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.

Warriors rout Clippers 115-98 for 7th straight win over LA

Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, left, tries to go up for a shot as Los Angeles Clippers guard Alan Anderson defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Warriors won 115-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Klay Thompson scored 24 points, Draymond Green added 22 points and the Golden State Warriors routed the Clippers 115-98 on Wednesday night for their seventh straight win over Los Angeles.

Stephen Curry had 19 points for Golden State, and Kevin Durant, who came averaging a team-best 27.0 points, was held to 16 on 5-of-17 shooting.

Curry failed to make a 3-pointer for just the second time this season, going 0 of 8. The Warriors were 7 of 30 from long range.

Jamal Crawford scored 21 points for the Clippers, who have lost five of seven. Four of their seven overall losses have come at home.

Giannis Antetokounmpo gets triple-double, Bucks beat Blazers 115-107

Portland Trail Blazers' Allen Crabbe fouls Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Milwaukee. The Bucks won 115-107. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo is emerging as a dynamic player and precocious leader – and at 22 years old, he’s already closing in on one of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s franchise records.

Antetokounmpo got his second triple-double of the season to lead the Milwaukee Bucks over the Portland Trail Blazers 115-107 on Wednesday night.

Antetokounmpo had 15 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists for his seventh career triple-double – second-most with the franchise behind Abdul-Jabbar’s eight. Antetokounmpo is the only NBA player averaging at least 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals this season.

“Maybe it wasn’t a fluid game for Giannis, but this is what he does,” Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said. “He fills up the stat sheet. … He is a winner and he helped his team find a way to win tonight by getting other guys involved. That is the maturity of a 22-year-old, that you can see a leader is growing right in front of us.”

Jabari Parker added 27 points for Milwaukee, which rebounded from a one-point home loss to San Antonio on Monday to win for the fifth time in six games.

“The team is rolling right now, feeling good,” Antetokounmpo said. “Jabari is a beast right now.”

The Bucks entered holding opponents to a NBA-best .311 shooting percentage from 3-point range, but Portland drilled 17 of them on 40 attempts – both season highs.

Damian Lillard made five and scored a team-high 30 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists.

C.J. McCollum added 23 points, including four 3-pointers, as the Blazers continued a nine-game stretch of playing eight times on the road.

“That’s one of the things we do,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We shoot a lot of 3s when we move the ball.”

Milwaukee led 101-90 with 5:27 left after two free throws from Antetokounmpo, but then Portland hit three straight 3s in 56 seconds to trim the deficit to two.

The Bucks responded with the next three baskets to take a 107-99 lead after a jumper from Parker with 2:03 to go.

Another 3 from Allen Crabbe trimmed the margin to 109-105 with 56 seconds remaining, but that is as close as Portland got.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: The team’s 12 3-pointers in the first half tied the franchise high. The last time it had that many was 2002. … Mason Plumlee became the fastest Portland player to tally 150 rebounds and 100 assists (23 games) since Scottie Pippen in 1999-2000 (22 games).

Bucks: Jason Terry played his 1,300th career game. … Antetokounmpo was called for a 10-second violation when attempting a free-throw in the third quarter. … Miles Plumlee, the older brother of Mason, sat out for the third straight contest.

ONE WAY TO LOSE

Portland had eight of its 15 turnovers in the final quarter, including three in a stretch of 1:13 midway through the frame.

“I don’t know if I’d say it was sloppy,” Stotts said. “Not all turnovers are sloppy. (Crabbe) stepped out of bounds – that’s a turnover. We had a 24-second shot clock (violation) – that’s a turnover. But I was probably more concerned with some of our shots.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT

Kidd, when asked about Lillard’s play: “He is one of the top guards in the world,” he said. “His range is once he gets past half court.”

MONROE SCORING AGAIN

Greg Monroe had 15 points – one shy of his season high. Since a two-point game at Brooklyn on Thursday night, he is averaging 12.3 points per game in three outings.

 

Lou Williams hits halfcourt buzzer-beater (video)

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Yeah, the Lakers lost to the Rockets, 134-95, Wednesday. But consider how lopsided that margin would’ve been without Lou Williams‘ halfcourt buzzer-beater.

And if this headline looks familiar, it is.

LeBron James, Cavaliers do water-bottle challenge on bench during blowout win over Knicks (video)

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, and Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson entertain themselves by flipping a water bottle trying to get it to land on it's flat bottom during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. The Cavaliers defeated the Knicks 126-94, and most starters left the game for the bench at the end of the fourth quarter. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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LeBron James did his part – scoring 25 points (on just 10 shots!), dishing seven assists and grabbing six rebounds – to give the Cavaliers an insurmountable lead over the Knicks through three quarters. So, he didn’t even play in the fourth quarter.

As Cleveland put the finishing touches on its 126-94 win, boredom set it. LeBron and a few of his teammates tried to flip a water bottle and have it land upright on the floor. LeBron even dove onto the court to pull the bottle back in after an errant flip!

No, Phil Jackson should not have used the word “posse” to describe LeBron’s business associates and friends. But this is the most disrespectful thing I’ve ever seen – and I love it.