You don’t win an NBA title without at least one superstar player. Two or three is better. Go all the way back to 1979 and you find just one team that won a ring without one of the 10 best players in the game, usually a couple of them. (That exception is the 2004 Pistons, and they had Chauncey Billups playing at that level for a stretch, plus a superstar defense.)
But you also can’t win a title without a good supporting cast playing well around those superstars.
The latter issue is why the Thunder enter Saturday night’s Game 4 trailing the Grizzlies 2-1 and making this game almost must win. Team balance and alternate scoring options have been at the heart of this series — Memphis has had that, the Thunder have not.
With two of the game’s top 10 players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder have the superstar players they need. The Grizzlies have countered with two very good perimeter defenders — Mike Conley and Tony Allen — plus a team defense led by Marc Gasol the Grizzlies can take away the first offensive option, they can make life difficult for Durant and Westbrook — in Game 3 Westbrook and Durant scored a combined 60 points but shot a combined 34 percent and were 4-of-21 from three.
In the last two games, Thunder players not names Westbrook or Durant have shot 39.4 percent and made a total of 28 shots. Serge Ibaka has been in double figures scoring both games (12 and 15) and he’s the only other one.
Without a reliable third option (remember late in games the year they went to the Finals the ball was often in James Harden’s hands and he created for everyone else) the Thunder offense has become a “you take a turn then I take a turn” trade off between Durant and Westbrook. They still put up numbers but the Thunder are not the same offensive juggernaut.
The Grizzlies on the other hand have balance.
Oklahoma City has rightfully focused on slowing Conley, Gasol and Zach Randolph on offense — but others have stepped up. Tony Allen had 16 points, Beno Udrih 12 and Courtney Lee 10 on Thursday night in Memphis. In Game 2 Lee and Udrih combined for 30 points.
The Grizzlies are disciplined and making the extra pass to the open man. They are moving the ball side-to-side well, which is allowing Randolph to seal his man and get the ball in deep for good looks.
The Grizzlies have balance and are using it well.
The Thunder has not had that balance. If they don’t have it they might still win Game 4 — Durant and Westbrook can carry a team a long way — but it is the playoff flaw that will ultimately doom them. Much earlier than they had planned.
NBA: 76ers got away with violation before Robert Covington’s late 3-pointer against Trail Blazers
Robert Covington hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the 76ers’ 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers on Friday, but that wasn’t Covington’s only triple as Philadelphia overcame a four-point deficit in the final 40 seconds. He also buried a 3-pointer with 38 seconds left.
The catch: That shot came after Philadelphia should have turned the ball over, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.
Gerald Henderson missed a 3-pointer, and Dario Saric prevented the rebound from going out of bounds, saving the ball with a pass to Covington. Except Saric got away with stepping out of bounds with the ball with 42.1 seconds left, per the league:
Saric’s (PHI) left foot is out of bounds when he makes contact with the loose ball.
That would’ve given Portland the ball up four.
The 76ers overcome the odds to win this game. But a correct call might have produced too steep of a hill for Philadelphia to climb.
NBA: Heat got away with two violations before clutch 3-pointer in win over Mavericks (video)
Kyle Lowry has had an All-Star worthy season, but he’s had a rough few games.
His jumper has gone missing the last three games — he is shooting 35.4 percent overall and 25.9 percent from three in those games. Not coincidentally, all three of those are Raptors losses.
Then on Sunday, he struck the Suns’ Brandon Knight in the head as Knight drove the lane. Lowry made an ill-advised swipe at the ball after Knight got past him and smacked Knight on the head. Lowry was given a Flagrant 2 and was ejected, which was the right call.
Lowry took responsibility for the hit and said after the game he texted Knight to apologize, that he wasn’t a dirty player and didn’t intend to do hurt Knight. Classy move. But Lowry still could face a fine from the league for this.
Three things we learned Sunday: Roller coaster Laker season has some deep, deep dips
With a couple of important football games Sunday you may have missed some other things. Like why a highway was covered in red Skittles. Or, the handful of NBA Games that took place. We can help you with the latter, here are the big takeaways from Sunday.
1) On the anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, Lakers only score 73. I keep waiting for the day Luke Walton snaps.
He has been the model of the patient, developmental basketball coach of a young team this season — it’s about progress, about lessons learned, about laying a foundation that helps this young core grow into something more dangerous in future years. He has been what the Lakers needed, a departure from last year and he who shall not be named. However, the lack of effort and growth on defense — the continued inability to defend the pick-and-roll — has to be eating at him inside. This is a young team, it’s going to have ups and downs, but the downs have been deep and pronounced, and at some point I expect Walton to just unload on his young charges.
Although if it didn’t happen after Sunday, it might never happen. On the 11th anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, the Lakers as a team scored just 73 points. Los Angeles lost by 49 points, a franchise record for worst loss ever. Walton said after the game the Lakers lacked the kind of veteran or natural leader on this team who would take charge on the court and call out his teammates off it in moments like this. Maybe he needs to be that guy.
Comments about the Lakers often talk about a quality young core for them to build around. There is some truth to that. Brandon Ingram has had some better games of late, although on Sunday he was asked to start for the injured D’Angelo Russell and be a playmaker and that failed. Ingram missed his first shot and it got in his head for the rest of the day, throwing off his game. Ingram needs to be a better shot creator (and get stronger). Jordan Clarkson can score the rock, and both he and Larry Nance Jr. are future NBA rotation players who can contribute to very good teams. Then there is Russell — nobody has been more up and down this season than the second-year point guard. A few weeks back I wrote about how he had finally developed a game-day routine and seemed to be turning a corner with a string of strong games. Since then he’s pretty much stunk. He’s developing, although it’s fair to ask if he’s doing that fast enough?
(Still, the Lakers really missed Russell Sunday — he’s the only guard they have who is a threat to score from three or getting into the lane, he’s a good passer who sees the angles on the court, and when he’s out there the ball moves better. This Lakers team lacks shot creators and when Russell is out the offense can stagnate quickly, reverting to one-on-one plays.)
It’s fair to ask why the inconsistent defensive efforts? Well, consistently bad may be the more accurate description. They make bad decisions constantly, and the veterans they have either are not great defenders — Nick Young, Lou Williams — or can be drawn into bad positions, such as Timofey Mozgov having to defend Dirk Nowitzki Sunday.
It’s also fair to ask if the Lakers really have an alpha in this core? Do they have a top 15 NBA player that can be the cornerstone of a future contender? I don’t see it. Maybe Ingram with some muscle and experience on him can get there — scouts are still very high on his game — but I do not see it elsewhere. Plus, I don’t see the alpha, ultra-competitive personality that doesn’t accept losing gracefully. Again, maybe Russell or someone has that and is just not confident showing it yet, but this team lacks it.
With all that, the Lakers development roller coaster seems to have bigger dips than highs. Which has to frustrate Walton. And at some point, he’s going to lose it.
2) The Suns beat the Raptors, and Eric Bledsoe was the reason. Phoenix has won a couple of game in a row, and while beating the Knicks does not earn guys high praise, beating the Toronto Raptors will do that. Quietly Eric Bledsoe has had a borderline All-Star season — he’s not going to make the team due to the depth of talent in the West and the fact the Suns suck — and he showed it Sunday with an impressive 40 points to get Phoenix the win.
3) The Warriors punish Magic to end week where they asserted themselves. Last week for the Warriors started with a rematch against Cleveland, and Golden State earned a measure of confidence blowing them out. Then the Warriors beat Russell Westbrook and the Thunder thanks to a “look at what you’re missing” game from Kevin Durant. Then the Warriors knocked off the surging Rockets and James Harden.
That’s a good week, although the Warriors still had to face the Magic on Sunday. That had the makings of a potential let down game but the Warriors pulled away for the win.
Golden State has established itself as the best team in the NBA this regular season. There’s still a lot of season (nearly half) to go, and they will get tested in the playoffs, but they have set the mark to beat. Did they set the bar last year, too? Yes. And they made the Finals (and would have won if Draymond Green could keep his hands to himself), not something to ignore. But this season feels different with Durant in the fold. We’ll see. But for right now, they keep right on rolling at 38-6.