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.

Mike Conley does not crush Knicks free agent dreams, says everything on table

Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) gestures after making a 3-point basket in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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When you talk about the most underrated players in the NBA, especially with the casual fan, Mike Conley is at the top of the list. The Grizzlies’ point guard has played at an All-Star level for a few seasons now but hasn’t gotten the recognition, in part because it’s Memphis and in part because the West is stacked with quality point guards.

The New York Knicks desperately need an upgrade at the point.

Which has led to the latest fantasy of seemingly every Knick fan (and talking head in the city) — the free agent Conley coming to New York this summer. When asked about it Friday before the Grizzlies and Knicks squared off, Conley didn’t kill the rumors (which in New York is like throwing gasoline on them). Here are his quotes, via Ian Begley of ESPN.

“I think everything will be on the table when that time comes,” Conley said Friday morning after the Grizzlies’ shootaround at Madison Square Garden. “I haven’t committed to anything…

“They’ve got talent, obviously,” he said. “I think [Kristaps] Porzingis surprised a lot of people. He’s going to be very, very good in this league. He already is pretty good. But he’s going to grow each year, and they already have one of the best small forward in Melo [Carmelo Anthony]. They’ve got a young team, so they’ve got a lot of room to improve.”

The smart money is on Conley staying in Memphis, the only NBA team he has ever played for. Conley was very active last summer in recruiting Marc Gasol to remain in Memphis, and has said it would be very difficult to leave him. Plus the Grizzlies can offer more money — one more guaranteed year plus larger raises.

The Knicks will need to lose some salary before July 1 just to offer Conley a max, which likely starts around $24 million (depends on the final salary cap number). What the Knicks can offer is a larger stage for his brand and the chance to bring that brand out of the shade of Gasol and Zach Randolph.

Conley — who is averaging 14.6 points and 6.1 assists per game, is shooting 35 percent from three, is good on the pick-and-roll, plus is one of the best defensive point guards in the game — will have plenty of other suitors as well. He’s one of the best players on the free agent market this summer.

NBA GM: Warriors ‘leaders in the clubhouse’ for Kevin Durant

Oklahoma City Thunder Kevin Durant, left, drives the ball against Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green (23) and Andre Iguodala (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Kevin Durant to the Warriors is having a moment, but even the most recent and most credible report linking the Thunder star to Golden State contained an important caveat:

Make no mistake: Durant isn’t close to gone in Oklahoma City – no decision, no leaning, sources said

Nobody has credibly reported Durant is leaning toward leaving the Thunder. The issue at hand is where Durant would go IF he leaves Oklahoma City.

Except one NBA general manager has gone a step further.

Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:

General managers know a lot of things we don’t, but like anyone, they can also be prone to repeating gossip and hearsay. Does this general manager have inside info, or is he just participating the echo chamber? Impossible to say, but the possibility of the former raises the level of intrigue.

Of course, the Warriors can’t be the leaders in the clubhouse, because they’re not in the clubhouse. Free agency doesn’t begin until July. Nobody has made their final pitch, not even the Thunder.

It’s fun to make bold predictions now, and this general manager has a chance of looking genius. But sometimes the desire for that designation causes people to get ahead of themselves.

Report: Clippers quickly rebuffed interest after Nuggets called about Blake Griffin

Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) gets tied up near the basket by Denver Nuggets forward J.J. Hickson (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, April 13, 2015, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 110-103. (Michael Goulding/The Orange County Register via AP)   MAGS OUT; LOS ANGELES TIMES OUT
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Here was my gut feel on a report that the Clippers had talked to the Nuggets about trading Blake Griffin to Denver:

1. Nuggets calling Clippers about Griffin

2. Clippers saying they’re not interested

3. Nuggets leaking the fact that Griffin trade talks happened with the Clippers – technically true! – to excite their fan base and potential free agents considering whether or not to take Denver seriously

Dan Woike of The Orange County Register:

https://twitter.com/DanWoikeSports/status/695691007053070336

Woike is the more reliable source of information here. I believe that’s all this was.

The Clippers probably shouldn’t sell low on Griffin now. But if the Nuggets made a truly reasonable offer based on Griffin’s peak value – and I doubt they did – it also wouldn’t hurt to consider it.

LeBron James wants to leave Hack-a-Shaq rules as they are

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives on Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.  (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he increasingly believes the league should change its Hack-a-Shaq rules this offseason.

LeBron James – who has the commissioner’s ear on a number of issues – disagreed.

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

“I don’t really see a problem with it,” James said at shootaround Friday in preparation for the Celtics. “At the end of the day, it’s a strategy of the game and whatever it takes to win. If that’s a part of the game, and you have a guy that is a bad free-throw shooter and you put him on the line, that’s a part of strategy.”

“That’s no different from a guy that can’t shoot well from the outside and you try to make him shoot bad from outside, or if a guy is turnover-prone and you put pressure on him. It’s all part of strategy. It’s no different,” he said.

There is a difference – a big one.

Hacking someone takes no basketball skill.

I could intentionally foul DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond. I could not keep a bad NBA outside shooter from getting into the paint. I could not force a turnover-prone NBA player into coughing up the ball.

There’s nothing wrong with exploiting an opponent’s weakness, but with the exception of hacking, that takes ability of your own.

Hacking is an outlier strategy, and as a result, it deserves special treatment in the rulebook.