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.

Justise Winslow stepped on Joel Embiid’s mask (VIDEO)

AP
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Joel Embiid started for the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night. The Game 3 matchup between the Miami Heat and Philadelphia was an important one with the teams tied, 1-1.

Embiid had previously vented his frustration on social media about the perceived slowness of his return to the floor from an orbital fracture.

Now, the Cameroonian big man is back for the Sixers and playing with a huge mask and goggles.

But the mask didn’t come without its problems for Embiid. It clearly affected his shooting and ability to handle the ball, as evidenced by a missed alley-oop in the second quarter, among other things.

There’s also the matter of how other players are treating Embiid and his mask. At one point, Embiid’s googles ended up on the floor and Heat forward Justise Winslow purposely stepped on them.

Via Twitter:

That’s harsh.

Embiid will have to adjust to using the mask since it’s unlikely he will be cleared to play without it soon. Hopefully he has some backups just in case the first couple sets get broken.

Tractors worth $50,000 stolen from Scottie Pippen’s farm

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HAMBURG, Ark. (AP) — Authorities in rural Arkansas are investigating the theft of more than $50,000 worth of equipment from a farm owned by former NBA star Scottie Pippen.

Investigator Mark Griever of the Ashley County Sheriff’s Office says two tractors were stolen from the farm in Hamburg, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) southeast of Little Rock. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pippen’s family is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Griever says Pippen owns the livestock farm with his brother.

Pippen, who now lives in Florida, is a native of Hamburg. Pippen won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.

Bucks’ Jabari Parker “frustrated,” wants more playing time

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In the first two games against Boston, Jabari Parker is 1-of-7 shooting, has grabbed 15 percent of the available rebounds while on the court (low for a big expected to board), has more turnovers than assists, has been exploited on defense by Boston, and is -29. All in just 25 minutes.

Parker is also frustrated he isn’t getting more minutes and more of a chance to prove himself. From Stephen Watson of WISN News 12 in Milwaukee:

While there are questions about how Joe Prunty has handled the Bucks and their rotations in this series, more Jabari Parker is nobody’s answer. Except Parker’s. And Celtics’ fans. Parker can be as frustrated as he wants, he hasn’t played his way into more minutes.

Parker returned to the Bucks in January after rehab on his second ACL surgery and averaged 12.6 points per game. He showed some value, with an ability to score efficiently inside and shooting 38 percent from three, averaging 12.6 points per game. But he remains a below-the-rim player who struggles to defend, and in the playoffs that gets a guy a seat.

It’s going to be an interesting summer. Parker is a restricted free agent this summer and the Bucks do not see him as a core part of their future next to Giannis Antetokounmpo anymore, they are not going to come in with a big offer to keep him. However, his play (especially in the postseason) and injury history, combined with a tight free agent market, means he may not have many suitors at all. Is it possible a rebuilding team willing to take a chance — Phoenix, Atlanta, etc. — would come in with an offer higher than the Bucks would match? Yes, it’s possible. But it won’t be for a lot of years, just one or two as teams want to see if he can get right and become the player he once projected to be.

Sixers’ Joel Embiid upgraded to “probable,” will start in Game 3 Thursday

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Everything you saw in the first two games of this Miami/Philadelphia playoff series you can throw out in the trash.

Joel Embiid is back and is now “probable” for Game 3, the Sixers announced, upgrading his status from “doubtful” earlier in the day. Embiid had been out with a concussion and orbital bone fracture.

Embiid will go through warmups — trying out both a mask and goggles — then will make a formal decision. However, he is expected to go. He certainly wants to play. And he is expected to start. How many minutes he can go remains to be seen.

This changes the Sixers and the series. Yes, Philly has likely Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons and high quality role players such as J.J. Redick and Robert Covington, however, is Embiid that makes it all work. Put simply, when Embiid is on the court the Sixers are 15.2 points per 100 possessions better — their defense is elite and their offense is outstanding.

The Sixers will be better with their best player back in the fold, but don’t think this makes the series a cakewalk for Philly. It changes everything about matchups, but things are not all positives. When Embiid is on the court, the up-tempo, ball-movement style that the Sixers built around Simmons slows down and stops at points. The Sixers have played Hassan Whiteside and his rim protection off the court with floor spacing shooting bigs, now he has a place to be in the matchups. There are things the Heat can do now that may work for them.

It just may not matter — Philadelphia just got a lot better.