NBA Playoffs: Thunder to taste playoff experience, do the Lakers have too much of it?

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durant.jpgThe Lakers and the Thunder are a lot alike in some ways. Think about it this way:

Dominant superstar? Check. Second offensive option who is a borderline All-Star? Check. Long, lanky versatile forward? Check. Guys who can come in off the bench and change the game? Check.

But off the court these franchises are totally different. Night and day. The Los Angeles Lakers have 15 NBA championship banners hanging at one end of Staples Center. They won the title last year. Their coach has a ring for every finger. On both hands. They ooze experience to the point of boredom with everything before the playoffs (which could cost them).

The Oklahoma City Thunder are so excited to have made the playoffs the franchise is throwing a parade before the first game. A parade before the ball is thrown up in one playoff game.

All that gets to the real question at the heart of this series: Does the Lakers experience overcome their banged up bodies and sloppy play coming in? Can Oklahoma City have fun and not flinch under a new level of pressure? The stats will tell you this one is very close. But as Portland learned last year, the playoffs are a different kind and level of basketball. Does Oklahoma City have to learn how to win at this level, or can they walk out Sunday and say, “why not now?”

Of course, there are some fun matchups, starting with the ones at the top of the marquee.

There is Kevin Durant, the NBA’s newest superstar, a 6’10” guy with point guard skills, who can hit the three or drive he lane. Stopping him (or guys like him) is why the Lakers got Ron Artest, everyone’s favorite physical defender, blonde (today) and loose cannon. Artest will try to be physical with Durant, and if the refs allow him to be like Phil Jackson he wants he stands a chance of making Durant less efficient.

On the other end, Kobe Bryant is going to face Thabo Sefolosha, who has had success in this matchup — in the team’s last meeting that he held Kobe to 11 points and Kobe actually admitted Sefolosha bothered him. The Thunder are a good defensive team, too, and Sefolosha will get help.


The two key matchups, however, will be elsewhere. UCLA alumni Russell
Westbrook returns to LA to piss off his former fans. We all know the
Lakers have struggled to stop quick point guards for a couple seasons,
and there are few quicker than Westbrook. Here’s a little stat to tell
you how important Westbrook is — when the Thunder blew out the Lakers
last month, Westbrook was 10 of 13 shooting; but in the Lakers three
wins in this series this season, he shot 39 percent.

Derek Fisher is going to need help — and that’s where a healthy Andrew
Bynum comes a key. Westbrook is great in finishing at the rim, but if
Bynum can force him to shoot before that, well, Westbrook takes some of
the ugliest 8-foot shots in the NBA.

The Lakers advantage is Pau Gasol, who has beasted lately  — shooting 65
percent and scoring 26 points per game in the Lakers last five (before
the Clipper game Wednesday). The 7’0″ Gasol will be guarded by the 6’9″
Jeff Green, who is a quality player but cannot bother Gasol when he gets
the ball. The Lakers all to often inexplicably go away from Gasol, if
they do it here they play into the Thunder’s hands.

There is James Harden sparking the Thunder off the bench, versus the
Lamar Odom spark. There is Green trying to pull the Laker bigs away from
the basket. There are a lot of Xs and Os to watch.

Still, the question is how much does experience matter? The Lakers do
not tighten up under pressure; they tend to thrive in it. They don’t
always win but they seem to revel in it. They have won a title because
of it. Look at what Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told Mike Trudell of
Lakers.com in their series preview:

“At the end of the day, we’re not talking about an inexperienced roster
or coaching staff, he said. “This team, based on what they’ve
accomplished and not just recently deserves the chance to go into the
playoffs and make any adjustments that they feel necessary. We all know
that no matter what happened 10 days ago or three weeks ago, everybody
will be evaluated based on how the season ends.”

The Thunder run their sets but often seem of short-arm shots in the last
five minutes of a game. When the defensive pressure steps up, they seem
to get tight, and with Harden on the bench (in favor of Thabo’s
defense) they rely heavily on Durant to do everything. With more on the
line then their core has ever faced, how will the Thunder execute?
Carefree, like a team with nothing to lose? Or do they get tight?

Much of the nation, pretty tired of Kobe and the Lakers, will be pulling
for the upstarts. Oklahoma City will have America’s hearts. If they can
keep their heads, they have the talent to hang.

But would you really bet against the Lakers here? Neither would I.

Report: NBA planning to start next season on Christmas

NBA Christmas
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The current NBA season – interrupted by coronavirus – could extend as late as Oct. 12. That means the league must delay next season. How long past the normal mid-October start? December was the popular notion, but that’s still a wide timeframe.

Now, we can pinpoint it.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

If the N.B.A. can successfully complete the 2019-20 season under this structure, it is expected that the 2020 N.B.A. draft would be moved to October, with free agency to follow shortly thereafter and a tentative plan to establish Dec. 25 as opening day for the 2020-21 season.

Coronavirus can ruin the best-laid plans. Though NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said play would continue around a positive test, it’s unclear whether that would delay this season’s schedule – then the offseason then next season. It’s also unknown how the country will be handling coronavirus in December. The cold weather, pushing people indoors, could increase cases.

But it’s still interesting to know the plan, even if it’s tentative.

People fondly recall the NBA season starting on Christmas in 2011. Many have pointed to Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin’s idea of permanently opening in December to avoid overlap with the NFL, though he suggested mid-December – not Christmas.

That’s quite late.

This year, coronavirus has forced radical changes. A Christmas start might be totally reasonable for the 2020-21 season.

What about beyond?

If the NBA wants to begin each season on Christmas, this is the simplest time to shift. A different start date for future seasons would require altering the calendar to get on track.

There are plenty of issues with opening on Christmas in normal times, though:

  • Historically, TV viewership is down during the summer. That might be changing, but people might find other activities while it’s warm rather than attending or watching an indoor NBA game.
  • Would people really watch more NBA games just because fewer of them would compete with the highly popular NFL? The NBA regular season might just be too long to capture attention, no matter when it’s held.
  • By starting on Christmas, the NBA would reduce two marquee regular-season dates – opening day and Christmas – to one.
  • Many regional TV networks that carry NBA games also carry MLB games. Many of those networks already carry NHL games. But with baseball teams playing more games, there would be more conflicts.
  • With schools out, the American system is built on summer being more of a vacation time. People within the league – including players, especially those with children – might object to working during that time.

Projecting schedules for all 22 returning NBA teams

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The NBA will recall 22 teams to each play eight games.

How will the schedule work?

The new structure will reportedly be based on teams’ existing schedules, teams playing their next eight originally scheduled games against the continuing 22 teams. Of course, that doesn’t work cleanly. Some teams would reach eight games more quickly than other teams. So, whenever a team arrived at an opponent that already reached eight games, I just continued to that team’s next game.

With that assumption, here are the remaining opponents for each team:

  • Boston Celtics: Bucks, Wizards, Raptors, Nets, Wizards, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Heat
  • Brooklyn Nets: Clippers, Kings, Wizards, Celtics, Magic, Clippers, Magic, Trail Blazers
  • Dallas Mavericks: Suns, Clippers, Kings, Trail Blazers, Suns, Rockets, Jazz, Bucks
  • Denver Nuggets: Spurs, Lakers, Clippers, Thunder, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Thunder
  • Houston Rockets: Lakers, Trail Blazers, Kings, Bucks, Mavericks, Pacers, 76ers, Raptors
  • Indiana Pacers: 76ers, Heat, Suns, Magic, Rockets, Kings, Clippers, Lakers
  • L.A. Clippers: Nets, Pelicans, Mavericks, Nuggets, Suns, Nets, Pacers, Thunder
  • Los Angeles Lakers: Rockets, Nuggets, Jazz, Jazz, Raptors, Pacers, Trail Blazers,* Heat or Magic*
  • Memphis Grizzlies: Trail Blazers, Jazz, Spurs, Thunder, Bucks, Pelicans, Pelicans, Celtics
  • Miami Heat: Bucks, Pacers, Thunder, Nuggets, Suns, Celtics, Raptors, Lakers or Trail Blazers*
  • Milwaukee Bucks: Celtics, Heat, Grizzlies, Wizards, Rockets, Wizards, Mavericks, Raptors
  • New Orleans Pelicans: Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies, Magic
  • Oklahoma City Thunder: Jazz, Wizards, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Heat, Nuggets, Suns, Clippers
  • Orlando Magic: Pacers, Kings, Nets, Nets, Pelicans, 76ers, Raptors, Lakers or Trail Blazers*
  • Philadelphia 76ers: Pacers, Wizards, Raptors, Trail Blazers, Suns, Rockets, Magic, Spurs
  • Phoenix Suns: Mavericks, Pacers, Clippers, Mavericks, 76ers, Wizards, Heat, Thunder
  • Portland Trail Blazers: Grizzlies, Rockets, Mavericks, 76ers, Celtics, Nets, Lakers,* Heat or Magic*
  • Sacramento Kings: Pelicans, Nets, Mavericks, Rockets, Magic, Pelicans, Pacers, Spurs
  • San Antonio Spurs: Nuggets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Jazz, Jazz, Nuggets, Kings, 76ers
  • Toronto Raptors: 76ers, Celtics, Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets, Heat, Magic
  • Utah Jazz: Thunder, Pelicans, Grizzlies, Lakers, Lakers, Spurs, Spurs, Mavericks
  • Washington Wizards: Celtics, Thunder, 76ers, Nets, Bucks, Celtics, Suns, Bucks

*To reach eight games for each team, I had to create three games not on the schedule:

  • Lakers vs. Trail Blazers
  • Lakers vs. Heat or Magic
  • Trail Blazers vs. Heat or Magic

Los Angeles would face whichever of Miami and Orlando that Portland doesn’t face (and vice versa).

The Lakers could also play the Trail Blazers twice, and the Heat could just play the Magic. But that’d mean five Lakers-Trail Blazers games and five Heat-Magic games this season. Generally, teams play each other four or fewer times.

I wouldn’t get too caught up in the order of the games. That almost certainly must be adjusted. Otherwise, teams would finish at significantly different times. For example, the Bucks’ eighth game in this format is against the Raptors. But that’s just Toronto’s fifth game.

The NBA might also use a different method altogether. Again, the reported plan can’t work exactly as reported.

But want the best guess at each team’s remaining games? This is it.

*Thanks to Kevin Pelton of ESPN for providing a handy spreadsheet of originally scheduled games.

LeBron James to Drew Brees: You still don’t understand why Colin Kaepernick kneeled

Colin Kaepernick and New Orleans Saints Drew Brees
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Colin Kaepernick’s protest worked.

Just by kneeling during the national anthem, Kaepernick shined a light on racism – specifically through police brutality – plaguing the United States. Whether or not you agreed with his methods, Kaepernick made it difficult to avoid discussion of the very important issue. Kaepernick’s simple demonstration made society far more sensitive to police misconduct, particularly toward black people. That set the stage for these incredible nationwide protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

Of course, work remains. Kaepernick suffered far too great of personal cost to deliver his message. Racism and police brutality continue.

So, expect some people – including NFL players – to keep kneeling during the national anthem.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees explained why he objected to that. Lakers star LeBron James then objected to Brees’ explanation.

LeBron:

I do think not standing for the Star Spangled Banner disrespects the United States. The societal norms are clear: Standing is the way to show respect during the national anthem.

But know what else disrespects the United States? Police brutality, which disproportionately harms black people.

At some point, you have to decide which disrespect bothers you more – racism that damages and ends lives or symbolic protest of a song and piece of cloth.

Brees also brought up the military, on which I share LeBron’s disagreement. The Star Spangled Banner represents our entire country, not just our military. It’s weak to use the military as a shield while criticizing Kaepernick. In fact, Kaepernick specifically altered his protest – from sitting to kneeling – to honor the military.

Brees can ignore Kaepernick’s message on that.

But Kaepernick’s larger message rings loudly.

Report: NBA restart schedule to follow existing schedule, with tweaks

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It’s been one of the big questions for the NBA’s 22-team restart at the Walt Disney World complex in Orlando:

How would the schedule be put together for those eight regular-season games?

It turns out, the answer is modifying the old schedule, reports Vincent Goodwill at Yahoo Sports. The idea is just to use the old schedule, taking out the teams not in Orlando.

This provides a starting point for the league’s schedulers.  For example, the Pelicans schedule would be: Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies, Magic. The Pelicans would play the Grizzlies twice in this format, giving them a real chance to make up ground toward the eighth seed. Portland also is well positioned to make a playoff push.

The challenge with following the old schedule becomes this: the Thunder’s eighth game in this scenario is the Clippers, except L.A. already played eight. Next for the Thunder then is the Lakers, except they will have played eight. Then the Nets, but again they have played eight. Multiple teams face this scenario, so the league will need to schedule some “made up” games just to balance things out.

While there would be tweaks to be made, using the existing schedule as a base makes sense.

The teams most interested will be the teams battling for the nine seed, particularly in the West. New Orleans had a particularly soft remaining schedule and the Grizzlies had the hardest one in the league, which is why fivethirtyeight.com gave the Pelicans a 60% chance of making the playoffs. With the eight worst teams in the league out of the picture, how does that change and how much do the schedules flatten out?

Considering everything that has gone on with the league this year and the great lengths needed to start up games again, don’t expect teams to complain about the schedule. They’re just happy to be playing.