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.

John Wall scores 37 as Wizards down LeBron James, Cavs 127-115

Associated Press
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CLEVELAND (AP) John Wall scored 37 points, Bradley Beal added 27 and the Washington Wizards began a challenging road trip by beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-115 on Saturday night.

Wall scored 18 in the first quarter, when the Wizards shot 82 percent, and Washington held on down the stretch to avenge an overtime loss to the NBA champions last month.

James, who briefly wore goggles to protect an eye injury sustained Friday night, scored 24 and added 11 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving added 23 points and Kevin Love 17 for Cleveland, playing at home for the only time in a seven-game stretch.

Washington’s victory cut Cleveland’s lead in the Eastern Conference to a half-game over idle Boston.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

Associated Press
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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.

Kobe Bryant says he’s “only a phone call away” if organization needs his advice

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For the first time since he walked off the court in his final game, Kobe Bryant was back at Staples Center Friday night.

The reason was Shaquille O’Neal was getting a statue out in front of Staples Center (a building that may not have gotten built without the two of them). The two famed feuders sat next to each other and joked around through the ceremony. Time heals all wounds.

With the new management of the Lakers — specifically Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM — there has been speculation Kobe could take on a role. He’s not looking for something formal, according to reports, but he didn’t say no, either, when asked.

I picture Kobe as a guy who someday buys a team, not a guy who wants to haggle with agents over the details of a contract. He’s not going to take on a day-to-day role, he likes the retired life and what he is building with the Kobe brand.

That said, the Lakers front office can use all the smart voices it can get as they try speed up a rebuild. They should give him a call every once in a while.