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.

Watch 50 top clutch shots of last NBA season

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There are 1,230 NBA games in a season, and decent amount of those come down to which team executes better in a close game late. (By the way, the best teams don’t win the most close games, the best teams have the most blowouts and aren’t in as many close games.)

What that means is there are a lot of game winners, a lot of clutch shots every season. The folks at NBA.com compiled them for you, and what else do you have to do on a Sunday night but watch 13 minutes of them.

Yes, there is plenty of Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook in this one, but the clutch shot of the season belonged to Kyrie Irving.

Jason Terry chose Bucks because he wants to play, not just mentor

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 27:  Jason Terry #31 of the Houston Rockets dribbles the ball against the Golden State Warriors in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on April 27, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Jason Terry has talked about reaching out to multiple teams, including contenders, during free agency before settling on the Milwaukee Bucks. When he talked about why the Bucks, he spoke of believing in what Jason Kidd was building.

There may have been another reason: Minutes.

From Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times:

Some NBA officials contend he signed with Milwaukee and rejected overtures from a handful of teams, including the reigning NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, because of potential playing time.

“He wants his minutes,’’ said an NBA executive, whose team had shown some interest in signing Terry. “He didn’t go there (Milwaukee) to sit on the bench.’’

Terry’s agent denied this, saying he wanted to be part of the Bucks.

If minutes was a key part of his decision, so what? Guys choose teams for money (usually), wins, to play with friends, lifestyle, and weather, plus other reasons — how much run they get is in that mix. It’s never just one thing. And playing time matters.

No doubt Terry will get run with the Bucks behind Matthew Dellavedova, although Giannis Antetokounmpo with the ball as point guard is what is going to make this team fun to watch.

Report: Other league executives don’t expect DeMarcus Cousins to stay in Sacramento

SACRAMENTO, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings stands on the court during their game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Sleep Train Arena on February 26, 2016 in Sacramento, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The vultures have been circling.

Other teams have called Sacramento GM Vlade Divac since the day he took office to inquire about the availability of DeMarcus Cousins — however, only George Karl took those calls and tried to run with it. The Kings know they have a franchise player, the best traditional center in the game right now, in Cousins and that is hard to come by. While it may not be easy — Cousins has always been demanding of those around him — they need to make it work.

Enter coach Dave Joerger, the guy who had success with difficult personalities in Memphis and got that team to the conference finals a couple of times.

Cousins has this season and next on his deal, and around the league the conventional wisdom is he bolts when this contract is up (hence the trade calls). Here is what one executive told Zach Harper of CBSSports.com.

“They’re fooling themselves if they think he’s sticking around,” said one league executive. “The good news for them is his value will always be high. There isn’t a point of no return in which you’re not getting high value for him. Teams will bid against each other in the trade market. Maybe [Cousins] doesn’t go for the biggest money in free agency but you’d love to have that card to play.”

The Kings aren’t giving up on being able to keep Cousins. They hope Joerger, the Olympics experience, some winning, a new building, and a trip to the playoffs will have Cousins thinking Sacramento is his home, where he wants to stay and build something.

I’d be surprised if the Kings seriously considered any move before next summer. But if Divac and company get the sense after this contract that they may not be able to keep Cousins — and let’s be clear, up to this point the organization has given him little reason to put his faith in them, Cousins is not unreasonable here — they have to make a move. This is not Oklahoma City where they can just turn the team over to Russell Westbrook, if Cousins goes it’s a rebuild in Sacramento (for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade).

Celtics fans (and the rest of you convinced Cousins is coming your way), you need to wait it out. This is not going to be some quick move this summer.

But the vultures are circling.

Harrison Barnes says Mavericks are Nowitzki’s team, he has to prove himself to German

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors shoots the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Harrison Barnes is the new gun in Dallas — a four years, $94 million contract says so. Dallas is betting the No. 4 option in the Warriors attack is ready to blossom as the No. 1 option with the Mavericks.

But make no mistake, the Mavs are still Dirk Nowitzki‘s team.

Barnes knows it and told Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News he has to prove himself.

“Out of respect, this is Dirk’s team,” Barnes said. “He’s put in the years and won a championship. But I have to go out and earn that. People assume that just because you get paid a lot of money and have a lot of attention that all of the sudden you’re guaranteed this many shots. I have to prove that every day in practice. I have to prove that to the coaching staff, and ultimately, if I’m going to be the guy taking shots, I’ve got to prove it to Dirk.

“You have to have that balance of scoring and playmaking, and learn how to be a closer. I think that’s the beauty of it, that I get to learn from one of the best to ever do it in Dirk Nowitzki. You talk about guys closing games, he’s got to be top-five all time. I’m just looking forward to learning from that guy.”

That’s exactly what he’s supposed to say. Well done by Barnes.

There is going to be an adjustment period in Dallas. Barnes may be able to handle being a No. 1 option — don’t let his rough Finals or riding the bench in the Olympics cloud your judgement — but we will have a better sense of that in February and March rather than November. He needs time to grow.

By the way, good on Mark Cuban for using the cap space he had to make Nowitzki the highest paid player on the team at $25 million — reward the guy who has been loyal to you.