Breaking down the Artest-Durant matchup

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NBA_artest.jpgWhen the Lakers have the ball in their upcoming series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the matchup to watch will be the battle on the perimeter between Kobe Bryant and Thabo Sefolosha. When the Thunder have the ball, the matchup to watch will be the one between Kevin Durant and Ron Artest, and it should be a good one.

With his lanky frame, incredible ball-skills, and silky-smooth stroke, Durant’s offensive game is often compared to Kobe Bryant’s. In practice, however, Durant’s scoring game is much more similar to LeBron’s than it is to Kobe’s. Despite the fact that he couldn’t lift the bar once at the NBA draft combine, Durant is as good as any player in the league at getting to the rim and finishing. Durant averages 5.3 shot attempts per game at the rim, and converts 69.8% of his shots from there. He also has one of the best pull-up games in the league from inside of 15 feet; Durant averages 4.9 jumpers from inside of 15 feet per game, and makes an impressive 47% of them. And of course, Durant gets to the line more than any other player in the league.

Despite his gorgeous shooting stroke, Durant isn’t nearly as effective when forced to take deep jumpers as he is when he goes to the hole. Durant takes six deep twos a game, but only makes 37% of them. Durant is a good three-point shooter, but most of his threes come after one or two dribbles in isolation or off a catch-and-shoot situation. He rarely punishes the defender for going under the screen on the pick-and-roll; Durant has been the ballhandler on a pick-and-roll that ended in a shot attempt, free throws, or a turnover 189 this season, and he’s only 2-15 from three in those 189 possessions.

Durant doesn’t have the kind of ability to hit deep jumpers from any angle that Kobe does. (In the interest of fairness, the same could perhaps be said about any other player in the league.) If you can keep Durant from getting into the teeth of the defense off the dribble in ISO situaions, his only recourse is launching a three from two or three feet beyond the arc or taking a deep two that he’s not very comfortable making. One thing that makes Durant so dangerous is that he’s just as comfortable spotting up or coming off a screen as he is getting the ball in an ISO situation. Since opposing players shoot 30% against Ron Artest in ISO situations, you have to imagine that Oklahoma City will attempt to keep Durant on the move and find ways to get him points without making him battle Artest.

There’s the matchup on paper. How has Durant fared against Artest in the Thunder’s four meetings with the Lakers this season? Let’s take a look:

Game 1:

This was a tough game for Durant, who shot 10-24 from the field and turned the ball over seven times. He only had one ISO possession in the entire game, and that was an end-of-quarter possession. The Thunder tried to remove Durant from Artest by giving him screens and putting him on the weak-side, but Artest stayed attached all night. Of Durant’s four baskets in the paint, two came off offensive rebounds, one came courtesy of a nice James Harden dime in transition, and one came when Artest gambled for a steal attempt while Durant was going backdoor.

Durant never got enough space during the Thunder’s first meeting with the Lakers. When he tried to catch and shoot, Artest bothered his shot and forced the miss. When he tried to put the ball on the floor and turn the corner, he went right into the waiting Laker defense and turned it over. If the Lakers play defense like this come playoff time, Durant and co. are going to be in for a very long series.

Game 2:

This was another tough game for Durant, who finished 8-20 from the field and only shot one free throw. The Lakers went up big early in this game and never relinquished the lead, and that seemed to have discouraged Durant. He didn’t have one recorded ISO possession that led to points, and he spent most of the game jacking up quick catch-and-shoot attempts, most of which missed their mark. Of his four makes in the paint, two were in transition and one came when he put his own miss back in.

Game 3:

The Thunder fell to the Lakers again in this game, but Durant looked worlds better. He was making much better and harder cuts to free himself up, looked much more confident attacking off the dribble, and the Thunder did a good job mixing up how they got him the ball. Durant was able to get past Artest a number of times in a variety of fashions on his way to an 11-18 shooting night.

Game 4:

This was the game the Thunder blew the Lakers out in Oklahoma City, but Durant actually didn’t do anything all that terribly different. He did go ISO a few times, but missed a quick-trigger jumper every time he did. He had his greatest success when he cut hard to the basket or attacked off the pick-and-roll, getting layups or easy pull-up jumpers a few times by moving without the ball.

After watching all of Durant’s possessions against the Lakers this season, here’s what pops out at me: the most important part of the possession has come before Durant catches the ball. When Durant catches it out on the perimeter with Artest in his vicinity, he hasn’t been able to do much. When he gets it on the move or catches the Laker defense scrambling, he’s been deadly. The Thunder will need to find ways to free up Durant for good looks, and Durant is going to have to commit himself to being aggressive with his movement and cuts off the ball. When the playoffs start, the most interesting battles between Durant and Artest may happen when nobody is watching them.

Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett Hall of Fame induction pushed back to May

Kobe Hall of Fame
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Kobe Bryant and the rest of this year’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class won’t be inducted in 2020 – or at the birthplace of basketball.

The Hall announced Friday that the enshrinement ceremony will be held May 13-15, 2021, and the entire festivities will be moved to Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.

This year was to be a highlight for the Hall of Fame, located in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bryant, killed in January in a helicopter crash, headlined a decorated class featuring Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett that would have been enshrined in the recently renovated museum.

But the coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans and hit the Hall so hard that it eliminated several full-time positions and cut senior management pay in the 25-40% range.

“These are people who have been a big part of the Hall’s success in recent years; it hurts deeply,” said John Doleva, President and CEO of the Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “The decision to reschedule Enshrinement into May of next year, along with diminished museum guest visitation and a very uncertain future regarding our multiple collegiate and high school basketball events this fall, has forced us to make these very difficult decisions. Our goal now is to conserve resources so that we may stabilize in 2021 and return to our growth trajectory in 2022 and beyond.”

“For this single event, and only because of the pandemic, we will relocate the entire event one time to Mohegan Sun which has been a long-time marketing partner of the Hall. Mohegan Sun has shown they can effectively operate a ‘near-bubble’ for our event which provides a more secure environment for our guests,” Doleva explained. “In making this announcement today, our goal is to provide this date and location change with ample notice for our network broadcast partners, nationally and internationally traveling guests and the many basketball constituents the Hall serves.”

Mohegan Sun is a long-time partner of the Hall. Doleva says it can operate a “near-bubble” to provide a secure environment for guests.

 

Vlade Divac steps down as Kings GM; Joe Dumars takes over in interim

Vlade Divac out
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Days after the Kings’ playoff drought reached 14 seasons — second-longest in league history and only one year behind the Donald Sterling Clippers — the repercussions hit GM Vlade Divac and he is out.

Divac has stepped down as the Kings’ general manager, the team announced Friday. Joe Dumars, the former Pistons GM who had been working as a consultant with the team, will step in during the interim while the search for a new GM takes place.

“This was a difficult decision, but we believe it is the best path ahead as we work to build a winning team that our loyal fans deserve,” Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé said in a statement. “We are thankful for Vlade’s leadership, commitment and hard work both on and off the court. He will always be a part of our Kings’ family.”

While there are legitimate questions about the job Luke Walton did in his first season in Sacramento, his job is safe, something first reported by Sam Amick of The Athletic and since confirmed by James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area. The Kings also said there will be no other major roster moves made until a new GM is in place.

“Joe has become a trusted and valued advisor since joining the team last year, and I am grateful to have him take on this role at an important time for the franchise,” said Ranadivé.

Divac was a member of the best Kings’ teams ever (during the Chris Webber era) and is in the Hall of Fame as a player. Playing and being a GM, however, are two very different skill sets. Divac did sign a contract extension with the Kings a year-and-a-half ago.

The NBA restart bubble was not kind to the Kings, and that ultimately doomed Divac.

After a promising finish as the ninth seed a season ago, playing a fast-paced style that suited young star De'Aaron Fox, Divac made a move to switch coaches last off-season and fired Dave Joerger to hire Walton. However, under Walton the Kings played slower and were much easier to defend. The Kings did get healthy and start to find a groove right before the league was shut down, going 7-3 in those last 10, but once in the bubble Sacramento was a mess again with a bottom-10 defense in Orlando, and they finished 3-5 in the seeding games.

The salt in the wound in Orlando — and what really eats at Kings’ fans — was the elite play of Luka Doncic in Orlando, and all season long.

Divac — who had scouted in Europe and has deep connections there — chose to use the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft on Marvin Bagley out of Duke instead of Doncic. While the Kings had scouted Doncic extensively (Ranadive even went to Europe to watch him play and backed taking Doncic), Divac and the front office staff thought the athleticism of Bagley gave him a higher upside than Doncic. (Scouts were often divided on Doncic: Nobody thought he would be bad, but some questioned his ceiling because he already had so much polish to his game and he’s not an explosive athlete by NBA standards. Divac and the rest of the Kings’ front office fell into this camp.) Plus, Divac liked the idea of a big man to pair with their point guard Fox, rather than bringing in another ball handler in Doncic.

Doncic almost certainly will make an All-Seeding Games team out of the bubble in Orlando, and in his second NBA season is an MVP candidate (he will get bottom of the ballot votes). Bagley did not play in any seeding games due to another injury, this one to his foot.

Moving on from Divac may be the right move for the Kings, but it begs the question: Who are they going to hire to replace him? What is the new GM’s basketball philosophy and what kind of team does he want to build? And, will he have the power to do it, or will Ranadive keep his reputation as an owner who likes to meddle in basketball operations?

The Kings need a change — but they need the right change. That will be the tricky part.

Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. taken off court on stretcher after collision

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It was the kind of play that happens countless times a game: Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. was trying to chase Doug McDermott over an off-ball (and moving) screen when collided with pick-setting 6’11” center Goga Bitadze.

This ended up being no standard collision — Jones’ head and neck whipped back, and he instantly went to the ground.

Jones was grabbing his neck at first and was on the ground for about 10 minutes — in the eerie silence of a fanless bubble arena in Orlando — before being taken off the court on a stretcher.

The good news is Jones has just suffered a neck strain, the team announced. There is no timeline for his return, but this could have been much worse.

The Heat and the Pacers, who already have tension between them thanks to a beef between Jimmy Butler and T.J. Warren, will face each other in the first round of the playoffs starting Monday.

Jones, who tested positive for the coronavirus before coming to Orlando (and was quarantined), will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He has been making the NBA minimum since coming into the league and was in line for a life-changing payday this summer after playing strong defense while averaging 8.6 points per game — and some spectacular dunks — in nearly 23 minutes a night for Miami. Our thoughts are with him after this incident.

The time Shaq peed in Suns teammate Lou Amundson’s shoes – and worse!

Suns players Lou Amundson and Shaquille O'Neal (Shaq)
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Gilbert Arenas has earned a reputation as the NBA player who relieved himself in a teammate’s shoe (Wizards forward Andray Blatche’s).

But Arenas’ tactic wasn’t unique.

Shaquille O’Neal got into a prank war with Suns teammate Lou Amundson during the 2008-09 season. It got intense as Phoenix, coached by Alvin Gentry, reached the final game of its season.

ESPN’s Amin Elhassan on “The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz” local hour, hosted by Mike Ryan:

Shaq is the big prankster, the big joker. But if you do something against him, there’s no tit for tat. There’s tit for nuclear war.

He goes to Lou’s locker, grabs his sneakers, pees in them.

That’s the start, right? He then goes and let’s just say “messes with” some of Lou’s haircare devices, like his brush and his comb and stuff. Messes with them. Let me put it this way: Messes with them in a way that – I was comfortable telling you he peed in the shoes. I’m not comfortable telling you what he did to the hair stuff. And then this part, I will tell you: He tampers with Lou’s mouth guard.

He tampers with it.

He tampers with it.

Lou shows up at like 8 or whenever he usually shows up. And he’s skittish and nervous. And Suns.com is there like, “What do you think Shaq is going to do?” “I don’t know. I think he’s going to do something, though.”

So, I’ll never forget this. He’s sitting at the locker, and he opens – he starts to reach for the sneakers and then looks at them and says, “Nah, something doesn’t feel right.” Opens the door up, pulls out a fresh pair of sneakers for the last game of the year, right? Again, this is irregular behavior. Usually, you have a couple of sneakers. You break them in for the year, and you switch between two or three or three or four, whatever. So to break out a whole brand new pair … was weird.

Most of the time when you’re an NBA player, you don’t put on the mouth guard immediately. You have it in a case, and you give the case to the trainer. Then, you go out to the bench. Then, when you’re about to come into the game, that’s when you grab your mouthpiece.

There’s no funnier image than Alvin drawing up a play, kneeling down, coaches standing around him. Lou is sitting there, because now he’s in the game. The guys who are in the game are usually seated. Sitting there just staring at the clipboard, like, “OK, coach. I got you.” And everyone else is just staring at Lou. No one’s paying attention.

Puts the mouth guard in. One, two [sounds of disgust], takes the mouth guard out and flings it with tremendous accuracy at the bench. Everyone starts dying. I remember going back and watching the broadcast, “Oh, Suns bench seems to be getting a lot of fun.” They had no idea what’s happening.

What did Shaq do to Amundson’s mouth guard? My imagination is running WILD.

Elhassan also explains why Grant Hill took 25 shots – his most in four years – in that game. Hill needed to score 26 points to average 12 points per game for the season, which would trigger a large bonus in his shoe contract. Hill’s gunning got him 27 points.

It’s a good podcast with other fun anecdotes and worth a listen.