Westbrook, Durant find the perfect balance in Game 4 win over Lakers

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During the Thunder’s playoff run last season — one that ended in a loss in the Conference Finals to the eventual champion Mavericks — there were constant questions about whether or not Russell Westbrook was a good long-term fit to play alongside Kevin Durant.

One year later, now on the verge of taking down the Lakers after a come-from-behind Game 4 victory, the only question now is which one of the Thunder’s stars you want to beat you, and at which time.

Westbrook finished with 37 points, while Durant finished things off with a game-winning three-pointer to lift OKC to a 3-1 series lead — one that gives their team a chance to return to the Conference Finals with a win at home Monday night.

The Thunder can feel as good about this victory as any thus far in the postseason, for the simple fact that they took the best shot that this Lakers team had to give, and they were able to not only withstand it, but overcome it. And much of the credit for that should go to Westbrook.

“KD got his numbers, but Westbrook had a heck of a game,” Lakers head coach Mike Brown noted afterward. “I thought he stepped up and he made plays. He imposed his will on the game and he made plays, especially when it counted in the fourth quarter.”

The Lakers got a monstrous performance from Andrew Bynum (10 points, 5-of-5 shooting) in the game’s first 12 minutes that sparked them early. Kobe Bryant then got going midway through the second period, and put on a clinic during the third, scoring 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting, often while double-teamed, and always while making the conversion of tough shots seem effortless.

As the Lakers built a lead that hung around 10 points for most of the night, Westbrook made sure it never got out of hand. He had eight points to help match Bynum’s 10 in the first, and 13 to go with Bryant’s 15 in the third.

“My job was to try to keep us in the game, regardless of what was going on” Westbrook said. “I was kind of upset because we weren’t able to get a stop. It kind of felt like, we’re down 10, eight, 10, eight … we just kept going back and forth. So it was kind of frustrating at the same time.”

As recently as a few short days into this lockout-shortened season back in December, Westbrook was frustrated not with his opponent, but with Durant in particular — or maybe, in the grander scheme of things, with his perceived position and role on his team.

There was the so-called “altercation” between Westbrook and Durant, the one where reporters caught them jawing during a timeout in a sideline huddle where the two reportedly had to be separated. That caused quite a stir at the time, and had even the most respected writers wondering if Westbrook playing alongside Durant would ever work in OKC.

It appeared to be an evolution from the previous season — one where the questions of whether or not Westbrook shot too much to his team’s detriment, or whether he deferred enough to Durant were constant topics for discussion.

On this Saturday night in May in Los Angeles, those questions may have once and for all been put to rest. Because even as Westbrook was the one who scored consistently from wire to wire to keep his team close, Durant happily stepped in when his opportunity came to close the game out.

The two worked masterfully together, and coexisted to perfection. There was no exasperation from Durant when he didn’t see the ball for extended stretches, as Westbrook delivered time and again with an array of pull-up jumpers and lightning-quick bursts of speed to the rim for bucket after bucket.

Westbrook wouldn’t be able to take this position of leadership on the team — even if only for games or stretches within them — if not for Durant’s mentoring him along the way.

“It’s definitely helped me,” Westbrook said of the criticisms he’s received in the past. “Last year we got put out in the Conference Finals, I was definitely disappointed in that. Coming into this year, I wanted to try to help my team and become a better leader. Kevin’s done a great job of helping me out and staying positive, regardless of what’s going on throughout the game; giving me confidence, and that’s just how I feel during the playoffs.”

The reason the Lakers lost this game was due to a complete offensive breakdown in the fourth quarter. There was too much of Bryant taking tough, contested shots, while the offense that was so fluid for most of the night turned stagnant.

With Westbrook and Durant, it was the opposite.

Simply put, Durant stayed ready and engaged while Westbrook went to work. And having two incredible athletes who are equal parts scorer and playmaker are a deadly one-two punch that now looks like a combination that will need to be reckoned with by any team with championship aspirations.

The questions being asked in Oklahoma City will no longer involve Westbrook and Durant, and whether or not the two can successfully make things work. All fans want to know now is whether the Thunder’s first trip to the NBA Finals will come this season, or if they’ll have to wait just a little longer for the inevitable to take place.

Report: Even after Kyrie Irving requests trade, Carmelo Anthony still focused on Rockets, not Cavaliers

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Carmelo Anthony was reportedly willing to waive his no-trade clause for the Rockets or Cavaliers. Cleveland never seemed overly interested, but Houston was. Anthony became set on the Rockets, even reportedly expecting a trade to Houston.

Then, Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cavs.

That has thrown everything for a loop. Maybe Cleveland is more keen on trading for Anthony now? The Knicks are reportedly interested in trading Anthony and draft picks for Irving.

But any deal still depends on Anthony’s approval, and it’s now unclear he’d still grant that for the Cavaliers.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

However, a source close to Anthony said late Friday that the All Star forward is focused on getting a deal done with Houston.

Consider this another indication LeBron James will leave Cleveland next summer. Of course, Anthony might have other reasons for preferring Houston. But when reading tea leaves on LeBron’s future, this is a clue.

I doubt LeBron has completely decided his plan, and he hasn’t even necessarily shared his thinking with Anthony, a close friend. Remember, LeBron edited his coming-home essay while on a flight with an unknowing Dwyane Wade, another close friend. But it was one thing for LeBron to strand Wade in Miami, a desirable city where Wade was happy even before LeBron arrived. It’d be something else entirely for LeBron to ditch Anthony in Cleveland. If LeBron is considering leaving, maybe he’d tell Anthony to stay clear.

Anthony could also be operating without hearing directly from LeBron. But if LeBron’s friend believes LeBron might leave, that’d still say something (though obviously not as much).

Back to the possibility that Anthony prefers the Rockets for other reasons. What happens if New York and Cleveland agree to a trade? Does Anthony still hold out for his top choice? Or does he relent and accept what was once his second choice? For now, it seems as if he’s still angling for Houston and will cross other bridges if he reaches them.

DeMarre Carroll: I fit better with Nets than ball-stopping Raptors

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DeMarre Carroll – after being traded from Toronto to Brooklyn – said some Raptors players didn’t trust their teammates. That’s the type of lightening-rod statement that often creates more controversy and/or comes across more harshly than the speaker intended. So, representative of his true feelings or not, he usually tries to walk it back.

Not Carroll, who mostly doubled down.

Carroll, via Brian Lewis of the New York Post:

Carroll, who will make $30 million over the next two seasons, admitted he wasn’t fit for Toronto’s isolation-heavy offense, that he is a role player at his best when his team moves the ball.

“Yeah, that’s definitely fair to say. I had my share of iso already, so team-ball is my forte,” said Carroll, who said it was effective with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. “You got two great All-Stars, two great players. That’s how they play. They were playing that way before I came, and they’re going to be playing that way long after I leave. They’re not changing that for me.”

“I give credit to Masai: He helped me find a team,’’ Carroll said. “Me coming from a system in Atlanta where the team is about moving the ball, we felt like it wasn’t a fit. I’m not an iso player by any means. I’m definitely a role player and for me to be the best role player I need to be on a team that shares the ball.

Carroll did emphasize more this time that an isolation system is more effective with Lowry and DeRozan. Some might even argue that system is more necessary considering the talent disparity between Toronto’s stars and their teammates – like Carroll. Carroll’s scoring prowess is more similar to the other Nets, which makes great ball movement more effective. If Lowry’s and DeRozan’s teammates were equally as good as those two, Lowry and DeRozan might pass more.

It’s a tough equilibrium to strike, and the Raptors probably haven’t yet. After multiple playoff disappointments, they’re trying for a a “culture reset” that includes more passing. It’s a big shift for a team and stars with such established identities.

Count Carroll among those doubting they’ll truly change their approach.

New Knicks GM Scott Perry: I haven’t met with James Dolan yet

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Knicks fans clamored for years for owner James Dolan to stop meddling. Dolan finally listened, handing the keys to the franchise to Phil Jackson then stepping away – another big error by the error-prone owner.

Then, Knicks fans clamored for Dolan to fire Jackson. Eventually – and far later than ideal – Dolan got Jackson out of town.

With Steve Mills succeeding Jackson as team president, what is Dolan’s involvement now? New general manager Scott Perry – rather awkwardly – shed light on the situation during an interview with ESPN’s Jemele Hill and Michael Smith.

Via Reed Wallach of Nets Daily:

  • Hill: “It’s still early, but what have your interactions with James Dolan been like?”
  • Perry: “I have not met with him yet, but I’m looking forward to that.”
  • Smith: “You have not met with him since you took the job, you mean?”
  • Perry: “Yes.”
  • Smith: “Gotcha. But obviously you met with him before you took the job?”
  • Perry: “No, I’ve dealt very closely with Steve Mills throughout the process.”
  • Smith: “Oh, it’s really just been Steve?”
  • Perry: “It’s just been – yes. Yes, it has.”

This isn’t necessarily problematic. Did you met with your boss’s boss during the interview process or shortly after being hired? For some jobs, I have. For others, I haven’t.

Though Perry carries the lofty general-manager title, Mills still runs the front office and reports directly to Dolan. I am curious how often Mills interacts with Dolan, though at least Mills is now getting advised from below with Perry.

The last time Mills was left to his own devices, he signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million deal.

Kings finally waive rights to 44-year-old European player they drafted in 1995

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Back in 1995 — while you were listening to Coolio rap “Gangster’s Paradise,” watching the O.J. Simpson trial, and using your cell phone to actually make calls — Sacramento Kings GM Geoff Petrie used a late second round pick on Dejan Bodiroga.

The Serbian point forward — who played for the Serbian national team with Vlade Divac — never came over to the NBA, despite multiple efforts by the Kings, and is still considered one of the better European players never to test the NBA waters. He was a Spanish and Greek league MVP and won multiple titles in European leagues.

Friday, the Kings finally renounced his draft rights.

He’s just 44 and hasn’t played professionally since 2007, are they sure he still couldn’t contribute? (Insert your own Jose Calderon joke here.)

Kings fans on Twitter were awesome.