NBA Playoff Preview: L.A. Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets

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SEASON RECORDS


Lakers: 41-25 (3 seed)
Nuggets: 38-28 (6 seed)

SEASON SERIES


The Lakers took three of the four regular season meetings from the Nuggets, with the only loss coming on New Year’s Day in Denver. All the games were close, however, with L.A.’s margin of victory never being greater than six points.

KEY INJURIES

Lakers: There are no players who will be unavailable due to injury to start this series for the Lakers. The Artest now known as Metta World Peace is serving a seven-game suspension for the elbow he landed on the head of James Harden, so we won’t be seeing him face the Nuggets unless there is a Game 7.

Nuggets: None.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Lakers: offense 103.3 (10th); defense 101.7 (13th)
Nuggets: offense 106.6 (3rd); defense 103.4 (19th)

THREE KEY LAKERS:

Kobe Bryant: Bryant has played this season, for the most part, at an extremely high level. The shin injury he suffered at the beginning of April that forced him to miss seven games may have been a blessing in disguise, as the famously competitive Bryant wouldn’t likely have chosen to get any rest before the playoffs otherwise. As anyone who has watched this Lakers team closely can attest, the preferred and more successful strategy is for Bryant to pace himself offensively, while making sure his teammates get plenty of touches in the game’s early going — instead of making sure to take as many shots as humanly possible, no matter the defense.

Andrew Bynum: It’s been an interesting season for Anrew Bynum, to say the very least. What the Lakers hope to see in the postseason is the dominant, big man that Bynum showed he can be at multiple times this year, instead of the petulant man-child who engages in nonsense on the court that’s detrimental to the team’s efforts. The pressure of the postseason and the veterans on this team should be enough to keep him in check, but should he become disinterested or show a lack of maturity by needlessly picking up technical or flagrant fouls, it could severely impact his team’s chances.

Ramon Sessions: This will be Sessions’ first trip to the postseason in his career, and his performance, especially against this Denver team, will be critical to the Lakers’ success. Sessions will need to stay in front of Ty Lawson defensively, and will need to control the tempo on the offensive end, while resisting the urge to match the speed of Denver’s game.

THREE KEY NUGGETS

Aaron Afflalo: The Nuggets’ two-guard has really stepped his game up late in the season, and he’s going to be trouble for the Lakers. He regularly plays 40 minutes per game, and his scoring average and field goal percentage numbers were way up over his yearly averages in the last month of the season. He’s efficient and able to score in a variety of ways, so the Lakers will try to force him into taking low-percentage, highly-contested shots. Good luck with that.

Ty Lawson: Tempo is going to be the key to this series, and Lawson’s speed will be extremely tough to contain. He makes everything possible offensively for Denver, and offense is where games in this series will be won for the Nuggets.

Kenneth Faried: The rookie nicknamed “Manimal” is as athletic and energetic as they come, but he manages to play under control at the same time. The Lakers will need to be aware of him on both ends of the floor, and make a conscious effort to put a body on him to prevent those hustle plays that give his team extra possessions.

OUTLOOK

The Lakers have the best frontcourt in the game with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and one of its best players in Kobe Bryant. From a talent standpoint, Denver is overmatched. But the Nuggets have been playing excellent team basketball to end the season, finishing the season winning six of seven, and eight of their last 10 games.

Tempo will be the key to this series. If Denver is able to get out in transition and make these high-possession games, the team will have a chance to get some wins in this series. Overall, though, expect the Lakers to play a smart, focused brand of basketball that utilizes their strengths in the first round of these playoffs.

Denver should mostly keep things close, and may get a couple of wins as the Lakers try to find their postseason selves. L.A.’s size down low, along with the presence of a healthy Kobe Bryant, will ultimately be too much.

PREDICTION

Lakers win 4-2.

CJ McCollum on Carmelo, Kanter trade: “Stay woke, it’s a business”

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The most insane NBA offseason in recent memory got weirder this week when Carmelo Anthony was traded from the New York Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a first round draft pick.

The trade has made many of us wonder just what the on the court play will look like in Oklahoma City this season with a high usage set of players in Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and now Carmelo.

Meanwhile, Kanter had made comments earlier in the week about expressing his appreciation for the fans in Oklahoma City. Having been traded just a few days later, that apparently didn’t sit right for some people. Or at the very least, it appeared to be a teaching moment.

Via Twitter:

There’s no doubt about this fact, and it is hard to try to refute McCollum here. This is the nature of the league and there is no such thing as complete loyalty — at least in the sense of how most people understand it interpersonally — between employers and their employees in the NBA.

Teams are going to trade players to make sure they can win the most games and maximize their profits. Likewise, players should take the biggest contract they can get if they feel that is in their best interest.

In any case, we are all excited to see what kind of shenanigans happen in Oklahoma City next year.

Paul George on Thunder: “This feels like a championship team”

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They have an MVP, top-five NBA player. They have another All-NBA player who is a strong wing defender. They now have an aging all-star who still can get buckets with the best of them. There is a strong collection of role players who can help form a solid defense.

On paper, there’s a lot to like with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Paul George realizes that, as he said to Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“This feels like a championship team,” George told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m in a good place. I know Russ (Westbrook) is in a good place. Melo is motivated more than ever…You put us three together, who all have something to prove still, (and) we’re going to be a special team. We have a young group, a lot of talent here, an unbelievable coach (in Billy Donovan), (and) as you see, a front office that’s willing to do whatever it takes to improve the team. It just has all the makeups to be a great organization and a chance to put championships together.”

Championships? Plural? That implies the team would stay together, and sorry Thunder fans, but that is far from a sure thing. First, financially there is no realistic way Oklahoma City can afford to sign Russell Westbrook and Paul George max deals (which they both will get) and keep Anthony if he opts into the final year of his contract for just shy of $28 million.

OKC is a small market team that simply would lose a lot of money to keep the band together, and this ownership group traded James Harden out of fear of a massive luxury tax bill. (They will pay a tax bill of about $24 million for this season if the roster stays as is.)

Also, George’s camp made it very clear during the run-up to his trade he plans to test free agency and has a strong lean to the Lakers next season. He may be more likely to stay in OKC now after the trade, but how much more?

However, George is right, this team does look like a roster that could contend for a title most years — and maybe be in the mix this year. We will put aside the Warriors challenge for a moment (they are still the clear favorites if they stay healthy) and get to the big question for the Thunder:

Will their big three learn to sacrifice, learn to mesh, learn to play together as a team as a championship team does fast enough? The 2008 Celtics did, but that team of veterans has been the exception. It took LeBron’s Miami Heat two seasons to learn how to win, and the same when he came back to Cleveland. OKC doesn’t have two seasons, they have to do it fast. It’s possible, but not easy.

George is right, this is an excellent Oklahoma City team. The Thunder are now right in the middle of that second tier in the West with Houston (another team that has to learn to mesh and sacrifice) and the Spurs. That’s a great place to be.

Is it a place George wants to stay? That question will hang over the Thunder all season.

 

Mark Cuban: Trump has “got to be able to take the blowback” from comments

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President Donald Trump used the bully pulpit of his office to, well, bully — he fired shots at the NFL over its concussion protocols and players kneeling during the national anthem. Then he rescinded his invite to the White House to the Warriors after Stephen Curry said he would vote not to go.

Sports stars fired back. LeBron James called Trump a bum, Chris Paul asked if he didn’t have better things to worry about, and the Warriors said as a team they would use their time in Washington this season to “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.” Even supporters of the President, such as Patriots owner Robert Craft, rebuked the president for his comments.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for Meet the Press Trump has to be a big enough man to handle people standing up to him.

“If the president’s going to say something condemning a person, an industry, a sport, then he’s got to be able to take the blowback that’s going to come back,” Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for “Meet the Press.”

“So LeBron [James] and Steph and any athlete, any owner, it’s an open door now, and so they have every right for the same reasons to be able to say whatever’s on their mind,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to see if he can take it.”

Unlike previous presidents of both parties, Trump is not good at letting criticism of him and his administration roll off his back to stay focused on his agenda. It’s more personal with him, and that is something Warriors coach Steve Kerr said is a problem for him, and the nation.

Bottom line, NBA players are not going to back off — their base isn’t going to push back against them for their comments. Most are going to nod their heads in agreement. The NBA fan demographic is not the NFL’s. This storyline is far from over.

Three questions the Indiana Pacers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 42-40, swept in the first round

I know what you did last summer: Larry Bird resigned then the Pacers traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, a horrible deal that got the summer off on the wrong track. Indiana also swapped Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis for Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph in order to prevent bottoming out. The Pacers picked T.J. Leaf (No. 18), Ike Anigbogu (No. 47) and Edmond Sumner (No. 52) in the draft.

THREE QUESTIONS THE PACERS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Indiana escape its unsatisfying track? The Pacers are headed toward winning 30-something games, missing the playoffs and picking in the bottom of the lottery. It’s a miserable place to be.

Be just a little better, and they could make the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Be just a little worse, and they could land a premier draft pick.

Either direction is preferable to the apparent status quo.

The Pacers clearly don’t want to tank. Hence, their offseason strategy. But if the season goes south quickly, they could embrace losing by trading veterans and/or giving more minutes to young players.

Competing for the playoffs is a little trickier, but Indiana has enough veterans where that could take care of itself. The odds are against it, but this team is capable of sneaking in with the right breaks.

2) Can Victor Oladipo handle the expectations thrust upon him? Oladipo didn’t choose to return to the basketball-crazed state where he starred in college. He didn’t ask to be the Pacers’ main return for Paul George.

But here he is.

Oladipo is a solid player, and at 25, he might still be improving. He’ll have to in order to justify the George trade (and maybe even his four-year, $84 million contract extension that kicks in this season).

No longer playing with Russell Westbrook should help. Oladipo regressed while trying to play a spot-up role next to the Oklahoma City superstar last season. Indiana needs Oladipo to be more aggressive with the ball, a role that better suits him. Whether he’s good enough to handle those responsibilities on a good team is another question entirely, though.

3) Will Myles Turner break out? With George gone, Turner is now the Pacers’ franchise player (ignoring how the team might market Oladipo, who returns after starring with the Hoosiers).

Turner has all the potential to be a modern rim-protecting, 3-point-shooting center. He can get more comfortable beyond the arc. He must fine-tune his defense. But all the future looks bright for the 21-year-old.

He was intriguing as a rookie then even better last year. How steeply Turner continues to ascend will play a major role in whether Indiana exceeds expectations this season – and how its rebuild looks beyond.