Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard

Five things the Lakers should do on their summer vacation (starting with re-signing Howard)

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The San Antonio Spurs didn’t just end the Lakers season, they put Los Angeles out of its misery.

That was the first time the Lakers have been swept in the first round of the playoffs since 1967, but you could see it coming for a long time. From the injuries during training camp, to the firing of a coach five games into the season, to the hiring of a new coach with a radically different philosophy and style that didn’t match the roster, to more injuries, to fan dissatisfaction, to Kobe Bryant blowing out his Achilles, it was all building to this ugly sweep by the Spurs.

The question now is how do the Lakers spend their summer vacation? What steps do they take to become the contenders they thought they were back in October.

Here are five suggestions.

1) Re-sign Dwight Howard. This has to be the Lakers top priority. And it’s second. And third. The fact of the matter is there are not many franchise anchor players you can find out there and — despite what some Lakers fans and a few pundits seem to think — Howard is one of those. He is a guy the Lakers can build around. He can bring the defense and rebounding you need as a foundation for winning.

The Lakers can offer one more guaranteed year and $30 million more guaranteed dollars. But more than that they can offer the chance not only at rings but also rings won on the biggest NBA stage. That contending should start next season with Kobe Bryant back and a re-worked roster, but beyond that as well with a team built around Howard. Remember everybody save Steve Nash comes off the Lakers books in the summer of 2014 and Los Angeles can rebuild the roster completely then around Howard. That is the sales pitch. And as I’ve said before, I think it’s one he buys.

But for fun, let’s say the naysayers are right and Howard can’t carry the mantle of the Lakers — they still have to resign him this summer. Even if he doesn’t work out you need him as trade bait to restock the roster in a couple years. Let him walk and the Lakers have a very old, very unathletic roster and Lakers fans had better like rebuilding through the lottery for a few years.

2) Decide on the fate of Mike D’Antoni. Soon. I’m not sure there is much of a decision here — Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has made it clear in the mast Mike D’Antoni is coming back next season.

The only way I see that changing is because of issue No. 1 above — if Dwight Howard tells the Lakers he can’t see himself playing for D’Antoni there will be a change. I doubt that happens — Howard is already trying to shake a coach-killer reputation with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando — but that’s the only way the Lakers have a different coach next season.

3) If you’re keeping D’Antoni, get him a roster more fitting his style. Despite what some thing, I believe Howard and D’Antoni can co-exist and win a lot. Howard can provide the defense in the paint D’Antoni wants. Plus Howard also both runs the floor well and is very good in the pick-and-roll. D’Antoni needs to trust him in the post more, but this can work.

But if one thing was clear this year it is that the Lakers roster needs changes to fit what will work They must get better defense on the perimeter, more athleticism, they must get younger, and better shooting from the arc.

Howard, like any big man, is not going to create his own shot and if the Lakers are going to keep him they need a counterbalance on the outside. A healthy Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant certainly help with that, but the Lakers will need more than just them. They need depth of guys on the perimeter.

Against the Spurs, San Antonio just fought to take away post position and collapsed their defense down on Howard and the Lakers. This is not on Howard — in today’s NBA, with zone defenses allowed, the help to double big men in the post is much closer and comes faster than it did back in the days of Shaquille O’Neal. The passing angles out change, too. Watch how the Spurs (or Heat or Knicks or…) move the ball inside out, strong to weak to get a good shot. The Lakers need to do that and need the players who can make it happen.

4) Trade Pau Gasol? Maybe. If the Lakers are going to rework the roster they need to consider moving Gasol, because he is the most tradable asset on their roster. As discussed the Lakers need athleticism, shooters and better fits with the D’Antoni system and Gasol is the best way to do that.

But the problem is salary — the Lakers have painstakingly cleared out a lot of cap space for the summer of 2014.Only Steve Nash and Howard (if he re-signs) would be on the books, letting the Lakers reshape the roster around Howard. But that means in any trades they can’t take any multi-year contracts back, which makes finding a trading partner all the more difficult. It’s why Gasol wasn’t moved at the deadline.

The Lakers will not shop Gasol until the Howard situation is resolved. But shop him they will, they just may not find a partner they want to do business with.

5) Amnesty Metta World Peace. Even for the wealthy Lakers and their massive local cable television deal the $100 million payroll they had last year and the $85 million in taxes it would bring next year (under stiffer tax penalties, part of the new CBA) would be a large bill to pay. (Don’t forget, the Lakers could have up to $40 million in revenue sharing, too.)

The Lakers are not going to amnesty Kobe or Gasol, but they might amnesty Metta World Peace, who is set to make $7.7 million next year and could net the Lakers as much as $20 million in salary and tax savings (depending on how the Lakers fill out the roster). Filling his production would not be easy, but this is a move the Lakers must consider.

And once the Lakers do those five things, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss should go to their local church and light a candle, praying for health.

Report: Stephen Curry still at 70 percent due to knee injury

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have overwhelmed the Golden State Warriors with their athleticism, their improved defense, and the shot making of stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are doing a lot of things right and have lifted themselves up to an elite status.

But the Warriors have not pushed back against this. Not like we expected the defending champions and a 73-win team would. Draymond Green is a shell of himself, a -72 the last couple games the Thunder have gotten in his head and have him second guessing his every decision.

Then there is Stephen Curry, who is 13-of-37 shooting the past two games, 5-of-21 from three, and a -58. He hasn’t carried the Warriors as he did for stretches this season, and it is lingering issues from his knee injury that are partially holding him back, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Curry has been a shell of himself – missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble, and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something – no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Twenty points on 19 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

Curry missed a couple of weeks of play with a sprained MCL, but returned last round.

There have been flashes of that old Curry since his return — the monster fourth quarter and overtime against Portland in Game 4, or the third quarter of Game 2 against the Thunder — but what made Curry a back-to-back MVP was a sustained level of excellence, and that has gone away. He just can’t flip the switch and change a game right now the way he could for most of the past couple seasons.

You can tell the Thunder sense it — they are going right at him, attacking Curry’s defense knowing he can’t move well enough to handle their athletes. There is no mercy in the NBA and if teams sense a weakness they will exploit it — the Thunder sense that with Curry.

The way the Thunder are playing, a healthy Curry may not have made a difference, but you can bet the last couple games would not have been the same blowouts.

 

Report: David Fizdale to get second interview in Memphis, meet with owner

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David Fizdale has sat next to Erik Spoelstra in Miami for the past few seasons knowing he’s one of those top assistant coaches who was eventually going to get a shot in the big chair. The only question was where and when.

The answer may be Memphis right now.

Fizdale has a second interview coming with the Grizzlies, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

This would be a good hire for Memphis (although whether he is better than Dave Joerger — the coach the Grizzlies fired when he asked if he could talk to Sacramento about their job — is certainly up for debate).

In Miami, Fizdale had won the trust and respect of a team full of players that had won rings. He was a guy they leaned on and went to. As an example, Fizdale worked hard with LeBron James on developing a post game; he was the guy LeBron trusted.

Fizdale deserves a shot, it sounds like Memphis may be that place.

Five things Thunder did to go from good to brink of reaching NBA Finals

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives Serge Ibaka #9 and Kevin Durant #35 during game one of the NBA Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Oklahoma City won 55 games this season — most years that win total would have it entering the playoffs considered a contender. Plus, the Thunder have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, two top five players in the league. However, with the 73-win Warriors and 67-win Spurs ahead of them, the Thunder felt more like a good but flawed team doomed to an early exit and a summer of speculation.

Now the Thunder are one win away from knocking off both the Spurs and Warriors back-to-back.

What changed? What did we miss? Here are five things the Thunder are doing better now than they did all season, the things that have propelled them within one game of the NBA Finals.

1) Defense. The Thunder were an okay defensive team this season, allowing 103 points per 100 possessions they ranked 12th in the league. That got worse after the All-Star break when the Thunder allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, ranked 16th. Over the final month, they would show flashes of how they could play lock down defense, but they could not sustain it.

Now, this is a team that has held the feared Warriors’ offense to 88.9 points per 100 possessions Tuesday, and 98.1 in Game 3. It’s a change thanks to a focused energy and attitude, but also some technical steps as well. For one, they have become fluid at switching on picks — both on and off the ball — and they are communicating when they do. More importantly, they are smart in doing it, knowing when to go under or when to ignore the pick whatsoever. That combined with their athleticism lets them make up ground if they get a step behind, and their length allows them to get into passing lanes to create turnovers, and to challenge shots — the blocks and deflections have gotten in the heads of the Warriors, who have become tentative, second guessing themselves. Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen ever. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen from them before. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

“I think you have to build up stamina for that,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the improved defensive energy and attention. “I think you have to have stamina to concentrate and focus and do what these guys do.”

2) Dion Waiters. Throughout his four NBA seasons, Waiters has never come close to playing as well, as consistently  as he has the past couple weeks. He’s like a different player. Waiters had a PER of 9.4 this season, the kind of number associated with being sent to the D-League. Credit to Donovan and the Thunder coaching staff, something has clicked with Waiters. Too often before he wanted to shoot like he was Russell Westbrook, now he has accepted the third (or fourth) man role on this team. His shot selection has improved, and with that he is knocking down his jumpers. Like the entire team (as noted above), his usually unfocused defense has suddenly become good almost every time down. He has become the third perimeter player the Thunder have needed for years.  With Waiters making plays, and more importantly accepting his role, the Thunder become that much harder to stop. The Warriors have not been able to.

3) Solving the Andre Roberson problem. The Golden State Warriors decided to treat Andre Roberson like they did Tony Allen from Memphis last playoffs — put a big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green), then have said big ignore him to stay near the basket to protect the rim. If Roberson wanted to shoot from the outside, the Warriors would let the notoriously poor shooter (31.1 percent from three this past season) have all the wide open shots he wanted. Memphis could never figure out how to deal with that and lost three straight to Golden State once this strategy was employed.

Billy Donovan made a great adjustment — he turned Roberson into a power forward/center, then surrounded him with shooters. This allows the active Roberson to set the pick for Westbrook (or whomever), then roll right down the lane to the basket for a dunk.  That and some backdoor cuts had Roberson scoring a career-high 17 points and giving the Thunder the support they need around their big stars in Game 4.

“It’s funny because after Game 2 people were saying to me ‘is this guy even going to play anymore?’” Donovan said. “Andre’s a good basketball player, and I think one of the things that go missing with him is he makes winning plays and he’s a winning player. There are a lot of things he can do, offensive rebounds and slashing to the basket, I have confidence in him shooting the basketball.”

4) They are one team that could play small and run with Golden State. The Warriors small-ball lineup was so feared around the league it earned the nickname The Death Lineup. It killed teams. Nobody could keep up the scoring machine that was the Warriors going small.

Until the Thunder went small in Game 3 and ran right past the death lineup (which was -22 for the game). The Thunder are the one team with the depth of athleticism to go small with the Warriors and hang, but this lineup had been destroyed by the Spurs so it was a risk to roll it out again. It worked this time around — the Thunder become so much faster and guys like Westbrook and Durant are impossible to stop in transition. The real key is despite going small the Thunder defense didn’t suffer —  Serge Ibaka (or Steven Adams), plus guys like Durant have done a fantastic job protecting the rim.

“It’s not about what is or is not going to work, sometimes you just got to put stuff out there based on teams. You’ve got to be willing to take some risks and do that…” Donovan said postgame

“Sometimes you’ve got to evaluate things within the series you’re playing against. So, why were the numbers bad? And was there any way with adjustments could we make those numbers better.”

Turns out, yes there was.

5) Billy Donovan has been fantastic. Donovan went toe-to-toe with Gregg Popovich, and now Steve Kerr, and it is the NBA rookie who is making the right adjustments. Like the small ball lineup, or using Roberson like a center.

More than that, Donovan has gotten buy-in from his players. They trust and are playing the system. The Thunder were never this focused and willing to sacrifice — Durant and Westbrook both fought staggering their minutes in the past, the defense was unfocused, and Waiters did whatever it is Waiters wanted to do. Donovan has solved all those problems, and it all starts with the players buying what Donovan is selling. After a season where he had to learn on the job the hard way — because Monte Williams (the tragic death of this wife) and Maurice Cheeks (injury) were taken off his bench for long stretches — Donovan has figured things out. He’s getting the kind of buy in Scott Brooks never seemed to have.

And with that, Donovan and the Thunder are within a game of the NBA Finals.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.