Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash

The Lakers are right on schedule, but is it too late?

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Picture this: Steve Nash dribbles up court, surveying the floor. As he crosses half court, he maneuvers towards the three point line. Once there, Dwight Howard comes and sets a pick and rolls hard to the basket but doesn’t get the ball. Nash probes the defense, dribbling into the paint and underneath the hoop, spotting Kobe Bryant open on the wing. Kobe raises to shoot a jumper but instead rifles a pass to a wide open Howard under the hoop who catches the pass for a dunk.

Or picture this: Kobe is hounding the opposing point guard full court. Before the ball handler gets to the timeline, he’s been turned multiple times, his pattern up the floor an inefficient zig-zag. With the shot clock winding down, the ball goes to the wing. That player, feeling pressure from Metta World Peace, tries to drive and get a shot off before the help arrives. But Howard swoops in, alters the shot, and then secures the rebound.

Or this: Nash is pushing the ball up court, looking to improvise. Defenders are retreating and recovering to the paint while still trying to find their men in semi-transition. On one wing is Kobe. On the other is Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark. Howard is trailing the action but running well, looking for the ball should the action slow. Nash veers left towards Kobe, but instead fires a pass to Clark. As a defender chases the ball, Clark instantly passes to Jamison in the corner who shoots, and sinks, an uncontested three pointer.

Actually, you don’t have to just picture them — these are sequences from the last three Lakers’ games. It’s the middle of January and they’re finally starting to get it. This is good news, right?

Before the season started, this was the timeline many thought the Lakers would be operating on. With a team of players turned over by half — including some big name acquisitions — they’d need time to find their collective stride. With Howard still recovering from his back surgery, the expectations were that the team would start somewhat slowly. Give them time to heal, to jell, to build up that familiarity that all teams need to reach their peak. Once that happened, they’d start to string together good performances and become a terror that teams would want to avoid.

The Lakers are getting closer to being that team. The defense is improving. The offense, though efficient for the entire season, is staring to show more fluidity. Players are communicating better and seem to be on the same page. And while there are still hurdles to clear — What to do with Pau Gasol? How to mix their lineups effectively? Do they sure up their bench?  — the list of positives with this team is finally starting to outweigh the negatives. They are making progress. Lots of it.

The only problem is the hole they’ve dug themselves in the process of getting to this point. The moral victories are piling up, but the Lakers need real victories to sustain them. They currently sit 5 games below .500 with 17 wins and 22 losses. They’re the 11th seed in the West with only a half a season left to play. So as much as D’Antoni would love to hit the reset button on this season, the Lakers’ season did not, in fact, start this past Sunday.

The time to turn their season around was weeks ago, but is only starting to happen now. Do the Lakers have enough time left?

Over the past 4 seasons, the 8th seed in the Western Conference has averaged 48 wins. For the Lakers to get to that mark, they would need to close with the season with a 31-12 push. Possible? Yes. Plausible? The friendliest response would say maybe. A neutral observer would say it’s pretty unlikely.

There is a formula for the Lakers to reach their goal of making the post-season. If they can get above the .500 mark by the all-star break they’d put themselves in position to make one last push to sneak in as the 8th seed. In Phil Jackson’s last year with the team, the Lakers came out of the all-star break winning 19 of 20 games before injuries saw them sputter into the playoffs. Is this team capable of making that type of push from the middle of February into March?

The way the team is playing now does make it seem anything is possible. If observed in a vacuum, their improvement on offense and recommitment to defense is the foundation of a team that can rattle off a bunch of wins in a short amount of time. Of course, this season isn’t taking place in a vacuum.

Funny how things work. The Lakers are starting to play well, right on the schedule we thought they would. But because of how bad they were to start the year, it may still be too late.

Draymond Green: ‘I’m never going to be careful’

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 22:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second quarter in game three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 22, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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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Draymond Green answered the first three questions he faced today – each about not being suspended for kicking Steven Adams in the groin – with: “That is a great question,” “That is a great question” and “That is a great statement.”

Then, he got a little more revealing.

Green, via Tim Kawakami of Talking Points:

I’m never going to be careful; I’m just going to be me and the game will play out the way it will play out.

Green should be more careful.

1. He’s reached the playoff limit of flagrant-foul points without being suspended. Another flagrant 1 would cost him a game and a flagrant 2 would cost him two games. Even if he didn’t intentionally kick Adams in the groin, doing the exact same thing would draw another flagrant 2. Losing Green for two games would devastate the Warriors.

2. He frequently kicks out his legs on drives. It might be more remarkable he didn’t hurt anyone before this. if you take Green at his word – and I do on this – he doesn’t want to see anyone injured. He can do his part to decrease the odds of someone getting hurt.

There’s a way for Green to play with passion/swagger/emotion/tenacity while being careful, at least careful enough to avoid being reckless. He needs to find the line.

Report: James Borrego gets second interview with Rockets, including owner Leslie Alexander

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 09: Interim head coach James Borrego of the Orlando Magic looks on during a first half timeout against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on February 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. 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 Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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The Rockets were reportedly considering Mike D’Antoni or Stephen Silas (with Lionel Hollins as lead assistant) to be their head coach.

Then, they interviewed James Borrego and Adrian Griffin.

Apparently, those late interviews carried weight.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Leslie Alexander is getting involved in this process, apparently kiboshing Jeff Van Gundy. If Borrego is meeting with Alexander, that means something.

Borrego failed to impress during his interim stint with the Magic, but that might mean nothing more than that. Running a team from the start is different than taking over midseason.

The Rockets will surely ask about his experience in Orlando, and he’s getting a couple chances to explain it – and why his experience with the Spurs prepared him for this opportunity.

Warriors/Thunder Game 4 preview: Which small ball lineup wins?

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 22:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors shoots against Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in game three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 22, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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I wouldn’t say this is a must-win game for either team, but it’s standing next to must win with its arm around it. The Warriors don’t want to be down 3-1, it’s hard to picture them winning three straight in this series. The Thunder don’t want to have a 2-2 series with two games left at Oracle, where it will be difficult to win again. Here are four questions where the answer will help determine the outcome of this game, and maybe the series.

1) Which small ball lineup wins? Going into the series, I thought the Thunder would stay with bigger lineups because they didn’t want to go small and try to out Warrior the Warriors. Except that’s exactly what they did in Game 3 and they won definitively. Lineups with Kevin Durant at the four (with Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Serge Ibaka all getting time at center) where quicker, allowed for more switching, and it allowed the Thunder to get out and run more — and run it right down the throat of the Warriors small ball lineup. Golden State’s “death lineup” was -22, and Steve Kerr was right in saying that lineup (and the starters in general) tried to isolate against defensive mismatches rather than keeping the ball moving, they settled for quick shots, and the Warriors offense stagnated.

The key to the small ball lineup for the Thunder is the same that has driven the success of the Warriors’ small ball for the past two seasons — they still played great defense. The Thunder are long and athletic on the perimeter, but the combination of Durant and Adams or Ibaka still did a fantastic job of protecting the rim. Those stops turned into transition buckets the other way — Russell Westbrook and the Thunder players attacked the rim, and the Warriors played some of the worst transition defense we have seen from them. It may well come down to this again in Game 4: Which team’s small unit does a better job defensively, then can convert those stops into buckets at the other end.

2) Can Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters have another big game for Oklahoma City? The Warriors’ defensive strategy this series has been to ignore Roberson, put a rim-protecting big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green) and let them patrol the paint, daring Roberson to shoot and beat them. In Game 3, he was 3-of-5 from three, and while those came as part of the Thunder Can’t Miss run, if he is hitting and scoring it is a problem for Golden State. Dion Waiters used to be the guy to leave alone on this roster, but he has blossomed under Billy Donovan — he was 6-of-8 in the first three quarters of Game 3 and in these playoffs has played the best ball of his career. You know that Westbrook and Durant are going to score (and they scored very efficiently in Game 3), but if the Thunder are getting that kind of quality play from their role players they become almost impossible to stop.

One other thing to watch: When Stephen Curry picked up an early foul, the Warriors tried to protect him by putting him on Roberson, but that meant a big man had to guard an offensive threat that took them away from the basket. Suddenly the Thunder were in a layup line at the rim. Don’t expect that adjustment again — and if Steve Kerr is rolling out a lot of minutes for Anderson Varejao and Ian Clark again, it’s a bad sign.

3) Can Draymond Green take control in the paint? Forget the kick to Steven Adams’ groin… well, Thunder fans aren’t going to forget, they are going to boo Green mercilessly. But that’s not the point, that play and the punishment (a fine and a flagrant two but no suspension) are in the past. What matters for the Warriors is Green was awful in Game 3 — 1-of-9 shooting with four turnovers on offense, and his rotations and rim protection were a slow on defense. When you talk about what was wrong with the Warriors trainsition defense, it starts with Green — he looked stuck in mud all game. That can’t happen again if the Warriors want to win. They need All-Star, Top 10 player, world-class pest Green in Game 4. He is crucial to what they do. If he loses his poise (as he did in Game 3) or just has an off night, the Warriors are in trouble.

4) Is this the game where the Warriors figure out the Thunder?
Or, can they figure out the Thunder? Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game that they were not worried, his team had been in this position before — down 2-1 to Memphis last playoffs, and down 2-1 in the Finals to Cleveland. In each case they made an adjustment — ignoring Tony Allen against the Grizzlies, going small against the Cavaliers — and from there took over the series to sweep it out. They believe they can do it again, and it’s hard to bet against them because they have done it, they have shown versatility, and another gear not team seems to be able to match. But this series feels different — they already ignored Roberson and tried to play small and they are down 2-1. Is there a magic adjustment out there, or is it simply a matter of them executing what they like to do better against the most athletic defense they have faced in a playoff series? Just figuring out the Thunder is not that simple.

Less than a magical adjustment, the Warriors need to knock down shots. Not the rushed shots when they lost their poise during the Thunder’s second and third quarter run, but before that — the Warriors moved the ball and got good looks early, they just didn’t hit them. That can’t happen for them to win — this isn’t Portland anymore, the margin for error is too small.

Finally, and this is just obvious: Stephen Curry needs to be MVP Stephen Curry. The Thunder can throw athletic defenders at him, their bigs can challenge him a little, but the Warriors need him to be transcendent. Because Westbrook and Durant will be.

Kevin Durant: ‘They’re not going to suspend Draymond Green. He’s one of the premier players in the league’

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 22:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first quater in game three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 22, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, insisted his decision to give Draymond Green a flagrant 2 rather than suspending him had nothing to do with Green’s star status or the Warriors’ place in league history.

But Kevin Durant doesn’t believe that.

Royce Young of ESPN:

Durant:

They’re not going to suspend Draymond Green. He’s one of the premier players in the league on arguably one of the best teams in the history of the game. They’re not going to suspend him. I didn’t even really think about it. I knew the league was going to let him play or fine him or upgrade him to a flagrant 2. We all knew that was going to happen. The league is about business.

Durant will probably get fined for this. Team employees questioning the league’s integrity is at the heart of why the NBA fines people. The league is trying to protect its image, and Durant completely blew that up.

I have no idea whether Durant is right. I can read VanDeWeghe’s mind as much as I can Green’s while he’s extending his foot toward Steven Adams‘ groin. I.e., I can’t. There’s definitely financial interest in extending the Western Conference finals (which the Thunder lead 2-1) keeping the best players on the floor and having bigger markets advance deeper into the playoffs. But there’s also financial interest in people believing the NBA is fair. It’s not always clear how the league balances those sometimes-competing forces.

Here’s what I know: This is getting fun. It was fun when Russell Westbrook was involved in the Green controversy. It’s even better with Durant looping himself in.