provides fantastic perspective.

Perkins on The Vertical Podcast with Woj:

I think to me, what happened was with Russ and KD, I think they never really valued one another other like they should have. And not saying that they didn’t value as didn’t like each other. What I’m talking is, I don’t think they ever realized and said – I don’t think Russ ever realized and said, “Hey, man, I got Kevin Durant on my side. We could take over this league.” And I never thought KD did the vice versa. He never said, “Hey, I got Russell Westbrook on my side.” You’ve got two of the top five players in the NBA on the same team, and I just think that they never valued each other.

And trust me – I’m telling you this right now – when they think about this 10 years later, they’re going regret that. They’re going to regret that they didn’t value each other the way that they should have. And I’m talking about both of them.

And I ain’t saying they didn’t like each other, because it wasn’t none of that. I mean, we all played cards. They laughed and joked. We all had conversation. We had a group text going about Redskins and Cowboys football, because it was all good.

I think what it was was this. Let me correct that. I think what it was was this. Russ actually did value KD as being the player that he is. But what I had to explain – and I explained to KD – is that what you have to understand also about Russ is that Russ, at the time, he wasn’t getting the credit of being on the same level as KD. But he had the potential.

And like I was saying was, the whole thing was that, I thought out of all that, it never really came down to those two guys that got in the way of each other. It always was the outside that got in the way of both of them.

It was always the outside. It was always a controversy of whose team it was.

Why it just can’t be both of y’all’s team? How about Russ goes for 50 one night, you go for 60 the next night? How about it just be both of y’all’s team.

And the thing is is that, at the time, KD was already probably a two-time All-Star, the No. 1 draft pick while Russ, when I first got there was still kind of putting his name out there. And then all of a sudden, Russ caught up to KD, and they both was kind of on the same level as far as just being the elite icons of the league.

And I just think that they will have some type of regrets in the next 10 years or when they’re done about that they couldn’t handle it better when they was still together.

Not saying there was beef. I was talking about on the court.

It’s cool that KD – you’re a man, you decide the decision that you want to make. But at the end of the day, there’s a way about how you go about it. And you don’t send Russ a text and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to the Warriors.’

No, you do like LeBron James did when he left Miami. He went down and he sat and had diner with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to tell the that he was leaving, that he was going to sign with Cleveland. That’s what you do. That’s what you do. That carries a long way. It don’t take you nothing to call Nick Collison and Russell Westbrook and go and sit down and have a conversation with them and say, “Guys, hey look, it’s been fun. I still love y’all like my brothers. But I’m going to Golden State.”

I think it’s more of his personality that it would have been hard for him actually look Russ and Nick in the eyes. Because if he would have sat down at a lunch table, I think it would have been the same thing that happened with DeAndre Jordan  It’s easier to text and be done with it than actually sit down face-to-face and actually look your friend and your brother in the eyes that you done went to war with for six years. It’s a lot harder, and it make your decision a lot harder.

I obviously didn’t have the access to Durant and Westbrook like Perkins did. But if Durant fully respected Westbrook in all the ways Perkins said was lacking, how different would that have looked?

On the court, Durant often ceded control to Westbrook, allowing Westbrook to grow into a superstar peer. Maybe Durant deferred begrudgingly, but he did it – maybe even too much earlier in their time together.

And it’s not as if going to Golden State proved Durant undervalued Westbrook. Durant left to play with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. This wasn’t a case like Stephon Marbury, who forced himself off the Kevin Garnett-led Timberwolves to play with Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles in New Jersey.

Yes, Durant could’ve shown Westbrook more respect by telling him in person about leaving. But, as Perkins acknowledged, that would’ve been difficult for Durant. Durant earned the ability to operate free agency how deemed best, and if he didn’t want to be temped into going back to Oklahoma City, he deserves the respect to handle it that way.

I tend to think Durant and Westbrook will look back on their years together with some remorse. Durant might even eventually wish his attitude about Westbrook was different.

I’m just not sure what that would’ve actually changed.