Kevin Durant, Antawn Jamison

Lakers’ backs against wall after Thunder hands L.A. sixth straight loss

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“I told the team that the biggest thing is that our season starts Sunday,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the latest in a parade of losses. “And we have got one run and have one shot at it and they need to get ready mentally and physically.”

That is the sound of a desperate coach. A coach who knows his team needs wins right now, needs to win two-thirds of its games from here on out to have a chance of even making the playoffs.

Lakers fans have been mentally in that desperate space for a while now, but it felt and sounded like the Lakers team is finally getting there after getting thumped 116-101 by a genuine contender in the Oklahoma City Thunder Friday night. Kevin Durant had a season high 42 points. Russell Westbrook had 27 points and 10 assists. Oklahoma defended, ran the break, executed with crispness, and basically did whatever they wanted. Oklahoma City was up 16 at halftime and the game felt like glorified garbage time in the second half.

The Lakers have plenty of excuses — they were without Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol again in this game, plus now comes the news Jordan Hill will be out for the season with hip surgery. Westbrook’s eyes lit up when asked what it was like to turn the corner and not see the Lakers’ seven-footers protecting the rim, but he caught himself and just said it was “different.”

“It’s true, but people aren’t going to remember all the excuses of the season,” said Kobe Bryant, who finished with 28 points but on 8-of-23 shooting.

The Lakers have had injury excuses all season but the fact is with this loss they fall to 15-21. They will need to go better than 30-16 the rest of the way to make the playoffs (that record would get them to 45 wins, which is the lowest number the West’s eighth seed has had in five years). And remember they still have the Grammy road trip ahead of them.

But more than that, Friday night’s drubbing was evidence of just how far away from a contender the Lakers are right now. And how much better the Thunder are even than last season.

Early on, with fresh legs, the Lakers starters hung around in the game. Then the run everyone knew the Thunder would go on came with a Thabo Sefolosha three and a Durant runner in the lane. Suddenly it was a 9-point OKC lead.

But at the end of the first quarter the Lakers fought back to tie it up with a stretch of good defense — an Antawn Jamison steal under the basket, an Earl Clark block of Serge Ibaka, a Kobe steal. They tied the game at 25.

But the problem for the Lakers all season has been the defense has only been good in stretches. Then it goes away.

It went away in the second quarter — Oklahoma City put up 39 points quarter shooting 70 percent. They got shots in the lane, they were draining threes and most of their shots seem to be open ones created off the dribble or with the extra pass. The Thunder shot 59.1 percent for the first half, were up 16 at the break and the game was all over but the shouting.

Durant was 10-of-15 shooting for 25 points in the first half, and he was fired up. He drove around Earl Clark at one point and just threw down a dunk then displayed the kind of anger we don’t usually see from the NBA’s golden child.

“We moved the ball so well,” Durant said. “We were finding open shots, guys were getting into the lane.”

And when that didn’t work, Durant or Westbrook would just blow by their defender off the dribble. Westbrook in particular looked sharp with his game. And the Lakers lacked any real rim protection to slow them.

“Well they have a good team but like I say you can’t expect to be at your best when you don’t have your best players on the floor,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “There is just no way around that. When you get them back it takes time to gel and get rhythm and chemistry.”

The Lakers just don’t have that time anymore. And they know it.

Whether they can do anything about it remains to be seen.

D’Angelo Russell says it’s not easy being patient, waiting his turn behind Kobe

D'Angelo Russell Kobe Bryant
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TORONTO — For the rest of this season, the Los Angeles Lakers are Kobe Bryant‘s team.

Some Lakers’ fans have questioned why Byron Scott is still the coach despite an 11-44 record, and in part it’s because he gives deference to Kobe other coaches might not. Scott was brought in to help sell the Lakers’ history during the final years of Kobe’s career, he has done that. He lets the veteran Kobe do things he will not allow anyone else on the team to do.

Meanwhile, the next generation of Lakers are trying to wait patiently for their turn.

But when asked All-Star Weekend about playing with Kobe (who often has the ball in his hands), Lakers’ rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell didn’t sound patient.

“Honestly, it’s hard,” Russell said of playing with Kobe. “It’s not easy. He’s a guy that’s earned every shot he’s taken, earned every minute he’s given, so you feel like being a rookie, but you feel like you’ve worked to be in his position so early but you’ve just got to be patient.”

There are a couple ways you can look at this.

You can see it as a rookie hungry for minutes, for touches, for the chance to learn by doing. You should like that he has that drive, that confidence that he wants the rock. Russell has had the ball in his hands probably since fourth grade, being bumped down the pecking order — even for Kobe — is an adjustment.

Or, you can see this as a rookie who is a bit full of himself, a bit overconfident, someone who turns the ball over too much and needs to earn those touches. This is more Scott’s thinking.

I’d say a guy that is overconfident as a rookie and wants the ball in his hands sooner rather than later sounds a lot like Kobe.

 

DeMarcus Cousins has spent All-Star Weekend playing defense on trade, George Karl rumors

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 13: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings handles the ball during the Taco Bell Skills Challenge as part of NBA All-Star 2016 on February 13, 2016 at Air Canada Centre 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.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
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TORONTO — DeMarcus Cousins is an All-Star and he just wants to enjoy it. Hang out with other elite players, take part in the Skills Competition, have dinner at Sotto Sotto, play in the ASG itself, chill with friends. Chill being the operative word considering the weather.

But for parts of the weekend, he has had to play defense, swatting away attempts to get him to slam coach George Karl or talk trade rumors that have him leaving Sacramento. Mention his friend Isaiah Thomas making it to All-Star Game and you get the gregarious Cousins, but when the other topics come up you can feel his frustration, and hear it in his clipped answers.

“First of all, I can’t control the trade (rumors) and I can’t control if I’m traded or not…” Cousins said. “But I do want to be in Sacramento, and I know everybody in Sacramento knows that.”

Cousins isn’t getting traded. Teams may call the Kings, but they get shot down quickly (then those teams leak the rumor they called, making them look good to their fan base for trying). For one, the Kings have a franchise cornerstone piece under a reasonable contract, that’s not someone you trade unless forced to. Second, owner Vivek Ranadive loves him. Third, and this is key, the Kings open a new arena in downtown Sacramento next season — you don’t trade your best and most popular player, the face of your marketing program in the city, while you’re trying to sell luxury boxes and sponsorships in a new arena.

Cousins has also batted down questions attempting to get him to slam George Karl.

“I can go long term with any coach, but that’s not my decision….” Cousins said. “He’s a free, open-minded coach, he lets his players play. I think every player appreciates that.”

He was more direct with deserving new basketball Hall of Fame journalist David Aldridge of NBA.com in a video (and he’s laughing more and in more of a joking mood in the video than how this quote reads):

“I’m tired of it. Stop trying to make a story out of it, we’re fine. Our only goal this season is to make the playoffs. That’s it. All the other stuff, just stop, it’s not necessary.”

Undoubtedly there is some tension in and around the organization with Karl, although he will be around through the end of the season. However, the one thing that was clear with this team going back to Summer League — when the core guys bonded on a plane trip together to Las Vegas (and doing the other things one might do in Vegas) — the locker room is pretty solid.

“Throughout all this, the one thing that’s been good about the whole situation is the guys in the locker room stay together,” Cousins said. “There hasn’t been any separation.”

It seems Karl has never found a way to reach and inspire that group.

Ask Cousins about the rest of the season and you get some variation of “just stay positive.” He admits that’s not been easy after some tough losses of late, but it’s what they need to do to make a run.

“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs over the season, but just find a way to remain positive and get over the hump,” he said. 

That may be easier said than done.

But, at least, Cousins will get the chance to enjoy All-Star weekend.

Can we just relive that epic Dunk Contest one more time? Here’s the mixtape.

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TORONTO — Talking to NBA people, fans, and media around Toronto Sunday it seems every conversation starts with some version of “last night’s Dunk Contest was INSANE!

Because it was.

Andre Drummond threw down an impressive two-hand power slam with an assist from soccer playing Steve Nash. Will Barton‘s first dunk might have won him the contest in some weaker years. And we’re not even talking about them because of the eye-popping show that Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine put on.

Before we move on and talk trade rumors or actual All-Star Game, or whatever is coming next, can we just bask in the joy of that dunk contest one more time? The fine folks at NBA.com put together this mixtape version of the Dunk Contest, I’m passing it along.

Savor this people, it doesn’t get any better than what we witnessed Saturday night.

Michael Jordan to Klay Thompson: “Go ahead and break” Bulls’ 72-win record

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 25:  Owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Michael Jordan, watches on during their game against the Washington Wizards at Time Warner Cable Arena on November 25, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NBA - 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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Barring a major injury, it seems almost inevitable at this point that the Warriors will surpass the 1996 Bulls’ record of 72 wins in a season and vault themselves into the conversation of the greatest NBA teams in history. All year, members of that ’96 Bulls team have weighed in comparing the teams, but one guy who hasn’t given his thoughts publicly is Michael Jordan.

Apparently, during All-Star Weekend in Toronto, Jordan gave Klay Thompson his blessing for the Warriors to go for 73. Via CSN’s Rosalyn Gold-Onwude:

Not that the Warriors need anybody’s permission to go after the record, obviously. But it had to be cool for Thompson to hear directly from Jordan that he respects what the Warriors are doing and wants them to break his own record. In all likelihood, they’ll do it.