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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.

Timberwolves new CEO knows exactly what he’s getting into

This 2016 image provided by the San Francisco 49ers shows Ethan Casson posed at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. In 1998, Casson called sports teams all over the country asking to get a foot in the door. The Minnesota Timberwolves answered, giving him an entry-level position. Almost 20 years later, Casson returns to the franchise as the team's new CEO hoping to help a team that has struggled on the business side almost as much as it has on the court. (Terrell Lloyd/The San Francisco 49ers via AP)
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) In the winter of 1998, Ethan Casson started calling professional franchise after professional franchise, begging them to get his foot in the door in any capacity.

One night, a human resources employee for the Minnesota Timberwolves picked up the phone and Casson talked his way into a meeting. He flew from the East Coast, met with several Timberwolves executives and, during the third quarter of a game against the Golden State Warriors, was offered an entry-level position on the business side of the operation at $24,000 per year.

“To think that what started as a cold call of me begging an HR person to let me come in and prove my worth 18 years later turned into me coming back as a CEO is amazing and certainly very special to me,” Casson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Casson had to sell his car and some other possessions to raise the money to pay for his move from Boston to the Twin Cities, but the leap of faith has paid off. Six years after he left the Timberwolves to climb the ladder with the San Francisco 49ers, he is returning as CEO to breathe new life into one of the NBA’s struggling operations.

Timberwolves President Chris Wright remembered the impression Casson left in those first face-to-face meetings.

“I told him we’re going to find a place for you in this franchise because you are exactly the type of person that we want build this franchise around,” Wright said.

Casson’s first stint with the Timberwolves lasted 11 years. He worked his way up to senior vice president of corporate partnerships and met his future wife here before leaving for the 49ers in 2010.

When he arrived in the Bay Area, the once-proud 49ers were in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought. Their revenue had dropped to near the bottom of the league and they were playing in an outdated stadium that couldn’t compete with the shiny new ones popping up around the league. He leaves after helping to secure a 20-year, $220 million naming rights deal with Levi’s for the new stadium and rebuilding the franchise’s business operations.

The Timberwolves have not made the playoffs since 2004, the longest active drought in the league. That futility has contributed significantly to plummeting revenue and a dwindling season ticket base.

“I’m not saying it’s apples to apples, but I certainly feel I’ve been on a six-year journey that involved a lot of similar themes,” Casson said. “And I’ll apply all of those lessons to this next phase of my career.”

Casson replaces Rob Moor, the longtime CEO who stepped aside to work more closely with Wolves owner Glen Taylor’s other business interests. At 42 years old, Casson is part of a youth movement coming into the organization. Taylor also brought in 41-year-old New York real estate mogul Meyer Orbach and 35-year-old Chinese entrepreneur John Jiang as minority owners, and he hopes the three of them help bring a new perspective and energy to the business side that mirrors the vibe youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are bringing to the team.

“I was very aware and respectful that taking on this role wasn’t about coming in and fixing things that were broken,” Casson said. “I don’t look at opportunities like this as somethings not working. I look at it as an opportunity to reset and plot out a different course or a different version of a course that moves the business forward.”

The challenges are real. The Timberwolves’ competitive dormancy buried them in a crowded sports marketplace. Tickets have been hard to sell and the NFL’s Vikings, the NHL’s Wild and MLB’s Twins are competing for the corporate dollars.

“I’ve been here for a long time,” said Wright, who is entering his 25th season with the Wolves. “I’ve tried to do it what I consider the best way for the franchise given all of the different sort of environments we’ve found ourselves in over the last 12 years as we’ve not been making the playoffs. And I think Ethan is going to just bring a completely fresh, new look to all of that and lead us in the direction we need to be as a club in the 21st century.”

The Wolves have one of the most promising young cores in the league, a brand new practice facility in downtown Minneapolis and have begun renovations on the dusty Target Center.

“There’s a lot of momentum in and around the organization that made it very exciting for me as a fan and now as someone who is coming back as CEO,” he said. “That will come and go. The renovation will eventually be complete. The team will stabilize and be competitive. You still have to make sure the business model is sustainable and drivable. That’s what we’re going to be.”

Joel Embiid arm wrestled Justin Bieber in a club? Yup. There is video.

THERMAL, CA - APRIL 16:  Professional basketball player Joel Embiid attends the Levi's Brand and RE/DONE Levi's presents NEON CARNIVAL with Tequila Don Julio on April 16, 2016 in Thermal, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Tequila Don Julio)
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Joel Embiid is officially 7’0″ tall and 250 pounds, although when you see him in person now that number seems low, he looks thicker and stronger.

Justin Bieber is a 5’9″ waiflike person.

So of course, they arm wrestled at the club Hyde in Los Angeles. It went about as you’d expect. Here is some video, hat tip to Dan Devine at Ball Don’t Lie (arguably the best arm wrestler in the NBA media).

If you’re about to make an “at least Embiid didn’t get hurt” joke, be more creative.

Hopefully, we get to see what Embiid can do on the court this fall, where the competition will be a lot tougher than any Canadian pop star.

Larry Sanders asks in Twitter poll what team he should play for next season

Larry Sanders
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Larry Sanders is talking about getting back into the NBA. He walked away in 2015 to say he needed to deal with anxiety and depression, to find a balance in his life. Recently he told Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders this:

“But I feel like I’m in a much better place right now and I’m equipped to be able to put myself in that situation again.”

But where? A lot of teams could use an athletic big who averaged 1.4 blocks per game over the five years he was in the NBA, although with the conservative nature of NBA front offices they will not want to take much risk (Golden State reportedly thought about it and decided not to offer him a contract).

Sanders decided to ask Twitter where he should go, putting Twitter’s poll feature to good use.

The question becomes, where is there mutual interest from any of these teams?

If Sanders and his agent can win a team over in an interview, the contract will be small and the number of guaranteed years is not exceeding one (if even that). From the perspective of an NBA team, Sanders has to prove himself again.

But never underestimate how many chances big men get in this league.

(Hat tip Eye on Basketball)

Warriors’ just re-signed Anderson Varejao leaves Brazil to have back examined in USA

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16: Anderson Varejao #18 of the Golden State Warriors warms up prior to Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers 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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Anderson Varejao was spending the past couple days helping his nation prepare to host the 2016 Olympics in less than two weeks, including carrying the Olympic flame.

#tochaolimpica #varejao #olimpiadas #rio2016 #brazil #sampacool 😍⚾⛳🎾⚽🏀🏁🏂🏆🏊🏇

A video posted by Marcus Bado (@marcusbado) on

But now he is on his way back to the United States to have his chronically bad back examined. Again. From Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group.

The Warriors re-signed Varejao on a one-year, veteran minimum contract where he will make $980,431. He is expected to back up Zaza Pachulia at the five spot, although his run would have been limited (which is good, he’s not terribly effective anymore).

A variety of injuries — back, Achilles, wrist — have meant the most games Varejao has played in a season since the 2010-11 season is 65. Last season that number was 53, the final 22 of it with the Warriors.

If Varejao can’t go or is limited, the Warriors may look around at other options. But the pickings are slim at this point.