Improved Lakers get measuring stick game against Thunder

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There was a time not so long ago when the up-and-coming Thunder were measuring their improvement against the Lakers.

Now, it’s the Western Conference champion Thunder that are the measuring stick and the Lakers who want to see where they stand after a run of better play. The two face off Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.

It’s been well documented that after Lakers started the season an unimpressive 17-25 they have started to turn it around and gone 13-5 since. The thing is, it’s not that the Lakers are dramatically better in their last 18 overall — their point differential per 100 possessions +2.5, less than one point per 100 better than it was when they were eight games below .500.

What has changed is they got healthy, and with their key guys got to play together for a stretch modified Mike D’Antoni system, and with all that they started to find there identity. It’s taken a lot of Kobe Bryant — sometimes as scorer, sometimes as facilitator. It’s taken Steve Nash to work a lot off the ball. It’s taken Dwight Howard defending and playing more pick-and-roll. It’s been the role players finding their way.

It’s been the Lakers finally forming an identity like was expected of them in training camp (but injuries and a coaching change to a radically different system delayed that cohesion). Now that they have a sense of self the Lakers are winning the close ones they lost earlier in the season. Such as the 99-98 win over the Hawks on Sunday. John Schuhmann has all the numbers to back this up over at NBA.com — the Lakers with an identity are playing much better in the clutch than they did. They are now a .500 team.

But the Thunder are a whole new level of challenge. They are the measuring stick. They are still the favorites to make the finals out of the West, they have the best scorer in the game in Kevin Durant.

What are the keys for Tuesday night? They all revolve around the Lakers defense, because the Lakers will score some (that Kobe Bryant guy is pretty good) but the question is can they slow the Thunder at all:

1) The Lakers transition defense. Among all their many weaknesses this season, this has been the biggest — if you can run on the Lakers you can beat them. Los Angeles allows teams to shoot 58.1 percent in transition and score 1.16 points per possession, 23rd in the NBA. In the first meeting between these teams this year the Thunder shot 9-of-11 in transition and 3-of-3 from three. If this is an up-tempo game it will not be a close one.

2) Lakers pick-and-roll defense against Westbrook. It’s been improved in recent weeks but in the first meeting the Lakers struggled to stop Russell Westbrook (33 points) on this play. Westbrook has 60 points combined in the first two meetings this season. If Westbrook in particular, but also Kevin Durant and others, are allowed to probe and create off the pick-and-roll the Lakers defense will get picked apart and they will struggle.

On the other hand, when Westbrook went cold — 6-of-22 in the last meeting of these teams — the Lakers got the win. I say went cold because Westbrook completed just 3-of-8 shots inside the restricted area and I’m not sure the Lakers should count on that again. But the Lakers also turned him into a jump shooter and he struggled in that role — Dwight Howard is key here taking away the paint from Westbrook on drives.

3) Can Los Angeles slow Kevin Durant. I know, everyone writes they want to do this and he’s the league’s three-time leading scoring champ for a reason. He dropped 42 on them in a game this season. However, in the last meeting the Lakers had some success with Earl Clark — Durant was 3-of-11 with Clark on him. I’m not sure I’d want to bet on that trend continuing, but you can bet the Lakers go back to that well and if Clark can even just slow Durant and make him work for his baskets it will help.

Rajon Rondo says he will not play in Game 5, doesn’t sound optimistic about quick return

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He tried. Rajon Rondo has seen the Chicago Bulls struggle the last two games without him as a strong defender and stabilizing influence at point guard — something nobody thought Rondo would be mid-season — and he wanted to get back on the court for Game 5 against the Celtics. He took some steps toward getting ready to play.

But it’s not happening, Rondo said at shootaround Wednesday. From Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com and K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

And it’s not just the fractured thumb.

If the Bulls are going to win this series, they are going to have to do it without Rondo.

Isaiah Canaan will get the start in Game 5, and he will set a lot of screens in a 1/3 pick-and-roll to try and get Isaiah Thomas switched on to Jimmy Butler. Canaan can do that. He had fallen way out of the rotation and is really a two-guard not a point, but with the terrible play of Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams, coach Fred Hoiberg took a gamble. It worked, at least for one game. Canaan with the other four Bulls starters — Butler, Dwyane Wade, Nikola Mirotic, and Robin Lopez — were +12 in 11 minutes together in Game 4, and played well on both ends of the court. But Canaan was buried on the bench for a reason, he shot 36.4 percent on the season, 26.6 percent from three, and he’s not a great defender. The Celtics will be prepared for him in Game 5.

Hoiberg’s best option is to lean on a no point guard lineup when it matters most, with three wings who can handle the ball in Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and probably Denzel Valentine. That could be a challenging defensive lineup and Boston will try to get the lightning quick Isaiah Thomas switched onto Wade or Valentine (neither of which can guard him). Also, this lineup would be draining and put a big load on Butler, but he could handle it for critical stretches of the game.

Cleveland OKs last chunk of financing to upgrade Cavs’ arena

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Cleveland officials have committed the final chunk of financing for $140 million in upgrades planned at the Cavaliers’ home arena.

The makeover of Quicken Loans Arena would include more space for dining and gathering.

The cost of renovations to the concert and sports venue is being split by the city, the team, Cuyahoga County, and a convention and visitors bureau. The final total is expected to be roughly double the initial $140 million price tag, mostly because of interest over the next two decades.

Cleveland’s share is an estimated $88 million over 11 years, starting in 2024. Mayor Frank Jackson signed off on that Tuesday.

The county already approved the deal and agreed to sell bonds for the project.

The team committed to extend its lease at the arena to 2034. It is expected the team will make a bid to host the NBA All-Star game once renovations are complete.

Did Russell Westbrook really block a teammates shot to get ball back during Game 5?

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Well, this video plays right into the hands of the anti-Westbrook crowd.

The knock on Russell Westbrook‘s season-long triple double and MVP candidacy is that he is chasing stats, padding his numbers at the expense of efficiency and making the Thunder a better team. Basically, he’s looking out for himself and to heck with his teammates.

Which leads to this fourth-quarter video from Game 5.

It sure looks like Westbrook blocks Jerami Grant‘s shot to get the rebound (we only have the one camera angle here).

I would argue that this was just Westbrook being uber aggressive — the only way he ever plays — and he was going hard for the rebound and not noticing it was his teammate about to get the ball. Westbrook just wants the ball and gets it. But he also wants to win and would not have taken the ball out of Grant’s hands had he seen who it was in time to react.

Game 5 — where the Rockets eliminated the Thunder — was a microcosm of the Westbrook debate. Westbrook finished with 47 points on 15-of-34 shooting, but was 2-of-11 in the fourth quarter. Oklahoma City was +12 in the 41:52 that Westbrook played, but was -18 in the 6:07 he sat. You can read whatever you want into those numbers.

Much like the video above.

Former Pacers’ star Danny Granger on Paul George: “you can’t fault him if he leaves Indiana”

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There was a time when Paul George was an up-and-coming but raw young player on an Indiana team led by Danny Granger. It was when Granger went down injured that George was thrust into a larger role, where he thrived in the trial by fire.

Granger knows what it’s like to be the star player of the Pacers, and he knows George, so on Bill Reiter asked Granger his thoughts during an episode of CBS’ “Reiter Than You” and Granger’s answer was not what Pacers fans wanted to hear.

“You look at him in that press conference (after losing to Cleveland) and his face and the dejection on it – the guy wants to win. Money don’t make everybody happy, but winning and success and your craft, that does fill a void that a lot of these players have. So you can’t fault him if he leaves Indiana, I’ll tell you that.”

Oh, Pacers fans will fault him. Even if he’s traded.

Pacers’ decision maker Larry Bird isn’t going to do anything until he sees if George makes an All-NBA Team, because if he does Indiana can offer him the new “designated player” contract this summer worth around $80 million more guaranteed than any other team can offer. George will not walk away from that.

However, if, as expected, George doesn’t make an All-NBA team, Bird is going to have to revisit the idea of trading George, who can be a free agent in 2018 — and the sense around the league is he will walk away at that point if the Pacers are not contenders. (There are a lot of Lakers’ rumors there, but whether George would leave a team where he is dragging lesser players to a low playoff seed and a first-round exit in Indiana for the same situation in his old hometown is up for debate.)

Bird isn’t going to deal George for pennies on the dollar at this point — think the Kings’ trading DeMarcus Cousins — but if some team comes through with a legitimate quality offer of young players that can help jump start the rebuild in Indiana, he may have to jump at it.

Either way, Granger is right that you can’t blame George for wanting to move on, but plenty of fans will anyway.