Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers

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.

Denver’s Kenneth Faried gets up, blocks DeAndre Jordan dunk attempt (VIDEO)

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Without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the lineup, the Clippers don’t have much going for them offensively. However, there is one thing: DeAndre Jordan can still run to the rim and dunk with authority.

Denver’s Kenneth Faried took that away Saturday.

Faried hustled back in transition, showed he still had some hops and swatted away a Jordan dunk attempt.

The Nuggets went on to win the game comfortably, 123-98, behind 19 points and 10 boards from Nikola Jokic.

Suns’ Devin Booker sinks three that defeats Knicks (VIDEO)

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The Knicks last three losses have come by a total of six points. The team is not good, a little banged up, and doesn’t play any defense, but New York also has just had a run of bad luck.

The latest example: Phoenix’s Devin Booker draining a three to knock off New York, 107-105. It was a mistake by Derrick Rose, who sagged down to the free throw line watching Eric Bledsoe with the ball coming off the pick, which led to the open pass. Also, notice that Booker set up three feet back of the three-point line — this is a trend a lot of teams and good shooters are following (watch a Rockets’ game) because it makes the closeout harder. Rose would have contested a shot at the arc, but Booker gets a clean look from where he spotted up, and drills it.

Carmelo Anthony got a shot to win it for the Knicks, but his rimmed out.

Kawhi Leonard drops 41, Spurs best Cavaliers in OT in what may be game of the Year (VIDEO)

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The Spurs would like you to include them in your conversations about contenders.

Without Pau Gasol (hand) or Tony Parker (foot), San Antonio went into Cleveland and beat the defending NBA champions in OT 118-115 in what was one of the wildest, most entertaining games of the season. Check out the clutch-time action above, including LeBron James hitting a three Shaker Heights.

But the real star was Kawhi Leonard, who put up a career-best 41 on 30 shots. He’s the guy who has to create and make plays for this offense, and he did it on a big stage. LeBron added 29 points. Between them, they put on quite a show.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nic Batum lead Hornets past Nets 112-105

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 04:  Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets in action against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Barclays Center on November 4, 2016 in New York City. 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 Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nic Batum has certainly had better shooting nights.

But the eight-year NBA veteran from France was feeling pretty good after making two clutch 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Charlotte Hornets defeat the Brooklyn Nets 112-105 on Saturday night for their third straight win.

“I missed some easy that I need to make,” Batum said. “So I feel like when it’s a close game like that, I need to make some big plays and I did.”

After letting a 17-point first half advantage slip away, Charlotte grabbed the lead for good with 3:21 left in the game when Batum got a fadeaway 3-pointer to fall after the ball bounced lazily on the rim four times before going in. Batum, who was fouled on the play, added the free throw to complete the four-point play.

Batum added a 3-pointer from the left wing on the next possession to push the lead to 104-98. Kemba Walker then sank a leaning 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Charlotte some extra breathing room.

Coach Steve Clifford said he has no idea how Batum shoots the ball so well off-balanced.

“He’s done it since before he got in the NBA,” Clifford said. “He’s got great balance and hand-eye coordination.”

Batum finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Hornets.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 17 points and 14 rebounds for Charlotte, which avenged a 120-118 loss to the Nets on Dec. 26 in which Randy Foye beat them with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Brook Lopez had 24 points for the struggling Nets, who have lost 12 of their last 13 and failed in their quest to become the last NBA team to reach double digits in wins this season.

“We came in and we were exhausted from last night and had a bad first quarter, but we responded to that,” Lopez said. “We came in the second half and definitely made it a game and that’s the way we’ve got to play every night.”

TIP INS

Nets: Jeremy Lin remained out with a hamstring injury. … Attempted 41 3-pointers in the game, making 17. … Lopez had his 15th 20-point game this season. … Quincy Acy had a season-high 14 points off the bench. … Had a season-high 30 assists.

Hornets: Shot 54.5 percent in the first half from the field, including 6 of 13 from 3-point range to build a 60-46 lead. … Marvin Williams has made a 3-pointer in 18 straight games.

TOUGH FIRST QUARTER

The Hornets jumped out to a quick 16-4 lead as the Nets missed 11 of their first 12 shots from the field. Clifford called it the team’s best first quarter of the season, considering the Nets put up 143 points against New Orleans the night before.

“They’re hard to guard,” Clifford said. “They have so many ways to drive the ball. They’re very difficult to guard. I thought our guys battled hard.”

3-POINT SHOOTING

Charlotte, which made 14 of 29 3-pointers, had seven of those in the fourth quarter.

“Two of them were off our turnovers,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “You turnover, you have to sprint back, matchup and find 3-point shooters. Credit to them, they made some huge shots.”

SCHOOL IN SESSIONS

Here’s a rarity this season: Ramon Sessions, Charlotte’s backup point guard, had 17 points and actually outscored All-Star candidate Kemba Walker, who had 16 points.

“Kemba carries us every game, so when we can step in and give those guys a rest,” Sessions said. “Last game, he didn’t have to play in the fourth quarter, so during the season if we can get those stretches where he doesn’t have to play as many minutes that will be good for us in the long run.”

UP NEXT

Nets: Host the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night.

Hornets: Play their third game of a five-game homestand Monday night against the Washington Wizards.