Russell Westbrook, Matt Barnes

Lakers-Thunder Western Conference Semifinals Preview: No longer a feel good story

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Two years ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the first-round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs. It was supposed to be a nice learning experience for a team on the rise, a quick lesson from the reigning champs as to how the playoffs work. Instead, the world was introduced to the intensity of the Oklahoma City crowd, and the Lakers generally looked inept in their efforts to dominate the less experienced team. The Lakers went on to win the title, because that’s kind of their thing. Struggle when they don’t have to actually try, then kill everything in front of them once they get going. The league took notice, though, and it was the big step forward for the Thunder into the spotlight.

My, how things have changed.

Now the Thunder enter Monday night as the prohibitive favorite, having handled the Lakers in all but their last meeting, an overtime home win for the Lakers that featured Metta World Peace taking out the Thunder’s third best player. The student has become the master, so to speak. But can they win out over the more experienced team, with Kobe Bryant and a huge size advantage?

Five things to note as the series kick off.

1. If You Want Blood,  You Got It: This thing is no longer a friendly little-brother thing. It’s a full-blown rivalry. The Thunder have taken it to the Lakers, and James Harden was actually talking trash to Kobe Bryant in a Thunder win earlier this season. You know, the one before Metta World Peace “accidentally” elbowed him in the side of the head giving him a concussion. Kendrick Perkins has had an issue with Andrew Bynum for years dating back to his Boston days. Serge Ibaka goes at Pau Gasol, and Kevin Durant hates being guarded by MWP. The Lakers will always think they rule the roost and the Thunder just knocked off the Mavericks who tossed them last year. They have something to prove. This is going to be a rough series with emotions running high in the madhouse that is Chesapeake Energy Arena

2. On Guard: Anyone else notice that Ty Lawson destroyed the Lakers? Because Ty Lawson destroyed the Lakers. The Lakers have lacked a good perimeter defender for point guards for years. Ramon Sessions has not helped the situation. Russell Westbrook is the same model as Lawson, fast and explosive, only maybe faster, definitely more explosive, and a better overall scorer. In the 2010 series, Kobe Bryant switched onto Westbrook and did the lion’s share on him. The problem with that is that James Harden has stepped up and become the playmaker that OKC needs as a third option. If Bryant handles Westbrook, they’re just letting Harden loose. Switch MWP onto Harden to defend him without elbowing him, and there’s that problem of Kevin Durant. Someone’s going to get loose for OKC. It’s just a matter of the Lakers picking their poison.

3. Big And Bad And Lazy All Over: Kendrick Perkins does really well against huge athletic centers. But Andrew Bynum’s size is still going to win out most times… if he exerts himself. Bynum could have ended the Nuggets series in five games had he tried. He chose not to, and the series went to seven. How much effort will he give in this series? Likewise, Serge Ibaka is going to have a hard time with Pau Gasol who can shoot over him from mid-range which is where Ibaka struggles. If Gasol is engaged, which again, flip a coin, the Lakers have so much length they can punish the Thunder inside. If not, the game becomes about transition and perimeter and that’s where the Thunder live.

4. Unlikely Heroes: The playoffs have been rife with unlikely heroes. Among these was Steve Blake, hitting five threes in Game 7 vs. Denver. Can the Lakers get great shooting from Blake and MWP over the course of a series despite all evidence to the contrary outside of Game 7? Can Daequan Cook or Thabo Sefolosha makes plays? What about Jordan Hill? No, seriously, what about Jordan Hill? This series is likely to be close and whoever gets a step up from the unlikely guys may come out on top.

5. The Finest Hour: Kobe Bryant was magnificent in Game 6 in a lost cause. In Game 7, he played in the flow of the offense and encouraged his teammates to do their job. Kevin Durant struggled early on vs. the Mavericks before breaking loose. This series is about two evenly matched teams with history and talented rosters. But it’s about Kobe vs. Durant. The Thunder don’t have a defender like MWP to stick on Bryant, but Durant is the best scorer in the series. Either Bryant is going to add to his already insane legend, or Durant’s going to make the biggest statement of his.

Jeanie Buss on Phil Jackson: “He’s committed to New York for many years”

Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, left, sits next to Phil Jackson, right, president of the New York Knicks, during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the Knicks and the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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There were good reasons Luke Walton wanted five fully-committed years from the Lakers on his coaching contract. The Lakers’ current front office doesn’t exactly project stability, Luke wanted some insurance.

The most commonly mentioned front office scenario for Los Angeles is that next summer Jim Buss steps aside after another rough season for the Lakers, and in the summer of 2017 — when he has an out in his New York deal — Jeanie Buss brings in Phil Jackson to take over the Lakers basketball side and save the franchise.

Who says no to that? Well to start, Buss. Here is what she said on ESPN Radio with Ramona Shelburne and Michelle Beadle:

“No,” Buss said, “To visit, yes..but in terms of basketball, he’s committed to New York for many years. He’s building something there. He has a mission, he’s on that journey to get the team back to where he believes it can be and it will be. He’s a former Knick…he loves New York, he loves the fans, he wants to make them proud. In terms of the Lakers, we have a front office. They’re putting together a team…they have a vision. I’m excited to see what the future holds for us. So, to answer your question….no, there’s no plans for Phil to come back here.”

On one hand, what else is Buss going to say? “Sure, I plan to force my brother out of power and bring in my fiance to run the team next summer, it’s all very Shakespearean isn’t it?”

That said, I do tend to believe her (at least that there is not a master plan), and if I were a Laker fan I’d be okay with this. The Knicks have gotten better under Jackson and did draft Kristaps Porzingis, but Jackson also hired Derek Fisher, and was wed to the triangle until that was forced out of his hands and he hired Jeff Hornacek as coach. Now comes Jackson’s biggest test as the guy in the big chair because there is some serious roster work to do with the Knicks (starting with finding a point guard who can play up-tempo). Jackson has kept owner James Dolan at arm’s length from basketball decisions, which is worth every penny he is getting paid, but he’s not been brilliant.

If and when Jim Buss moves out of basketball operations, the Lakers will have options as one of the premier GM jobs in the NBA. They likely can do better than Jackson.

Pau Gasol considering skipping Olympics because of Zika

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 29:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Chicago Bulls watches the action during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 29, 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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MADRID (AP) — Pau Gasol is considering not playing at the Olympics because of the Zika virus.

The Spanish basketball player said Monday there is too much uncertainty about the situation in Brazil and anyone going to Rio de Janeiro for the games should “think about” whether it’s worth the risk.

The Chicago Bulls player said other Spanish athletes have also expressed their concerns about the virus and are also considering skipping the games.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see some athletes deciding not to participate in the games to avoid putting their health and the health of their families at risk,” Gasol said, adding that he was among the athletes making such considerations.

“I’m thinking about (whether or not to go),” he said. “Just like every athlete, or any other person considering going to Rio, should be thinking about it.”

Without giving names, Gasol said he talked to other athletes who told him they may not participate in the games.

“Some of these athletes are planning to have children in the near future and this could affect them, it could affect the health of their kids and their wives,” he said at an event for one of his sponsors in Madrid. “Their health should come first.”

Brazil has been badly hit by Zika, the mosquito-borne virus linked to severe birth defects and possible neurological problems in adults.

Gasol said officials involved in the games must come forward with “more clear information” about the risks athletes could be facing if they decide to compete in Rio.

“I hope the national Olympic committees and the health organizations can be as clear as possible about the risks in Brazil so athletes can decide whether or not to take risks,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve been told enough about it.”

Gasol mentioned the call from 150 health specialists to consider postponing or moving the Aug. 5-21 Olympics, something the World Health Organization rejected last week.

“We need to understand the seriousness of the situation,” Gasol said. “Even though there are some soothing words being said, we know that there are different opinions about the subject.”

Gasol said he is being proactive and has been trying to gather as much information as possible about the virus and the risks it could pose for himself and his family. He said he has contacted experts in the area to try to know more about the virus.

“I feel responsible to know more about the situation and to inform everyone about it,” he said. “It’s important to talk openly about this. It’s a very delicate situation.”

Gasol helped Spain win the silver medal at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on Warriors-Thunder Game 7: ‘We just want the winner’

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23:  Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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LeBron James didn’t get his wish – Dwyane Wade and the Heat – for the Eastern Conference finals.

In advance of tonight’s Warriors-Thunder Game 7, his coach isn’t specifying a preferred NBA Finals opponent.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

“We just want the winner,” Lue said. “Just whoever wins. We’re preparing for both and after tonight we will get a chance to see who we finally play.”

This seems like the wrong approach. I’d rather face the loser. That team is likely more beatable. Alas, it doesn’t work that way. Lue is accepting the inevitable.

The Warriors would probably be the tougher matchup. They’ve been the better team all season and would put Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love into a ton of pick-and-rolls. It’s a great offensive matchup for Stephen Curry. But beating Golden State – the defending champions with a 73-9 record – would bring greater glory and personal redemption to LeBron, who clearly views the Warriors as an outlier.

The Thunder would be no pushovers, but Cleveland would have a better chance of winning. Even with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City just hasn’t played as well as Golden State over a long stretch.

This is obviously a discussion only for fun. The Cavs have no say in their Finals opponent. The Warriors and Thunder will decide that tonight.

Report: Lakers ‘aren’t that high’ on DeMar DeRozan

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 07:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors is fouled by Robert Sacre #50 of the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA game at the Air Canada Centre on December 07, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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DeMar DeRozan sounds like he wants to re-sign with the Raptors, and Toronto wants him back.

But what about those Lakers rumors?

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report, via Noah Coslov of Bleacher Report Radio:

I’m breaking up with you.

No, I’m breaking up with you first.